Celia Johnson

Features Editor

Sluts and Good Girls; Celebrating The Trollop

I discovered kissing when I was 11.
There was a boy called Andrew whose round, apple-cheeked face, and rounder bottom, I rather admired, and a train ride to London for a school trip; we snogged under his anorak for most of the journey and oh, the joy of it: that first snog, all pleasure and longing under a mucky, khaki-coloured, waterproof tent of discovery.
In Still Life with Woodpecker Tom Robbins writes that, ‘kissing is man’s greatest invention, the glory of the human species, [delivering] cascading pangs of immediate physical and emotional pleasure.’ He also says, ‘All animals copulate but only humans osculate.’ Without doubt, aged 11, it was glory I heard osculating.

The snog is the pinnacle of kissing – passionate and powerful, it unravels and unfetters; it is all joy and all desire.

I hated Madame Tussaud’s, and I wasn’t very fond of the Planetarium; they were distractions, mere simulacra compared to something mind-blowingly real and completely revolutionary. I couldn’t wait for the journey back: what is snogging other than the opportunity to dive, mouth first, into someone else, to feel your edges and your boundaries melt, to be submerged? The snog is the pinnacle of kissing – passionate and powerful, it unravels and unfetters; it is all joy and all desire (for things that I – at such a tender age – could not understand, but for which I nevertheless, longed).
By the time I got home my mum was waiting for me; stony-faced on the sofa. I was left in no doubt as to what I was: unacceptable and shameful. I never thought to ask who told her, but somewhere between the coach getting back to school, and home – all of ten minutes distance, I’d been judged, condemned and grassed up.
Not long after that I was sent to a convent school. I suppose that, faced with such signs of early sexual interest in one so red-headed – itself a powerful sign of the transgressive,  extreme measures were justified. I didn’t mind, I loved school and it is easy to be good where there is an absence of temptation; my badness went underground. But the damage was done and the seeds of shame planted; where once there had only been kissing – albeit a possible gateway intoxicant – now (more dangerously) secrets and lies were sprouting in fertile but innocent soil. And, in an all girl’s school, I didn’t get a chance to learn better than to hide my unacceptable precocity. The next time I kissed a boy, I made sure there was nobody around to snitch on me; I told no one and if anyone asked, I lied.
Pleasure and authenticity
In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes that ‘those unacceptable parts of the self do not just lie there in the dark, but rather conspire about how and when they shall make a break for freedom.’ She says ‘that which is suppressed starts to inhabit a shadow realm,’ and that, ‘when a woman pretends to press her life down into a nice tidy package [she springloads] all her vital energy down into shadow’. Unsurprisingly, that energy begins to sneak out, often problematically.
Naming pleasure as bad is an act of control and it’s hardly rocket science to suggest that denial of pleasure simply suppresses it, encouraging it to explode and become excessive.
When I was still a teenager I felt guilty and preoccupied by the need to appear good lest I be judged and punished. Appearances became more important than authenticity and I conformed outwardly – polite, obedient – while I planned my escape. Now I just feel sad that it took far too long for me to embrace that side of myself that I consider healthy, honest and vital. I feel very sorry for my 11-year old self and I’m angry that society still seems to make distinctions between the sexual behaviour of men and women, still judging women (and girls) quite differently and far more harshly for the expression of sexual interest and pleasure.

When a woman’s instinct has been damaged her ‘usual boundaries of insight and protection have been disturbed. Her natural instincts to fight or flee are slowed or extincted [sic]. Recognition of the sensations of satiation, of taste, suspicion, caution and the drive to love fully and freely are inhibited or exaggerated.’

In order to be a good girl or woman, where good is neither a spiritual nor a moral quality but, rather, means 'well behaved', and conform to ways that are ‘appropriate to society and to their families without understanding why, young girls often have their freer and more authentic natures suppressed and controlled. The greater the control then the greater will be their urge to transgress.’ Pinkola Estes refers to this type of control as soul capture and overdomestication (of our instinctive wild natures):
To be overdomesticated, captured and starved by the suppression of one’s instincts by societal expectation, by the need to be proper, a woman becomes relentlessly hungry. She may look cleaned up on the outside [but] she will take any food regardless of its condition and effect.
Too much domestication breeds out strong and basic impulses to play, relate, cope, rove, commune. ‘…’ It is play, not properness, that is the central artery, the brain stem of creative life. No play, no creative life. Be good, no creative life.
When a woman’s instinct has been damaged her ‘usual boundaries of insight and protection have been disturbed. Her natural instincts to fight or flee are slowed or extincted [sic]. Recognition of the sensations of satiation, of taste, suspicion, caution and the drive to love fully and freely are inhibited or exaggerated.’
Sluts and unacceptable sexual behaviour
But it’s a very complicated issue – there are good sluts and bad sluts, and the word ‘slut’ is still a powerful weapon to control and censure the behaviour of women, especially young women. ‘Slut’ is defined (by the online OED) as either an unacceptably sexual woman or a messy one but still, I feel a strong allegiance to a tribe of messy, untidy, strong and sexual women who sound interesting and confident, unconfined by societal mores that suppress their sexuality and natural instincts.
Despite movements like SlutWalks protesting the negative labelling and judging of women based on inappropriate assumptions about sexual behaviour and appearance, and the broadening of feminism to include and explore the layers of oppression that result from gender, race and class (working to eradicate gender stereotyping and celebrate sex positivism), young women are increasingly excluded, bullied and shunned by being named ‘sluts’. Often, it has nothing to do with sexual behaviour. Sometimes it’s used against girls who develop early or are outsiders, or are targets for revenge. Sometimes it’s used against girls who’ve been raped, and too often girls are being driven to commit suicide as a result of slut-shaming.
So, why is it still such a powerfully harmful descriptor, and what’s wrong with being a slut anyway? How can sexual behaviour be unacceptable and, to whom?
Surely sexual behaviour is only unacceptable where it is exploitative – where it’s non-consensual, involves children, is bullying or aggressive, or where it’s informed, like adultery, by deceit and betrayal, and causes pain. But we use other words for those behaviours: a slut is not a rapist, a paedophile or always an adulterer, nor is the word synonymous with victim (though she may be, or may have been one).
And we use other words to describe a slut: a speedy google search for synonyms includes: promiscuous woman; whore; slattern; floozie, bike, pro, ho; scrubber, slag, slapper; tart, scarlet woman, loose woman, hussy, woman of ill repute, streetwalker, trollop; harlot, strumpet, wanton, drab, doxy.
As a list it seems ridiculous, outdated, even funny – a kind of poem or lyric, undermining the terrible impact that the word can have. Though some of the words in the list sound equally harsh, the list itself seems innocuous. But, even as it neuters individual words, it reminds us that the power of ‘slut’ to hurt and oppress reflects the power relationship between the giver and the receiver of it, between the wielder and the wounded; it is nothing without an antagonist.
Where there is no power imbalance, words like slut lose agency: I have been affectionately called a floozie and a strumpet and, in a positive and light-hearted context, and in my fifties, I have chosen to take it to mean sexually attractive, and have enjoyed the humour. It was only as a much younger woman, when to be called a slut signified a lack of intelligence and seriousness, that I would have cared; looking like a slut seemed then to be as much about class and education as about desire and the body.
Sexual attraction and ambiguity
In the wake, and current wave, of feminism, women should no longer be worried that looking sexually attractive means signalling either sexual availability or stupidity. Looking and feeling attractive does not mean that a woman is for the taking, or wants to be objectified or commodified, even in an image-saturated society where women in the media seem to be increasingly sexualised or infantilised (or a nasty combination of both), and where the aesthetics of pornography have leaked into the mainstream. The phenomenon by which aging women become sexually invisible, and cease to be desired, informs women’s choices to look, unsurprisingly, sexually attractive for longer. Clothes that, inspired by pornography and the burlesque, might once have been called sluttish and vulgar are now coveted. They confer sexual currency, accessibility and youth – attributes that are now deemed more attractive in a woman than seriousness or knowledge.
How confusing then that when increasing numbers of women are quite happy to look  like one (in the office as well as the bedroom), ‘slut’ is still a derogatory and problematic word.
And while my own experience of the word and its meanings is predicated on my age, colour and education, which affords me some immunity to outside judgement and allows me a degree of insouciance, I’d feel very differently if the word were being used by someone with greater power than me, to intimidate or exclude me; to bully or harass me.
In I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet Leora Tanenbaum writes that, ‘Most of the time, it’s the worst insult you can call a woman, signifying that she should feel ashamed of herself for her supposed promiscuity. On the other hand a woman may embrace the term to prove a feminist point that she is confidently, unapologetically sexual.’ She quotes Jessica Ringrose, a gender sociologist: ‘Slut is ambiguous because it holds the connotation of being known, sexy and desirable but also excessive, dirty and wrong.’ It’s in this way that you can be a ‘good slut’ or a ‘bad slut’ and, if it’s confusing for a woman of my age, how can those of school and college age navigate its multiple meanings and brush away its negativity.
Why shaming?
Underpinned by fear, either of men that their babies are not their own, or of women conditioned to compete for, and to keep, male attention and approbation, slut-shaming is an effective method of excluding and isolating a woman perceived as threatening or rampantly sexual.

‘Slut’ is foremost a judgement of a woman’s morality and, as Angela Carter writes in Wayward Girls and Wicked Women ‘on the whole, morality as regards woman has nothing to do with ethics, it means sexual morality and nothing but sexual morality. To be a wayward girl usually has something to do with pre-marital sex; to be a wicked woman has something to do with adultery.’
Tanenbaum quotes Frances Smith Foster (a scholar of African American literature), who writes that women ‘traditionally have been defined in sexual terms [because] they alone have a capacity for reproduction and their virtue and value have more often than not been determined by the manner in which it is used.’
So, is it possible for a woman to cheat and lie, steal, be cruel and unkind; be intolerant, unfair, proud and abusive, just as long as she doesn’t appear to enjoy sex or her own sexuality? Whose business is it anyway what she does with her body and what on earth is so bad about consensual physical love or lust? Don’t we, as a society, have far more worrying things to think about? This disproportionate fear and loathing of a sexually unsuppressed woman suggests nothing more than her power to disturb; an unfettered woman challenging the status quo is only problematic where the status quo is rigid and controlling. And that’s the sort of status quo we should all be challenging.
Bad housekeeping
And, before we forget the original meaning of slut as messy, it’s important to reflect that there may be significant advantages to embracing not only a slut’s lack of domestication in regard to her instinctive nature but also in regard to her housekeeping.
Kathleen D Vohs, a scientist and author of a piece in the New York Times entitled It’s Not Mess, it’s Creativity, wrote that ‘while we have always associated clean spaces with moral righteousness, recent research (published in the journal of Psychological Science) suggests that messy and disorderly environments encourage creativity and an ability to break with convention and challenge the status quo.’ In addition, an article in the Independent in 2017 quoted researchers from the University of Minnesota who found that “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights”; messy desks, apparently, rather than implying the opposite, suggest an ordered mind; having stuff around you is interesting, it inspires activity.
Perhaps then we all have to learn to give ourselves a break and to undemonise that part of ourselves that needs to play with our children, make love to our partners, read or write a book, paint a picture and go out on the town before doing the washing up and the laundry.
Simply put, less tidying means more time, and if that means embracing an inner slut, I’m all for it. Not only that – less tidying is a challenge to the entrenched and embedded order designed to oppress women and maintain the status quo. We have to quieten the internalised voice of restriction and learn that, although we’ve inherited the belief that women are affirmed only when they nurture and support others, it’s actually of benefit when we please ourselves: it teaches our children to work out what’s important to them and gives our friends a precedent for a more creative reality. Tidying is political, to do less is a protest, a taking back of control and an opportunity to subvert outdated and oppressive behaviours. So grab it and embrace your inner trollop. Passionately. 

​​We have to quieten the internalised voice of restriction and learn that, although we’ve inherited the belief that women are affirmed only when they nurture and support others, it’s actually of benefit when we please ourselves.
Celebrate the slut
Rather than shaming the slut and giving harmful power to the word, we should be celebrating the sluttishness within as a living and vital vestige of our wild, undomesticated natures and a reminder to meet our own desires (not only sexual) and reconnect with our instincts (even where that means meeting our fears); we should rethink the word to remind us to resist domestication and capture. A little slut nurture goes a long way to recover authenticity and to undermine controlling ideas of good and bad that are imposed by society, unhealthy relationships and expectations that would ‘dull our perceptions about the emotional, rational, physical boundaries needed for survival’ (Clarissa Pinkola Estes).
Words shift and morph in response to changes in their use and context, so – surely – it’s possible to intentionally move the meaning of slut so that it celebrates sexuality and positive body image, describing healthy and authentic relationships and resistance to all forms of oppression (sexual or otherwise and for all genders). The list of synonyms for slut might then possibly include: tolerant, fearless, creative, politically active, liberated, feminist, sex positive; and its power might become positive and affirmative. Not only should we do this for ourselves but, more importantly, for the generations of younger woman who are, despite feminism, still mired in the competing pressures to be both sexually attractive and yet not too sexually active, and for whom, sexual behaviour aside, the word slut can cause irreparable harm.
In the following conversations, I speak to …


Her clothes appropriate from the burlesque (as well as from the fairy story) but subvert the notion of the slut...

I think men are expected to put some effort into earning the gift of permission...
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