In Conversation
with

David Saunders



David is an artist (also currently a Fine Art student at Hereford College of Arts). His most recent work is about labels, language and context; the 'slut' badge photographed for this issue is part of his piece ‘boxes’. 'Boxes' is an assortment of button badges, some of which might be worn as credentials such as 'artist' or 'vegan', others might reflect a level of self esteem such as 'invisible', others such as foreign, moron, fit, object, hot or lame are conferred by others.
 
We began talking about the word ‘slut’ at college and have continued it for WOJO. I’m interested in his views as a man in a long term relationship and as a father, as well as an artist exploring the way we use words.
 
What does the word ‘slut’ mean for him?
 
Signals and Strategies

Thinking about the way in which it describes a woman’s sexual permissiveness or promiscuity, we began our conversation talking about the difficulties, for a man, in recognising whether or not a woman is attracted to him, and the signals that she might give in relation to her openness and interest in sex or, rather, in being approached for sex.
 
He described the emotional and physical give and take between a man and a woman as a kind of dance.
 
David: I would suggest it's a process by which the man is expected to earn the woman’s permission to proceed with his attentions (flirting or courtship), a process in which the male is proactively 'charming' the female into being receptive, one in which he is obviously looking out for any signalling of permission. That obviously still applies in a relationship - just because you are with somebody doesn't mean that sex with your partner is just 
available. I think men are expected to put some effort into earning the gift of permission but have to rely on a variety of signals to understand when and if there is 'invitation' and if it is being directed at him. It is a minefield of misinterpretations.
 
Celia: So the way a woman dresses might then be understood by a man (and used by a woman) to be part of her signalling strategy – a woman wearing especially revealing clothes might be using them as a shortcut to signpost her availability?
 
David: It might do of course, but I think we need to think about where such assumptions might come from. Prostitution can be understood as a financial proposition where the man pays to disengage from any requirement for 'the dance'. However, despite this emotional distancing men still like to think that the person partnering them in the act of sex thoroughly enjoyed their performance. So logically, to be financially successful, a worker in the sex industry, either in pornography or more traditionally in prostitution, has to signal both their availability and enjoyment of sex. One way that they do this is to dress provocatively. These 'professional' signals, such as revealing clothes, have become erroneously synonymous with availability and enjoyment of sex, demonstrated in cases of rape and sexual assault by such comments as 'they were asking for it'.



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To be financially successful, a worker in the sex industry, either in pornography or more traditionally in prostitution, has to signal both their availability and enjoyment of sex. One way that they do this is to dress provocatively. These 'professional' signals, such as revealing clothes, have become erroneously synonymous with availability and enjoyment of sex, demonstrated in cases of rape and sexual assault by such comments as 'they were asking for it'.


C: But where a short skirt might once, actually, have signalled a desire to be approached, it now means little more than that a woman is confident in, and celebrates, her body and that though she might enjoy being looked at (and want to exert power over, and subvert, the male objectifying gaze) she’s not at all interested in an actual approach. There is no implied invitation to flirt and certainly no suggestion that she’s available, nor that a man won’t have to work just as hard, if not harder, to earn that permission to proceed.
 
Moreover, the only assumptions that can and should be made about the way a woman has chosen to dress is that she has done so without any regard to, or consideration of, the attention of a man. But, it’s hardly straightforward – men’s behaviour is being rightly and increasingly challenged, and the rules of engagement are shifting; women of our generation (and earlier), put up with unwanted male attention that assumed some kind of territorial and physical superiority. The uninvited arm round the shoulder (mostly innocent though sometimes not) is nevertheless on the same spectrum as the bullying emotional or physical expression of power imbalance between the genders that leads to abuse and rape. They’re not the same thing at all but they share underlying assumptions of a hierarchy and a dangerous arrogance that we are still, importantly, dismantling.
 
Women are looking more closely at the behaviour of men, and men are increasingly having to check themselves and their assumptions. This is a good thing – but it can be complex and confusing.


The uninvited arm round the shoulder (mostly innocent though sometimes not) is nevertheless on the same spectrum as the bullying emotional or physical expression of power imbalance between the genders that leads to abuse and rape. They’re not the same thing at all but they share underlying assumptions of a hierarchy and a dangerous arrogance that we are still, importantly, dismantling.

D:  I agree. It is complex and confusing. Maybe it's important then to explore why we dress in a certain ways. We choose clothes that are both situationally appropriate, i.e. to suit the weather, time of day or occasion, and as part of our individual identities. You mention that a confident person might celebrate their body by wearing something that shows it off. When this is not done to invite an ‘approach’ from a potential sexual partner, might it be, for some, personal validation, part of a hierarchical behaviour within a group or a combination of all of these things? Whether consciously or not, undeniably signalling occurs - even if it’s simply because it’s a very hot day it's signalling body confidence. It's about how those signals are read, their interpretation within different contexts and situations and where those signals are being directed?
 
C: The way in which a woman dresses and behaves sexually is not just confusing for men. For women (even post 70s feminism) growing up in a world where to be attractive increasingly conforms to a hypersexualised stereotype it is still possible to be stigmatised by both men and women if you appear too sexual. In relation to sexual behaviour, little seems to have changed since the 50s: In Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation Leora Tanenbaum quotes Shere Hite’s research from the late eighties:
 
When asked ‘If you met a woman you liked and wanted to date, but then found out that she had had sex with ten to twenty men in the preceding year, would you still like her and take her seriously? 65% of men questioned said not.’
 
 
D:  Well we don’t actually know what ‘like’, ‘date’ and ‘seriously’ mean in this context. And we don’t know how a woman might answer the same questions of a man who’d had sex with a similar number of people? And we have no idea how a person seeking a same sex 'liaison' might respond, but I get the point.


Reputation, Commodification and Value


I wonder if in this day and age there is still value placed on ‘virtue’? In less secular days it was deemed a disgrace to conceive outside of marriage so pre-marital sex was discouraged for obvious reasons. With both the diminished risks of an unwanted pregnancy and the decline of the institution of marriage young people are under far less pressure for virtue to be sought in a partner.
 
C: Things are definitely changing for the better but girls growing up today have been told that they can do everything that boys do but then find out that the playing field of sexual equality is a long way from level. A young woman can still gain a bad reputation or lose a good one in relation to her perceived sexual behaviour or appearance.

 
D: My research on words such as 'cunt', 'slut' and similar gender related pejoratives suggests many of these words originated, or at least their meaning and usage changed, following a transitional period in human history: the shift from communal living within a nomadic hunter gatherer group, to life settled in the familial home as part of the agricultural revolution and the possession of land and chattel. This is the root of the patriarchy. Fidelity then became an issue. When women and children became more dependent on one man and not the wider group, it became more important for him to know that he was the father of the children he was providing for.  Promiscuity makes this much harder to know and conventions evolved to curb promiscuity and ensure fidelity - the patriarchal religions and their 'love, honour and obey' marriage ceremonies being an integral part of this.  
 
The risk of gaining a reputation for promiscuity or infidelity was one such control and is a crucial point here, as it still manages to inhibit some women's sexual behaviour. Infidelity is not so difficult to define as it remains a matter of trust within a relationship, but promiscuity is very subjective and hard to quantify.
 
We continue to live and still contend with the echoes of these received wisdoms. 
 
C:  Reputation is significant here especially in relation to an understanding of the legacy of control and to the experience of women.  When I was younger it was still the case that though you were interested in boys and in the experience of sex, and wanted to explore your desires and yearnings, you recognised the terrible unfairness of the situation but understood there was a trade-off – that you’d better hang on to your virginity (and your pretence that you

had no desires and yearnings) for as long as possible, because a good reputation was worth something (it was, and by extension you were, a commodity) that could be traded for a man, or at least for his respect, at some point in the future.
 
How could my generation not rail against such inequality and, for a woman, such implied inferiority? The notion of saving oneself made explicit a gender hierarchy and embedded the second-class status, and commodification, of females.
 
Being with boys was exciting, even if you didn't go all the way and as long as you kept it quiet. The idea of being a bad girl was seductive anyway – it challenged the tyranny of commodification and signalled that you didn't want to conform to the expectations of earlier generations, that you didn't care for such unfair rules and labels and that you were angry with society for so outrageously favouring the boys. For me, and for many of my friends, it was our first encounter with overt and crippling sexism, and it kindled a feminist flame.
 
D: But even being a 'bad' girl was part of a commodification - Madonna's virgin/whore persona being an example.
I think part of the commodification process is our metaphorical packaging and what that packaging says about us - clothes are as much a label as any of the badges I've made.
 
C: So is a woman dressed in a certain way both highly attractive to a man, yet significantly less valued by him?
 
D: No, but 'attractive' in a certain way and similar to the way that the 'bad boy' anti-hero is perversely attractive - why would anybody be attracted to somebody that might love you and leave you?  There is conditioning and emulation at work. I can only speak for myself here, but forty odd years ago, when I was last unattached, it depended on what was being looked for and, then as now, casual encounters were mutually enjoyed for exactly what they were.
 
 C: But what about women who want to be both, and for whom both attraction and value are not defined by, or for, a man? Though the world is changing, it is doing so slowly; in the developed world most women have greater choice over their lives than ever and are no longer considered chattel, but it is only 100 years since property-owning women over 30 got the vote in this country and we still live in a patriarchal society in which women’s rights are a continuing battleground, where rape victims are still not always believed and rapists not always prosecuted.
 
D: People should be free to dress in any way they please and it's imperative that they do so feeling safe from both unwanted attention and physical assault. 
 
Somehow we're all expected to navigate life within a set of unspoken boundaries that we are never taught but somehow meant to be aware of. The reality is that we aren't always free to dress in any way we please. There are as many definitions of what it means to be 'dressed in a certain way' as there are situations where such subjective distinctions are made. It is the situation that defines the boundaries, the accepted ways to be 'attractive'. In many situations 'certain ways' are deemed inappropriate, carrying the implication that it is appropriate for an entirely different situation. To be dressed in a certain way in what is deemed an inappropriate situation is either honest transgression or a case of rebelliousness. Why and how such 'standards' are arrived at is also part of the debate.
 
C: That’s true but it’s important to recognise that the punishment for inappropriate dressing is different for men and women.  I’ve never heard a man’s dress being described as initiating and excusing abuse.  Being told that ‘you were asking for it’ is not the same as getting the dress code wrong.  Neither transgression nor rebelliousness should invite unwanted attention and would probably not if one was a man.  The most important question at root of this is then how significant now is the patriarchy to our understanding of both the word ‘slut’ and more importantly its power to abuse?
 
D: The patriarchy is undoubtedly from where it originates but its abusive power has changed: the word 'slut' is no longer used wholly as deterrent to female sexual enjoyment.
 
Like the word bastard, the word slut has changed usage - it still retains and implies its original meaning but is now used more as a tool of exclusion or to isolate: the person called a slut is not necessarily someone who is being overtly promiscuous.
 
In a survey in the US, psychologists from Brunel University discovered that when women are more financially independent, they also have much more liberal views on promiscuity. But it's not the sexually liberated woman

that is slut shamed. Interestingly the research demonstrated that the female use of the slut bomb was a way of maintaining social status. “she isn’t one of us, we don't like her and she's different.” It was often perpetrated by women who were far more sexually active than the victim of the abuse.
 
Although it is a direct result of the patriarchal control of women's sexuality, recent research does suggest that women might be complicit in slut shaming.
 
When I was a young man, anyone who was happy to have a one night stand or sex on a first date might have been considered in terms of being ‘easy’. This was also unkind, not a reputation anyone would have happily applied to themselves, but  the word slut was rarely used and it isn't word I've come across or heard used outside of TV, film or the media. I do however feel that TV, film, the media and social media are part of the problem - we are creatures that learn so much through emulation.
 
 

 


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When women and children became more dependent on one man and not the wider group, it became more important for him to know that he was the father of the children he was providing for.  Promiscuity makes this much harder to know and conventions evolved to curb promiscuity and ensure fidelity - the patriarchal religions and their 'love, honour and obey' marriage ceremonies being an integral part of this.  
 



I'm concerned by the bullying power of this word and by the increasing numbers of girls and women who are victims of slut-shaming through social media as well as verbally, for whom that abuse can lead to depression and mental health issues. It's such a harsh sounding word - ‘slut’ is percussive, cold; it sounds like a stab, a short sharp attack. Its use doesn't seem to be discouraged in the same way as ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ or words deemed out of bounds like 'nigger'. In our school playgrounds it is used by some of the girls to exclude and in a similar way, some of the boys still use 'gay'.
 
Labels are part of what we do - we choose many for ourselves, have others conferred upon us and, significantly, we confer labels on others.  Many of those that have been historically used to negatively impact have been disempowered. The use of the word slut is unacceptable. Perhaps it can be taken ownership of in the same way as 'gay' and as such re-empowered, but I'm not sure. For now it remains one of the most damaging words in the English language.
     
 
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But it's not the sexually liberated woman that is slut shamed. Interestingly the research demonstrated that the female use of the slut bomb was a way of maintaining social status. “she isn’t one of us, we don't like her and she's different.” It was often perpetrated by women who were far more sexually active than the victim of the abuse.

Woman Beware Woman; Competition and Complicity

So, what do we make of the research David has uncovered? Are women complicit in some way?
 
Leora Tanenbaum again, in Catfight suggests that “femininity and competition go hand in hand.” Women’s roles continue to evolve but there are for all of us (men and women) social expectations to which we conform, and these, for women, include getting an education, a meaningful career, a partner and children (if we so choose). Women statistically still take most responsibility for the care of the children if they have them, and for the home, and whilst keeping a career or a job, make most of the meals. In addition, some also feel the expectation to look fabulous and sexy. There are doubtless exceptions, but where there is expectation there is also judgement, and these roles are something a woman competes to excel or win at, pushing herself to be perfect or, at least, better than other women.
 
 
David and I considered the competition between women and the possibility they might exclude someone who, looking more available or attractive, might be perceived as a threat and then perhaps called a slut or sluttish.  I’m aware of my own hesitance in discussing other women and my feelings of threat: women don’t talk about the competition between themselves very much. Marginalised for such a long time, we view our solidarity as significantly more important, and politically more effective in working towards equality. How we cooperate is thought to be a more pressing subject for discussion. Our friendships (if we are lucky) are deep, mutually appreciative and often lifelong, and we avoid the subject of competitiveness that is implicit in, and created by, a consumerist, materialist and patriarchal society that seems to universally celebrate competition. In fact, the rivalries between women are a stereotype of a male-dominated society (and a literary and media trope) that positions women in opposition to one another and allows for the perpetuation of the patriarchy (dividing to conquer). Talking about that is important if we are to challenge it.
 
Competition between women is least where there is a sense of community and cohesion. Where woman have to be, or perceive themselves to be, more isolated, they are conditioned to believe they have to do, and be, better than other women to ‘get on’. In reality, cooperation is a prerequisite of greater achievement: we all do much better in collaboration and in the understanding that the more you give away (sharing ideas, difficulties and time), the more you get back. It is a psychological given that the more worthless we feel, the more we perceive a need to compete and the more we compete the more we fear losing and the more worthless we feel. Nonetheless women’s competitiveness is 

informed by a conditioned belief that we are valued primarily by both our ability to nurture others and by our success in finding a partner – in the perceived need and desire for male attention, protection and approbation.
 
Women have been taught that our value lies more in the eyes and minds of others than in our own, and understand that there is a value system whose codes and rules we have not created. By competing we are choosing to play within the system and are, in effect, perpetuating both the myth of women as rivals and colluding in our own subordination.



​​​​​​​​​​​The rivalries between women are a stereotype of a male-dominated society (and a literary and media trope) that positions women in opposition to one another and allows for the perpetuation of the patriarchy (dividing to conquer). Talking about that is important if we are to challenge it.
Suppression and Slut Shaming


​ The ways in which women express their competitive behaviour is similarly conditioned by gender expectations. We have been taught that it’s only men who are allowed to be aggressive and open in their behaviour and – valued for kindness and empathy – have learned to express their competitive natures indirectly, sneakily (whilst pretending otherwise) to avoid both conflict and, by giving the impression of gentleness which is a condition of being feminine, negative judgement.
 
As adults, women are supposed to be sisterly, to relate to each other. Feeling angry or hostile towards another can be scary, especially for a woman since the female role is to prize and nurture relationships. [A woman may] not feel entitled to express her anger. So what does she do with it? She either suppresses it or she reroutes it. (Catfight. 64)
 
Many girls master the hidden machinations of indirect aggression. They know that they are supposed to appear good and demure and deferential. (Catfight. 63)
 
In addition, they learn that to be liked and valued they need to conform, to deny those parts of themselves (like competitiveness) that are less attractive.
 
This potent combination, the need to conform to – and present – societal expectations of acceptable and valued behaviours and appearance; to suppress the desire to be both sexually curious and to be the best (the most liked, acceptable and desired) creates a dangerous double standard in relation to both attractiveness and ambition. A toxic environment in which unhealthily covert expressions of feelings and desires develops out of the fear of isolation and punishment. The result is that girls and women, denied the opportunity to behave honestly and wield power openly, use sly and cunning behaviours to operate behind the scenes, hiding real (though often corrupted and conditioned) intentions and creating victims of perceived rivals and threats.
 
Exclusion is one of the most sinister forms of aggression and one of the most popular among young girls. Girls, who aren’t supposed to get into fights (like the boys) instead form hate clubs, shunning some other girl for being different or weird’. (Catfight. 66)
 


Girls, who aren’t supposed to get into fights (like the boys) instead form hate clubs, shunning some other girl for being different or weird’. 

Slut-shaming might be an extreme point on the spectrum of abuse and judgement of women by women, but in a society “where women and girls are still conditioned to believe they are inferior to boys … The most dangerous outcome [of this] is self-hatred: girls and women disparage themselves and disassociate from other females” (Catfight. 47), we should all – not only men – be checking ourselves when we condemn the behaviour and appearance of others. We need to question our motives: are we judging out of fear, in covert competition, or to protect ourselves from a perceived threat? And in so doing, are we consciously or otherwise undermining someone unfairly, acting slyly to express our feelings, and thereby unthinkingly shoring up a patriarchal society that we should be challenging and dismantling for the good of all?
 
Speaking more openly about the competitiveness between women, and admitting to feeling threatened by, and hostile towards another woman, without fear that our own position in the hierarchy of the feminine will be undermined, may be the first step in a necessary unpicking of our social conditioning. It may allow us to value and honestly express our authentic selves as well as celebrate others.
 
David created the slut badge as part of an artwork exploring and challenging the meanings and use of labels. He has given away the badges and ‘slut’ is his gift to me; when I’m wearing it, I not only become part of that artwork (and therefore part of the challenge to the meaning of the word) but it reminds me to resist the easy assumptions, check my own behaviour and be aware that it is not only men who exploit and abuse women and that it is not just women who are feminists, and who want to undermine the patriarchal systems that perpetuate gender inequality.
 
 
 David was talking to Celia Johnson