Sluts

From this weekend’s Daily Post (San Francisco peninsula), a front-page story on the “SlutWalk” at Stanford on Friday, with this wonderful photo:

The headline is the rhyming slogan:

A dress is not a yes

on the t-shirt that the young man is wearing (I want this t-shirt); the young woman’s shirt says, forthrightly:

I’m a slut
don’t rape me

(The photo isn’t great, I know. It was scanned in from the paper, and has that unfortunate fold mark across it. But the photo on the paper’s website is a much blander one, without those great t-shirts.)

SlutWalks are a movement, begun in Toronto and now spread all over North America and elsewhere. Here’s a shot from this year’s Toronto event:

and a poster announcing this year’s Amsterdam event (thanks to Michael Nieuwenhuizen):

(A sampling of other locations: Vancouver, Saskatoon, Ottawa, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Reno, Boston, Asheville (NC), Philadelphia, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Riverside (CA).)

The event began last year in Toronto, after Constable Michael Sanguinetti said, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (According to Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash, the officer was disciplined but remains on duty, adding that “We said at the time that his comments were entirely unacceptable, that they didn’t reflect in any way what we train and teach our people.”) Fairly extensive coverage of SlutWalks and their history in a MSNBC story of May 6 by Russell Contreras, here.

SlutWalks aim to educate people about sexual assault and violence towards women and to protest it; to proclaim that victims should not be blamed for sexual assault, in particular because of how they’re dressed; and to defiantly reclaim, or re-appropriate, the word slut. The Amsterdam event, as you can see, goes further, advocating freedom of action not only for sexually active women but also for lgbt people (while continuing work on the reclamation of dyke, fag, queer, and queen).

From the organizer of Toronto’s SlutWalk:

SlutWalk was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating. Insults, degredation, shame, rape. As I’ve said before, I never thought it would resonate around the world. No matter what I’ve been labeled— slut, whore, feminist, anti-feminist, sexy feminist, fucking feminist, racist, anti-racist, privileged — I am not ashamed to have been part of something that garnered heated discussions about the use of language, shaming and sexual profiling.

Meanwhile, Ben Zimmer has posted (on ADS-L) a Salon story on SlutWalks, with observations on composites with slut as a second element:

The word “slut” has been getting around a lot lately. Just this week, MSNBC host Ed Schultz was suspended after calling conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut.” Soon after, he went on TV to express his regret at length and, interestingly, became choked up when he apologized to his wife in particular. This follows the hubbub over emerging global SlutWalks, edgy anti-rape protests staged in response to a Canadian official’s remark that women should protect themselves by not dressing like “sluts.” The marches have garnered international coverage all month long and revived debate about whether the slur can be reclaimed. […]

For their part, the women of “The View” were laughing about the four-letter word this week. While discussing the Schultz incident, Barbara Walters was quick to point out that she had been jokingly called a slut before by Joy Behar, who followed up by admitting to being a total “Scrabble slut” herself. Jokes! Then, just to keep things interesting(-ish), [Whoopi Goldberg] argued that we shouldn’t see any difference in the word coming from a man like Schultz than from a woman like her co-host: “No. Slut is slut” (unlike “rape” and “rape-rape”).

There’s a lot to unpack here, including uses of rape in which it’s extended from the core ‘sexual assault’ sense (rape-rape); but that’s a topic for another posting.

Here the point I want to make is that composites of the form X slut come in two varieties, subsective (an X slut is a slut) and non-subsective (an X slut is not a slut, but, roughly, an enthusiast for X). Schultz’s use appears to be subsective — he was imputing sluttiness to Ingraham, and on the assumption that for Schultz slut is a slur, right-wing slut is also a slur.

(Of course, whether slut is a slur or not depends on who’s using it, to whom, and with what intention. I have a number of gay male friends who are entirely comfortable, even boastful, in referring to themselves as sluts, meaning by that only that they have a lot of sex, for some value of a lot. Then there’s the joke definition: a slut is someone who has more sex than you do.)

But Scrabble slut isn’t a slur, because it’s non-subsective; a Scrabble slut isn’t a slut who plays Scrabble, but someone who’s a slut for (wildly enthusiastic about) Scrabble-playing. These non-subsective occurrences of X slut are very much like those of  the snowclonelet composite X whore ‘one who craves X (or something to do with X) extravagantly’ (on this blog, here) and are related to occurrences of X fag (on this blog, here) not attributing homosexuality. (The family of snowclonelet composites includes, among others, X Nazi, X porn, X jock, X drag, X virgin, and X queen, most of which have been discussed on Language Log or this blog.)

Unlike Whoopi Goldberg, I don’t think “a slut is a slut”. It depends on the morphology and the context, and words can be reclaimed. (And I still want that t-shirt.)

6 Responses to “Sluts”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    I was interested in the assonances of slut and slur. SL- appears to have three major phonosemantic classes: Liquid/Solid Interface, 2-Dimensional Contact, and Pejoration. Venn diagram (with repeated words) at http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/sl-venn.pdf

  2. Taking Slut Back: How a word gets reclaimed | Fully (sic) Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic […]

  3. Taking Slut Back: How a word gets reclaimed » matjjin-nehen Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic […]

  4. laura krueger Says:

    the meaning of the word IS changing. young girls prefer to be called a slut rather than a bitch. is this better? I don’t know. when I was at highschool, if they started calling you a slut, you could forget it. not one boy would ask you to go out. this has changed, I think. I even found a brand of t-shirts using the word slut, and not in the negative way: http://slutshirt.spreadshirt.com/ is it better? I don’t know. but it IS changing.

  5. ‘Nobody’s nigger’ but somebody’s bitch? | The Feminist Wire Says:

    […] including -nazi, -virgin, -whore and -queen.  Linguist, Arnold Swicky concluded in a recent blog post: I don’t think “a slut is a slut.” It depends on the morphology and the context, and words […]

  6. X porn « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] X slut (link) […]

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