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What Girls Should Know About the Word 'Slut'

Are there good sluts and bad sluts, or should we just ditch the word?

When I was 17, I had an assignment in my AP English class to paint a Shakespeare quote on a T-shirt. Not having the help of brainyquote.com — because pre-Internet — my classmates and I flipped through quotation tomes and the playwright’s collected works, looking for the right message.

“I am not a slut,” a quote from “As You Like It.” I went with that.

I’m not sure why exactly. Was I trying to annoy my teacher? Did I think it was funny? Was I “taking back the word,” experimenting with feminism? Was I just being matter-of-fact?

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My first education on the concept of a slut was the movie “Grease.” Rizzo was a slut, because she was bold and tough, and she loved her boyfriend and he loved her, but she got pregnant.

Sandy was not a slut, because she was shy, and conservative in dress and demeanor. She loved her boyfriend, but he dumped her because he was ashamed of how uncool she was.

But then Sandy changed it up and, in the end, Sandy got her man and Rizzo got her period, so it all worked out for everyone.

It was a little confusing: could you be strong and go after what you want and not be a slut? Could you be reserved and “good” and not be a prude? Was how you presented your sexuality, whether you were doing the deed or not, so defining and important?

Is what constitutes “slut” a matter of how much people believe a woman is in full control of her actions and choices?

Then Madonna came along and blew the top right off. She was in your face sexual, but nobody ever called her a slut. Inappropriate and indecent, perhaps, but not a slut. (Well, not for her sexuality anyway.)

Her 1989 video for “Express Yourself” made some feminists squirm, but Madonna herself said, “The ultimate thing behind the song is that if you don't express yourself, if you don't say what you want, then you're not going to get it.”

She pushed boundaries, made us re-think the choices a woman is empowered to make regarding her own sexuality. Camille Paglia called her “the future of feminism.”

Things back-pedaled as the next generation of female pop star seemed too manufactured to be empowered. In 2000, Entertainment Weekly claimed Christina Aguilera was a “good girl pretending to be bad,” whereas Britney Spears “comes across as a bad girl acting good.”

Is what constitutes “slut” a matter of how much people believe a woman is in full control of her actions and choices? And, if that’s the case, is a slut always a victim? Always trying too hard to be accepted?

Are there good sluts and bad sluts, as Leora Tanenbaum puts forth in her new book, "I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet"?

In the book, she writes that to some girls, “being a ‘slut’ is good — but only when the girl herself is orchestrating her reputation and maintains control over it.”

The waters are murky, though. According to Tanenbaum, “a girl must behave like a ‘good slut’ whether she wants to or not.” But “once a girl achieves ‘good slut’ status, she is always at risk of losing control and becoming known as a ‘bad slut.’”

Even if we could retire a word — which I believe we can’t — there’s no erasing the concept behind it.

Tanenbaum’s book was the subject of a recent New York Times Op-Ed that asks whether the word slut should just be retired. “While not everyone sees the word ‘slut’ the same way Ms. Tanenbaum does, many agree that girls and women today face intense and conflicting pressures when it comes to their sexuality. And to push back against those pressures, some say, they may need tools more complex and diverse than a single word.”

Even if we could retire a word — which I believe we can’t — there’s no erasing the concept behind it.

I have two daughters, still toddlers, so the choices they will make still feel far enough away. But I do think about what I will tell them about sex, what advice I will give.

Is there an appropriate age or is it a matter of maturity? Is there an acceptable number of partners, or is safety the most important thing? Is anything OK as long as you’re not in danger and it’s truly what you want?

I recently went looking for another Shakespeare quote to put on my 2-year-old daughter’s wall. This time I went with something from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream": And though she be but little, she is fierce.

It suits her, and it would have suited me at 17, too.

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So maybe that’s it. If I teach them to stay “fierce,” they won’t ever have to care about the word “slut.”

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Image via ArrestedDevelopment.wikia

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