Playing the Strumpet

“What does it say about the college co-ed [Sandra] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” -Rush Limbaugh, referring to a Georgetown Law School student who was denied the right to speak at a congressional hearing on contraception, in which she planned to discuss a friend of hers who needed contraception to prevent the growth of cysts, February 29, 2012 

Recall the recent ignominy in which famous right wing opinion leader, Rush Limbaugh, branded Georgetown Law student, Sandra Fluke, with those four salacious letters—
s-l-u-t.  Limbaugh is infamous for blowing incendiary insults at others, but I think even he may have gotten burned on this one.  First appalled by the audacity, and then intrigued by the nation’s response, the recent debacle got me thinking about the ways in which female sexuality is often perverted by societal norms and expectations.

Slut: first appeared in Middle English in 1402 as Slutte meaning ‘a dirty, untidy or slovenly woman’.  Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish (c. 1386) to describe a slovenly man.  The modern sense of ‘a sexually promiscuous woman’ dates to at least 1450 (Wikipedia).

Americans consider themselves bastions of freedom and democracy, especially when it comes to women’s rights.  We lampoon other countries for how they marginalize their women.  While we do enjoy a great many freedoms, our liberty ‘on the books’ may lead to overlooking some cultural obstacles deeply embedded in our understanding of ourselves.   I often think there is not a soul more sexually repressed than a young, American woman.  She gets two choices:  white or black lace, angel or devil (think Victoria’s Secret).  She pronounces her sexuality with her unpinnings like secrets waiting to be revealed, realized and actualized by someone else.

Furthermore, she internalizes the sin of being alive.  I am still struck by how many stories we tell about ourselves in the form of film, music, literature, photography and so forth that continue to perpetuate the absurd notion that woman should be coy, submissive, hard-to-get.  Meanwhile, man is applauded as ‘player’ while woman wears the scarlet letter, S, for slut when she makes the brazen decision to choose her own sexual partner(s).  Even Jane Eyre’s prim Victorian ladies were branded as lascivious individuals when they found themselves unfit for the traditional patriarchical rigidities and norms of their time.

I have tried to find the evolutionary reasons for this bias, but it always leads me back to puzzlement.  I find that it is the mind—seeped in cultural norms of fidelity and purity—that tells the body what to want.  Contrary to arguments that propose women are more evolutionarily inclined to be monogamous than men, some research has shown that “women-far from being naturally monogamous-are, like men, naturally promiscuous.  Biologists believe that women are genetically programmed to have sex with several different men in order to increase the chances of healthy children with the greatest likelihood of survival” (Browne).

The particular response from Limbaugh toward Fluke–and the reaction it roused from the nation–further illustrates the biases we continue to implement through our laws, institutions, cultural representations and most importantly, speech.  As a society, we place meaning in these charged words and then culturally turn them inside out, as slang terms of endearment for those we perceive “like us.”  Perhaps it is done in an attempt to usurp the negative connotation of the word, but it may only draw up categorical lines in the sand to say ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’  Woman vs. Man.  Homosexual vs. Heterosexual.  Black vs. White.

I was lost in a valley of pleasure.
I was lost in the infinite sea.
I was lost, and measure for measure, 
love spewed from the heart of me.
I was lost, and the cost, 
and the cost didn’t matter to me.
I was lost, and the cost
was to be outside society.
Patti Smith

You can also listen to NPR’s recent segment on the definition of the word.

References:

Wikipedia, “Slut.” Last modified March 25, 2012. Accessed March 26, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slut.

Browne, Anthony. The Guardian, “Women are promiscuous, naturally.” Last modified September 02, 2000. Accessed March 20, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/sep/03/anthonybrowne.theobserver.

The featured image is meant to poke fun at the use of the word, ‘slut,’ to define morality and sexuality.  It is meant to incite the same passion that the use of that word invokes.  In no way do I mean to suggest that men are in some way less moral than women, or that morality must be tied with sexuality.

Sarah Inman

Sarah is a Georgetown CCT student and assistant managing editor for gnovis. She comes from Louisiana where she studied Political Science, wrote for a local newspaper, and ran from hurricanes. She is interested in exploring the invisible and forgotten--from infrastructures to human beings. Her writings aspire to raise questions about technology's role in politics, identity, and international development. When she's not studying, writing or talking to all of you, she likes to brew beer, laugh at improv comedy, dream about living in the Wind River Mountain Ranges, and go to live shows.