Mon 30 May 2011
This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you’re a prude.
Cross-posted at Fully (sic).
In Melbourne on Saturday, more than 2000 women and men gathered for a protest called slutwalk. The immediate catalyst for the march was the indiscretion of a Toronto police officer who was giving a routine safety talk to ten students, but the walk is in broad reaction to a long history of sexual discrimination against women. See here for a comprehensive report on the Melbourne slutwalk and here for an excellent column by Catherine Deveny (plus hundreds of disparate comments that I can’t be bothered with).
Anyway, the officer at the heart of this told the students:
Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.
The effect around the globe has been massive, and slutwalks have sprung up everywhere in Canada and the US, Europe and Australia, ostensibly to reclaim the word slut and remove its perlocutionary force as an offensive word, but also to show support for gender equality and denounce rape and other forms of sexual abuse and harassment.
This interests me linguistically as instances of word reclamation are infrequent, and usually happen at a grassroots level by spreading throughout a community as opposed to by prescription, so it will be interesting to see how the reclamation of slut works out.
Linguist Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic about’, such as scrabble-slut. Slut has therefore already joined a long list of slurs that have non-slur uses as suffixes, including -nazi, -virgin, -whore and -queen. He concludes:
I don’t think “a slut is a slut”. It depends on the morphology and the context, and words can be reclaimed.
But can slut be reclaimed?
There have been only a few successful word reclamations in English globally over the last hundred years or so; the most notable of these is nigger, but other examples are fag (but interestingly, not faggot), queen and although it hasn’t completed the journey yet, cunt. So looking at these examples, can we infer anything about how successful an attempt at word reclamation is going to be?
I mentioned above that word reclamation is usually driven at a grassroots level, whereby the community to whom an offensive term is directed begin using it as an in-group marker of identity. At the same time its use by someone outside the group is still taken to be offensive, but is now rendered powerless as compared with the power that its in-group use has in strengthening group identity. For instance, the power of nigger used as a slur is minuscule compared with its power to strengthen pride in the black community. Being told that a word is no longer offensive just might not work; it has to spread from below. Much like democracy in the Middle-East.
There’s also another element to word reclamation that might not work in slut‘s favour. Successful reclamations like nigger, fag and cunt describe things that are just facts about people and are thus not subject to value-judgment; being black, being gay, or being female. The dictionary of the computer I’m writing this on defines slut as “a slovenly or promiscuous woman”. So slut describes behaviour which is potentially subject to value-judgment, and there’ll always be someone in the world who will judge it harshly.
Slut unfortunately, may therefore never be able to escape slurhood.