SLUTS & PRUDES - What's Behind It?

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By Amy Coenen

From NWL News Spring 2013

In April 2012, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” because the Georgetown University law student testified before Congress about the high cost of contraception and the need for free, accessible birth control. That same spring, Gainesville women were heckled as “sluts” and “whores” when they confronted former U.S. Representative Cliff Stearns about his attacks on Planned Parenthood and contraception.  And recent news has focused on a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio who was sexually assaulted by members of the high school football team with much of the community blaming the rape victim for putting herself in a position to be violated.

This is nothing new.  The “slut” label is often used to deny access to birth control or to justify rape.  So National Women’s Liberation  got to wondering: what is the power in calling a woman a slut? But to really address “slut shaming,” we decided we also needed to talk about the name-calling from the opposite perspective – calling women “prudes.”

Twelve women, ranging in age from our 20s to 60s, got together at a Gainesville chapter meeting to answer the following Consciousness-Raising questions:

When have you been called a slut or feared you would be? Who was calling you a slut? What was the effect on you and on your behavior?  

When have you been called a prude or feared you would be? Who was calling you a prude? What was the effect on you and on your behavior?

By answering these questions and comparing our experiences, we discovered that we were most often called a prude when a man was hoping to get us to do something sexually that we didn’t want to do; having sex for the first time or, in two cases, agreeing to an “open” relationship. The fear of being called a prude led one woman to pretend to be sexually experienced when she wasn’t, and another woman to have sex with a man she didn’t really want to have sex with. In all of theses cases, the prude label had the effect of shutting down and diverting arguments about sex.

Some of us testified that being a “prude” or a virgin when we were younger divided us from women who were more sexually experienced. One woman reported having a “holier than thou” attitude towards more experienced friends, which in retrospect, separated her from friends.

Many of us who testified about being called a prude also had experience with being called a slut. Some of us wore the badge with pride, but still felt hurt and rejected when others called us that. Three women reported that close boyfriends or husbands had called us sluts – either for having a lover before them, talking to other men at parties, or in one case, after telling a boyfriend that she had been raped. “It definitely made me hyper-aware of my behavior. I could never tell how long was too long to talk to another man,” she said. “I worried about what I was wearing and whether he would think it was too suggestive.”

Another woman testified that men in her high school tried to force her to have sex because she was sexually experienced; since she had sex with other men, she was expected to have sex with any man. This led to some other discussion of times we have had sex when we really didn’t want to because we were afraid of being physically forced. She decided that “it would be easier to f--k him and get it over with than to say no and risk getting beat up.” Being labeled a slut can have violent consequences.

Once called a slut, often for just having a sex life that would be normal for a man, many of us said we were much more cautious about sharing any information about our sexual history with anyone, but men especially: “I realized that people were talking about me and I didn’t like that . . . it led me to shut down and become much more private, not just about sex but with many aspects of my life.”  

Some common themes that emerged from both slut and prude testimony:

  • Almost all of us have been a slut or a prude at some time in our lives.  
  • The accusation of prude or slut often had the effect of silencing us – keeping us quiet about the truth of our sexual history, whether virgins or experienced; making it more difficult to say no to sex that we didn’t really want, or in some cases, making us go along with a man’s sexual desires because it seemed easier than putting up a fight. Once called a slut, we found ourselves more secretive and distrustful. The slut/prude divide pits women against each other and keeps us from comparing notes and experiences. The accusation of “slut” hurt us a lot more when it came from a woman.
  • Even though this name-calling was often used by men in our lives to manipulate or silence us, most of us fought back against it in some way. One woman said, “I realized it was a warning sign of abuse and I left him.” Another said, “I decided I would never again have sex with someone if I didn’t want to, which sounds so crazy to have to decide that!”

We can only conclude that slut-shaming is an attempt to make women quiet about their sexuality. But we won’t stay quiet.  All over the country, women are outraged for being made to feel guilty about their sex lives based on a sexist definition of appropriate sexual behavior.  We’re also outraged that this name-calling is being used to attack birth control and defend things like rape. It’s up to us now to unite, fight back, and win more!  

For more information about Consciousness Raising, see: Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon, Feminist Revolution, Redstockings, Eds., 1979, available at: