I came across this piece in The Atlantic a few days back, boldly proclaiming that “there’s no such thing as a slut.” It was occasioned by a recent book written by a couple of academics who studied the daily lives of 53 women as they progressed from freshman to new college graduates.
Two items in this book led to the author’s startling conclusion. First, it noted the differences between how rich and poor students view sluttiness and found that there was no precise definition agreed upon by both groups. In logical terms, leaping from that to the conclusion in the headline is like saying that because Mormons call themselves Christians whereas Christians call Mormons heretics, it means there’s no such thing as a Christian. On the contrary, the fact that Christians exist is one of the things that both parties agree on.
The second item that provoked her conclusion is that the book noted how the slut label was often applied as a general-purpose insult connected to class rather than sexual behavior. Of course, neither does this have anything to say about whether there is such a thing as a slut. After all, we do not hear 13-year-old boys calling their disliked peers ‘f*gs’ entirely apart from any known sexual behavior and conclude that there’s no such thing as homosexuals. The existence of a thing does not hinge on the precision with which humans are able to describe or identify it. All in all, thinking otherwise is about as silly as when, at the end of an article about women calling each other sluts, it describes the word as a mere “misogynistic catch-all, a verbal utility knife that young people use to control women.”
Although it may not logically support the conclusion found in The Atlantic, the study does seem to provide clear examples of how the moral law written on our hearts bubbles to the surface even when society represses it. The first thing we can recognize is that nearly everybody in the study knew to be true what the article denied—that there is such a thing as a slut. That’s why they routinely placed people into that category while excluding others. According to the study, “All but five or six of the women practiced ‘slut-shaming,’ or denigrating the other women for their loose sexual mores.” It seems that class differences leave quite a bit of common ground after all.
The second recognition is that everybody knew that having “loose sexual mores” is a negative indictment—that it is shameful. That’s why they either sought to define the category in a way that excluded themselves or sought to hide their own sexual history so that no one else would categorize them that way. That’s why they were disproportionately eager to label those they disliked as sluts. As the article pointed out, “They conflated their accusations of ‘sluttiness’ with other, unrelated personality traits, like meanness or unattractiveness. It seems there was no better way to smear a dorm-mate than to suggest she was sexually impure.”
The third recognition is that everyone involved knew that being a slut meant frequent fornication—and that the further this fornication was from a marriage-like relationship, the sluttier it was. This too was consistent across the class divisions set up by the study.
The rich women tended to view casual sex as problematic only when it was done outside of steady relationships, and even then, only when it included vaginal intercourse. Meanwhile, frequent “hooking up,” which to them included kissing and oral sex, did not a slut make. “I think when people have sex with a lot of guys that aren’t their boyfriends, that’s really a slut,” as one put it.
The poorer women, by contrast, were unaware that “hooking up,” in the parlance of the rich women, excluded vaginal intercourse. They also tended to think all sex and hook-ups should occur primarily within a relationship.
The “contrast” has to do with technicalities and lingo, but not at all with the bigger picture that sex ought only to be practiced within a relationship that involves some measure of exclusivity and permanence. It’s not exactly a high moral standard, but it’s undoubtedly there and undoubtedly apes marriage to some extent.
How frequent must fornication be to be slutty? How far from a marriage-like relationship can it be? What counts as “sex?” Is Susie really a slut, or is it just a rumor? Here there were disagreements, and it is on these that the article focused. Nevertheless, this focus is itself merely a smokescreen to hide the far wider areas of agreement. Ironically, the author was doing exactly what the subjects of the study did—attempting to find a way to hide favored people (women as an identity group in the author’s case) from a negative moral indictment because this indictment is accompanied by negative social consequences. It’s ultimately just one more way of running away from guilt.
This is precisely the state of humanity that Paul described in his letter to the Romans: “[The gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” We all have knowledge of a moral law that manifests itself in the universal way that we accuse others and excuse ourselves from breaking it. Nevertheless, the knowledge does not do us any good. We have all sinned and fallen short just as the participants in the study were apparently all guilty of fornication regardless of how they applied the “s” word.
Some may try and solve this problem by fudging the line until they are on the right side of it. Others may try to solve the problem by pretending that the line is too blurry to tell for sure which side anyone is on. But blurring our view of it does not change reality. Even people embroiled in hookup culture know that there’s something seriously wrong with it—even if that knowledge never reaches their self-consciousness. Though some would like people to forget that there is such a thing as a slut, sluts along with the rest of us need forgiveness rather than forgetfulness.