Why I Won’t Answer You When You Ask If Something Looks “Slutty”

by Erin L. Cody

It’s a tale as old as time.  Woman (or, unfortunately, increasingly younger girl) buys clothing.  Woman tries it on.  Woman asks her significant other/friend/roommate/self – “does this look slutty?”  The collective feminist world bangs its head against a wall.

I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count.  The choice of words may differ – “slut,” “whore,” “trash,” “like I’m asking for it,” “DTF” (thank you Jersey Shore), or “selling my wares” (horrible not just for the slut-shaming but for the implications of human beings as commodities to be bought and sold, and the bonus shaming of women who are sex workers) – but the message is always the same.  My answer is always the same as well – that “slut” is a social construct designed to control women by shaming their sexuality, so I can’t answer as to whether something is “slutty” because “slutty” just doesn’t exist.  When women ask if something makes them look “slutty,” what they’re really saying is “Please police my clothing and contribute to the normalization of slut-shaming, body-shaming, and general attitudes of entitlement to judge women that both genders have come to accept as acceptable behavior.”  To quote Meghan Trainor – NO.

First off, there’s not even a definition as to what constitutes “slutty” clothing, “slutty” behavior, or “slutty” anything else.  This is because a “slut” is not something that actually exists in our society.  It is, as stated above, a social construct designed to control women by shaming their sexuality.  A “slut” is as imaginary as Santa Claus, unicorns, or fire-breathing dragons.  There is simply no such thing.

At this point you’re probably thinking about all of the “sluts” that you know, or all of the “slutty” images you’ve seen in advertising and on television.  But if you took your “slut” list and compared it to those of 10 other randomly chosen individuals, you won’t find a whole lot of common ground.  Why?  Because what constitutes a “slut” is wholly in the eye of the beholder.  A skirt hem that rests more than three finger-widths above the knees might be beautiful to one person but “slutty” to another.  Even if two people happen to agree on a three-finger-width rule for “sluthood,” their fingers are not even going to be the same size, rendering their respective concepts of “slutty” different.  A dress with spaghetti straps might be just fine for a high-school graduation from a mainstream private institution, but show up in the Bible Belt wearing that same dress and you’re going to get some arched eyebrows of “slut” judgment.  Even within that same mainstream private institution, a dress with a strapless neckline might be textbook “slut,” but add two tiny spaghetti straps to the same dress and all of the sudden it’s A-okay.

Maybe your concept of “slut” has less to do with clothing and more to do with behavior.  That’s even murkier territory.  Is there a set number of sexual partners that establishes a bright‑line “slut” territory?  Is there a concrete list of specific sex acts that earn you a one-way ticket to “slutville”?  Is it more of a DMV-style points-system, where minor offenses can be forgiven by evidence of some anti-“slut” education, but if you accumulate too many “slutty” activities in a certain time period your “non-slut” license is suspended?

See where I’m going with this?

A concept so amorphous as “slut” can’t exist logically, because it’s not a concept that can be defined.  Simply put, no two people are ever going to have the same definition of what does and does not constitute “sluttiness.”  Even if they could, what would be the point in establishing this set of rules by which only women have to follow?  Even if “sluts” existed, why is it so bad to be one?

The answer that the creators of the social construct want you to believe is “because “sluts” are evil degenerates that will ruin our society.”  That is just absurd.  When you run into someone on the street, chances are that you have no earthly idea how many partners they’ve had or what they have or have not done with either of them.  Even if you did, the answers to those questions cannot physically harm you.  Your eyes are not going to burn out of your head if you see a hemline or neckline that may violate your personal definition of “too high” or “too low.”  There is not some magical “slut wave” of energy that will knock the life out of you if you pass someone on the street who has more sex than you have.  Your kids’ teachers’ abilities to instruct on math, science, language, history, and literally any other topic are not going to be affected by what they choose to do in the privacy of their own homes, or who they choose to do it with.  Even if there were any guidance at all as to what a “slut” is, the simple truth is that “sluts” can’t hurt you.  (If you’re thinking about STDs right now, you’re right that those can hurt you, but the only way to avoid them is to stay a virgin, which logically would render all non-virgins as “sluts.”  Again, absurd.)

Enter the perpetrators of the social construct of “slut.”  They want women to feel self‑conscious about what we wear so that they can control our wardrobe and our body shape.  They want women to establish arbitrary numbers of how many partners they’re allowed to have in a given time period so that they can control our sex lives.  They want to impose arbitrary and capricious standards on women because they want to control us.  Control gives them a sense of power, and they take sick pleasure in that.  Every time we act like “slut” is a thing that exists, we feed their power and give them more control.  Enough is enough.

So no, regardless of how many times you ask me if something looks “slutty,” I’m not going to answer you.  When I say “slut isn’t something that exists so it’s impossible for something to look ‘slutty,’” and you respond “you know what I mean, just tell me if it looks trashy,” I’m going to say the same thing.  When you get clearly irritated and say “just tell me if it’s appropriate or not,” I might ask whether the occasion is black-tie or semi-formal, or if you think you’ll be too warm or too cold in your selected attire, but that’s because those things exist and can be measured.  There’s general agreement that wearing a wool sweater to an outdoor event on a 90‑degree day isn’t “appropriate” because you’ll sweat your face off.  Whether that same sweater is “slutty” is not a question that we should be asking, or answering, because “slutty” only means “controlling women by shaming their sexuality.”  The majority of us can agree that trying to control women by any means is not okay.

Erin is an unapologetic feminist who regularly annoys her friends by refusing to answer the question of whether their outfits look “slutty.”

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