Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Womanly virtues Wednesday: Further meditations on the S-word

A comment got me thinking about how we learn these words.  The first time I heard the word "slut" was in Grade 9 and and it was directed at a girl named Kim by another girl. I remember feeling the power of the word even though I'd never heard in my life up until that point.

I didn't ask what it meant and I had no way of finding out. Nowadays, you could just look it up in the dictionary but that sort of word wasn't in the dictionary back then.

I knew it had something to do with sex because it was directed at Kim who had, by a considerable margin, the most sex appeal in the entire school and I don't mean just in Grade 9. All the senior boys had noticed her.

I went to a Catholic school and the nuns made junior girls wear gym suits that were meant to de-emphasize their sexuality. It backfired entirely in Kim's case. The suits  had a little-girl feel about them and the all boys and male teachers who saw Kim's obviously womanly body in a little girl suit tended to walk around holding something in front of the their crotches to try and conceal their reaction to her.

The girl who called her a  slut was Rosemary who was the most popular girl in our year but she was just beginning to lose that status. Rosemary was also very sexy but she didn't have much notion what to do with her sexiness besides sticking her large breasts out. (Kim also had beautiful breasts but her sexuality was about her whole body and about her entire self.) The second Rosemary hurled the word at Kim, I not only knew it was about sex, I knew the word had both negative and positive connotations.

Kim left the school that year because our teachers went on strike and her parents moved her to another school board so she wouldn't miss any school time. She went on to university and a very successful career and marriage. Rosemary got pregnant in Grade 11, married the guy, then divorced him five years later.

I don't say that so that you will make moral judgments about the two women. The point here is about power. Sexual power. You can hate me for saying this if you want, but to be a woman, you have to have sexual power. Both girls had it but Kim had a much deeper understanding of what she could do with it it than Rosemary. That is why their lives worked out the way they did. Morality had nothing to do with it.

And the difference wasn't wealth either. Both girls came from the same working class Irish neighbourhood and both were from families that, while not poor, were less than average by the standards of the neighbourhood they lived in and that neighbourhood was less than average by city standards and the city was less than average by national standards.

What does slut mean? The comment that got me thinking tentatively suggested that it meant a girl who slept with everyone but I've never known a girl who slept with everyone or anything even close to that. I knew a couple of girls who had huge numbers of partners during university but there was something compulsive and pitiable about them—no one was threatened by them the way Kim threatened Rosemary.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no evidence that Kim had had sex with anyone at all when the word was hurled at her. I don't know whether she had or had not had sex (although I would guess not) but whatever she had or had not done was a secret.

When a woman calls another woman a slut, she is almost always talking about a woman who has more sexual power than she does. When a man calls a woman a slut, he is almost always talking about a woman who wouldn't have sex with him.

What Kim did do was present herself sexually in a very effective manner. Her gym suit for example, had been tailored a bit. I'm guessing her mother did this or had a dressmaker do it. This goes on a Catholic girl's schools but you also see it at schools where there are not dress codes, uniforms or gym suits. From an early age, some girls are taught how to present themselves and others are treated as a problem. Some girls are shown how to style their hair and other girls get their hair cut in the way that presents the least trouble for their mothers.

Of course an individual, any individual, can turn things around through personal effort.  A girl who is denied this sort of training in how to be a sexual being by her mother can figure out how to do it herself but that is a tall order and calls for more effort than most girls are willing to make.

A slut, whether you like the word or not, is a woman who knows how to do something. She is famous for what people think she is experienced at. A "good girl" is a girl who doesn't know how to do something. She is famous for not being experienced at something.

Now someone may say, well, "There are some things it isn't good to be good at".  But what is the alternative skill? What is the good girl good at? That is where the thing gets tricky. Because if what she is supposed to be good at is saying no ... well, that's why there was a sexual revolution.

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