"I always thought a slut was someone who got with a lot of guys and didn’t really care,” says Sarah*, a College junior, sitting cross–legged on her bedroom floor. “But then, I think about that definition, and that’s what I would be.” 

Yesterday, Sarah learned that she had chlamydia over soy lattes at Starbucks under Commons. Her one–time–after–Smokes–thing accused her of giving it to him. In the moment, she believed him.

It’s about time it was going to fucking happen, Sarah thinks. She often has unprotected sex. He blabs about midterms, or something—she can’t remember. Awkward hug. Awkward goodbye.

A few hours and Fireball shots later, Sarah cries alone in the corner of a Beige Block house party. She thinks everyone is whispering about her. They’re going to call me a dirty slut: that disgusting, infected girl, Sarah remembers thinking. 

“I was so overwhelmingly sad about how I was going to have to tell people and how people were going to view me.” She fiddles with a pen cap in her bedroom, remembering that Saturday night. “I’ve never felt worse about myself.”

But Sarah hasn’t been called a slut by anyone but herself. She practices self–slut–shaming, which means removing the middleman from the condemnation of feminine sexuality.

“It’s about the messages you internalize, even if you don’t say [‘slut’],” says Elyce Helford, Ph.D., committee chair of sexuality studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Traditionally, slut–shaming has been a “mostly heteronormative, patriarchal dumping on women.” Now, in our progressively sexist society, Dr. Helford says, “Part of it is the language and part of it is what you’re carrying around in your head.”

For many at Penn, who exist within a community of elevated cultural privilege, intellect and understanding of hate speech, self–slut–shaming is the new slut–shaming. And unlike traditional slut–shaming, self–slut–shaming isn’t a condition of gender, but a condition of gendered behavior.

***

“You’re not just another cock up my ass,” Mason’s* hookup buddy praises while being anally penetrated. For Mason, a College junior, this remark defines sluttiness for gay men. A slut is a “bottom”: the guy being penetrated. Mason is a “top.” He’s not a slut and he doesn’t like to identify with sluts.

Sitting on a rock at the Biopond, Mason explains, “Bottoms are viewed as more slutty, because, for one, it’s more gay, which is more feminine, or at least not straight male–y. And bottoms have more sex.” He runs his paint–stained hands through his hair, “When a ‘top’ says, ‘Oh I want to fuck someone,’ it just seems like more of a dullard straight frat boy saying it. Whereas when a bottom asks for it, it does seem more feminine.”

Spot the “bottom”: according to Mason, he wears leather pants and skimpy clothing as a “marker of gay sexuality.” Mason immediately has a negative reaction when he meets a guy dressed overtly sexually because, “When you’re dealing with a slut, you’re a lot more wary that you’re just another number.”

If it were a numbers game, Mason would have 48: 48 sexual partners, 90 different sexual encounters. And he’s been a ‘top’ 70% of the time. But even if Mason mostly has one night stands, he vows to remember each guy. He makes sure of that by documenting every single one of his hookups in graphic detail in his “Sexcel” spreadsheet:

March 14th 2014: "Obsessed with LL Bean & sartorialism. lots of blow jobs, really liked neck kissing."

August 2nd 2013: "Fat stem–cell researcher. 7.5 inch penis. Boring in a German Way. Looked like a gentle giant."

August 3rd 2014: "Asian chub. 5 inch penis. Came quicker than an over–eager chivalrous knight to a damsel in distress."

Mason hopes that his partners’ “real personalities shine through” during sex. If not, he claims to sustain friendship with his one night stands. Mason pauses, looking at Bio Pond tree line, “I also don’t really work hard. It just falls in my lap. I think of sex as an icebreaker.”

***

While Mason avoids the “Center Gays,” (people who hang out at the LGBT Center), Roderick Cook, who identifies as queer (using they/them pronouns), is perhaps the most well–known LGBTQIA activist on campus.

Today Roderick wears a blue thermal shirt, Converse sneakers and jeans, but Roderick wants to vocalize their gender fluidity by dressing more feminine. And that means taking on the shame of feminine sexuality. “You can have really good politics in the [feminist] sense and not shame anyone else, but you can still shame yourself.”

Although Roderick Cook doesn’t say “slut,” they feel slutty when they consider last night from another’s perspective. “I’ve definitely felt shamed for engaging in sexual practices based on people’s opinions,” Roderick admits. “People arbitrarily and very inappropriately assign certain sexual acts to certain gender expressions.”

***

By Roderick’s logic, there’s nothing more gendered than girl–on–girl hookups. In a dark frat basement, Megan*, who identifies as queer, kisses another girl.

30 seconds.

A strange man grabs Megan from behind and asks her and her hookup to come upstairs with him. “These people are douches, let’s go to another fraternity,” Megan told the girl, hoping to continue elsewhere.

At another frat, they lock lips to a background of shitty EDM.

30 seconds.

They’re surrounded by applauding men. Threesome? A male fan asks. With that, they leave—not because they want to, because they have to.

Megan hasn’t entered a frat since. “I felt really, really unsafe...It was disgusting and horrible,” she says, clutching a cup of soup at Metro. After that night, Megan vowed to “never ever hookup with someone she was seeing at a party,” she pauses, “Ever.”

Although Megan completely rejects “slut,” as she rejects all gendered terms, her story complicates the role of men in slut discourse. It turns female sexuality, in girl–on–girl form, into a frat bro’s choose–your–own–adventure DFMO.

Megan reasons, “If your identity is sexualized you're less likely to feel comfortable expressing it publicly. If a guy and a girl hook up at a frat party it's just seen as a typical thing that you do. But I could never do that.”

***

John*, a brown–haired senior frat brother, claims that “making out on a dance floor is not a big deal” on the slut spectrum. "It’s really just having sex with a lot of people and hearing about it."

But John claims to have never called anyone a slut. He doesn’t like the label because “Sexual confidence is one of the most attractive things a girl can have.” By that he means, confidence in bed, in speech, in physique. John notes that, “A lot of girls [he] knows have been called sluts when they carry themselves [confidently].”

Yet, in his four years in a fraternity he can only recall “one or two” times he’s heard his brother call a girl “slut.”

“A lot of times where I’ve heard a girl being called a slut is by a girl,” John sits back. “When I’ve heard [slut] from girls, it’s used more as an attack. Like ‘Oh why are you going to hookup with her? She’s a slut.”

While the girl leaving John’s frat before her 10 a.m. class internalizes “slut,” the guy lying in bed “internalizes the accomplishment.” He thinks he did a “good job,” says John.

He laughs, “The funny thing is [slut] is a really pervasive word in just about everything we do, but I don’t actually hear [the word] that much.”

***

Although a certain frat recently terminated their tradition of giving women who’ve slept with four brothers a set of steak knives, we’re a long way from figuring out what do with the “slut” that cuts from within.

Emily Lindin, a Harvard Graduate and founder of the UnSlut Project, which aims to end slut–shaming and sexual bullying, states that, “Internalizing your reputation as a slut informs your everyday actions and the decisions you make and the ability to get out of situations that might be dangerous.”

She explains, “When you’re a slut, there’s no such thing as sexual assault.”

Before she was raped, Kaila*, a College junior, drank a lot and had a lot of sex to “try and prove [her] worth to a guy.” Now, post–rape, she classifies that behavior as “slutty”. “I’m not trying to insult myself by saying I was slutty,” Kaila clarifies. “I mean [slutty] like I needed help.”

Kaila says she can no longer have sex for this reason because she was raped. “Since then I’ve had a very hard time having sex with someone I really care about.”

“I honestly don’t blame myself...Someone did something extremely hurtful to me...I didn’t feel sluttier because of what happened to me,” Kaila says, reflecting on the assault.

“I didn’t even think of a number before. They were just people. Now everyone is adding, just adding to my number.” Kaila stammers, “I don’t want to get to a number where I would even define myself as a slut. I’ve already used up my numbers.”

Emily Lindin understands the threat of defining yourself as a slut. She defined herself as a slut. “In a culture where you’re taught your 'purity' equals your self-worth as a person, you can easily be convinced that you are then worthless if you don’t have this purity,” she says.

Sexuality experts like Dr. Jess of Playboy’s SWING TV, Astroglide’s Resident Sexologist, and the author of "The New Sex Bible" suggests we reclaim “slut.” And frame the word as an “important component of sexual self–expression.”

***

But even the most powerful campus activists are skeptical about reclaiming “slut.” Slut-Walk, a national movement aimed at ending sexual violence, was renamed “March to End Rape Culture” in March of last year. Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) President Joanna Kamhi is enthusiastic about the SlutWalk’s G–rated makeover, “It no longer operates under the assumption that all women identify with, or want to reclaim, ‘Slut.’”

For Emily Lindin, a veteran of self–slut–shaming, “slut” is too “ugly” and too “powerful” to be reclaimed. But the word needs to go somewhere. So the question remains: what do we do with the “slut” inside?


*Names have been changed.

Alexandra Sternlicht is a junior studying english and creative writing from Cambridge, MA. She is the current Features editor and a former Highbrow editor for 34th Street Magazine.


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