Coming to Terms With 'Slut'

After publishing my memoir, I learned firsthand how the simple act of being a woman who writes about sex can lead to vicious shaming from strangers.

A few months ago, I published a memoir about the year I initiated an open marriage after my husband’s vasectomy, when I realized I’d never have children. The book, titled The Wild Oats Project, touches on issues that most of us hold dear: love, marriage, sex, children, fidelity. As a protagonist, I was far from perfect. As a writer, I struggled as best I could to tell the raw truth about how these issues played out in my life. I owned up to feelings of rebellion and anger and described in detail how I pursued sexual liberation in midlife. When I fell short morally—and I don’t mean by having a lot of sex—I indicted myself, either in the moment or in retrospect. I wrote about seeking my husband’s forgiveness.

When you write a book about sex, you can expect a reaction. Social media, of course, can both intensify the reaction and lower the level of discourse. But it’s the combination of social media and sexism that filters an entire range of potential feedback down to its surprisingly predictable essence, as I learned from tweets and Facebook messages directed at me after my book was published. A small sampling of the comments I received:

filty whore, I hope you caught the clap.

Sorry, @Robin_Rinaldi, in my world there is a word for “happily” married women who spend a year bedding many men and that word is #slut

Stupid old whore! To get a forum on TV promoting cheating?? Fuck off!!!!

Robin, face it, you're a self centered slut! Your book is bullshit. Why don't you become a porn star?

you are one nasty skank ass. nothing but a cum dumpster. worthless with nothing to offer a man but a hole.

You are a fucking whore! ... I hope you and your fucking books burn in hell.

By no means was I alone. Last year, when the Guardian columnist and author Jessica Valenti asked a simple question on Twitter about tampon use in third-world countries, tweeters referred to her “giant gaping vagina,” recommended she get a “free hysterectomy,” and reminded her that, in the Middle East, “they sew your vagina shut for being a loud mouth.” When the media critic Anita Sarkeesian dared examine feminine tropes in video games, she received rape and death threats that make my hate tweets read like brunch invitations.

Social-media trolls aren’t always men, and their targets aren’t always women: see Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. But the pattern of misogynists attacking a woman who has spoken up too boldly, either about sexism or sex itself, proved true in my case. While an almost equal number of men and women responded via social media or email, the violently shaming messages—ones that included name-calling, obscenities, or wishes for my harm—were almost exclusively from men. Trollop, skank-ass, cum dumpster. These florid alternatives were outnumbered by the oft-repeated whore, which itself was outnumbered by the perennial favorite: slut.

The dictionary definition of slut is surprisingly benign:

1. chiefly British :  a slovenly woman

2. (a) a promiscuous woman; especially: prostitute (b) a saucy girl: minx

The word “slut” has a lengthy etymological history, but like other loaded slurs, it’s been appropriated in recent decades by its targets, in this case women claiming the word for themselves. It’s common to hear women affectionately call one another sluts with a dash of bravado. Etsy sells girlfriend birthday cards that read: “You dirty skanky whore, I love you, don’t ever change.” It’s a word in transition; one whose power dwindles by the day. The more we use it in conversation and humor and art, the more we strip it of harm. But it’s a slow and uneven process, made possible only by women’s tangible political and economic strides out in the world. Its current impact and meaning depend on context, on the woman’s maturity level, on geography and race and socioeconomic status.

As an adult, white American woman with a college education and relative economic security, I had more freedom than many to experiment with the meaning of “slut.” Indeed, one of my main goals during my year of open marriage was to explore the archetype, and to transcend the fear instilled by small-town Catholicism of the ’70s. This same freedom doesn’t necessarily extend to young girls whose formative self-worth and social lives are still damaged by such labels. Or to adult women of color who have historically been hypersexualized. Nor does this privilege extend to the vast numbers of women who live in cultures that legally constrain what they wear, whom they speak to, where they go, how much schooling they receive, all in a Draconian effort to control their sexuality.

But even I, someone who walked straight into the fire by writing a sex memoir, was shocked by the emotional gap between a friend or lover using the term playfully and a strange man slinging it at me with malice. Immediately, the history was called up, the genetic memory aroused. I sensed my kinship to the women halfway around the world who are flogged, imprisoned, or buried up to their necks and stoned to death for alleged sexual offenses—a kinship it’s too often easy for me to ignore in my daily life.

Each new message was a punch to the gut: My breath caught, my hands went cold, a tingling spread beneath my skin. The tone turned Biblical, implying outcasts and witches, diseases and hellfire. Though I was a feminist who’d just written an explicit account of sex, I inwardly shrunk to someone small, young, and terrified of being ousted from the tribe. How dare I think I could own my sexuality, break from convention, or explore dark themes? My body was not my own territory with which to experiment; it was theirs, and they had arrived to plant their flags.

But slut-shaming only succeeds if it alters behavior. Its primary corrective purpose is to corral a woman back into line, to shock her with such a jolt that she stops doing things that trouble others. In a slut-shamer’s ideal world, the label would act preemptively. Notice, though, the modern woman’s relative lack of fear, how she goes about living her life regardless, so that by the time the commenters arrive, it’s too late. After the presidential blowjob. After the sex tape. After the onstage twerking, or the provocative article. Notice how the very use of the word in such instances says more about the speaker than the target.

In the long run, slut-shamers weren’t going to stop me from saying or doing anything. More immediately, though, some of their punches landed. In bed with my boyfriend, I didn’t want even the remotest hint of dirty talk. I watched the familiar internal dance wherein anger that has nowhere to go twists back on itself. I intentionally over-ate, relishing the comfort of both food and extra flesh. My mind chatter turned caustic about the most mundane things: how stupid to not get the cheaper airfare, what an idiot I am. I dashed off an email to my brother 3,000 miles away, asking him, “If I’m ever homeless, can I come live with you?”

That’s what public slut-shaming conjured up in me: not mere embarrassment or outrage but fear of total exile. I reflexively turned to my nearest male relative for protection even as a mental voice sneered at me for doing so. My brother wrote back to say yes, of course I could live with him. He went on to remind me that my family and friends were proud that I’d taken on difficult terrain. He rhetorically asked how many people would come out looking perfect if they exposed their entire relationship history on paper. He listed off the rational, decent men who’d helped bring my book to fruition: the fellow writer, the agent, the ex-husband, and current boyfriend. “You knew there would be slut-shaming,” he concluded. “I can’t even imagine this bothers you. If it does, cut that shit out, now.”

I tried. I blocked the abusive accounts, saved all the messages and tweets to a Word file, and stashed it in my “To Do” folder, where it loomed on my desktop, daring me to open it. I put it off for months. On one level, I knew these were just trolls, and other writers had unanimously advised: Don’t feed the trolls. As I blocked a few, a quick glance at their profile pages produced a deep sadness in me—for them. In quieter moments I even felt like I could sense the terror below their rage, a reflexive shrinking from chaos that I recognized in myself: If women pursue sexual freedom, where do we all end up? What happens to the family, to children, to society, to love? The only reason I felt free to even try an open marriage was because I didn’t have children. I wondered how many of these guys were husbands, fathers, men with their own cacophonous appetites, men with something to lose. Or, worse still, what if they were men with nothing to lose?

I debated trashing the file, deleting the Twitter account. But what if instead of feeding the trolls, I let them feed me? Instead of pushing it out of my mind or retreating, I wanted to digest the shame and fear they’d brought to the surface and process it into something others could use if and when they found themselves in a similar situation. After all, you don’t have to write a sex memoir to be the target of misogynist wrath. All you have to do is dance or dress a certain way, state an opinion too loudly, talk about tampons or video games.

When I finally did open the file, here’s the message that haunted me most:

so how does it feel being a worthless degenerate? … hows it feel knowing your family line will die with you and you have no place in the world? hows it feel knowing you probably got herpes from the last 20th guy you slept with? its good youre already aging and your looks (which werent that great to begin with) are slooooowly fading away. soon youll be nothing but a whithered husk of a woman, sitting in your rocking chair unable to move without shit dripping down your ass, and wishing you had grandchildren to tell them about the time you were a total slut and made your beta weakling husband cry in his bed ... hope you get AIDS

Never mind the fact that I didn’t get herpes or HIV, that I don’t mind my average looks or my age, that grandchildren were no guarantee I’d be cared for in my dotage by anyone other than a nursing home employee. What my mind kept going over was the image of shit dripping down my leg, and making my husband cry. I kept flashing forward to the shit and backward to the tears. I had caused those tears. I wasn’t blameless.

Eloquent letters from readers helped me parse out this important difference, the line between violent shaming and real moral debate. In addition to letters of thanks from people going through a similar marital crisis, many readers wrote considered paragraphs about commitment, desire, sacrifice. One woman wrote: “At times I hated you, then I would feel great empathy for you, then I’d be envious of your situation, then I’d hate you again.” A 71-year-old man wrote, “I think the reason my marriage worked out and yours didn’t, despite similar themes, is that I didn’t bring childhood damage into it.” I had lengthy correspondences with a few of my most engaged readers that illuminated new aspects of my own story. It illustrated the huge gap between people who could respectfully communicate their reactions and opinions versus those who could only project hate onto the messenger.

We all make mistakes. Much of literature—addiction stories, divorce stories, coming-of-age stories—not to mention songwriting and filmmaking, is a recounting of those mistakes. In both art and real life, men are allowed the freedom to err, to be complicated. Tony Soprano and Walter White can be both murderers and loving fathers. Bill Clinton can be a womanizer and a great politician. Several of my own artistic heroes have disastrous track records as far as fidelity goes: Robert Plant, Leonard Cohen, Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s futile to even begin to list them. We assume great men will give in to lust.

As the writer Caitlin Moran says, feminism is “simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.” Freedom is not purity or discernment. Freedom is freedom. Pop culture has begun offering up portrayals of women living out messy arcs: nurses stealing drugs, suburban moms dealing drugs, whole prisons of women doing time, comedic heroines using men for sex. But these are, for the most part, fictional. The next step is to stop freaking out every time a woman does what men have been doing for ages. Feminism is not about moral perfection. It’s about equality.

Neither my decision to open up my marriage nor to write about it were intended as feminist statements. I wasn’t thinking of patriarchy when I went looking for lovers; I was thinking of fulfillment and adventure. And when I began writing about it years later, I was thinking of capturing on paper the marital and midlife dilemmas I saw playing out in many lives beyond my own. It wasn’t until afterward that I began to think about patriarchy, as people asked sexist questions (“Weren’t you afraid you’d be hurt or killed if you sought casual sex?”), made sexist assumptions (“You agreed to forego kids if your husband didn’t want them”), sent sexist messages. I didn’t notice how thick and high the wall of sexism was until I bumped up against it.

But on closer inspection, what is this wall made of? Thoughts and words. Patriarchy has, for the most part here in the West, been written out of the code of law. It is currently dying a slow—sometimes excruciatingly slow—death in the realms of government, commerce, and art. It’s been weakened to the point where women’s own interpretations can affect it, in varying degrees.

I was surprised by how quickly slut-shaming influenced my mood, my confidence, my daily habits, my relationships. But it passed. It is not sustainable. I say this knowing that some women have gone offline (temporarily, I hope) to shield themselves from ongoing harassment, knowing I’d do the same if I felt it necessary to my physical or mental health. I’m aware that women younger and less privileged than me are more vulnerable to the effects of slut-shaming and may take contrary, completely valid, approaches to it. By embracing the experience, I mean to neither ignore them nor speak for them. Feminism isn’t one size fits all. Its lopsided progress happens in fits and starts. Some of us lobby Congress and some forge non-traditional careers and some make art and others simply survive. Sometimes we need to retreat and lick our wounds while others take up the slack.

For now, I’m taking up the slack. I’m containing the words of those who tried to shame me. If I sit still enough, I can even muster up compassion for the bullies whose pain and terror I can clearly see, even if they can’t.

Because in the long run, what choice do we have but transcendence? Dress modestly? Curtail our language and artistic expression and sexual choices? Plead and argue for others to treat us with the same respect they give men and hope that someday they’ll come around? Appealing to the rational masses to put a stop to it makes you dependent on their response, which in turn often depends on how the social tide is turning that day, how much the cruel world has already taxed their empathy. I’d rather put harmful words to a higher, immediate purpose—swallow them, digest them, let them make me stronger.

We have the vote, birth control, education, and access to employment. It’s nowhere near perfect, but 78 cents can still buy a woman enough freedom to speak her mind and do as she pleases. Right now, this is what I’m doing. I’m inoculating myself against “slut” in the knowledge that one day, the word will be as obsolete as patriarchy itself. I’m granting myself, and any other woman who wants it, permission to hunger, to fail, to speak, to write. To make and learn from our mistakes. To blunder about with as much mediocrity, moral and otherwise, as we can muster.