Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Just A Word

Q: What's the difference between a whore and a slut?
A: A whore will sleep with anyone. A slut will sleep with anyone but YOU.
I first heard this when I was in high school. Say, a sophomore - the year we are all wise fools. Like my classmates, I laughed at it, even as I failed to grasp just how horrible it is all the way around. To say I am, in my middle age, ashamed now of things I did as a thoughtless adolescent would be a bit much. Nevertheless, buried within this horrid little bit of hate-filled humor is all we need to know about why the SlutWalk movement is so controversial.

If any of us really thought words were unimportant, the inclusion of "slut" in the title wouldn't upset so many people.

Without us even realizing it is happening, the word conjures up images and feelings in all of us. We associate the word with people. We associate it with the way some people talk about other people. We associate it with lax morals, or low self-esteem, or bad parenting. We associate it with privilege and dominance, with subordination and power. We hear the word and the whole web of inter-related meanings and emotions and incidents from our lives and interactions with others rise up and confront us with the question: Why this word?

In the offensiveness of this word, we hear our own culpability in continuing the power this word has. In seeking to claim it, that power is stripped, because all the questions and associations that hover around it like some dark cloud suddenly turn and demand, "Why?" Why does this word have power? In what lies the authority it seems to have to dredge up images of women free with their favors, dressed to seduce and entice, demeaned and considered of less worth and inherent dignity because of actions and decisions in their lives?

It is easy, I think, to fall back on stereotypes, images dragged from the media, and our own, usually feeble, grasp of who others are by their appearance. When answers are easy, they are usually wrong.

The most dangerous thing any individual or group can ever do is ask the question: Why do use this word to define me? Choosing to reject a name used by others, or even more hazardous, embrace the label and call it "good", takes from the powerful the most important weapon they have - defining reality. The reality of what is and is not proper behavior. The reality of what is and is not proper dress. The reality of what are and are not proper moral and life choices. When the powerless do this, it is more insidious, more threatening than any general strike or armed rebellion. Before either of those things can happen, a people who was no people - defined as "the mob", say; or worse, deemed beneath our moral and social concern as "sluts", deserving of whatever befalls them due to their own morally bereft choices - becomes a people by stealing away from the powerful the self-imposed right to define who others are.

So, sure, it's just a word. There are lots of words that are just words. If I wrote some of them, I would pretty much offend the world precisely because words are not just words. They carry with them the weight of social, political, and moral approbation we all recognize but will not admit. Is it OK for some women, due to privileges that befall them due to race, or income, or other general social status, to demand the right to make the choice to dress in ways that others deem "slutty" if they so choose? A good counter-question is why is it that some find it necessary, let alone permissible, to use that word to describe the actions of others?

The SlutWalks are by no means perfect. There are conversations that need to be had about the very real limitations inherent in it. Were I to support only those social or political movements that perfectly aligned with my political and social beliefs, I would have to found them all myself, and they would have a membership of one. When I encounter a movement founded by a group of people dedicated to asking why those in power deem it both permissible and necessary to label and demean the choices, including dress and life-choices, even when there are problems most acknowledge, I think it is worth supporting.

Virtual Tin Cup

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