Sluts have been in the media a lot lately, what with the Miley Cyrus-Sinead O’Connor-Amanda Palmer fandango (or, if you’re so inclined, ‘catfight’.) Summary for the unenlightened: Miley ‘twerked and cried’ (in the words of the BBC) during a rendition of her latest song, and somewhere along the way managed to simulate sex with a (fully suited-up) Robin Thicke while wearing a skin coloured bikini. Sinead wrote an open letter to her telling her that she shouldn’t ‘prostitute herself’ to the men in boardrooms making big bucks off her naked teenage body. Amanda Palmer jumped in and criticised Sinead for failing to recognise Miley’s personal and sexual autonomy. Articles across the world recast it as kitties getting their claws out and/or girlies getting their latex bikini bottoms in a twist.
Meanwhile, everyone speculated about what Miley’s father would say, and when he said that he didn’t mind, everyone moved on to whether we say she’s a slut even if her dad doesn’t. After all, Miley may have one biological father, but aren’t we all in some way owed ownership of her twerking body? We watched her grow up as Hannah Montana; we followed the drama of her young engagement and its subsequent break-off. We expected her to stay sweet and demure, rather than to don a teddy-bear-themed leotard and lick a sledgehammer. We thought she was on the ‘Madonna’ side of the dichotomy, and now it turns out she’s on the ‘whore’ side. We never saw it coming.
Obviously, it came as no surprise that the smallest Cyrus would get serially slut-shamed by the media for such a performance. Bending over for Robin Thicke was guaranteed to generate that reaction – because ‘slut’ only means one thing, and that thing is ‘up for it’ sexually (unless you’re Godfrey Bloom and you’re talking about scrubbing behind the fridge, but that’s another debate entirely.) Women who enjoy or talk about or simulate or even ‘invite’ sex (how you ‘invite’ it, of course, is debatable according to which bigot you’re talking to, including but not limited to your clothes, your make-up and your level of drunkenness) are sluts. Sluts aren’t proper people, and therefore shouldn’t be surprised when something bad happens to them.
This definition sounds depressing – so it’s surprising, really, that the recent ‘slut night’ we attended was so upbeat. Held at pop-up ‘female-focused space’ The Other Club, which is in turn the brainchild of journalists Katie Glass and Joy Lo Dico, the night (organised by the indomitable Amelia Abraham at Vice magazine) invited speakers to discuss sluts, sluttiness, slut-shaming and everything in between. We were both lucky enough to be invited to speak, dividing our time between young sluts (Miley, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj) and old sluts (Kate Winslet and the unfortunate Carla Bruni, whose number of sexual partners - 15 - ‘demeaned sex itself’ according to one judgmental journalist.) Others discussed their own ‘numbers’ and past relationships. Tickets were available for women only, and an extremely diverse range of women packed themselves into the space so tightly that we all sweated our tits off. It was brilliant.
At one point, however, a woman took the mic who wasn’t on the bill but requested that she make an impromptu speech. She grew up in the sixties and seventies, she told us, when sexual liberation was new. She wore outfits uncannily akin to Beyonce’s raunchier performance costumes (yep, she really did namedrop Beyonce.) ‘Why are you still fighting this fight?’ she asked us, disappointedly. ‘You should have moved on right now. Stop worrying about being called sluts and concentrate on other issues.’
The first point to make in response, of course, is that people can campaign on a huge number of different fronts while still wondering why we’re always called sluts by the films we watch and the magazines we read and the adverts we have targeted at us and random passersby on the street. Because unfortunately, feminist progress since the sixties hasn’t been entirely linear. The proof that we still need to have these conversations is everywhere.
Articles like the depressingly predictable '24 signs she’s a slut’ on the Return of Kings website abound, listing any possible deviation from social norms as ‘signs’ that girls are promiscuous ‘dirty little whores’ who need teaching a lesson (spoiler alert: the lesson is more fucking.) In the case of the aforementioned article, the following are sure-fire signs of sluttiness: saying ‘fuck’ outside of the bedroom; not being ticklish (‘I’ve noticed that girls who aren’t ticklish aren’t so because they’re used to being handled by men. Almost every prude is super ticklish, while sluts are rarely so’), discusses sex outside the bedroom or alludes to illegal drugs in conversation, has ‘big tits’, has extra body hair (like ‘girl-sideburns'. They're a thing now, apparently) or a low voice (‘it’s testosterone’), is interested in women, has travelled to Jamaica, drinks tequila, lost her virginity at 15, has divorced parents, and describes herself as a feminist. Which basically makes us the sluttiest sluts of them all. But you already knew that.
The general trajectory of such articles is: misogynistic piece masquerading as boundary-pushing, ‘controversial’, or anything else that doesn’t boil down to ‘pure hate speech’ appears on the internet; female commenters turn up below the line to criticise the article’s views; writers and/or publishers protest that it was ‘a joke’, ‘in jest’ or – worst case scenario – ‘banter’; female commenters who complained are upheld as proof by misogynist writers and associated mates as ‘proof that women can’t take a joke’. Six months later, repeat cycle. Not only are women totally sluts, but they’re not funny either. We all know the only thing that they’re good for.
So long as these articles keep appearing, symptomatic as they are of a wider cultural problem, then we need to hold ‘slut nights’. Whether you believe in reappropriating the word and marching through the streets holding a placard proudly proclaiming ‘I AM A SLUT’, or you think the term should be consigned to the Mad Raging Sexism dustbin for all eternity, drawing attention to sexual double standards remains important.
Only then can women step out of the Madonna/whore dichotomy and into the nuanced realm of real human beings.