Column: This Halloween, be aware of slut-shaming

Casual and careless use of pejorative language toward costumes helps promote a harmful sexual double standard.

Halloween is a magnificent time of year. Our campus aesthetic awes with the changing foliage, costumed festivities are frequent and fun, and coupled with the vivacious Columbia atmosphere, it makes for a great time to be an MU student. Indeed, Halloween is an endearing holiday offering a breath of fresh air for many — but there's one thing about the holiday of which I'm not a fan.

The persistent and pervasive slut-shaming.

Slut-shaming, for the uninitiated, is the use of a distinctively gendered insult intended to ridicule, humiliate, or embarrass a woman for behaviors, desires or instances that the accuser considers “deviant.” This so-called deviance often presents itself with sexual undercurrents, as the term “slut” is a traditionally derogatory remark on female promiscuity. However, the word is fairly empty and meaningless in contemporary culture, as it's frequently used to shame even the most chaste of actions. It's common to hear “slut” directed toward women who were doing anything from holding hands or talking to wearing shorts.

Invariably, slut-shaming is improper and misguided, as it just so happens to serve as a classic example of a double standard: Men are frequently lauded for having numerous sexual partners and exploits, often being called “studs” or “players,” while women with a similar number of sexual partners are seen as social pariahs, with words like “trashy” and “easy” carelessly thrown their way by men and women alike.

Segueing from Feminism 101 comes my initial point: Halloween finds itself ripe with alarming reinforcements of slut-shaming. I'm sure most are familiar with the evidence for this contention; casual comments of women dressing as “slutty nurses” or “slutty kittens” are commonplace, and I'll assert that such language is both irresponsible and counterproductive. Careless use of the word “slut” perpetuates an oppressive culture that makes romantic interactions of any sort a decidedly one-sided affair, and as such, it needs to stop.

Many will respond to the above sentiments with “I don't use the word 'slut' in a shameful sense! I'm just talking about a costume.” Of course, such an argument can be made, but it can be dismissed just as easily. Whether your intent with a word is laced with malice or with prim is irrelevant given the large scope of human communication — such intent fails to change the meaning, connotation and potential impact the word has upon others.

Indeed, there are droves of empirical literature supporting the notion that language is critical in reinforcing harmful social norms. Casual usage of an oppressive word, then, is perpetuating the longevity of the sexual double standard.

Thankfully, there are simple solutions to slut-shaming, and valuable alternatives to the word itself. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to simply not say the word at all — if you're hellbent on insulting someone for their suggested trespasses, there are a myriad of colorful choices in vocabulary you have at your disposal that involve neither race nor gender.

For those of you who use the word in a far more casual, perhaps even laudatory sense, “sexually liberated” is a common alternative, while words like “flirt” may also be appropriate, as they have no designated gender.

To all the battle-hardened feminists insistent on reclaiming the word, power to you. The sentiments I’ve expressed above don't necessarily apply to the reclamation movement, as you should note my use of “carelessly” and “casual.” The reclamation of pejoratives is powerful and progressive artillery in fighting institutional oppression, and as such, few can reasonably contend that instances of sexual politics are consistently casual or careless. However, I feel the need to reemphasize the need for responsibility — when owning or reclaiming any sort of term, it's critical to be clear in both purpose and privilege.

Finally, I'd like to offer a tangential word to the wise. While you yourself may not commit to any of the aforementioned thoughts, actions or behaviors, by no means does that mean that said phenomena aren't incredibly real and problematic. Indeed, offering “I don't slut-shame” as ample cause for the dismissal of systemic sexism or as the sole excuse for your personal acquittal to the matter is both silly and an exercise in lazy thinking. We, as MU students, should actively strive to fight instances of social injustice, even when it presents itself in the form of something as simple as discourse. After all, as the inspirational Desmond Tutu puts it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

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