On Reclaiming The Word “Slut”

I spent my teenage years terrified that I was a slut, and therefore I was not the type of girl who could be loved.

This quiet, insidious terror consumed me. I dedicated eight hand-written journals to dissecting the shame I felt about sex. It didn’t look like the shame other girls felt: I knew and loved my body, and I desired boys and girls and the delicious anticipation of a crush.

As a teenager and young adult, my sex drive felt ravenous—not exactly fearless, but certainty undeterred by the fear of rejection. I chased people with the haphazard zeal of a privileged girl who’d yet to be properly hurt. But I received the message loud and clear that girls who were sexual, girls who wanted touch, girls who were aggressive and talkative and confident—we were those girls. We were not good girls or honorable girls or beautiful girls. We were set apart.

Even if we chose this path—that of red lipstick and strategically planned games of Never Have I Ever—it was a dark one, a harder alternative. We would not be loved. We would not be cherished. This awareness lay in wait when I attempted to date as a high schooler, an emotional sinkhole into which intimacy tumbled, distrusting and ugly.

The first time a boy called me a slut, the cold sting of it lingered in my spine for years. It hurt because it confirmed what I already knew about myself. In his glittering beetle eyes, I saw the choice forced upon girls: We can be coy and pure and deny the gaping hunger waking up in our adolescent bodies, in exchange for the dubious honor of being some boy’s Girlfriend, or we can embrace the sobriquet of Slut and chase whatever bodily need we crave.

In her equation, the Slut gives up the gauzy white dresses from Forever 21 and plastic roses shoved in between the slats of her locker during prom season. She loses the air of respectability, any possibility of being chosen by some special, mediocre boy.

My fate as a Slut seemed predetermined. I wrote short stories about my crushes with feverish intensity. Nothing made me feel as intensely alive as when I wrote, unless I was kissing and then writing about that kiss with grave precision. I could not imitate the patience and tact of the Girlfriends sitting beside me at theater rehearsal. And so I did the bitter calculus of teenage girls and decided to embrace my destined, disdained sluttiness.

I even made up a superhero identity for myself: Whorella. I doodled a logo with little condom wrappers and a discarded bra.

There are terms in feminist theory that describe my teenage self’s negotiation with sex: a patriarchal bargain, pseudo-empowerment through self-sexualization, and so on. Conservatives point at this internal dilemma as proof that modern times have ruined womanhood, that women cannot “have it all” because of oxytocin and our brain structure and our runaway uteruses, blah blah blah.

When I stumbled across the concept of the virgin-whore dichotomy during a women’s studies class, I felt like someone had wiretapped my brain. The insecurity I struggled with for years sat in front of me in black and white text. As Stephanie Stroud put it for The Representation Project, “Women fit neatly into the role of either an innocent, passive, selfless good girl or a hedonistic, morally-void, sensual bad girl. Unsurprisingly, these roles do not reflect reality, nor do they provide a sustainable framework from which we can appreciate the immensely nuanced lives of women.”

I’d understood this as the Girlfriend-Slut binary. One could be the sexually adventurous, loud and single Slut, gaining access to empowered sexual experiences but losing out on relationships and care. Or one could be the Girlfriend, remaining lovable, cherished, happy, and a little boring. Either side of this binary read like a compromise, forgoing some beautiful possibility on the other path.

I didn’t judge other women, or myself, for having casual sex. But I did worry that I was simply not the kind of girl who belonged in a relationship. I tried to lean into that path, to make it my choice rather than a series of rejections from boys who were, in retrospect, intimidated by my sexual aggression.

Self-restriction is the entire point of a dichotomy. It forces you to limit yourself to one prescribed version of womanhood and hate yourself for daring to want more.

I didn’t take naturally to hating myself, and so I embraced the life of the Slut. I enjoyed myself doing so. I wrote erotic novellas and distributed condoms. I wore sheer tank tops over lingerie and modeled topless. I said fuck you to the idea that enjoying sex made me less than, made me insecure, made me desperate, made me damaged, even as I feared that I was wrong. I was thrilled and excited and baffled by the callousness with which some boys behaved. I did my best.

But I did want a relationship. I wanted to share myself with someone. I wanted to go to the movies and talk through them and hold hands and fall asleep together and wake up together and split waffles — I wanted to do couple shit. I wanted to know that kind of intimacy and trust, that permanence. I wanted to love and desire; I wanted to be loved and be desired even more so.

My craving for a relationship felt like weakness. I wanted a boyfriend, I assured myself, because I’d been told to want a boyfriend my entire life. Wasn’t I happy enough without one? I loved flirting with strangers at humid dorm room parties and coming home to my red string lights alone at the end of the night. Didn’t I? I was a strong and independent feminist. I didn’t need a man.

Longing to fall in love felt like a failure of my values, a betrayal of myself rather than a normal human need for intimacy.

I lost years to the myth that I didn’t deserve to be loved because I love sex. The supposedly empowering identity of Slut kept me safe from purity culture, but it still left me trapped within a dehumanizing compromise.


This is an excerpt from a longer essay on my Patreon, A Slut Falls In Love. To read the rest — and more essays about hookup culture, casual sex and intimacy — join my Patreon community here.

Photo by Hanna Postova.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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