Of Sluts and Punishments

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Of Sluts and Punishments

Amanda Marcotte

Anti-choicers believe there ought to be payback for promiscuity - depression, abortion, disease, and being yelled at by your parents.

If there's any one dictum that makes up the backbone of the anti-choice movement, it might be phrased as, "There are sluts in the world and they get what's coming to them." As Meghan O'Rourke recently chronicled in Slate, the entire controversy over the HPV vaccine was over "promiscuity" and whether or not death from cervical cancer was an appropriate way to prevent women from being sluts. While some of us balk at the idea of the widespread death penalty for this ill-defined "promiscuity," opponents of the vaccine had no doubt in their mind that sluttiness and punishment go together like tea and sugar — and breaking the two apart violates some cosmic principle.

The recent lawsuit over a city health clinic that gave a 16-year-old emergency contraception showed the punish-the-sluts logic out in full force. A girl who has sex should be punished with pregnancy or by getting screamed at by her parents, possibly both but certainly one of the two should happen, went the logic. The idea that there's some kind of cosmic justice for sluttitude permeates right wing thinking. Despite the fact that claims that abortion causes breast cancer have been debunked, anti-choicers continue to claim that the only way to avoid cancer is strenuously to avoid the stench of sluttiness. Anti-choicer Karen Malec has started an organization dedicated to telling women that they can avoid breast cancer by marrying and having babies as young as they can. Even though experts have thoroughly debunked the idea that there's such thing as "post-abortion syndrome", i.e. the idea that abortion itself is the cause of depression, anti-choicers continue to insist that it's real, because to them it has to be real. Having an abortion means you're probably a slut, and sluts get punished. Thus depression or breast cancer are punishments for having an abortion, or even just for electing to go to college and have some premarital sex instead of hunkering down into marriage and babies at 18.

With all this interest in sluts and the punishing of them, definitional issues are bound to arise. What exactly is a "slut?" What is "promiscuity?" Karen Malec might define a slut as someone who gets married after the end of her adolescence, but most people would have a more lenient definition of that. Is every woman who has an abortion a slut? What if she's married and has three kids already? Are you a slut if you have premarital sex at all, or just with a certain number of guys? These are not idle questions–if one is advocating the idea that sluts get punished by law, custom, or cosmic justice, it's important to know what a "slut" even is. Only some breast cancer and depression can be traced to prior sluttiness, after all. You have to have a measuring stick to determine who deserved to die of cervical cancer and whose case of HPV was just a case of bad luck.

Because of this need to define who sluts are before they are punished, a great deal of energy is expended by our society in figuring out exactly when a normal woman drifts into slut territory. Even liberal-minded, pro-choice women will often live in fear of being labeled a slut. I cannot tell you how many women I've known who've gone through periods of anxiety that they might be reaching that magical, but always elusive, number of sex partners before they officially become sluts. But somehow, the slut is always someone else, and the number of sex partners that makes a slut is always two more than you have had.

Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.

Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.


Low-level slut anxiety kicks into high gear when it comes to the anti-choice right. Many anti-choicers exhaust endless hours cataloging what does or does not qualify a woman for sluthood. Typical of the genre is the "Modesty Survey" conducted by the right wing Christian website Rebelution, where male members of the website answered an exhaustive list of hundreds of questions to determine the slut factor of various women's (always referred to as "girls" on the site) clothing choices. After reading hundreds of comments and votes analyzing the slut factor of everything from blue jeans to ankle-length skirts, the slut-skittish woman might feel that there's nothing she can wear at all, an apparel choice that in itself might be considered slut-worthy.

Or consider this fascinating blog entry from Debbie Schussel, where she declares lower back tattoos on women to be "tramp stamps", writing, "But, as I've written, a woman who doesn't take long to agree to repeatedly put a needle in her body, generally doesn't take long before she acquiesces to putting other things into her body." I think she's referring to the P-E-N-I-S, which brings up another question about evaluating sluttiness–we all know you get docked purity points for diversity, but what about frequency? If "other things" in the body is what measures the slut, it seems possible that a monogamous woman who has frequent sex with her husband might qualify as a slut, even if he's the only man she's ever slept with? Debbie is too busy snickering at sluts, who of course are always some other woman, to address this taxing definitional issue.

Some anti-choicers get out of the child's play of merely speculating on sluts and go into the exciting arena of field research. While there's no doubt that the misogynists who linger around women's health clinics to take pictures of women and their cars do so to harass women for the high crime of seeking reproductive health services, part of it might also be field research, collecting examples of sluts in the wild so that the true believers can better identify them on sight in the future. (Turns out that "sluts" who use reproductive health services are easily identified by being female and human, at least in America, since 98% of women will use contraception at some point in their lives.) In my town of Austin, roving bands of anti-choicers congregate with their fire and brimstone signs in places they seem to choose for being the natural habitat of the free-roaming American slut, mostly the college campus and sometime downtown at night. They're much like biologists collecting samples, except real biologists generally don't intend to use their knowledge to stomp the collected species out of existence.