One of my “dreams” as a writer involves emulating Hemingway. If this surprises you, you either know me personally or already know that there’s not much about Hemingway that is worth emulating. He was a Pulitzer prize winner, but honestly, I have never been a big admirer of his writing. So what about this ‘great American writer’ is worth emulating if not his writing? His promiscuity and his largesse. Jokingly, I tell people that I’m going to marry a slough of wealthy men and use them to bankroll my writing career, just like Hemingway. I’ll be wildly successful. And then, I’m going to have numerous illicit affairs with beautiful men just because I can. Our stories, Hemingway and I, will diverge (beyond the gender of our chosen partners) when it comes to our deaths. My demise will not occur at the end of the barrel of a gun.
This, of course, is not really my style or my approach to relationships. I told this story to some girl friends recently for the sake of humor. But it ended up sparking an interesting discussion. Between the three of us, we could not come up with a single positive word to describe a woman who is promiscuous by choice. A man who “scores” with lots of women is considered a Don Juan or a Stud. He receives high-fives and back slaps. But a woman is rarely, if ever, viewed in a positive light if she chooses to have sex with numerous partners. When her promiscuity surfaces, she is met with leers, glares and derisive taunts.
If asked, anyone and everyone can come up with a negative word to describe a promiscuous woman. Slut, whore, tramp, they are words that have been around for hundreds of years and somehow remain relevant and a part of our collective vocabulary despite the fact that women (supposedly) now own their bodies.
These words show up everywhere: on the Internet, on television, in the movies and the contradiction that arises due to their prevalence should not be lost on us. Our patriarchal society in one instance sexualizes women. And yet, on the other hand, it criticizes her for the sexual nature it cultivates in her and tells her is the ideal. It calls her a slut and a whore when she chooses to express that sexuality in the form that makes the most sense to her. Even though women are no longer owned by their fathers (at least in our culture) and have their value determined by their virginity, she is still judged for the choices that are her own to make. When a woman decides to be promiscuous, she may or may not receive support from her peers. But most telling is the fact that no word exists that exalts a woman who is promiscuous by choice because it proves that our collective social mindset concerning female sexuality is still very archaic, requiring women to be monogamous or even celibate to fulfill the collective expectation of what is “good”, “right” and “feminine.
I’ve gotten a little political here, but this post was meant to be more about the language itself than a sociological exploration or commentary. So lets move on to the words. What follows is a brief study of the two big words used in modern speech to describe a promiscuous woman.
We’ll begin with the word, slut. Merriam-Webster defines slut as: A promiscuous woman; especially a prostitute. A saucy girl. Immediately from this definition there is a general association with the word slut describing a prostitute. Therefore, one can logically conclude, if they are so inclined, that the words slut and promiscuous, are associated with prostitution. Some promiscuous women are prostitutes. But, not all promiscuous women are prostitutes. Perhaps this is just a case of the need to update and modernize the definition. I don’t know. But if you continue to scroll down the page, you will see that the first known use of this word was in the 15th century. In a lot of ways, attitudes towards sex and women have loosened. Obviously in other ways, they have not.
If we turn to the thesaurus, we are given a very few synonyms with which to work and at least two of these refer to having sex for money. These words express our collective attitude towards a promiscuous woman.
Floozy, Harlot, Hooker, Hussy, Prostitute, Tart, Tramp, Vamp.
When you look up the word whore in the dictionary, you get what can be assumed is a more direct connection between the word and the act of having sex for money. Merriam-Webster defines this word as follows: 1. A woman who engages in sexual acts for money: prostitute. A promiscuous or immoral woman. 2. A man who engages in sexual acts for money. 3. A venal or unscrupulous person. The first known use of this word goes all the way back to the 12th century.
The thesaurus isn’t much help either. The synonyms for whore are pretty similar to those for slut; though I find it interesting that slut is a synonym for whore but not vice versa. The following words bring about the same conclusion: it is bad for a woman to have multiple sexual partners even if the choice is for recreational purposes. Her choice still gets her labeled in a negative way.
Call girl, Escort, Fallen woman, Harlot, Hooker, Hustler, Lady of the evening, Pro, Slut, Streetwalker, Strumpet, Tramp, Working Girl
We could go through this exercise for all of the words that have been mentioned, but that would be a waste of effort and time. As you can see, there are many words that are used to describe a promiscuous woman, no matter whether she is promiscuous for monetary compensation or to satisfy her own desires.
Even when women share their sexual exploits with one another, they call each other slut and whore, but their tones give the words a positive spin. A girl may be sharing her latest experience and her friend may say “You slut” in a playful tone. This may suffice for some, but I find it problematic because using this sort of language as a form of praise suggests that women are also embracing the negative stereotype affiliated with a woman who has numerous partners.
And then there’s the word promiscuous, problematic in its own right though I’ve been using it to write this post. Even the word promiscuous, which is arguably more neutral than other words, brings up a field of synonyms in the thesaurus that are mostly negative in connotation.
Abandoned, Debauched, Dissipated, Dissolute, Easy, Fast, Immoral, Indiscriminate, Lax, Libertine, Licentious, Loose, Of easy virtue, Oversexed, Profligate, Pushover, Unbridled, Unchaste, Undiscriminating, Unrestricted, Wanton, Wild.
Obviously I made the effort to select a word that was less charged when I decided to craft this post and the lack of vocabulary options has left me repeating this word ad nauseum. But there are still numerous problems with this word because many people would be inclined to interpret it negatively. Therefore, it does not suffice as a positive descriptor of a woman who chooses to have numerous sexual partners.
So where does that leave us? Truthfully, it leaves us without a solution. When something is a part of a language, it exists to fill a need. In the past, perhaps there was not a need to be filled due to the role women played. But in today’s society, for the sexually empowered woman, there is now a need. Perhaps we should invent a new word that glorifies or celebrates a woman’s sexual exploits, whatever her choice may be, in the same way that the words Stud and Don Juan glorify a man’s.
I like the phrase sexually empowered woman, but it could get a little bulky. Do you have any ideas?
If any of the above has offended any of my readers, I apologize. I simply was seeking to explore this deficiency in our language. I know that some people will have less liberal views about the activities of a woman and I hope that you will just look at this piece for what it was intended: simply a study of words and language (of course I couldn’t help but to get a little embroiled in the sociology of it all).