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Take It Back: 5 Steps to Reclaim a Dirty Name

How feminists can turn ‘slut’ into a term of empowerment.

Following the brouhaha in February when Rush Limbaugh called university student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ for arguing before Congress in favor of a private mandate for contraception coverage, a handful of campaigns have sprung up leveraging the epithet to further their cause. It's breathing new life into the decades-long feminist movement to repurpose the word ‘slut’ from a shaming slur into a symbol of sexual choice.

Sluts Across America launched in April; Rock the Slut Vote and Sluts Unite in June. The groups are all saying basically the same thing: If wanting the right to control your own sexual decisions makes you a ‘slut,’ own it.

For centuries minority groups have challenged the status quo by taking back ownership of the terms used to vilify them. Here’s a look of what’s worked for these groups, and what we can glean from their successes to learn how to reclaim an epithet.

Step 1: Say it first

Obviously, you have to use the word—and beat the people using it hatefully to the punch. Self-labeling is a defense mechanism we use all the time in our daily lives. Ever tripped and quickly called yourself a klutz before anyone else could insult you? Or preemptively declared you’re a ‘bitch’ just after going on a rant about your irritating neighbor?

Self-esteem is at the root of culturally reclaiming a word. By watching others feel positive about adopting the label, people who had been ashamed can proudly identify with the group, and it snowballs from there. “What makes these words sting is our own internal dislike,” says Janet Hardy, coauthor of The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities. ‘If you know what you think about yourself, you’re going to care a lot less about what other people think about you.”

Words are empty—“a set a phonemes and that’s all,” Hardy says—until we assign them a meaning. Being the first to assign that meaning can give a targeted person, or group, the upper hand. “No word can be bad. It has only what power you give it,” says Hardy. “And the more rarely it’s used, the more shock value it has and the uglier it becomes.”

Step 2: Brace for backlash

Some people say an epithet shouldn’t be used under any circumstances, in any context, because it can never be separated from its original, abusive meaning. There’s still a debate in the black community over whether the N-word should ever be uttered (Bill Cosby has crusaded against its use), and the casual use of ‘slut’ is even more hotly contested.

The controversial SlutWalk marches that sprung up last year in cities around the world put the debate under the spotlight. Women rallied, often dressed provocatively as self-branded ‘sluts,’ to protest how victims of sexual violence were shamed by men’s excuse that they were “asking for it” based on their appearance. The movement spurred a feverous backlash from feminists, government officials, other minority groups (black women in particular), and so on, all saying the use of the label was demeaning and counterproductive.

Leora Tanenbaum, author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, shares in this discomfort. “I applaud the efforts of the organizers to raise awareness,” she told me in an email, “But I remain uncomfortable with the strategy of marching publicly semi-nude with ‘slut’ written on one's body. Many marchers enjoy themselves, but observers are led to believe that it's acceptable to label oneself—and others—a ‘slut.’ Without education, this is the takeaway message.”

Tanenbaum is in a camp of people that argue it’s better to get rid of the dirty word altogether. But others say sweeping a term under the rug isn’t as effective as taking back ownership of it.

Step 3: Embrace the stigma

There are a couple ways to go about reclaiming a derogatory word, explains Adam Galinsky, an ethics professor at Northwestern University who’s been studying re-appropriation for 15 years. There’s claiming it—excluding anyone else from using it—and then there’s reclaiming it, flipping the meaning on its head by extolling the “negative” stigma as a positive thing. So, not only is it not a bad thing to be black, or gay, or nerdy, or sexually free, it’s a good thing—an awesome, cool thing that other people might want to be too.

With this approach, the power that the slur carries can be harnessed and wielded as a weapon of political power. This tactic works especially well for descriptive labels, like ‘fat,’ or ethnic slurs, which are derogatory only because society deems that attribute as bad. ‘Queer’ is also a good example. Up until 20 years ago it was an offensive insult, but in 1990 an activist group fighting homophobia deliberately named itself Queer Nation, marking the first time the word was used with its reclaimed meaning in the public sphere, explains Robin Brontsema, author of the study "A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation." The group chose term specifically because it was often used for gay-bashing—simultaneously recognizing the stigma and rejecting it. Today the word is commonly used as an inclusive term for the LGBT community and a celebration of diversity.

In the same way, feminists repurposed ‘bitch’ (to some extent) to express that it’s ok to be a strong, assertive woman. Bitch Magazine, started in 1996, explains why it picked the taboo term for its name on the magazine’s website: “When it’s being used as an insult, ‘bitch’ is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment.”

Can this work with ‘slut’? It’s a challenge, no doubt: The stigma connected to the word is, well, dirty. Literally. One of the first known references to the word was by Chaucer in the 14th century, to describe “an untidy man.” It morphed into an insult directed specifically at woman with “loose sexual morals,” or even more to the point, “with the morals of a man.” Feminists hope to use the term to expose this ludicrous double standard, question the expectation of monogamy, and reestablish sex as a choice, not a duty. The Ethical Slut drives the point home, defining the word as someone “who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you."

Step 4: Make it mainstream

The strategy of repurposing a taboo word doesn’t do much if the effort never leaves the fringe. People need to get on board. To some extent this happens naturally—the organic growth of a grassroots movement. It can also be edged along by cultural trendsetters like music, movies, TV, and celebrities, which increase the visibility of “taken-back” words. When rap music exploded onto the scene in the 1980s and 1990s, the N-word became ubiquitous, helping to normalize it. More recently the explosive popularity of technology and social media have made once-shunned traits like ‘nerdy’ and ‘geeky’ cool, led by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, as The Atlantic Wire recently wrote.

Individual efforts can be encumbered by the very mainstream they find themselves defined by. The biker group Dykes on Bikes tried for two years to trademark its name, but was rejected over and over by U.S. trademark officials ruling under the Lanham Act that the mark was “self-disparaging” to the group. “The trademark people kept saying, ‘no, this is disparaging to lesbians’ and they said, ‘no, we are lesbians!’” attorney Todd Anten explains.

The name was eventually approved, opening the floodgates for others requests to go through—representing a kind of tipping point. “They say no, no, no, and then something happens and then there’s a lot of yeses,” Anten says. “Right in-between there, when it’s unclear, that’s when you start to see random stuff happening all over.” Case in point: Heeb Magazine’s request to trademark its name—which is a variation on the anti-Semitic slur ‘hebe’—was approved in 2003 but then denied four years later when the company resubmitted the request for its website.

Comedian Damon Wayans had even less luck trying to trademark ‘Nigga’ for his clothing line six years ago. Officials said that even though the word had been taken back within the black community, it was still extremely off-limits and shocking to anyone “outside” the group—“almost universally understood to be derogatory,” a trademark examiner told WIRED magazine in 2006. The process of mainstreaming had hurtles it couldn’t clear, as it still does today.

Step 5: Take action

In the best-case scenario, re-appropriating a word will be galvanized by political or social action, says Galinsky. The first public uses of the N-word were in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was underway, he points out. ‘Queer’ started its journey after the gay rights movement had already scored some legislative victories.

We’re seeing this now with the use of ‘slut’ to advocate for the women’s sexual health issues at stake in this year’s upcoming election. Rock the Slut Vote’s mission says “we will wrest the power from the word ‘slut’ and help women get informed, get involved, get registered and vote.” There’s a lot of speculation about whether it can work—just like there is for any of the hateful terms that are in various stages of their evolution. But the people trying say it’s worth the effort if it means squeezing some good out of a word that’s hurt so many people for so many years.

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