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Lithium What it means to be a slut in 2020

Oct. 19, 2020
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I often refer to myself as a self-proclaimed slut—be it in applications for writing jobs, my subsequent articles, or simply in the pleasantries exchanged during first and second dates. The emphasis always lands on “self-proclaimed” because I’m aware that when “slut” is thrown around to describe other people, it’s often with the intent to shame. I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking “slut” is a label imposed upon me, or one of which I’m ashamed; instead, I’m making a statement about my relationship with my own sexuality. I’m actively reclaiming a term previously used to bludgeon my self-esteem down to an oozing pulp of self-loathing.

“Slut” can be dated back to 1402 and has since been widely used to shame women for expressing any measure of sexuality. Its precise meaning has shifted over the centuries—with social restraints loosening to permit sex before marriage, the mini skirt, and contraception. Now, in a time when so many women are reclaiming the historically derogatory term, the word has acquired new meaning and complexity. If I was to ignore the nuances and give “slut” a blanket definition, I would say that to be a slut is to be a woman who doesn’t have sex in the way society thinks she should—whether that means having sex outside the sacred bonds of wedlock or simply enjoying casual sex. Although we’ve come a long way since the 15th century, one truth that connects our present-day situation with that of our ancestors is the enduring belief that female sexuality solely exists for the benefit of men. This idea underlies the orgasm gap, rape culture, and society’s inability to recognize queer women as wholly valid (i.e. the belief that two women having sex doesn’t really count). With that in mind, I believe that to be a slut is to deviate from this patriarchal norm by unapologetically owning one’s sexuality; it’s actively existing beyond the male gaze. 

But what does this mean in practical terms? How does one live like a slut? 

Before anything else, I want to dismiss the idea that being a slut is in any way dependent on numbers or “body count.” With that in mind, I’d like to make an appeal to the men of Tinder: please stop fearfully asking me (or anyone else) how many people I’ve been with as though your masculinity risks being crushed by the virile weight of your predecessors. Grow up. While pandering to such questions, I’ve been met with relief after giving a number lower than theirs. One guy even said “ah, well, I’m more of a slut than you then.” I understand that toxic masculinity dictates that the Average Chad ought to be more sexually active than his female counterparts since, for many men, body count—like dick size—is a direct measure of virility. But what this particular chad failed to recognize is that while there’s a positive correlation between a man’s value and the number of people he’s slept with, the opposite has always been true for women. 

And really, is no one else bothered by the connotations of body count? It makes me think of serial murder—an objectively horrifying thing to associate with anything relating to sex. Then, beyond the violence, there’s the impersonal, dehumanizing nature of reducing a sexual partner to a “body.” Like with any other abstract subject, discussions about sex require careful linguistic choices because how we talk about it will naturally affect how we navigate it in our day-to-day lives. I mean, if language weren’t important, I wouldn’t have devoted a thousand words to recontextualizing “slut.”  

That being said, I’ll own up and admit that just a year ago I put a lot of emphasis on my body count. My naive conflation of sluttiness with a high number of bodies led to some unhealthy behavior: having sex for the sake of sex, with little attention being paid to who the sex was with, why I was having it, or whether it was even good. It quickly became a matter of quantity over quality—a race to some invisible finish line with intangible rewards. (There really aren’t trophies for attaining a certain body count—trust me.) This frenzied relationship with sex left me feeling both emotionally and physically exhausted, without space for all the other, more practical, stuff that makes a slut a slut. 

For example, amongst the intricacies of sluttiness, one thing that should never go unnoticed is sexual health. To all the self-proclaimed slags out there: get woke about sexual health. Aside from the obvious “use a condom” (please), there’s more to maintaining sexual health—like getting to know our bodies more intimately. Self-education is an important step toward feeling comfortable openly discussing sexual health, whether it’s with medical professionals, friends, or sexual partners. To practice what I preach, I make a point of visiting my local sexual health clinic for a swab and blood test regularly (i.e. at least every three months). This is particularly important if you’re switching frequently between sexual partners. Talking openly about getting checked is a great way to help destigmatize STIs, demystify the process, and reassure others that it’s not as painful or embarrassing as it might seem. 

If I were to make a slutty starter pack, one of the key components would be the “people I’ve slept with” list kept covertly in the Notes app. My doctor found it hilarious when, after she asked how many partners I’d had recently, I slipped my phone out of my bag and referred to said list. I’ll admit that the original purpose of the list wasn’t practical; it was to keep score, which I don’t love. But I’m still grateful to past me for creating a list, because it does come in handy to have a corpus of your sexual history when visiting the sexual health clinic; the more information you can give, the better they can cater tests and potential treatments to your needs.

Really, being a slut isn’t just about the glitz and glamour of sex itself; it’s about self-care and self-awareness, too. Simply having a lot of sex with multiple partners won’t leave you the time to do that. 

Time and experience have taught me that not only is it immature to collect shags as though they’re tokens to be traded in for slut status, but it’s also a detrimental waste of energy. Pleasure is the focal point of my Slut Manifesto—not numbers. Lockdown, and the inevitable dry patch that has come with social-distancing measures, originally felt like a real threat to my identity. How could anyone be a slut when sex is off limits? Since March I’ve had plenty of time to ruminate on this and reconsider what makes me, or anybody else, a slut. Being unable to meet new people and engage in new sexual experiences made me realize that “slut” simply isn’t a quantifiable term; dictionary definitions don’t give numbers, so I don’t think anyone’s definition should be rooted in body count either. It doesn’t matter whether someone has slept with zero people or a hundred; if they’re shameless, unapologetic, and brazen with their sexuality, then in my book, they’re a slut. 

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun