Implied misogyny in cultural discourse

What language reveals about our perception of female sexuality
Slut walks, pictured here, aim to reclaim the word
Slut walks, pictured here, aim to reclaim the word "slut." DAN SELJAK/THE VARSITY

For better or for worse, Miley Cyrus’ controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance has caused more of a media frenzy than the impending attack on Syria. A powerful Jezebel article labels the spectacle as “easily one of the most racist displays” in recent years, and not without good reason; since that fateful Sunday, the word “racist” has haunted Cyrus — so too has the word “slut.”

The very existence of that term tells us volumes about the history of female sexuality; as Marcellus senses that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” the feminist cannot help but suspect that something is wrong with the word “slut.”  It is a loaded word — fundamentally problematic because it has no male equivalent.  A man who accumulates multiple sex partners is forgiven, understood, even envied.  A woman who does likewise is shamed.

In our post-Sex and the City world, it might seem that women are sexually liberated.  Yet as society evolves, the term “slut” has continued to thrive in our cultural discourse.  There is still a sense that sexually adventurous women are morally inferior to those with more discretion.

From the very existence of the word “slut,” we can infer that sexuality is perceived as a sphere which rightfully belongs to men.  At its most basic level, the word is a synonym for “transgressor,” as it is applied to women who have encroached on the male privilege of sexual enjoyment.

We have no word that celebrates exploration of female sexuality, no simple linguistic tool to express that women also enjoy sex.  The idea that women are sexual beings is not acknowledged in our discourse because that notion has historically made men uncomfortable.

In a recent Elite Daily article, Preston Waters asserts that men want to marry “a lady who has respect for herself, morals — and there isn’t one guy out there that can have a bad story to tell about her — like the time she had a threesome in a London hostel while studying abroad.”

Waters imagines, like Homer’s Odysseus, that a man has the right to own his wife exclusively.  Odysseus sleeps with countless women, but rages at the idea that his abandoned wife Penelope might have sex with even one of her suitors.  Like Odysseus, men have traditionally wanted to be patriarchal rulers of the domestic sphere.

It is not that most modern men view themselves as superior to women.  Rather, the cultural tradition of male ownership, engrained in our societal consciousness, has prevented us from developing a discursive model that encompasses female sexuality as an autonomous concept.

The sexual woman simply does not fit into the narrative of male ownership.  Women cannot be allowed to enjoy sex like men do, because men know that sexuality is an untameable desire.  We construct the image of the asexual woman because men are uncomfortable with the notion that the women in their lives — wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters — are sexually attracted to other men.  A man can own the virgin, but not the slut.  Therefore, he praises the virtuous woman, and denounces the experienced one.

Feminism must wage war against the cultural and discursive conventions that allow misogyny to thrive, often subtly.  In Orwell’s 1984, Syme says, “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”  Those who endorse freedom of speech and thought cannot agree with Syme’s statement.  We cannot destroy the word “slut.” It is too deeply engrained in our cultural discourse.  Rather, we must find beauty in the creation of words; words that empower women to talk about female sexuality in terms that have not been constructed by men.


Devyn Noonan is a third year English student at Trinity College.

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