I remember the first time someone called me a slut.
I was 12 years old. It was 7th grade. And I had just completed my usual 7:30am routine in the bathroom mirror.
Partial ponytail affixed to head via fuchsia scrunchie? Check.
Strawberry ChapStick plus Lisa Frank lip gloss? Double Check.
And that day…a fresh coat of Wet ‘N Wild blue eye shadow and mascara from a recent trip to Drug Emporium.
I stepped out of the girl’s bathroom, ready to take on Algebra, when these two guys (one of whom I had the HUGEST crush on) started giggling.
“What?” I asked, attempting display my best “I-don’t-really-care-what-you-think-of-me” attitude.
“You look like a prostitute,” said one of the boys.
I’d never heard that word before, but it didn’t sound very good.
“What’s that mean?” I asked, again with my signature teenage faux nonchalance.
“You know…a slut. A whore.”
I wanted my face to melt off right there. I was shocked that anyone would think of me that way. I’d never even kissed a guy. Hell, I hadn’t even started my period yet (though if you had asked me back then, I would have pretended otherwise).
I rolled my eyes and walked off in a dismissive huff.
But his words stuck with me.
There I was, the epitome of society’s definition of virgin, yet already bearing the cultural shame of being a woman who engaged in a lot of sex. To add even more confusion to the mix, part of me liked being thought of as someone who was sexually precocious. I yearned to doff the “little girl” image, but I also knew I wasn’t quite ready to “go all the way.” All of this because I decided to experiment with a little makeup.
And so the began the split between my innocent self and the one who felt desire.
Fast forward several years later, I still sometimes feel myself yo-yoing between the poles of virgin and the slut. Breaking the bondage of shame is a slow process requiring a lot of compassion. However, freedom is found when we embrace the whole of who we are as women. We can do this by stepping out of the current cultural definitions of these words, and rediscovering the roots of their true meanings.
First let’s look at the word virgin. Most of us think of a virgin as a woman who has never had vaginal intercourse. However, the original Latin meaning of virgin was a woman who was not betrothed, married or bound to any man. Essentially, she was a whole being and sexually autonomous. It was later, when the patriarchal creators of history, religion and culture tried to strip women of their autonomy, that the term came to mean “a woman who was undefiled by sex.” Virgin then became (and still is) a social requirement for a woman to be marriageable and it is up to her father to protect this “virtue” before passing her on, like chattel, to a husband, who then carries the burden of guarding her virtue. At no point within this exchange is a virginal woman erotically free, but must engage with her sex only in relationship to the men around her.
To deter women from losing their patriarchally-defined virgin status, society then created an image of the “dirty” woman with loose morals known as slut. However, the first known use of the word slut was not in reference to women, but to men. In 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish to describe a slovenly man. It didn’t take patriarchy long to refer to women with “slovenly” reputations as sluts but the term’s definition did vacillate for several centuries. Even in the 17th century when Samuel Pepys used slut to describe a young servant girl, it was with affection, not rancor. These days though, slut is used almost exclusively to describe a woman who enjoys sex at her leisure—and if the term does refer to a man, it is almost always accompanied with the descriptive qualifier “male” in front of the word slut.
Going one step further into our inquiry, we can look at the etymology of whore, a term often used as an interchangeable epithet for slut, and find its roots in the Proto-Germanic word “horaz” meaning “one who desires.” But again, in keeping with the ideals of modern patriarchy, to display even the slightest inkling of passion or desire, is to betray the revered ideal of virginal womanhood and thus be branded the pejorative interpretation of slut or whore.
All these words, virgin, slut and whore, in their modern day iterations, present a starkly different range of femininity based in shame. They are not who we are, but shadow aspects born out of oppressive dogma meant to dominate—not to liberate. In freeing the roots of our language, we too, as women, find ourselves freed from the internal split created between these archetypal aspects of ourselves. The virgin and the slut teach us that both our sexual autonomy and desire are not just acceptable, but noble guides on the heroine’s journey. In embracing them not as foils, but as partners, we embrace the totality of all that is “woman” and discover that our erotic feminine essence is not born of original sin, but original wisdom.