Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut by Stephanie Cleveland


Stephanie Cleveland is a poet living in New York City. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Boston Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Jubilat, Phoebe, and Conduit.

 

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Whenever I hear the word slut, part of me feels like I’m twelve years old, standing in a Winn Dixie parking lot. That’s how old I was and where I was, the first time a man ever called me slut. My mother and I had driven into town from our home in rural Georgia, to buy groceries, and when we left the store, Mama, always in a hurry to get home and cook dinner for my Dad and me, was halfway to the car before I’d even made it past the exit row of shopping carts.

I’d just started sixth grade, and I loved daydreaming, writing songs and stories in my head. Words were comforting distractions from the awkwardness of my body. Somehow or other, things had changed over the summer, and by the time I started school I already wore a C cup. My new bra size won me lots of unwanted teasing from boys at school and lots of unwanted groping from boys on the bus ride home. But on that day in the parking lot, although I’d been careful to wear a turtleneck that covered the entire top half of my body, a middle-aged man with tan, leathery skin I can still picture noticed me walking to the car. I tried to ignore him, but the man kept leering at me.

As I walked past, I could hear him whisper something under his breath. After a few seconds, I realized he’d said, “Nice tits.” It was the first time anybody had ever called my breasts tits, and I remember hating the sharp, ugly sound of that word. I stopped to face the man. Now that he had my attention, he took his opportunity to snarl another insult, this time calling me little slut. His assessment made me feel confused and scared, so I put my head down and kept walking. Once I reached my mother and the car, I looked back. The man winked, turned and strolled into Winn Dixie, and was gone.

In middle school, I turned to books and daydreaming, and reading more and more, and eventually started writing poetry. I wrote poems, not because I wanted to be called slut again (I didn’t particularly want to make anybody a slut for my own words either). Instead, I remember just wanting to get as far away from sexist language as I possibly could. I wanted a place where men couldn’t define me using words like slut. In fact, I wanted to change the ways men talked about women altogether. Most especially, I wanted to change how men talked about sex with us.

I hated the definition of sex I was learning in school during health class, and at home, from my father’s pornography. What I’d learned from both was, that sex happened when a man penetrated a woman, inserted his penis in her vagina, mouth, or anus, until he came, and in that order, man-does-to-woman, subject-verb-object. The language men had for fucking reflected the way most men had sex, and I hated both the language and the fucking.

By the time I was fourteen, I was very familiar with most of the slang words boys at my school used to talk about women. My own view of my body had become so colonized, I even thought of myself using their words — pussy, cunt, boobs, tits, piece of ass. All these words made me feel humiliated. They were clearly insults, and I think I already suspected something about how hateful words could never really be emptied of their original vitriol. I felt reclaiming men’s sexist language was not my responsibility, not my job as a female writer. Instead, I wanted a different language, one that would allow me to leave behind sexist words.

By the time I got to eighth grade, I’d begun to want a certain kind of literary freedom, one that’s still largely forbidden to girls and women authors. I wanted the freedom to write about not wanting to be fucked, maybe not wanting sex at all. If I did write about sex, the only kind I wanted was a specific kind, a kind I barely even had a language for, sex that meant tenderness and equality, making love, through gentleness, human touch without fear of being expected to submit to anybody, without learning to like men being dominant. This was the kind of sex that was forbidden to me, all the sex male-supremacist literature treated as feminine and therefore inferior, all the sex my Dad’s pornography left out. I didn’t want to adopt men’s dick-centered word for sex, fucking. I didn’t want to fuck or be fucked or be called slut.

Writing my resistance to these words and ideas down on paper seemed like revolutionary acts to me. In short, I wanted to be able to want without being called slut for it, and I ultimately hoped all the hate words men had invented for me as a female human being could get out of my writing and my life. As a twenty seven year old feminist poet, I still want all those things.

But talking with other men and women poets, maybe especially those working in academia, I feel incredibly alone in refusing to accept words like slut. In New York, poets have laughed, yelled, ignored me, called me stupid and simple-minded whenever I’ve mentioned my hatred for words like slut. I used to hear feminists agreeing that there was no point in learning to accept men’s sexist language, and I still hear women activists and feminists in my community voice that same dissatisfaction—working class women who are not at all sheltered, who, sadly, know all too well what it’s like to have words like slut used against you during an assault.

Over the past five or ten years, something seems to have shifted among feminist poets and writers however. There’s a different way of practicing feminism, one that, to me, feels elitist and false. One that claims to be avant-garde in its politics, but often chastises women for being too critical of traditional, macho ways of thinking and writing about women. Particularly, I think, this new form of feminism discourages women from taking a radical approach to language. We are told not to remember pain sexist language may have caused us in the past, and are forbidden to ask for uncompromised change — for responsibility — in the ways poets and writers write about women and sex. Certainly, we are forbidden to ask that some words like slut, not be used anymore.

Now, if a woman becomes upset over the word slut, especially in an academic setting, it’s not at all uncommon for her to be accused of not having an appropriate grasp of irony, not being sexually liberated, of thinking of language in an old-fashioned way, or turning herself into a victim. She may be accused of not knowing enough about postmodernism or third-wave feminist theory to have anything valuable to say. I feel as though many women writers have decided it’s just easier to adopt men’s language, to learn to live with it, to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve reclaimed it, rather than fighting for something radically different. I think, in this context of extreme compromise, magazines like Bookslut happen.

 

I first heard about Bookslut last summer, after traveling to Chicago where I’d been invited to read my poetry at a launch party for Another Chicago Magazine. When, during conversation before the reading, one poet mentioned the online lit magazine, I was struck by how none of the other poets present seemed bothered by the idea of a woman’s passion for reading — her simply feeling joy over books and words — being used to identify her as a specific kind of slut, a bookslut.

Certainly as a feminist, I believe women are entitled to an egalitarian sexuality, (should we choose to be sexually active), one that goes along with our struggle for equality. But I also think there is an important difference between feeling pride and freedom about one’s sexual self, and allowing others to sexualize us in ways that ultimately reinforce male dominance. In Chicago, I found myself wondering why are women writers and readers still persistently sexualized even after decades of feminism?

Why do men still expect us to behave in certain ways, particularly when we attempt to be accepted as artists? In my experience as a poet, men seem most comfortable around women they perceive as sexy, bubbly, seductive and eager to have sex, women who may attempt to write as well, but who understand the importance of being attractive to men while doing it. Most of all, I wondered how women’s sexuality — or the male-supremacist version of it — could still be used to market almost everything in a consumption-obsessed America, including, it would now seem, literary magazines, without women writers even batting an eye?

It wasn’t until I was back in New York that I checked out Bookslut online, and got my first introduction to the magazine via the August issue. One of the first things I noticed was, despite its claim to be a magazine for “people” who love reading, and despite a few male editors flippantly (offensively?) proclaiming themselves “sluts” on the masthead, Bookslut features images of women in various states of undress, but no naked men.

The Bookslut logo is a cartoon of a female nude, lying horizontally, in the great tradition of reclining female nudes painted by male artists throughout history. Bookslut is hunched eagerly over her book, and the focal point of the cartoon is her ass. She has long wavy hair, perched atop her head in a ponytail. Her body looks thin and young, traditionally attractive. You can see the edge of her right breast jutting over the side of her rib cage perkily. On the Bookslut site, readers can buy pictures of this logo and different pinup style cartoons of women, on T-shirts, tote-bags, and other merchandise. Later that evening, after looking at Bookslut, I started thinking about Audre Lorde’s essay, Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power. In that essay, Lorde wrote:

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.

To me, the cartoons of women on Bookslut seemed plastic and trivial, like the fake depictions of female sexuality Lorde critiqued.

As a freshman in college, I remembered seeing a nude self-portrait visual artist Susan Hauptman created using charcoal and chalk pastel. Hauptman was my drawing teacher my second semester as an art major, and in person, she was small, only about 5′1.” But in her self-portrait, she stood over 7 feet tall, and when you approached it, you saw a naked woman, wearing no makeup, with all her pubic, underarm, and leg hair intact. The woman in the drawing literally loomed above you. She stared straight down at you. You did not approach this woman from behind, lying flat, with teased hair. Her hair was cut close to her head in a crew cut. She was human, powerful, intimidating, real, and yes, even sexual — but not on men’s terms, not trivial or plastic. She was a woman, a human being, like all women are in real life; she was not slut. I thought about how different this feminist drawing of a female nude was from the Bookslut logo.

I wondered too, if any woman who has ever been called slut, really believes in her heart that the word isn’t still first and foremost associated with women? A friend recently pointed out to me that, if a person wants to call a man slut, she often ends up saying male slut, even laughing at how comic the combination of those words “male” and “slut” sound together, the term has been so intimately connected with women for so long. Men are not called sluts, by and large, for having sex or being sexual — they’re just doing what men do. The slut mascot for Bookslut is a woman for a reason.

There’s not a cartoon of a young naked male body laid out for female readers to ogle, no male ass inviting penetration. Women readers won’t get a peak at any exposed, perky testicles dangling between hairy thighs. Instead, below the Bookslut logo, a fully clothed real life portrait of Thomas Mallon started off the August issue. I have never met Thomas Mallon, and it seems unlikely he had anything to do with the layout of the magazine. But, I do think, if you have a cartoon of a naked woman called Bookslut, above a picture of a clothed man who writes books, the assumption is that she is his slut, a slut for his writing.

Postmodernists will probably argue all this is my personal, individual, unsophisticated interpretation of Bookslut, that, if other women writers and readers like being called slut, I should celebrate their choices, because anything any woman consents to in this patriarchal world is inherently feminist, right? I do not believe this is true. I think real agency for women, real feminist choices, involve resisting male dominance with everything we have in us, not doing exactly what dominant men demand.

I think it’s important as well not to assume women make our choices in a vacuum or a free world where we have equality. In my experience, it has certainly been easier to find support and praise from men poets and editors, if I’ve willingly adopted their language, whereas refusal to do so often makes men defensive and angry.

The existence of Bookslut means women who do not like the word slut, now have to hear it one more time, have to hear it used in a celebratory way, without critique, more times than we would otherwise. I have thankfully known a handful of poets who do still recognize the misogyny of words like slut. These poets would never use these words to talk about women, in much the same way they would never use racial slurs or other hate words. But now, those same poets end up saying, “So and so was reviewed in Bookslut,” and men have one more excuse to keep the image of women as sluts in their minds.

A male poet who has been reviewed on Bookslut can effectively consider the magazine’s founder Jessa Crispin, a slut for his book. He can, if he wants, begin thinking about other women readers of his in that same way as well, as his personal booksluts, metaphorically fucked by his every word. How on earth does this pass for sexual or intellectual liberation for women? Andrea Dworkin wrote, “The pornographic conception of female power is fundamental to the anti-feminism of sexual-liberation movements in which unlimited sexual use of women by men is defined as freedom for both: she wants it; he responds; viola! The revolution.” Crispin’s choice to call herself a slut goes along with this male-supremacist version of sexual revolution — one which caters to men’s words, men’s desires, men’s construction of female sexuality, by giving men greater sexual access to women and greater freedom to think of us as fuck objects.

Bookslut fails, however, to address women’s inequality. It fails to offer a feminist, non-patriarchal vision of sex and women’s passion for reading and creating. Using women as sexualized commodity to sell literary magazines is not a feminist sexual revolution, and moreover, Cripsin’s choice to do that affects more women than just herself. Women who are not interested in reclaiming hate words now must deal with them more frequently in literary circles.

We may even need to explain to men, “I understand that woman over there says she’s okay with being called a bookslut, but I actually don’t like it, actually feel degraded and humiliated when you do it.” Then too, there is the fear one will be viewed as “sexually inhibited,” or “not fun enough” by male peers who like the idea of a bookslut — that is to say, if one refuses to accept men’s language, one may do the unforgivable and alienate men. Alienating men is risky for a woman writer, since writing like any other field is dominated by white men many of whom with the power to refuse to publish women’s words.

I am not claiming to speak about what every issue of Bookslut looks like, but in the August issue I read, most if not all of the featured poets and writers on the homepage were men. All these men were fully clothed. Images of naked or partially naked women in stereotypically gendered positions were the norm — a woman cartoon contorted and squeezed into a little box, her weight propped on one elbow, wearing pink lingerie and giving readers a wouldn’t you like to fuck me smirk, was one of the first images I noticed when I scrolled down. The woman had no body hair to speak of (no one even seems to notice the sexism of adult women being asked to remove all our pubic hair anymore), and she smiled capriciously, the way women are expected to when we are being seductive.

Once again, this cartoon was female — no cartoon of a man wearing frilly lingerie, sporting an erection over poetry. The worst photo was an advertisement for the Bookslut reading series — a poster featuring the names of authors, some of them women, and a real woman’s legs — thin, white, and so smooth they could be used for Nair commercials — spread apart across the left side of the photograph. This woman’s entire body was not shown, only her thighs and crotch. Her feet were propped sideways on a picnic table, and on the table between her spread legs, aligned directly with her vagina, stood a glass beer bottle.

I looked, but didn’t find any photos on the Bookslut site of men with their legs spread, glass bottles placed between them. There were no photos to suggest a male reader might feel somehow motivated by his passion for literature to fuck himself with glass. Apparently, only women-readers do that sort of thing.

These images are not new or empowering. They aren’t feminist, and they don’t have anything to do with good writing. They articulate instead, the tired, old idea that women are sexual masochists, which feminists critiqued in the sixties, seventies and eighties. The difference is, now sexual masochism for women is considered part of feminism. Female anger and outrage over being called slut have been labeled outdated, while acceptance of misogynist language is the popular position to take.

I do not mean to place all the blame on Jessa Crispin, or to act as though she could single handedly bring down the patriarchy if she stopped calling women booksluts. But I do believe the idea of reclaiming hate language is an ineffective strategy for gaining women’s equality. In philosophy, there is the theory of adaptive preferences, which states, if a person knows she is going to get treated a certain way, regardless of whether or not she likes or wants that treatment, then, in some ways, it behooves her to learn to want it.

Even after years of feminist struggle, US women still live in a country where every day three women are killed by our intimate partners, one in four is raped before she turns eighteen, and the only fields women earn more money in on average than men working in the same fields are modeling and prostitution. Men still see us as people to be fucked, still use words like slut to attack women in prostitution and pornography, in strip clubs, during domestic violence assaults, during rape, during street harassment — In this kind of political climate, no wonder many women decide to try and make the best of slut.

I am also not claiming that all men enjoy using words like slut. I am glad to have known a couple men who hate these words almost as much as I do. But many men and male poets I have talked with are resistant about giving up sexist language. I remember a poem in Tomaz Salamun’s Feast, a book I was required to read in college, that included the line, “I smell whores on the shoulders of soldiers.” Neither my male teacher, nor any of the male students in my class seemed bothered by that line. When I left college, I tried talking with a few male poet friends about it, but none of them saw a problem either. What does it mean that a male poet can with impunity call certain women “whores” in the 21st century, can even write what he thinks a “whore” smells like?

I had an argument with a close male poet friend last summer, trying to explain to him why I felt hurt when he wrote about female genitalia as cunt. He felt entitled to that word as a writer, despite its continued use as a term of hatred for women, and I couldn’t convince him men should rethink their use of words so intimately linked with women’s pain, pain that isn’t theirs to use.

I especially thought about men’s resistance to giving up sexist language last July, when a group of teenage boys assaulted me while I was running in Central Park. For whatever reason, the boys, who were playing baseball, started chasing after me. One of them, once he got close enough, swung the bat at my legs trying to knock me to the ground. When I swerved to avoid being hit, I felt a smack against the left side of my head. I realized the boys a little further away were throwing rocks at me. One boy yelled as he threw, “Fuck you, you motherfucking cunt!”

My head pounded. I felt pain in my mouth on the left side of my face. If the boys had been a little older, I might have been too scared not to keep running. But once I cleared the gates of the park, I turned around. I couldn’t stop hearing the words those boys had used at me. Simply because I was a woman, in their eyes, I was inferior, a cunt.

But inside myself, I was still a poet. Maybe that was why, more than anything else in that moment, I wanted a word I could use, a word that would hurt them as much as their word hurt me. Although I tried hard to come up with something, I wasn’t sure what I should have yelled — “Hey, haven’t you heard? Women reclaimed cunt , so it doesn’t hurt anymore”? The problem was, it still did. In that minute, I realized how pointless trying to reclaim men’s sexist language really is.

Language has meaning and words have power based on the social realty those words are used in. It means something when men, who all live with some degree of privilege over women, use the same words to talk about our bodies and our sexuality in ways that are presumed to be sexy and fun, and then insult us with those same words during acts of violence.

Words like slut, whore and cunt are not about equality or sexual liberation for women; they aren’t really about poetry and women’s passion for reading either. Instead, these words are about misogyny, about continued respect for male dominance and dominant language. I would like to know other poets, both women and men, who feel a world where women don’t have to worry about being called cunt, slut, or whore anymore is possible, because these words no longer exist. I believe that world is possible and worth writing towards.

 

20 responses to “Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut by Stephanie Cleveland

  1. Stephanie,

    I am writing a paper on opposing viewpoints on the basis of is Pornography Harmful to Women or is it not harmful to women. I would love it if you could give me a little more information on where you are from and who you work for so I can include it in my beginning statement.

    Thank You, Andy

  2. I would email you privately, without a paddle, because I don’t know that our discussion is relevant to Cleveland’s post, but there’s no way to respond except in these comments.

    I agree with you on 90% of your points, but I would stand up for a kind of postmodern theory that is a powerful analytical tool, especially in feminist literary studies. To make the barest of beginnings I would recommend the work of Naomi Schor, Nancy K Miller, Jane Gallop, and Eve Sedgwick. Or look at Jane Marcus’s writing on women and empire.

    One would hope that academics who suffered through the kind of classroom situation we’re discussing (which I fully agree is horrid and stultifying!) had also been exposed to inspiring professors and had read works of “rigorous academic discourse” which they respected and responded to, like those I’ve cited above. Otherwise, why are said academics in the academy?

    I think you’re referring to the Sokal hoax when you bring in science, no? That’s often used as a way of attacking postmodern (or “French”) theory, and it certainly is the most easily distillable version of postmodern thought, but it’s taking il n’y a pas de hors texte a little too far. I think the kind of work that attempts to reduce science to just one kind of text is pretty marginal to literary criticism, which is more concerned (though not always, alas) with language and markedly literary texts.

    Finally, yes, we are all feminist comrades-in-arms, you, me, Crispin, and Cleveland. The discussion is very cool. I’m just relieved Cleveland hasn’t come after me in the comments for calling my blog “Maitresse.”

  3. How about academics who’ve suffered through entire graduate degrees in English with their peers spouting nonsense?

    I’ve emerged from the PhD department at the University of Iowa not “non-academic,” but certainly disgusted with what passes for “rigorous scholarly discourse” in the current world of literary academia. What’s more, I consider the jargon-spouting tow-the-line mentality I encounter with certain (obviously not all) trendy academics to be in and of itself “anti-academic” – – where everything is a “text” and art and science are devalued as simply other, equal texts. (To me it feels like the liberal version of the Creationist v Evolution “debate.” Both may be “texts,” but there is a difference in value that has to do with more than who is reading it or what it means to them or what the “cultural context” is.)

    And yes, this is an environment where people like me were considered “conservative” because, um, I believe in science. (And we’re talking Darwinian, feminist science, to boot. You know, academic science.) In my experience, the academic jargon of English Lit grad school did in fact contribute to what I believe IS a corruption of feminism – – and art and deeply felt plain-spoken reasoning.

    And to be fair, don’t you think that Cleveland is right to predict that a lot of us, including “postmodernists will probably argue all this is [just Cleveland’s] personal, individual, unsophisticated interpretation of Bookslut, that, if other women writers and readers like being called slut, [Cleveland] should celebrate their choices, because anything any woman consents to . . . is inherently feminist . . .”

    I mean, some of us here in the comments section, postmodernists or not, clearly feel that way.

    What’s more, in a discussion of literature and the culture of lit blogging, language is obviously an obsession to all of us . . .

    And just as it’s fascinating to debate the meaning of slut or nigger, or the meaning of reclaiming those words, it’s fascinating, too, to look at the way that modern trendy academia uses jargon to obfuscate (and in some cases literally make meaningless) these discussions. Which Cleveland touches on in a way that feels really true to me.

    Part of the reason Cleveland’s writing resonates is because she speaks plainly, and speaks truth to power – – be it academic leftist power (where anything any woman does can by definition be argued as feminist) or popular real-world female power (Jessa Crispin herself) or the same old fuck-you power of the reining status quo patriarchy.

    I do believe that Cleveland and Crispin are ultimately allies – – and allies with me, too! – – and I ultimately consider myself an intellectual in the same way that I see Crispin as an intellectual: since I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on every book all time. And I still have all the old Christopher Pike ones, just like Crispin!

    And I ultimately do believe that Crispin’s actions and context ARE feminist, in an inclusive, proud, smart, funny female-centric way. But the discussion is still pretty cool, don’t you think?

  4. I agree you have some valid points in your argument against the word “bookslut”. But Jessa Crispan is a wonderful blogger. I adore her, and have never thought her in terms of ‘slut’.

  5. This is a really interesting essay and I commend you for writing it.

    I do think you unnecessarily weaken your point by vaguely referencing some shadowy threat of academic criticism and postmodern theory. I think the worst crime postmodernists have committed is sharing it with impressionable undergraduates (and even some grad students still suffering from an undergrad inferiority complex) who turn it into nonsense. The sad result is that non-academics who’ve suffered through an English class with their peers spouting nonsense have emerged with a strong anti-academic streak that is entirely ignorant of rigorous scholarly discourse.

    Any academic worth his or her salt is not going to have an a priori opinion on the subject of language and its use, and most would agree, with Foucault, that it is an instrument of power. Who has the power is another question.

    “Postmodernists will probably argue all this is my personal, individual, unsophisticated interpretation of Bookslut, that, if other women writers and readers like being called slut, I should celebrate their choices, because anything any woman consents to in this patriarchal world is inherently feminist, right?”

    Wrong, obviously. But blaming postmodernism for the popular corruption of feminism is only confusing your argument.

  6. I was willing to accept your premise, and most of your points. (Though please check out your 25% of all American women being raped statistic, this has often, though quietly, been refuted. Which does not, mind you, devalue or disregard the trauma or seriousness of the problem, but correct statistics make sure resources and help are available when and where they need to be. I believe Barry Glasser’s “The Culture of Fear” has a good look at this.)

    But then you went ahead and used the language of “the patriarchy” to slur Jessa Crispin (paragraph that starts: A male poet…). I get you are going to the extreme here, I get that you are trying to present are great and terrible overlords as slathering monsters who look at every woman as so much ripe fruit and expect th fruit to not look back. But really it sounds very much like you are calling her a slut. It sounds an awful lot like the hateful girls I knew in highschool who used words like “slut” to punish the sexually adventurous and to enforce societal norms of virginity. (BTW, we had a word for boys who fooled around, we called them slutpuppies, and considered them worse than girls.) And I don’t think you want to be enforcing those societal norms.

    Now, I’m a big fan of the separation between concepts like “author,” “authorial persona,” and “narrator.” It’s reasonable to assume, no matter what you think of the word “slut,” Jessa is a complex person who projects a tiny portion of her life into the internet. (For instance, I doubt you are solely the dour feminist still reeling from an early trauma and lousy sex, as this post my lead one to believe. I bet you are even “fun-loving.”) Talking about how a male might perceive her use of a word or her use of a cartoon that she picked out herself as the only way to discuss her not only reduces her to a single dimension, takes away any power she could derive from a choice and gives it to a male reviewee, but also disregards the actual structure and content of the website.

    You also assume a male poet who was reviewed by bookslut 1) is a douche, 2) was reviewed by Crispin instead of someone else, 3) is so much of an egotistical jerk that he assumes the approbation of a single internet reviewer equals a license to fuck all women.

    I get you don’t like hearing the word slut. I’ve never been called that myself (flat chested girls with glasses get called bitch). I even get why you don’t like the site’s existence as you must hear the word. I’ve never recommended the site to my mom who is a fourth grade teacher and would probably love the children’s book reviews, it would be awkward and she wouldn’t like the word slut.

    I also get that men are “evil” and women never ever do bad things like drown their five children or beat their spouses or encourage honor killings against their “slutty” daughters or commit sexual assault. Going on and on about the “patriarchy” and other women’s stupid (yes you didn’t say that, yes you meant it) use of language ignores the real problems in the world, not ruling men, but ruling class; not words, but violence; not websites about books, but are freedom to choose our words.

    Something bad happened to you, and that’s awful, but I can use whatever words I want. Some women have miscarriages but other women are still allowed to get abortions, no matter how sad the first group of women are.

    I know I will not, nor anyone will change your mind, but I will say, it’s a great website that reviews lots of books by women and reviews lots of books ignored by the mainstream press. If you don’t like the word slut save it as a tab in your toolbar with another name, like “Jessa Crispin’s website about books” and then always reference it as such. End of story.

  7. OK, so I just got a nice email from the editor of this site, that seems to have gone out to everybody that commented. I’m going to paste it below for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get it, but it seems to me he’s trying to urge a response to the more general part of Cleveland’s argument (the word slut and others like it are bad) rather than the specific (Bookslut is bad).
    I appreciate what he and Cleveland are trying to say, but the fact is that Bookslut was a really inappropriate and ill considered example for this argument, and that’s a flaw that obscures Cleveland’s arguable but certainly understandable points about the use of words like slut. I don’t think it’s very sporting to let Cleveland completely mischaracterize Bookslut just for the sake of her argument, and I think its obvious to everyone that Cleveland heard about the site, got mad at the name, thought up the title and opening paragraph of this essay, then possibly skimmed one issue and posted her rant. But whatever, I’ll play nice.
    I think Cleveland’s arguments against the use of words like slut and whore in general are very powerful, and I admit that the use of offensive language is an issue I can see both sides of, though I lean against the supression of any word. Still, doesn’t a specific context like Bookslut’s run against her argument? Crispin and her other reviewers are feared arbiters of what’s good and cool and what’s lame and dumb, and Crispin herself is renowned for her strong opinions and firm stance on writing, book journalism, and the book industry. She is a strong, powerful woman, and (outside of this essay) I’ve never seen her characterized any other way (still playing nice, honest). Doesn’t her use of the bad word to describe her site and her self add some wieght to the idea that she is successfully subverting the negative conotation of the word, in this specific instance?

    Sincerely,
    Monty ( again, i come to this argument as a guy, and a longtime fan of Bookslut)

    The email from this site’s editor is below—-

    “Hello all

    First, I want to thank you all for reading and commenting on Stephanie Cleveland’s essay “Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut” that was featured in Gently Read Literature’s June issue. The discussion inspired by the essay has been for the most part fruitful.
    But as the editor of the site, I felt the need to come to the aid of one of my contributors if only to re-contextualize things (there have been a surprising number of rather insipid and down right hateful comments submitted that I have felt had no place in the discussion, although none from any of you and I thank you).
    Cleveland’s essay comes out of the radical feminist tradition (i.e Dworkin, et al) and while not representative of the whole of feminist thought (nor was it ever meant to be) it does raise some valid questions/concerns that need to be addressed–specifically the social construction of language. And this was the reason I chose to put the essay in the issue, because it raises a vital critical, aesthetic concern. The discussion that has ensued has been, as I’ve said before, mostly positive. But it’s important to realize that though not at all a mere exercise in opinion the essay is by no mean prescriptive, proscriptive, or normative; it is speculative, meaning it’s an attempt to figure out just what exactly we, all of us, mean to say and what that entails both connotatively and denotatively.
    There is no comment that is currently on the site that does not in some way contribute to the discussion nor is there any sentiment expressed that does not have legitimate critical value. But it is vital that we do not fall into the easy confusion of muddled thought (Cleveland is not personally attacking Crispin), rather Cleveland is trying to reason from subjective experience to objective knowledge.
    I hope that you all will give the current issue of Gently Read Literature a thorough reading and continue to return to GRL in the future.

    Take Care<

    With much thanks

    Daniel Sumrall, editor

    Gently Read Literature”

  8. One of the reasons I particularly like the use of “slut” in Crispin’s site is that it indicates promiscuity–but in this case a promiscuous mind. The name references the kind of reader who has an unrestricted appetite for books and words, and I think Crispin’s expansion of the site, especially with new contributors, has borne that out.

    I’m making essentially the same argument as Monty and others above, that is the content of Bookslut is so interesting and valuable it far outweighs what I consider to be a superficial objection to its name.

    I have far more problems with the widely accepted and “polite” label “chicklit.”

  9. I cannot agree with any prohibition on language. Why should someone refrain from using a word because other people associate that word with pain? Since when is the artist supposed to consciously tailor his art to the personal experiences of the unknown and hypothetical reader? The idea of ‘art’ under such a premise is completely void.

    Just because you think Jessa Crispin becomes a “slut” to the male authors profiled in her magazine does not make it so. I’m sure she feels completely differently about the word. Why must her language be contoured to your world experience? Are you not taking away her humanity by asking her to first conform to the movement for women as you define it, as opposed to following the artistic inclinations of Jessa Crispin the human being? In your view she is a woman first, a human agent second, a woman who is to be fucked by the words of a man, not a human being who exalts in the milieu of words on bound paper.

    A book is not gendered. A reader is not gendered. Reading, and the absolute ecstasy one can feel in the throes of prose, a feeling that might be jocundly characterized as ‘slutty’, is a transcendent experience apart. There is no man, no woman, no author, no consumer, there is no fucking, subjugating, or marginalizing, there is only mind. Pure mind. That is the truest joy of reading, really the sole joy of consciousness.

  10. Ditto to what Monty above said.

    What’s in a name? The magazine by any other would still rock my socks. And it features the work of so many wonderful women writers – both as contributors and subjects.

    I like the logo. I think it is pretty. It’s not porn or even Maxim. It’s an illustration and a sketchy one at that. Is the art I contain in my home also a problem? Perhaps we should shut the museums and galleries too?

    I know visual art can be sexist and offensive, but at what point can it also just be art?

    At what point are we allowed to enjoy the beauty of the naked human form without loosing our feminist cred?

  11. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying feminist philosophy, but I feel as though it’s attacks like the one being posed in this article that make it seem as though we (women) really can’t handle power or equality or freedom. I realize that sounds horrifying, but what I mean is that this article feels like the Chicken Little-mode of advocating equality, whereas the existence of something like Bookslut (especially since it is so successful and witty and generally an excellent representation of the fabulousness women everywhere are producing every day) should be celebrated (or at least not attacked!) by women. A magazine, created by a woman, celebrating intellect and discussion, is named Bookslut. I choose to view that as evidence that we, in fact, have the power. Yeah, the word exists and, yeah, it gets used lots of times in ways that are cruel and derogatory. But we can use it too, and why shouldn’t we? We could make those words weapons that men have in an arsenal, but choose not to use because women will bite them if they do, but why hand over a whole chunk of language to men when we can just hang onto it and prove we are (or we aim to be) evolved beyond the fear of a mean-spirited label? Rather than pretending the words don’t exist, or blacklisting whole sections of language because it can be used a certain way, it seems so much classier to move right along, celebrating whatever the heck we feel like celebrating — whether that be the fact that one of our fellow women (Crispin) is such an awesome presence in the literary-discussion world, or the fact that we have curvy hips that are so much lovelier (and worthy of our pride) than the…ahem…things hanging from hairy areas Ms. Cleveland mentioned.

  12. Part of my being a writer – – an artist of words, meaning, and communication – – is being able to understand deep meaning and intent, even when divorced from my personal use or response, even when used jokingly or ironically or when tied to the mores of the time. And as longtime, devoted reader of Bookslut, I can read and understand Jessa Crispan’s intent. Even if, yes, it requires some detachment on my part.

    I think of slut as I do nigger. So I guess that makes Jessa Crispin Jay Z. Might not be how I’d say it, but she’s rockin sweet beats and I love to dance along.

    Ultimately, I agree with you, and when I write literary work about sex I try hard to think of my own self and my own body in a real way that isn’t infected with not only 1) the tired, flat cliche of patriarchy (be wary of the parts that seem to write themselves, right?) but also 2) the falseness of that experience – – it’s called basic POV, fools! from your perspective you may “penetrate,” but from mine I overwhelm and envelope – – but finally 3) I’m like you, girl: I’m not into hating women, just like I’m not into racism.

    Striving to be a nuanced and true writer of experience has given me the insight to be in my own self when I am living my experiences . . . or of trying to be professional or accurate or real. Of rejecting dumb language that doesn’t work, always. You know, like irregarudless of how frequently it’s used. Which is why what you have to say is important.

    This is a brave, unpopular, and beautifully written essay that makes my heart leap with joy. Yours is a point of view that holds deep meaning for me, and one I don’t often hear so specifically aimed at my personal world. I love Jessa Crispin’s blog as I would a friend. I read that thing every day and I learn from it and I laugh at it and I admire it. I also feel that the name “bookslut,” while, yes, funny and charming and third wave and flippant, is not how I would ever think of myself or want others to think of me.

    I’ve also given a lot of thought over the years to Jessa Crispin’s postings on the subject of feminism. Usually the topic is used as an eye-roller. And for years I straight up considered her anti-feminst . . . but anti-feminist in her words, rather than anti-feminst in her intent. (As are many of today’s strongest women, for reasons you touch on in your own essay.)

    Crispin is an incredibly smart and funny writer, with beautiful, engaging insights to this narrow world of lit gossip and book reviews that I am obsessed with. And she writes all about the things I care about most from an unabashedly female point of view, with unapologectically female concerns and jokes. She also hires and works with Elizabeth Merrick, an avowed feminist from the now-defunct blog cupcakeseries, whose ongoing byline count & analysis of the major magazines I credit with embarrassing the New Yorker into a permanent change in policy – – (they now list the bylines in their frontpage Talk of the Town section, and the conversation that cupcakeseries forced is one that has since become familiar: how could an intellectually & artistically rigorous / hip / progressive magazine about our culture regularly print only a single female contributor per issue?)

    At any rate, I applaud your essay. And I want you on board! I hope that despite your (and my) differences with Jessa Crispin you can also see her intent. I really do believe her intent would be to have you as an ally. And I’ll bet she’s giving a lot of thought to what you wrote. And if you want to see some funny, charming, third wave, flippant gender analysis with beautiful, engaging insights to this narrow world of literature I’m obsessed with, check out her piece which ran recently in the Smart Set: http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article04300801.aspx

    It’s a winner.

  13. Hi,

    Funnily enough, I was thinking about the word slutthe other day, and a conversation I had with some (male) friends where I bamboozled them by claiming I didn’t belive in sluts. Still don’t. Hate to hear it being used against anyone, male or female. Yet, I am one of these reappropriators, who in casual company will say “i’m a slut for …”, etc. Because I don’t think anytime soon we’re going to elimate the vile misogyny behind the ‘slut’ idea, I want to unsettle it by screaming that we’re all sluts – or we all aren’t. I don’t see it as getting in before someone yells it at me, like a pre-emptive strike, I see it as diffusing any power the abuser thinks they have.

  14. Stephanie,

    I’m a guy, and a long time Bookslut fan, so I obviously have some preconceptions . . but here goes: I really think you’re just utterly unfamiliar with Bookslut, and it shows when you talk about Crispin using sex to sell books. In this case , I think you could substitute “irreverent humor” for sex and be a lot closer to accurate. Now , clearly the little cartoons and slut-monikers are irreverent about something you feel strongly about, but honestly, you’re focusing on the tiniest, least important minutiae of the site, and overstating their presence. Bookslut’s reviews aren’t written all sexy, it doesn’t exclusively review sexy books, it doesn’t even give sexy books preferential treatment . No one goes to Bookslut because it’s sexy! The little touches you find so objectionable are only on the periphery. The only reason anyone visits Bookslut is the informed writing about books. I’ve been reading the site for years, and I had to click back to recall the naked cartoon you were talking about, because it’s nothing, just window dressing, and I don’t even see it anymore. When you say that anyone who is well reviewed on the site can consider Crispin their slut , you’re really mis-characterizing the well written and thoughtful reviews on that site, and the tone of the site in general. Bookslut comes off as trenchant,and witty, and tough to my mind, and I have trouble seeing how anyone could seriously read those articles and think otherwise. The fact is, all you really have a problem with is half of the site’s name, and it’s sad that half a word has prevented you so completely from seeing the site for what it is– the best book site on the web. I think you need to read a few more issues, Stephanie.

    Sincerely,
    Monty

  15. Hey everyone,

    I wanted to thank those readers who’ve posted comments here for taking time to read the essay, and to say that I very much appreciate people putting forth the energy and effort required to give it a thoughtful response. It’s an honor for me as an author to hear people’s thoughts offered in a respectful way.

    I feel like there are some points it might be useful for me to answer, and I’d like to try to do that here, to the best of my ability. Please bear in mind that these comments will be much more quickly generated than the essay itself was, and that they will probably be a lot more jumbled and disorganized because of that. I apologize if I sound too critical of any individual person or point, go into too much detail, or if my responses are inadequate in any other ways.

    Reappropriation is a more postmodern, academic-sounding term than I would normally feel comfortable using, but I do agree that context is always crucial. Unfortunately, the sad reality of women’s situation under patriarchy is that there is no context in contemporary society under which we have equality with men. All our relationships and choices, all our actions and political strategies, however gratifying, life-sustaining or fulfilling, take place under and within a context of male-supremacy. We can’t as women, at this point in our history, ever be completely free of male dominance in any situation or setting. There is no magin bubble, no place currently where women get to step outside the system of patriarchy and male-supremacy completely, and, despite some important gains in the 20th century thanks to feminism, women’s subordination to men and our social inferiority have been the only context available to us for at least the past 3000 years. I think it’s important to keep site of these facts, not because I like dwelling on the negative, but because knowing where we are makes it possible to envision a different future, and to figure out the best strategies for getting there.

    I don’t think it’s possible to change the meanings of hate words–to completely change the meaning of a word like “slut” or make it positive, fun and feminist–without first changing the context of sexism and male-dominance under which these words are used. I understand different women will have different takes on this issue, and that some will decide the use of words like “slut” on some level is an effective political strategy. As both a youngeer feminist and woman poet who has done her best to consider these issues of language carefully and completely, I personally feel convinced however, that the strategy of reclaiming or “rappropriating” misogynist words hasn’t been politically effective.

    I believe reclaiming hate language is a strategy that has been appealing to women and other subordinated groups for a variety of complicated reasons, but I feel strongly that this strategy is ultimately doomed to fail, partly because, while it demands that women change our opinions about words like “slut”–and that we critique our own pain if our responses to these words are not sufficiently lighthearted–it doesn’t and can’t ensure men will change anything about their opinions, or the ways in which they use these words. It is, sadly, impossible to grab hold of words like “slut,” to use them on ourselves before men have the chance to use them because men are, regretably, already always using these words; a preemptive strike becomes impossible when men retain the freedom to use misogynist words in whatever ways they choose to. The truth we as women have to face is that men have never taken a break from doing exactly that.

    I know many young women will disagree with me, and I think that tension and those discussions are fine. Perhaps a compromise position might be, when the human race reaches a point where women have equality, where patriarchy is no longer firmly in place and a core part of every society and social structure on the globe, then it may be useful to rethink our rejection of words like “slut.” Until that time however, our choices as writers have to reflect the current context, have to demonstrate an accountability to the concrete reality of women’s social situation as a class, and to the real lives and real life experiences of women who suffer most under male violence, those who are called “slut” in “the bad way,” when a man is raping them, beating the shit out of them, or killing them, for example. We must also, as poets and writers, be accountable to those women outside the academy, who do not always have the luxury of theorizing endlessly about language.

    Ultimately, I don’t think language is the problem, so much as male-dominance is. Language can reflect male-dominance, and reinforce it, as it often does and as I would argue it does in the case of Bookslut, but I don’t think language can be spoken about as separate from or somehow above or beyond patriarchy; Therefore, I just think male-dominance must be taken on and ended before we can begin to irresponsibly play with or expect change through language on it’s own.

    I do feel I might have done better to have written towards the end of the essay, “The celebration and acceptance of words like (forgive me for not typing them anymore than I have to) are not about women’s equality…” as I agree, these words may not always be about celebrating misogyny, if used critically and responsibly; that is to say, if a woman is speaking or using the words themselves, in the context of directly rejecting or critiquing them, (as I found it necessary to use them at times to reference them in the essay in order to question their continued acceptance and use). I do feel however, that certain words have a strong, historical and continued connection with misogyny and men’s sexual violence against women, and that this connection has important implications in the lives of real women, outside any theoretical discussion on reclaiming them. Myself and women readers who responded to the essay seem very aware of this.

    My goal had also been to speak about what these words are, right now, what they mean, what they are “about” under the current context of male-supremacy. It’s my assessment that, under that context, identifying oneself as a “bookslut” doesn’t challenge the misogyny of the word “slut,” so much as it reinforces it through trivializing it; through treating it as something cute, funny, and highly marketable, rather than a serious or important political issue. Being expected to take that kind of detached, apathetic, comedic and invulnerable attitude towards language assumes that a woman can, and should, be able to distance herself from whatever pain these words might have caused her in life. In my view, that is a sexist attitude, and a waste of my time as a woman writer; I feel also that this type of more removed attitude towards language that is specifically linked to women’s history of sexual subordination, further contributes to contemporary poetry’s already infamous reputation for being elitist, and keeps poets working in the academy out of touch with the lives of working class women and working class women poets, in my view.

    I mentioned in the essay feeling hurt in the past by having myself or my analysis called “simple” by other women, so to be accused of slavishly following a “simple binary dynamic” in this piece does feel a little frustrating and painful in some ways, particularly as it forces me to respond to an argument I would never, as a radical feminist, in a million years make. “Binary dynamic” is a phrase I have been confronted with a couple times by a few different women academics over the past year or so, and I want to be honest in admitting that I am still not totally sure of exactly what they intend it to mean, or whether the more-inflated-sounding postmodern jargon was simply meant to cow me into submission, MFA-less author that I am. Nevertheless, the term “binary dynamic” seems, to me, to be about the accusation that I think men are one way, women another, innately, always and forever, end of story. On the contrary, as a woman who identifies with radical feminist ideas, I feel strongly that gender is socialized, something human beings learn, and can unlearn, not something innate or inborn.

    I have been glad, as I was careful to mention in the essay, to meet a few men who identify with my response to words like “slut” and who have been supportive in admirably pro-feminist ways of my writing and my questioning of sexist language. These men have been willing to examine and challenge sexism in their own writing as well. I certainly don’t think that anybody’s biological sex determines whether or not she or he will be willing to struggle for women’s equality (this particular essay was, for example, turned down by a couple of female editors before being accepted by a male one, to whom I am grateful for the support, regardless of his particular DNA or genitalia).

    Again, I think it bears repeating, I am not a biological determinist, and do not believe men are hard wired to react in any particular way, and certainly not biologically destined to oppress women. Instead, I believe that men (and women) can change, that we can make responsible choices about the language we use and the world we want to live in. All women do not react one way, all men another, and yet, what I do think it is important to point out is that men, as a class, occupy a position of dominance over and relative to women. Put another way, all men do not have all forms of privilege over all women, but all men do have some forms of privilege over all women. This still, however, does not mean that men cannot reject patriarchy, let go of their privileged status (while still acknowledging that, for the time being, it exists), and work their asses off to help women gain equality. I believe they should, and I know they can.

    I can’t say that I am entirely certain what a social miasma is also, but I don’t pretend to suggest there’s anything flat or simple about women’s situation, definitely not, and I don’t think that’s implied in the essay. Certainly the critique was of the sexist cartoons of specifically female “sluts” on the bookslut site, of the complacent acceptance of the word “slut” itself by the editors, but I don’t believe there’s any place in the essay where I mention women authors being photographed nude on the site, alongside or as part of the annoying cartoons and merchandise.

    To be honest, as much as I love writing poetry and as much as I have always felt an intense joy over reading and creating with words, even taking all that into account, I can honestly say that I’d happily give up my ability to write words like “slut” in poems forever, if it meant I never had to endure being called those words in my life as a female human being again. It may be that real freedom from fear in life and in the world means more to me than “freedom” in language, and yet, as I tried to explain in the essay I have actually always felt silenced and pinned down rather than liberated by words like “slut,” even in my poetry. Again, I’d say the idea of getting to a place where women are not constantly sexually violated by men and where there is no inequality between men and women, would be the best initial goal; then perhaps words can begin to change too, as I think etymologies do not change without changes in social contexts. Simply changing the words without first changing the reality of women’s lives is counterproductive, confusing and alienating to many women “outside the in crowd” I think, and I don’t think it’s a step forward so much as a coping strategy, a way to make living with the status quo seem easier and more bearable. I think reclaiming sexist language is a defense mechanism as one reader pointed out, and again, I understand some women will disagree, but I would love to meet and engage with writers in support of abandoning sexist language altogether, in finding ways to use resistant words and actions that are entirely our own, as one reader suggested.

    This brings me to the fact that, while I support women’s efforts to run for public office, it seems to me there will need to be a more radical restructuring of the entire US political system before running for office will do women much good. I think this is so because, as things now stand, a woman pretty much has to play by the rules men politicians have set up for themselves and her by extension. Particularly, a woman politician can’t afford to be too overt in her critiques of sexism and male dominance; even going above and beyond to emulate masculine political behavior or to accommodate men in power (voting in favor of a racist, anti-Muslim war for example, or standing silently by while one’s husband sexually harasses female employee after female employee, before sticking his cock and cigars in a young woman only a year older than the daughter one shares with this man) doesn’t seem to be enough to get a woman elected President in the US. I think women have not been able to contribute or change as much as artists/writers, teachers, or mothers, (and I would prefer to write the list of possible vocations for women in this order, as it feels important to me to stress women’s art and writing are as important as pregnancy and raising children, and that motherhood, under the current social context, actually ensures in many ways that women are kept in the service of men), not because we have failed to produce work that would bring about rapid social change if paid attention to, but because men have been slow to listen to our work and words, slow to change themselves and their beliefs about women in general; No matter how strong our own efforts as women are at changing the system, I admit that I’m not sure we can ever really alter our social inferiority without men’s cooperation. Men have to change too, and generally speaking, they have more freedom than women to do so.

    It feels important to me to respond to the comment in particular, about Tomaz Salaman’s poem, possibly because as a woman reader I felt so deeply wounded by that line in my early twenties. One of the most heartbreaking and discouraging discoveries for me as a feminist writer has been that, progressive, eloquent, articulate, otherwise brilliant men–poets who are capable of producing extraordinarily beautiful and politically conscious work, who have a keen awareness of issues of war, racism, political persecution and other forms of oppression–somehow seem to lose there integrity when it comes to issues of gender and sexism. Their own sexism and misogynist assumptions about women seem invisible to them. As a feminist in support of the abolition of prostitution and as an activist who has been privileged to work alongside some women survivors of the industry, I do not consider it appropriate to use the word “prostitute” to talk about any woman. I and most abolitionist feminists I know would refer to women in the sex industry as “women in prostitution” or “prostituted women.” I think this newer terminology is wonderful because it stresses the fact that the woman in the industry is exactly that, a woman, a human being, and in that sense she is someone no different from me or any daughter, partner, mother, teacher, or female friend a man may consider fully human. She is not the buying and selling of sexual access to her body; rather, she is a person. I don’t like the term “prostitute” because I think it makes invisible the individual woman’s humanity and emphasizes instead, the industry, the business of prostitution.

    And if, as a feminist, I find the idea of calling a woman “prostitute” offensive, I find the idea of claiming that any woman is or might be appropriately defined as “whore” so far beyond misogynist it seems almost absurd to me to have to explain my objection to that term. And certainly I understand that some men will complain the word “whore” sounds prettier or rhymes better than “woman in prostitution,” but I would say to those men that if they cannot come up with a less sexist way of writing about women and the sale of our bodies, then maybe the best they can do for now is just to be quiet for a while.

    I think, a large part of my rejection of the idea of reclaiming misogynist language has to do with the fact that, as women begin to use these words more frequently, men also feel more entitled to use them, or at least that’s been my experience. I never anticipated how strongly men writers would cling to words like “whore” with the excuse they are valuable because they sound beautiful. I think male (and sadly female too) authors should challenge themselves as to why a word like “whore” sounds eloquent to them. I think it is partly because this word has appealed to men for centuries; the word was and is used to sexualize women in a way many men feel comfortable with. It suggests a woman who likes to be used sexually, who enjoys it, who experiences fulfillment in her dependence on men and men’s money for survival as though there were some authentic, “naturally female” desire driving her into prostitution; men have used the word to mark women in prostitution as masochistic, dirty, sexual in a way they can easily control, desirable but never inaccessible, sexual commodity able to be purchased, always available for a price. I think there are men who continue to find “whore” sexy, romantic, and poetic, and I think the reasons they have that response are rooted in misogyny.

    For a male poet to speak about the “smell of a whore” or woman working in prostitution, as though a “whore’s” vulva somehow smells different from other women’s, feels, to me, fetishizing, degrading, and sexist. What makes a “whore” smell like a “whore” for the poet’s narrator?–Is it the smell of a kind of sex that makes men feel supremely powerful, a smell that’s stuck on her body after being fucked, or is it the smell of all the other men the speaker thinks about having used her, getting off on that image of the collective fucking of women by men, bonding with other men through that collective use women’s bodies? Is it a smell of being able to buy and use another human being whenever one would like, or is it the smell of that kind of abusive, coercive sex itself? The response from men about these kinds of poems always seems to be about, “I was trying to create a character,” or some other BS, but there are other, more feminist ways to critique the horrible things men do to women, ways that avoid titillation and don’t use hateful words at all.

    Every male poet friend I have ever had has admired Salaman as a poet. I think this leads many of them to be unquestioningly loyal to his writing. Yet, I do not think that, simply because one admires the general body of a poet’s work, that poet’s use of language or his ethics when it comes to sexist language and his sense of responsibility, should be beyond question. It has been frustrating and painful to me, that whenever I have broached this particular poem or others like it with men peers, the response has never once been, “That’s important that you had that response. I guess, maybe I hadn’t thought about that interpretation because of my own privilege, but I would like to hear more about your interpretation of the poem, and I think you have a right not to like it as a woman reader.” The response is always, “Here’s why you are not right lady, and here’s why you should like it.” The response is always to correct me, to open my eyes to how this poem was actually meant to be interpreted and read. It feels as though men who react this way may not believe my mind is quite as capable as theirs, because they seem to assume I need help understanding the correct way of reading. And yet, I am a thoughtful reader and poet; I am competent; I am able to think astutely and carefully about a poem; I am able to understand, and maybe, when it comes to issues of sexism at least, my responses as a feminist reader should actually be considered more valuable than men’s, because they are privy to a deeper insight with regards to sexism.

    Certainly it is true that men during war rape women. As a feminist who has done activist work around this specific issue I am not ignorant of it, which I am afraid the male reader may have assumed I was. It’s true that military men frequently prostitute and rape women near military bases, and particularly this happens during times of war when women are often left destitute. Is there really no way to critique what soldiers do to these women, without calling them “whores”? I don’t think Salaman’s poem points out the soldiers’ imperialist rape of women during wartime as a type of abuse, and even to call the soldiers “whores” here, (which I’m personally not convinced he’s doing) as in, people who have no integrity, who willingly sell out themselves and their principles for personal gain, still reinforces the term’s derogatory attitude towards women in prostitution and common misconceptions about why women end up there in the first place. If Salaman wanted to create a pro-feminist work, I feel entitled to say as his reader that, in my view, with this particular poem, he failed. He failed because he opted to use misogynist language when he didn’t have to. He failed by continuing men’s tradition of romanticizing words like “whore.” I imagine hearing that word at a reading of this poem, having to hear it come out of his or any other male poet’s mouth, as a female audience member. It’s awful to think about having to sit there obediently, listening to a male voice repeat the word. As a woman, it’s frightening, belittling, and so painful to think about–It sort of puts you in your place as a woman listener–you have to accept that, on some level, the men still aren’t really writing for or talking to you–they’re talking to the other men in the room.

    I appreciate the willingness of the male reader to engage with me on this topic, and his encouragement regarding the rest of the essay. I think what I am trying to write is, as he says, hopefully about hope, about believing in men’s ability to abandon male-supremist language. I do want to say I try hard to avoid classism in my critiques, and there are working class people in the South, as well as up North, whom I know care about equality for women. In the North I’ve faced street harassment as a single woman, and certainly men have said things as bad or worse to me up here as they did in Georgia. I think the problem is manhood and masculinity, and men are trying to live up to those things all over the country. It’s sad, but I truly remember thinking as a teenager that if I could just move away from the south, the leftist men would be so different, so much better and less sexist than the men I grew up around; it just hasn’t turned out to be the case.

    The last point I would like to address is, I understand many women find the idea of “subversive” language exciting and fun, and yet, the problem for me is, this strategy of “subversion” just doesn’t seem to be working. I think the problem with “subversive” uses of words are that the focus (and blame) remains on women, specifically those of us who can’t get with the program and who still feel devastated by words like “cunt.” What are we supposed to do? I think we’re expected to either push down our pain everytime we hear these words, or just crawl away and die somewhere so that everybody else can continue having their post-feminist party. Everything becomes focused, not on men’s refusal to give up certain language, but on women’s readings and our responses. For a woman to be able to read “Bookslut” as subversive and funny, requires, I think, at least some level of detachment, but I’ve always been a total failure at remaining detached, and I can never read it that way. I and women like me become sort of the sticks in the mud, the ones who just can’t take the joke or understand how it was supposed to be read in context. Again, I think this is all about critiquing and blaming women for our responses whenever they aren’t considered sufficiently devoid of emotion, seriousness or sadness.

    It seems to me that the strategy of being “subversive” appeals to women because it is, in some ways, less painful than direct critique. A woman can feel she is rebelling against oppression and the status quo by “reclaiming” words like “bitch” and “cunt,” even though, as a reader pointed out, this hasn’t actually stopped men from using these words. I think the idea of calling oneself “cunt” can feel appealing to us as women, because doing so does not really alienate men and in fact, thrills many of them and makes you popular (there is a whole genre of pornography for example, where men instruct women to write “cunt” on themselves with lipstick). It seems to me that, if a woman says to a man or metaphorically to the system of male power, “I’m not cunt, not bitch, not whore,” often she will be silenced. If she says it during a fight with a man, she may be silenced with a physical force, and if she says it through her writing, she risks being silenced by men refusing to publish her, refusing to engage with her, simply turning their backs. If a woman writes “cunt” on her body, it’s true that a lot of men won’t turn away. But that doesn’t mean these men are now seeing her as an equal.

    I personally have never witnessed a man reacting negatively to a woman calling herself or her genitalia “cunt” and while I do believe there are men who would react differently, I think there are many men who feel aroused and validated by the idea of a woman willingly calling herself “cunt.” I think anybody could look around right now, at where women are at, at where the women’s movement is and how much ground we’ve lost in the last decade alone, and see that women have been kidding ourselves that subversion works. I think right now we’re regressing, and I don’t think the key to stopping that regression is finding a way to get comfortable with being called “cunt.”

    I am so thrilled and grateful for any woman to call this piece a revolution in itself, thank you for the support. I am 100% in agreement with the statement that there needs to be some kind of revolution, off the page as well as on. I think women should be, and are, organizing, physically, in resistance. I think we have to do it more. Woman-only-space can be a really good starting point for that, and I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer a little with a group in NYC called Gabriela Network, that does fantastic work against sex trafficking, in the context of a feminist, antiwar, anti-imperialist women’s movement. I have learned so much from the women in this group; some of them have traveled across the world, speaking, marching, protesting on behalf of women’s rights. I was at an antiwar march with a group of Gabnet women a couple summers ago, and we had the coolest banners, the fiercest, loudest voices, and I remember one woman, Doris, just bowling everybody over with her energy—she knows how to use the shit out of a megaphone! We were fierce, and I think we were effective, at least for that day; it was a big march, and yet it seemed like everybody kept turning around and looking at us. Nobody seemed used to women being that forceful and loud, and when we were, they took notice. Not a single woman in our group wrote “cunt” on herself and we weren’t chanting “I’m an antiwar-slut.” Instead, we were screaming about equality, and I would love to organize more events like that with women activists. I especially have a dream of organizing a younger women’s march against the sexist, racist, capitalist global pornography and prostitution industries. I think there are lots of ways women can do activist work, other than just writing (though I think writing is important too, and different women have different strengths); I think the problem is, maybe because of postmodernism, many young women think direct, non-subversive feminist actions are “passé” or too “Second Wave” to undertake anymore, so it feels harder to motivate people. It’s depressing, but if we let ourselves be aware of this trend as feminists, I believe we can start to combat it and start making progress again.

    My apologies for going into so much detail, but again, thank you to everybody who read the piece.

    In struggle,
    Stephanie Cleveland

  16. I wonder if reappropriation really is the relevant issue at hand here . . . to me, the true dynamic at the core of the choice to use the word “slut” in this context is to demonstrate the versatility of language. Not to say that words like “cunt,” “slut,” “whore,” etc aren’t used derogatorily (as I also know from personal experience, they certainly are)–but that language, as you say, derives meaning partially from its use and its context. Analytically speaking, if the use of the word “slut” as an insult contributes to its etymological history as a slur, a different use–for example, in “Bookslut”–must also contribute to its history in a certain way.

    Too, I struggle against your simple binary dynamic of “men think of women as X, women deal with it using Y”–that seems a bit too flat for the social miasma at hand. And, in looking at the current Bookslut homepage, I have to notice that there isn’t a majority of male authors on it–and that the female authors featured are, like the men, fully clothed. So it doesn’t seem quite so clear-cut that women on the website are subject to objectification where the men are not, and the context of the website complicates the issue of the implications of the word “slut” itself.

    In response to this–

    “Words like slut, whore and cunt are not about equality or sexual liberation for women; they aren’t really about poetry and women’s passion for reading either. Instead, these words are about misogyny, about continued respect for male dominance and dominant language. I would like to know other poets, both women and men, who feel a world where women don’t have to worry about being called cunt, slut, or whore anymore is possible, because these words no longer exist. I believe that world is possible and worth writing towards.”

    –I suppose I would have to respond that I disagree that words of the sort are not “about poetry” or “women’s passion for reading”; I’d agree, though, that they’re also not “about equality or sexual liberation for women.” Simply, I don’t feel that a set of words can possibly be “about” a single set of objectives or implications; thus, they cannot wholly be “about misogyny” and “about continued respect for male dominance and dominant language.” I wonder, too, whether a world where certain “words no longer exist” is something that a scribbler like myself would ever truly feel comfortable “writing towards.” While I feign no ignorance or naivete regarding the harm inherently associated with certain words, I have to question, since etymologies evolve with use, whether the writing out (so to speak) of any word is truly an exercise worth undertaking.

    All best,

    S

  17. Hi Stephanie,

    The whole issue of reappropriation is really slippery, isn’t it? I read the name “Bookslut” in the tradition of riot grrrls in the mosh pit. On the one hand, the idea of the grrrls writing “bitch” and “cunt” on their bodies in lipstick and magic marker–calling themselves these terms before boys & men could employ them, a sort of preemptive strike–seems really funny and subversive to me. It WAS a way of saying, “Hey, haven’t you heard? Women reclaimed cunt, so it doesn’t hurt anymore” — as you say. But women knew that the mosh pit was a combat zone, so they could go in with their armor already on, so to speak. Most of us walking down the street or jogging in the park don’t have that luxury. (I’m so sorry that happened to you–and yeah, there’s nothing like a real act of assault to make you feel that feminist theories of reappropriation just aren’t going to cut it.)

    On the other hand, I wonder, too, how much reappropriation really accomplishes. It still seems like a defense, not a moving forward — or, Step 1 in moving forward. So, what can be done now? Your essay is a protest in itself; it seems that you’re proposing that women write their resistance. And although I agree that writing (inventing new worldviews and words) is one crucial piece of the puzzle, I also admire the creative actions of riot grrrls and others who dare to make activism as unexpected and in-your-face as possible. And so I want some sort of protest that lives off the page, too–one that uses resistant words and actions that are entirely our own, not just borrowed.

    Another interesting look at some of these issues:
    http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2006/11/war_of_words

    Best,
    Becca

  18. Excellent points, Stephanie, this being one of the key reasons for even worrying about it:

    “US women still live in a country where every day three women are killed by our intimate partners, one in four is raped before she turns eighteen, and the only fields women earn more money in on average than men working in the same fields are modeling and prostitution.”

    I’ve often wondered why women make up roughly 52% of the US population, yet only around, what… 16% of those in public office!? The two best options for change, I think, are either for more women to run for office… or to continue as mothers, teachers, writers/artists, to develop more awareness. Unfortunately, the latter option has proven slow to change.

    As for Salamun’s line… “whores on the shoulders of soldiers”… there are such things as ‘prostitutes’, but the word wouldn’t rhyme like ‘whores’ does. And to make the assumption that the smell on the shoulders does indeed come from ‘whores’ is a highly logical one, considering prostitution and war have been intertwined throughout history (and statistics show higher levels of prostitution wherever there are military bases). Salamun’s line could thus be read as feminist in nature, linking patriarchy and prostitution as tangents of war. My own interpretation of Salamun’s line is that he’s saying more about the soldiers being ‘whores’ of war.

    Kudos to you Stephanie, for learning from your experiences in the rural South (it was a Wal-Mart parking lot in Calhoun, Georgia, where I was first called a “hippie-faggot” simply for having long hair), and for turning those experiences into hopeful conviction, rather than cynical postmodern nihilism.