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.
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.