I was called a slut once in middle school by a girl after I kissed a guy she also liked at a school assembly. She wasn't happy about it so she called me the one name she believed would be the most stinging. Slut. Perhaps it would have been insulting a generation prior but it was 1993 and being a slut had actually become rather chic for some of us.
Fourteen years and dozens of sexual conquests later I'm a big proponent of sex-positive feminism or ‘Stiletto Feminism,' a movement born from the turbulent social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s that flourished in the 1980s and 90s as a back-lash against the conservative movement that endeavores to put limits on what women can and cannot do sexually. Broken down to its core component, sex-positive feminism's message is a woman's sexuality can and should be used not only for her pleasure but also her benefit if needed.
The Media Mirrors Society
An article from 2000 in Time featuring the cast of Sex and the City drew some positive attention to this phenomenon as did an episode of The West Wing. The August 2000 issue of George magazine also featured it, calling this a “new kind of feminism.” It described the “Stiletto Feminist” as the woman who “embraces expressions of sexuality that enhances rather than detracts from women's freedom.” Dr. Susan Hopkins, a lecturer in The School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland, wrote a cultural analysis of the contemporary archetype of the stiletto feminist in popular culture in her book Girl Heroes. Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt took the subject head on in their wildly popular book The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities To be fair, the movement was criticized in a book titled Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. All are excellent reads providing different perspectives of sex-positive feminism.
And those of us who have embraced the tenets of this, knowingly or unknowingly, have apparently been smart about it. At the same time HBO's Sex and the City was becoming a phenomena, sexually provocative female pop stars were burning up the airwaves, and virginity was becoming an afterthought, something curious happened: Unplanned teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates dropped overall. You can credit great parenting, good government policy, effective ad campaigns from Trojan, or the fact that women were (finally) in charge of their own poonannies for the positive statistics, but one thing was certain – women knew what was at stake with their freedoms and weren't going to blow it like some nervous fumbling girl enamored with her high school's star quarterback.
A generation of young women (I dare say two generations because this movement began in the 60s) have found the courage to do what men have been doing forever: Having sex with wild abandon. After all, Ernest Hemingway famously said, “What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” And I'm here to tell you it feels good.
How Society Betrays Us
But that still doesn't soften the blows other women inflict on us if we're too sexual. Just as many of us have a new found freedom and confidence, our sisters seek to tear us down, to undermine our sexuality through guilt and shame. You know the game, right? If a woman walks into a room like she owns the place, maybe dressed provocatively, our first thought is ‘slut!' We may even secretly envy her, but she's tough competition for attention from the men in the room. And we can't possibly admire her for it outwardly, so we have make ourselves feel better by branding a scarlet letter on her.
And that attitude isn't without evolutionary and generational causes. Women have been taught since the dawn of recorded history that our sexuality is a commodity to be bargained with and exchanged for security within a marriage. If some women throw those norms out the window, the reasoning goes, they cheapen the supply. Men will be less likely to provide security for women if they can get what they're seeking free somewhere else – or so we've been taught. So women, based on something ingrained in their minds by societal norms, will naturally try to offset what they see as the devaluation of their ‘product' by undermining sexually confident women.
Of course, it isn't only women who are condemning other women's sexuality. In male-dominated societies, female sexuality has always been feared. One of the earliest myths in Judaism is of Lilith, Adam's first wife, who was banished from the Garden of Eden for being on top in a sexual encounter with Adam. Notice the sin wasn't the sex itself but rather the woman was on top of the man rather than beneath him. Theories persist today that the forbidden fruit that Eve tempted Adam with was actually a metaphor for having sex for reasons other than procreation. One of the first laws in recorded history calls for stoning to death any woman who has had sex with more than one man.
Consider also some of the double standards our daughters are subjected to. Men who sleep with a variety of women, moving from one conquest to the next, are often admired while women who engage in the same behavior are considered whores. Rape victims are sometimes blamed for their own assaults because of the way they were dressed, obviously meaning they were asking for it. Many insurance plans will cover Viagra but not the birth control pill. Some pharmacies refuse to honor prescriptions for the birth control pill unless the female can prove she's married. And on the topic of the pill, a controversy brewing in England right now is whether teen girls should be given access to it over the counter while at the same time teen boys have been buying condoms unhindered for years.
A History of Female Sexual Freedom
What are the roots of this new “slutty” movement? Well, how far do you want to go back? Historically, in many societies, when women's economic status improves, so do their sex lives. It stands to reason, right? When women are kept uneducated and dependent on men, they're less likely to experiment sexually for fear of being branded a whore. And, indeed, for the many women who sought such pleasures of the flesh in past times and were found out, the repercussions were devastating. No money, no education, no job skills, and no marriage prospects. Psychologist Dr. David Ley, in his fascinating book Insatiable Wives: Women Who Stray and the Men Who Love Them postulates the traditional roles of men and women have always been dictated by economics and given a level playing field in that respect, women and men would not be that different in their pursuit of carnal adventures.
Ley explains that female sexual freedom throughout the history of the world ties directly to the economic independence enjoyed by women in any given society. Among the Inuit, where women have sexual freedoms comparable to the men of their society, the women traditionally oversee the family's economy. The government of ancient Sparta, where women were allowed to own land, wrote laws protecting women's sexual freedom. Among the Islamic culture in 19th Century Morocco, wealthy women often engaged in flagrant affairs, protected from their husband's anger by the fact that family's wealth was in the wife's name, inherited from her family. In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, women had a Cicisbeo or Cavalier Servente, a lover and servant who had “privileged” access to her.
In today's Western world, as women's economic status has risen, so have the rates of female infidelity, and, not incidentally, the attention to female sexual satisfaction within heterosexual relationships. (translation: guys are trying much harder to make us happy in the bedroom).
A book that takes on the practical application of sex-positive feminism is The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. It is credited with raising awareness of the possibility of consensual non-monogamy as a lifestyle, and providing practical guidance on how such long term relationships work and are put into practice.
The authors define the term slut as “a person… who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” The term is reclaimed from its usual use as an insult and is used to signify a person who is accepting of their enjoyment of sex and the pleasure of intimacy with others. The book discusses how to live an active life with multiple concurrent sexual relationships.
A Box That Can't Be Closed
Of course, all this super hot sluttiness isn't for everyone and yes, it does have its pitfalls. Emotions can get involved, heartbreaks ensue, and unwanted pregnancies and diseases do happen still in alarming numbers, especially in states that lean conservative in their politics and where abortion, sex education and family planning often swing elections wildly to one side. And as mentioned above, should you ever drink the golden nectar of promiscuity, other women can be your worst enemy.
But as women achieve social and economic parity with men, the notion we should only have sex when we're swept away by romance, love, or lies is fading into history. So as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Government should continue their push for quality sex education in our schools. Parents should make their daughters' and sons' safety a higher priority than morality. And other women shouldn't fear their sisters' blossoming carnal confidence. Female sexuality doesn't have to be a Pandora's Box.