Beyond Sluts and Prudes

(Yes, I’m aware this is an interesting follow-on to ‘It’s Not All About The Sex!’ But hey, what the hell. Let’s talk about the sex! Or rather, let’s talk about people’s attitudes to the sex.)

When people want to attack me for being polyamorous (or bisexual, for that matter,) invariably the first thing they come up with is “OMG, you SLUT!”

Firstly, I can reasonably assume that if somebody is calling me a slut, they’re attempting to insult me. I hardly think they mean Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s alternative definition [1] of the word. And what gives someone else the right to throw slurs around because of my choice of lifestyle? Yet they think they can, because we’re taught to believe there’s some kind of moral superiority inherent in sexual monogamy.

The most obvious response to being called a slut is ‘no, I’m not,’ but that really doesn’t tackle the underlying issues here. Another possibility is ‘and so what if I am?’ which digs slightly more into the question of why having (what is perceived to be) lots of sex is such a terrible thing. I’m still working out where I stand on the ‘slut as a reclaimed slur’ thing. In principal, I think turning around a traditionally derogatory term and identifying with it in a more positive way is a good thing, (among my many identities, I define myself as ‘queer,’ for example) but this particular term is not something that feels quite right for me personally.

Slut is thrown around as an insult because it’s often seen as one of the worst things a person (specifically a woman) can possibly be. Have you noticed the intense social importance of your NUMBER? (That is, of course, the number of people you’ve had sex with.) I’ve only recently begun to learn that my “number” isn’t something to be ashamed of or even something particularly important. The fact that it’s higher than zero or one doesn’t make me ‘ruined’ or a lesser person, and the fact that it’s lower than many people’s I know doesn’t mean I don’t match up in some way or have some level of “experience” that I need to catch up with.

What’s interesting is that, amidst being repeatedly called a slut, I’ve also been called a prude, or uptight, or ‘sex negative,’ more than a handful of times. I don’t have casual sex at all these days [2], and made a decision about a year ago to restrict certain activities only to people I’m in love with. For some reason, certain people – and, it has to be said, this comes from within poly space as often as from outside of it – seem to find this really threatening or even offensive, as though my choice is a direct attack on theirs. I am unsure why, as I don’t take a holier-than-thou stance on it, or judge anyone else who makes different choices. This is my decision, for me only, and what is right for me would not be right for somebody else, and vice-versa. Perhaps it is also quite telling that these accusations often come, directly or indirectly, from people who have tried to get me into bed and I’ve turned down.

I’m amazed that it still needs saying that it’s not okay to insult somebody or imply there’s something wrong with them if they don’t want to have sex with you.

Perhaps it’s simply that mainstream culture seems determined to shove all women’s sexuality into one of these two boxes. Slut or prude, virgin or whore, nothing in between. We know sexual orientation and gender are not necessarily binaries. So why, as a culture, do we persistently insist upon presenting women’s sexual choices as a strict one-or-the-other?

People who think I’m having too much sex/sex with too many people/more sex than them label me a slut (or even a whore.) People who I won’t sleep with, or who think I’m too picky, label me a prude. And, from what I’ve heard, this is very common of female experience, even in such supposedly progressive and accepting spaces as polyamorous community.

There’s a whole world out there in between these two extremes, and falling anywhere on that spectrum – including at one extreme or the other – is completely okay! I’m sick of being insulted for my choices. I’m sick of not being able to win. I’m sick of others thinking they know what’s best for me.

If I’m perceived as a ‘slut,’ I’m told I’m being used and taken advantage of by those evil men, because I couldn’t possibly want sex, because woman, right? If I’m perceived as a prude, I’m told I’m repressed and pitied by people who view themselves as more liberated than I am. What about the radical notion that true liberation comes from being given agency to make one’s own choices, and trusted to know what is right for oneself?

So I say no, don’t label me – don’t stick my sexuality into one of your narrow little boxes. I’m just someone who makes my own sexual choices based upon what’s right for me, at any particular time, and right now chooses to only be physically intimate with people I have a decent level of emotional connection with. Umm, is there a label for that?


[1] “A person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”

[2] A post specifically on this will be forthcoming when I finish writing it.

11 thoughts on “Beyond Sluts and Prudes

  1. Martin Röll says:

    You write: “Have you noticed the intense social importance of your NUMBER?” I haven’t. In fact, I have never been asked it, except by one very close partner.
    I am thinking: Is that a UK/German cultural difference? I can’t think of a place or situation where I would get into a conversation about it, let alone have it have “social importance”.

    • missamaranth says:

      I think it’s largely a female issue. Men’s sexual behaviour doesn’t tend to be subject to the same harsh level of criticism that women’s is, in my experience. As Louise has noted, men are praised for promiscuity, whereas women are called sluts and whores. It’s a crappy societal double standard, rather than a cultural difference, I think.

      Then again, I don’t really know anything about German attitudes to sexuality, so there might also be some truth in what you’re saying!

      • I’m a woman and I’ve never had anyone judge me based on my number. Heck, only a handful of people have ever asked, and it was only out of a sense of curiosity. However, I have had it come up in conversation, simply as a data point.

        I know my girlfriend’s exact number, as she is loud and clear about it. She’s pretty much no one’s idea of a whore, though her number is several times higher than mine. My boyfriend (her partner too), I have a decent idea of his number (though I don’t think anyone knows for sure)–it’s lower than hers, much closer to mine, but it doesn’t really matter. My other boyfriend, his is close to mine, but on the lower side of mine, couldn’t care one way or the other.

        Though if you were looking at my data (bi/queer, poly, kinky woman, with n sexual partners), much of society would probably consider me a slut/whore. Even if the n was zero (which it isn’t), those facts would still lead people to believe I was a slut. A man in my shoes might not have quite the same problem, but I don’t think that they would be entirely free of slut-shaming.

  2. louise says:

    The double standards in regards to gender too are really annoying. Women get labelled as being sluts for behavior which is praised in men.

  3. Serina says:

    I find quite a good response to this is:

    Why? By what measure are you basing this one? Are you comparing me just to your own experience? Or by the UK average? Would you consider your own choices to therefore not be that of a slut/prude/virgin/average person etc? How do you know how much sex I have? Are you a stalker? Do you always/never have sex (since that’s the only way they can guarantee I don’t have the same amount of sex as they do)? Why do you assume I do/don’t have sex with all of/only with my long term partners?

    Basically, I bombard them with questions and statistics until they realise how silly their unconscious prejudices are, and lead them to the gentle realization that it’s all fine! Followed immediately by the same process for the total opposite lifestyle to mine, of course.

    This tends to be a tactic I follow only when I’m feeling generous/bored/enthusiastic/aggressive/etc….

  4. Dragonmamma says:

    Interestingly this tendency to put women in labelled boxes happens (erm used to happen and probably still does) in the monogamous heterosexual community too. When I was growing up only “sluts” and “slags” gave it up to men because “nice girls” didnt, but many of the men you refused would then automatically label you “prude” , “Lesbian” etc etc.
    I always assumed it was the ones who were still “little boys” inside shouting naughty words because they couldnt get their own way and therefore it never really bothered me (talk about the superior high ground here!!)
    However I still find there are some people who I wouldnt tell about my current sexual behaviour because they would condemn my actions as “not nice” (I mean really, still married and going out with someone else!! Tut Tut!!!)
    so maybe we are bothered by these stupid stereotypes even when we dont think we are.
    As a general rule of thumb, I would consider any kind of name calling to be at the very least bad manners and poor behaviour and I would probably retaliate in that way. “Goodness, I thought you had better manners than to go name calling, how disappointing” seems to be a perfectly fair me. and so much more effective than either “No I’m not” or “So what if I am”

  5. Byghan says:

    Hmmm. With regard to the OP my impression is that many people tend to criticise other people’s number of sexual encounters because of insecurity in their own level of experience and attractiveness – I have most often been accused of some kind of fault in this respect (and yes that includes both slut and prude) by people most desperate for sexual approval of some form.
    With regard to the comments about gender inequality I must disagree slightly – whilst I have noticed that women are more openly and more frequently taunted I think that the pressure on men to have the correct type and number of sexual encounters is extraordinarily high.

  6. ninjacat says:

    “I’m just someone who … right now chooses to only be physically intimate with people I have a decent level of emotional connection with. Umm, is there a label for that?”

    I think the word you’re looking for is “normative”.❤

  7. Kerran says:

    Or possibly. “Emotionally mature”

    I’d agree with Byghan. The “number” thing is seen as important in that weird male mind-space so many people seem stuck in.

    I taught a lesson on relationships and sex ed once where this was discussed. It was from a slightly different angle, it was about the potential problems of indiscriminate promiscuity but all the males in the class were convinced that they *had* to sleep with as many people as possible because “girls only want guys that have had experience”

    The male pupils were universally shocked to find out that none of the female pupils were impressed…

  8. bimblybee says:

    I’m also someone who only “right now chooses to only be physically intimate with people I have a decent level of emotional connection with” I’ve pretty much always been “I’ll have sex with someone if we both want to/it seems like a good idea.” I tried casual sex out of curiosity and found I didn’t particularly like it, so now it tend not to choose it. But tootally with you re amazement at how defensive people are about it. There is nothing wrong with having different choices. I think for me personally i’m not bothered by the labels (and am happy to chalenge them), because I feel quite secure in my belief that theres nothing wrong with however much someone chooses to have sex and with whom. But I still find myself being/feeling othered for being “boring” or “wierd”, guess I wanted to say your not the only one, and solidarity with respect for people making whatever choices suit them best. Yeah we have a long way to go but thanks for the thread articulating it:) x

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