Why Slut Is the Dirtiest Four-Letter Word

Cristen Conger

SlutWalk Courtesy: Man Alive!/Flickr Creative Commons

The s-word has been receiving extra attention lately to publicize the recent release of Leora Tanenbaum's I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet. And slut is a particularly tricky word to tackle because, as Tanenbaum notes, "there is no unanimity over [its] definitions." Typically -- for anyone who hasn't seen Mean Girls -- it's used to shame girls and women for their real or perceived sexual encounters; less often, it's employed as a term of galpal endearment.

And indeed, the official definition of slut has evolved during its centuries-long etymological journey from The Canterbury Tales to today. In the beginning, a slut described a slovenly working class woman. This 15th-century meaning also bred ye olde slang terms slut's wool to describe dust bunnies and slut's pennies in reference to hard, improperly kneaded bread loaf bunions.

So sluts were just messy ladies who weren't great at bread making just like me! Not so bad, right?

Courtesy: Flickr Creative Commons/Alan Wilfahrt

Wrong.

First, there's the class issue of it being targeted exclusively to poorer women. Old school sluts not only had little social and economic value to begin with, they were doing womanhood wrong, transgressing the feminine expectations of the day.This pattern rings alarmingly familiar in a recent study finding that wealthy college women have a penchant for slut-shaming less well off coeds as a means of cementing their social status.

Racism also has been embedded within the four-letter word from the get-go. The New York Times cites Tanenbaum's book: In centuries past, it wasn't used to refer to black women, because "black women were regarded as inherently slutty, unlike white women, whose sluttiness represented a supposed transgression of true femininity." More recently, the word's racist undertones and implications were a big reason why many women of color felt marginalized by and didn't care to participate in SlutWalks.

This early meaning of slut would remain largely intact for roughly the next 400 years, after which point this gendered association between women, perceived filth and general worth/respectability segues from the domestic to the sexual. Of course, though, the kitchen and the bedroom are almost inextricably entwined, as women's gradual liberation from the home front shifted panicky attention toward female sexuality.

So in case you were wondering whether slut really, truly is a garbage (or "slut hole" in 15th-century slang terms) word, it is. And I personally see no value in any attempted reclamation of the classist, racist and sexist word (talk about a triple threat) so long as scads of women young and old, not to mention boys and men, continue to bandy it about to shame and ostracize girls and women in a frankly sluttish kind of way.

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