Sluts are reappropriating language

June 5, 2011

Sluts are reappropriating language

The many SlutWalk rallies happening around the world this month have raised awareness about the insidious culture of victim-blaming that pervades society’s view of sexual assault.

Along with this important work has been a push to reclaim the word ‘slut’. Reclamation aims to remove the negative connotations of the word and reevaluate its place in our lexicon. Historically ‘slut’ has been used as a judgemental and damaging slur designed to shame women and men who enjoy sex, whether it’s for work or pleasure (or both). Its etymology also points to its past usage as a word meaning ‘dirty’ or ‘slovenly’. SlutWalkers are standing up to say that they’re not ashamed of their sexuality or liking sex, and that being a slut should not invite judgement or violence.

I’m a feminist and a linguist, so this idea of ‘slut’ reclamation is fascinating on both those levels. There’s been much debate online and offline about what it means to call yourself (or others) a slut, and about whether it’s possible to entirely reclaim a word and strip its negative or malicious intent and control.

The process of language reappropriation is one where a word was at one time a pejorative used to malign, control or victimise, is brought into acceptable (or even preferable) usage.

It’s not necessarily a straightforward process, but sluts everywhere should be heartened by the examples of other words successfully reappropriated so far in our social and linguistic history. There are some notable examples of reappropriated words and language in common usage: ‘gay’ was previously considered an insult but is now strongly favoured as the preferred term to describe homosexuality.

In Australia, ‘wog’ began as a racist term during the wave of Southern European immigration in the 50s and 60s. Through the phenomenon of Mediterranean-Australian performing artists taking ownership of the term “wog” its original pejorative nature has been defused, for example the Wog Boy films, the TV series Pizza (more on the ethno-Australian accent to come in a later blog post, methinks!). Similarly, ‘crip’ has been reclaimed by sections of the disabled community.

Let’s look at how exactly this semantic shift occurs. To reappropriate a word or phrase, a deliberate intervention is made into its common or hegemonic (for the cultural studies majors amongst us) usage. This common usage as a word of oppression, hurt or victimisation is challenged and reevaluated. The word may attain a neutral or acceptable connotation and become absorbed into broader cultural use. It may even attain a positive connotation within informed and aware groups.

Language reappropriation usually takes place within the oppressed community affected by the word’s original meaning. Often, use of the word outside that community retains its derogatory meaning. An example of this is the word ‘nigga’ – a still-controversial term reclaimed by parts of the African-American community, which is not generally accepted when it’s used by a person outside that community.

This remind us that we shouldn’t forget our ol’ friend context (as discussed by Lauren in a previous Superlinguo post) which plays a huge part in our linguistic interactions. Word meaning is decoded within a context – how it’s conveyed, by whom, when, where and why all have effects on the intent and receipt of a word.

The SlutWalks happening around the world are working as a deliberate intervention into the way the word ‘slut’ is used. Women and men are working to redefine a ‘slut’ as someone in control of their sexuality, who enjoys sex and who doesn’t invite sexual, physical or emotional violence by virtue of their promiscuity. Superlingo

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