From spinsters and witches to divas and drama queens, there’s a long history of weaponizing words against women to maintain the status quo. In this historical moment, with the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and with it, nearly 50 years of precedent protecting women’s rights to autonomy with abortion care, the weapon of choice is a familiar four-letter word – slut.
The word ‘slut’ has burdened women over the past six centuries. The Daily Beast dove into its history, peeling back the layers of a complicated origin story from a general descriptor of dirtiness and untidiness, to “a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade” as early as the 1400s.
Even in these earliest iterations, the conflation of “bold” and “impudent”, meaning not subservient, with “loose”, “dirty” and “low”, lays bare the words’ intent as it increasingly applied to women, to punish any model of womanhood that doesn’t prioritize sufficient subservience – be it in the form of homemaking or lovemaking.
While we might like to think we’re long past the days of demonizing behaviors that fall outside the patriarchal ideal in which womanhood revolves around the husband, the home and children, where men hold power while women serve them, the modern day phenomena of “slut shaming” exposes the fallacy of progress.
For the most part, the word “slut” today is still used as an insult to describe women engaging in “too much” or “inappropriate” sexual activity (whatever that means), while the same behavior in men has no established derogatory equivalent.
The word slut, along with its inherently gendered connotations, has no shortage of synonyms – whore, hussy, tart. And in a reversal of almost every other word in the English language, the way to describe the same behavior in men, without resorting to the complimentary “stud”, is to masculinize the feminine – ex. “man-whore”.
In this way, language is an eerily accurate reflection of a culture in which a certain set of behaviors are only considered unacceptable and worthy of stigmatization and backlash when women engage in them.
In the same way that praising ambition in men while villifying ambition in women makes it socially acceptable for men to pursue power and costly for women to do the same, praising or even overlooking sexual independence in men while punishing sexual independence in women is designed to critique too independent women into submission.
And when critique falls short, there’s now policy, forcing pregnant people to give birth, however unethical and well-documented the consequences including greater likelihood of economic hardship and financial insecurity, greater dependence on violent partners, and greater likelihood of falling below the federal poverty level. Because if you can’t shame women into complying with a status quo of cis, hetero, white, male patriarchy, you can always control their bodies to put them back in their place.