Miley Cyrus vs the world: why we (still) need to talk about sluts

What's the point of attending a 'slut night'? As it turns out, quite a lot. The world is still experiencing a massive slutsplosion.

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.

Miley Cyrus winks and sticks out her tongue as she performs during the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Image: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR