Should We Ban “Slut” and “Ho”?

by  @ Ms. Magazine

I must commend Sandra Fluke, like so many others have already done, for rightly condemning “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh’s efforts in silencing women who dare to speak publicly about sexual politics by calling them “sluts.” The furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming tactics, however, seems to underlie a different anxiety that is more than just outrage over such blatant misogyny.

Rush Limbaugh is a bigot, a misogynist and a homophobe. His recent “slut” comments are right up there with his usual hate speech, and I distinctly remember him uttering the word “ho” to describe the black woman accuser behind the infamous Duke lacrosse case before that same case got dismissed.

What had impressed me back then was when I heard a white woman who called into his radio show and, without knowing much about the case or how it would unravel a year later, lambasted Limbaugh for using such an epithet to describe a woman. It was clear that Limbaugh was genuinely stunned that a white “conservative” woman didn’t rely on racial divides, or class and political “respectability” rules, to distinguish herself from a black sex worker. She understood that the “ho” label applied to all women, even if it was used to only apply to black women, and she did not let Limbaugh get away with it.

I also distinctly remember Don Imus’s “nappyheaded ho” comment and the furor over that, thus proving that while many are outraged over “slut” we’ve also been inundated with “ho” language–from radio shock jocks recently undermining Whitney Houston’s legacy with the dismissive “crack ho” label to popular presidential campaign posters back in 2008 championing Obama over Hillary Clinton with the slogan “Bros Before Hos.”

In many ways, the public furor over Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Fluke demonstrates that, once again, women will not let him get away with it. But it bothers me that so many of our responses–from #boycottrushlimbaugh Twitter trends to President Obama calling Fluke to show his support–are based on the premise that to be called a “slut” is inherently to be shamed.  It bothers me that, despite all the efforts of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation–which have enabled women to avoid the stigma of having sex outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage or having sex beyond the confines of heterosexuality–that some hate-monger can just say, “You’re a slut” and a public meltdown ensues.

This suggests that women’s sexual egos are still fragile, but in a woman-hating society this should come as no surprise. In a sexually evolved world in which a woman proudly proclaims her enjoyment of sex, of kink, of polyamory, or even basic monogamy, the sex-positive woman should be able to respond to the “you’re a slut” woman-hater a number of ways:

  1. The flippant response: “How quaint of you. That’s so 50 years ago!”
  2. The defiant response: “Power to sluts and sex goddesses everywhere! Woo hoo!”
  3. The vulgar response: “Eat me!”

However, we do not live in a sexually evolved society, so to deliver any of these responses is to hint that you’re not quite the respectable lady so many of us work so hard at being. To do so is to invite suggestions that we just might be the “slut” those guys over there say we are, and that fear of sexual labels keeps us in line, or puts us on the defensive, with the retort “I’m not a slut!”

That Limbaugh–an admitted drug addict, bigot and proud chauvinist–responded to the furor not by apologizing (which would be like a Ku Klux Klan member apologizing for being racist) but by digging in his heels and suggesting that Fluke and other women who want contraceptives covered by health insurance should subject themselves to online porn, only proves that men like him are shameless in what they’re doing. But of course they can be: No matter what sexual misconduct men engage in–whether they are busted in prostitution rings or in child molestation cases–they never get slut-shamed.

Middle-aged Catholic priests and football coaches have institutions that cover up their bad behavior, but under-aged girls such as Amber Cole can be videotaped in sex acts and become YouTube sensations and Twitter trends, slut-shamed by the general public–as if any of the shamers have a moral leg to stand on while trafficking in child pornography.

This is the climate in which we live, where male privilege runs rampant and women are still on the defensive. And where “slut” will maintain its power over us as long as rape and other forms of sexual violence go unpunished, as long as our reproductive rights are undermined and as long as our reproductive health options are limited (the very issue that forced Fluke to speak out in the first place). Moreover, “ho” will maintain its power as long as we insist on racial and class hierarchies among women.

Isn’t Limbaugh’s slut-shaming based on the same sentiment that provoked a Toronto police officer last year to tell women not to “dress like sluts” to avoid being raped, thus igniting the worldwide SlutWalk protests in response? And isn’t the ensuing debate among feminists over this activist strategy indicative of our fear of the word “slut”?

As I suggested in a previous post, the SlutWalk has provided an ample opportunity for women to confront words like “slut” and “ho” head on and divest them of their power. If we really think these words can’t be reclaimed, and rappers like Nicki Minaj are wasting their time, then perhaps it’s time we get down to business and ban “slut” and “ho” from our lexicon, the way the N-word is now taboo.

Of course that won’t change the hate in the hearts of some, but we can mobilize that hate toward a counter-narrative for a new political movement.

This piece originally appeared in the Ms. Magazine Blog and is reposted with permission.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on March 9, 2012, in feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Should we Ban “Slut” and “Ho”?

    Based on Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about women it’s obvious he doesn’t have any respect for women in general. It’s quite pitiful because he wouldn’t label his mother as being such, so why judge women especially black women as being sluts and ho’s for their actions. Women are given so much responsibility of what they can and can’t do to be presented as lady like in society. Adults can have sex with whom ever they choose it’s no one’s business, but theirs. Women of all social classes, and races do the same thing; some are just better at hiding their “faults” than others. Then their are women who are automatically given a certain label because of their skin color (which reverts back to slavery; men not respecting black women and taking advantage of them). The words should’t be banned, I believe thats going too far women should be comfortable within their own skin. If a women knows her place in society and proud of her sexuality theres no need to ban the words. Men will use degrading words toward women for many years to come; it’s just in their nature. It’s based around the standards society has placed on women. The article mentions “in many ways the public furor over Limbaugh’s slut shaming of fluke demonstrations that once again, that women won’t let him get away with it.” I’m glad women are sticking together standing up for what they believe in. Social change begins with women uniting as one regardless of race or class.


  2. As Ms. Hobson points out in her article for MS. Magazine, the latest misogynistic rant by Rush Limbaugh is nothing new. We all know him to be a bigoted lout who feeds the fires of racism, sexism, and homophobia in America. This is what he gets paid 60 million dollars a year to do. He will continue to ratchet up this slander throughout the campaign. I think that he should be financially penalized and “benched” like pro athletes are. Its really the only way to muzzle him.

    The larger issue for me is why none in the Federal Government seemed willing to stand against such anti-American views. The reaction by the White House, the House, and the GOP was bland dismissal of an embarrassment. The whole Congressional hearing was a fiasco. What are these men thinking? Its not bad enough to have these Republican candidates raging on about rolling back women’s rights by 250 years, but they are shutting women out of policy meetings inside the beltway.

    The article in the NYT Sunday highlighted some Republican women’s dismay at the state of their beloved GOP. After years as dutifully voting members these “evangelical Christian and ‘old school’ ” women are taking another look at these candidates. “Mary Russell.. said, ‘If they’re going to decide on women’s reproductive issues I’m not going to vote for any of them. Women’s reproduction is our own business.” In her article Susan Saulny of the NYT states that some are fed up with the focus of the campaign these last months, including the responses to Rush Limbaugh public assault on women. Women like Ms. Russell are thinking of voting for Obama or not voting at all. Women were unhappy with the tepid responses Romney and Santorum made about Limbaugh’s remarks. Others were tired of the whole debate;” as Deborah Stevens 63, of South Carolina remarked; ‘I want candidates to tell me that I’m not overturning Roe vs Wade. It’s there. Leave it there.'”

    The GOP is devouring itself.

  3. Kimberly Morrison

    I think the words “slut” and “ho” are such terrible words to call people. These two words can be used in a racial way and also toward women or feminists. I’ve never really understood why people use these words. There was a group of guys in my school that would always yell “slut” to this one girl whenever she would pass by. It is so sad that guys go to that level of hatred. I think that this is a spence of power that men think they have. We have so many racists people in this country we do not need more words to go along with it.

    • Reflects our notions of who is “free to” and who is “limited.” As well as attempts to maintain the status quo of who’s more generally powerful — and who is not.

  4. Avinash Ananth

    I think it is time that humanity realized that there are people of different level of societal development – just like how emotional, mental and sexual development are a measure for a person’s development. If we get down to pandering to the “offense” caused by such words the appropriate response should just be – grow up.
    There is no denying that words can cause an immense amount of hurt, but the quality of your judge should be taken into consideration and no one deserves to be judged by someone not worthy of doing so – especially one like Rush Limbaugh

  5. Marcus Coleman

    I don’t believe slut and ho should be banned because there about 75 more words that I can think of that should be banned before slut and hoe is banned. My theory on words is that they really are nothing, it’s the motive and intention behind a word that makes it bad. People say the N word all the time and it doesn’t bother me at all but if someone came to me and said you are nothing but a N and meant it then I would be furious. Don’t let words hurt you because in reality the biggest sluts and ho’s are guys and we take pride in being one.

  6. If women continue to allow words like “slut” or “ho” to control them then they are giving their abusers the power. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called a “slut” because I was out walking alone at night, or just because someone didn’t like my “sluty” outfit. Of course these insults hurt at first but after a few times around, the insults lost power over me.
    We can’t stop what words come out of each other’s mouths but we can control how we react to what is said. I don’t think banning the words “slut” or “ho” will solve the problem. Doing so would just put words like this into the shameful and forbidden category. If “slut” was a forbidden word, would that mean that being a sexually free woman would also be shameful? As long as women allow men to upset them over dirty words, men hold a certain power over them. Women could neutralize these dirty words by calling themselves “sluts” and “hos” but sexists like Limbaugh will just come up with a new ways to insult and demean women because that is what abusers do.

  7. It’s time to eliminate these words from our lexicon. Nothing positive, not even empowering, comes from the use of these words. In fact, the use of these words perpetuate and feed rape culture. Should a woman choose to sleep with a lot of men (and women) or should she choose to wear revealing clothes, she carries the social label of “slut.” If a woman truly is a “slut” then really, she should be comfortable sleeping with any and everybody, thus theoretically giving men permission to have sex with her– even if she doesn’t want it.
    As for its use in popular culture ( Nicki Minaj, for example), it’s done only to put down other women. In her song “Stupid Ho,” Minaj uses the word as a way of saying that other women are lesser, not to empower them. This is dangerous and can lead to internalized self-loathing or sexual monitoring.

  8. I feel like these negative words are just an outlet for men to have control over women because men know that women dislike being called a “slut” or “hoe” so they use these words to backfire on women. I just don’t think these words are necessary going toward any woman because women deserve the same respect as any man. They don’t have the right and control to degrade anyone by the harsh words they use towards women. Every woman has something special about them and by just assuming without knowing someone makes a man uneducated. Labels are just silly and not worth using.

  9. Banning the words is just going to make people use them more. Also, people are going to use other words to put others down because they are insecure, jealous, want to make themselves feel better, etc. People often do the opposite of what they are told to do. Hopefully one day people will stop using labels all together. Instead we should focus on one’s personality and/or the content of their character. Every person has something different and unique to offer. I do not like associating myself with rude people who put others down. Although, I’m pretty sure Nicki Minaj is referring to Lil’ Kim in her song Stupid Ho I agree it is wrong for them to call each other these degrading terms. I do not understand why they are fighting in the first place. They are both great rappers and should use their celebrity status to become role models for other women since they are strong empowering females in the game. They both call each other out and refer to themselves and other women as ho’s because they want to be seen as one of the guys. They can gain that same respect without having to do that but I’ve realized that girls have always referred to each other as bitch, slut, ho, etc. I don’t know why. I’ve always thought they were fighting words. I’m pretty sure other women of color do to. Some people (usually White women according to a book I was reading) use them as terms of endearment which I find strange.

  10. I don’t think we need to ban anyone saying slut or ho, because people can say whatever they want. For woman, we are just doing whatever we like to do, and to make our life happy, so I think no one can judge our living style, except our parents and husband. Obviously, saying those word shows no respect to woman, and actually to me that is “pointless” for me to argue with them. Even if we can really ban those words, those people will still find some other new disrespectful words to replace it, so I don’t think we need to waste anytime on the use of word. I’ll rather spend more time to teach them how to treat woman with respect!

  11. Being offended is part of living in the real world. You never seem to actually remove power from a word. You just make it unacceptable for some people to use those words. In a lot of cases the reclaimed word becomes even more hurtful when it is uttered. I don’t think it is possible to delete words of this nature. As long as people have hateful sentiments towards others, they will find ways to express them. The most innocent of words can be changed into widely recognized sexist or racist slurs.

  12. I just want to note how the article about Amber Cole linked to above, asks:

    “Where are the men in this child’s life? Judging off her desperation to win back an old boyfriend that she shouldn’t have had in the first place, Amber is completely vulnerable.

    Perhaps there is a male void in her life which lead to her seeking validation from boys. This easily leads back to a popular community slogan, “Protect Our Children.””

    Does this not just feed the furor? She should not be slut shamed, yet she is being a slut and this would not happen if there were strong males around?

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