Gender Focus Panel: On Reclaiming Negative Words

by | July 25, 2012
filed under Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture

I was reading one of my favourite blogs, GOOD, the other day and there was an article on “How to Reclaim a Dirty Name”, which particularly focused on the word “slut”. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

Following the brouhaha in February when Rush Limbaugh called university student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ for arguing before Congress in favor of a private mandate for contraception coverage, a handful of campaigns have sprung up leveraging the epithet to further their cause. It’s breathing new life into the decades-long feminist movement to repurpose the word ‘slut’ from a shaming slur into a symbol of sexual choice.

The article listed five steps for reclaiming a negative term (say it first, brace for backlash, embrace the stigma, make it mainstream, take action), implying that it’s possible to reclaim any word no matter its history or how degrading it has come to be. Now reclaiming the word “slut” has been hotly contested by feminists, which the article does acknowledge, and I admit I understand both sides of that particular argument. On the other hand, I would argue that a term like “queer” is an example of successful work reclamation. So I wondered what others thought: is it possible to reclaim any dirty/negative/stigmatized word we want? Are there cases where it’s okay but only if guidelines for use are observed?

Here’s what some Gender Focus contributors had to say:

Josey Ross:

I am not a fan of word reclamation. I don’t think it works, and even if it did, I still wouldn’t like it. Yes, yes, I know we can all point to the essentially successful reclamation of queer, but it can still sting when said with enough venom behind it. And for every “queer” there are, well, all the rest of the epithets. I will only speak to ones I have had hurled against me: cunt, bitch and slut. These are three of the most vile, hateful, dangerous words in the English language. They carry with them not only the full force of sex-negativity, misogyny and rape culture, but a palpable threat of violence. Even reading the words makes me a little nauseous, a little on-edge. Having them thrown at me with rage is terrifying. I see no good in reclaiming them.

I don’t think reclamation works for two reasons. The first is that these words, when used hatefully, still hurt. Deciding to call myself a slut because I don’t generally practice monogamy doesn’t make it less hateful or hurtful when it’s hurled at me by an angry man. Deciding to call myself a cunt, for reasons I honestly cannot fathom, would not make me feel any safer when I hear the absolute hatred of women that comes with it when spoken in anger from a man. Calling myself a bitch because I am confident, do what needs to be done and call people out on their shit doesn’t mean the next person who hurls it at me agrees on my definition. These words are meant to hurt and they succeed.

The second is that there is nothing to reclaim. We didn’t own these words in the first place. Their original and sole intent (in their current incarnations) was to degrade women. I don’t see any goodness in “slut”, a word used solely to shame a woman who fucks who she wants to fuck (or, doesn’t fuck the person wanting to be fucked). Why would I want to apply this to me? It’s a word meant to hurt, to shame, to do violence to. I say keep the words, I don’t want them. What I am interested in, however, is shaming those who use them hatefully. Call out people who use hateful words. Shame them for being hateful and ignorant. It’s the only way these words will die.

Chanel Dubofsky:

I’m kind of obsessed with de-stigmatizing the word “radical.” (As in, these nuns are so radical.) It’s fascinating and troubling to me that it’s used as a weapon; it’s so bold and and often willfully ignorant. When people call me radical, they usually mean crazy, when I call myself radical, I mean I seek to address the absence of justice by looking deeply at the problem, at the root causes. That’s the part people probably associate with the crazy, though, because it’s terrifying to think about how much we depend on and buy into problematic and destructive structures.

In terms of reclamation, radical is a word that I’ve never associated with being dirty, but I do recognize when people are seeing it as dirty, or using it to be derivative or cruel. It’s like when people use the word socialist to describe Obama, when they clearly don’t understand what it means. It’s not a bad word, it’s a powerful word. I think it’s important to deconstruct for people, but also important to be aware of whether or not they’re actually prepared to hear you or if they’ve already made up their minds.There’s a lot of be said for showing yourself as the face of someone who identifies with the word in question, as opposed to allowing it to exist as a concept with not flesh or blood or real people behind it.

I think there are some words that are so triggering, so hateful, so loaded with inenendo and history, that they can’t be redeemed. I also see the power in reaching down to lift up words that have been employed to disempower, but still, I struggle with even being able to say certain words (slut, for example). For me, there’s a deep tension between rescuing words and wanting to move past them and create new language.

Jasmine Peterson:

I’m rather ambivalent about the reappropriation of derogatory or denigrating words in any circumstance, but I am particularly hesitant when it comes to the word “slut”. I’m reticent to even make the attempt to reclaim this word for several reasons. For one, I don’t want to claim this word. It’s been used as a tool of oppression, a means of controlling female sexuality, and I don’t want any part of it. I understand that for some the attempt at reclamation is about reclaiming the power of the word, and turning it into something positive, but I’ve not seen this be overly successful thus far with the word “slut” (or with most attempts at reappropriation).And I think there is good reason for that – the term has a very clear history of demeaning women for their sexual choices and so to use it, even in the attempt to reappropriate it and use it to indicate the liberation of female sexuality, it still manages to reinforce that engrained discourse of female sexuality as something that needs to be controlled.

On the other hand, I can understand the desire to take claim of the word, to own it, and to make it something positive. I’ve been called a slut a number of times in my life – sometimes for being sexual, and other times simply for being attractive, female, or noncompliant. As a sex positivist, I find the attempt to control women, and female sexuality in particular, through denigrating women who are in control of their sexuality, to be unceasingly irksome.

I’ve recently become single, and my sexual behaviours have elicited the term “slut” a number of times in the past few months. In our conversations, my close friends and I have referred to my encounters as “slutty” as well because within that context there is safety and we can use the term as a form of resistance. The thing about it, though, is that I wouldn’t necessarily do this with anyone other than some of my close friends, because in using it in everyday situations, the meaning is often reinforced rather than challenged, and it isn’t always conveyed that the point is reclamation. Essentially, I think the attempt to reclaim or reappropriate “slut” will be largely unsuccessful, and I don’t know that we need to reclaim it in resisting slut shaming and moving toward a more sex positive future.

(photo by Alan Denney via Wikimedia Commons)

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