Ten years ago I was starting high school, and my relationship with the word “slut” has never stopped evolving since then. About six months after I started ninth grade, I was certain that I would be a slut. I attached no kind of moral identity to this word, negative or positive, and didn’t realize that most of the world did.
I pictured a “slut” primarily the way a man would remember an elusive, mysterious Venus who he still longs for years after she flutters out of his grasp. I pictured the woman that Mick Jagger describes in “Anybody Seen My Baby”—a fleeting image of erotic vapour that you can’t hold onto, tantalizing and indescribable.
I’m not sure where my romanticized idea of the meaning “slut” came from specifically. I can’t actually recall how it was presented to me, only that it seemed inevitable that this exalted, liberated status would suit me quite naturally. But then, this was when I still pictured sex as an encounter that produced iridescent light emanating softly from both bodies, without any associated mess, noise, awkwardness, or disease.
I say that I thought it would suit me well to be this perverse outsider because I was an alarmingly unusual child. I’ll write a follow-up post eventually to explain how much so eventually, but it satisfies my purpose here just to say that I had been the most bizarre sore-thumb even in the county’s gifted program. When I thought of a “slut”, I always pictured an intelligent but unusual woman who didn’t fit into the fabric of society, but was comfortable with being an outcast, and was regarded by men as a worthy adversary. At fifteen, it seemed a natural matter of course to me that a strange, perverse child would grow into this erotically free and unique woman called a “slut”.
Looking back, I wonder if this is all a result of how deeply young girls are conditioned to view their personalities as inseparable from their sexual choices. So much so that I would think that being erotically free and unique had anything to do how much sex I had. But when I’m kinder to myself, I concede that even an intelligent child can’t be expected not to associate the great unknown Sex with romanticized qualities. I’m sure everyone did it—it’s the nature of any unknown, and any innocent.
However, no matter WHAT definition of slut we’re looking at – the traditional, patriarchal shaming term – the unashamed modern Millennial who joins in the annual Slut Walk – the playful name you call your friend when she texts you about the rando she made out with last night— to my disappointment and shame, I grew into none of these. Every single month of my fifteenth to nineteenth year, I waited in expectant, certain anticipation of the moment of activation that would begin my destiny as this glorified archetype of elusive, memorable female power.
I remember sitting in my family doctor’s office at fifteen, and she asked me if I was sexually active. I considered my answer for a moment, not wanting to confess my inexperience even to a woman who’d known me since I was five, but chickened out.
“Not yet,” I wagered carefully. “But I plan to be so very soon.”
She had a pile of birth control in my hand within seconds, which I then proceeded to keep in my locker as a grand sigil of pride where all my friends could see them. I kept those pink-and-green packets around long after they expired, delighted by their suggestiveness and the identity they seemed to bestow with or without action on my part. But as for action itself, I really didn’t get much.
Don’t ask me how a perverse, bizarre, frumpy child ended up being friends with four older boys and their associated friends during her high school years. But when they adopted me as a friend I felt, among other things, snugly secure that my destiny as a glorious slut who had interesting weekly adventures would soon begin. I started going to parties at their houses, drinking, smoking pot, and being generally rambunctious – but true sluttiness eluded me.
I recognize only now that the reason I was so well-protected from their repeat advances was an unnerving and disquieting absence of teenage lust in me. I liked the attentions of one particular boy, liked talking to him, loved being alone with him, and assumed I must be attracted to him – however I would find myself bored, eyes open, counting time when he kissed me or put his hand under my shirt. Physically, he was an astonishingly beautiful specimen. I’m disturbed with myself when I look back and wonder how this slender, quiet Adonis failed to awaken my latent chemical reactions. I only know that it wasn’t until I was twenty-two that I realized the difference between the non-sexual, childlike adoration I had for him, and the actual gravitational tug of true physical attraction.
Mentally, I was highly erotic and had been as far back as I could remember. I wrote detailed erotic stories that dealt with complex power exchanges and gripping suspense between parties, but I recognize now that having an advanced erotic identity does not necessarily mean you have an advanced sexual identity. I was obsessed with eros; I drooled over Moulin Rouge and its portrayal of an excessive, decadent paradise of desire and darkness. I devoured Anne Rice’s fecund descriptions of blood, velvet, languor and the loneliness of immortality. When I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Since I Been Loving You” or “I’m Gonna Crawl”, my eyes would involuntarily roll back in my head and my nerves would light up in waves of feeling all over my body – a condition I still suffer from today and the reason I can’t listen to certain music in public. To this day, I think Erotics ought to be taught the way Ethics and Aesthetics are taught—as a classical field of intellectual and artistic exploration. But sexuality—the inexplicable, irreducible, senseless—remained a mystery to me.
A rumour started around eleventh grade that I was, in fact, a major slut. When I was told of this, I was thrilled. Without even having to engage in any amourous activity, I had achieved the status that I still didn’t understand. I still didn’t realize that word “slut” did not mean what I thought it meant to men or women, no matter if they regarded it as a good or bad thing. I didn’t realize there were emotional consequences to sex, the worst of all being numb. I was still caught up in the romance of the word, of the thrilling character it allowed me to play. Without explicitly lying, I made sure all my friends thought I was more experienced than I was. I wasn’t bashful about flirting, talking about sex in front of boys, or acting the part of a brazen. I wore this one pair of pants—if they can even be called that—that a boy confessed to me used to give him erections in the library (they were more like short-shorts with garter belts that attached to the rest of the pant leg). Now that I understand more fully what is contained in the male gaze, I’m far too wary to wear them outside now.
I wasn’t bashful about any of this because I had no idea what flirting connoted, what the pants connoted, what my behaviour connoted to others. At eighteen I had never interacted with anyone’s genitalia, never had to push away someone for being too rough, never recognized that there is an uncomfortable, distasteful, even frightening side to sexuality. I wasn’t bashful because it was all theoretical, and had never threatened me or compromised me. I’m grown now, and while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman following her impulses and instincts, I recognize now that someone with a mind and personality like mine would never have been able to emotionally handle or tolerate ANY definition, positive or negative, of being any kind of slut.
I don’t use the word with any kind of moral connotation, but if we must use that word, to indicate the level of comfort a person has with sharing their bodies with others. Let me try to explain. At a slumber party I went to at seventeen, I listened quietly to two girls talking about how they couldn’t understand what the boys they were interested wanted. I had nothing to contribute, so I listened for clues. But then they turned to me and one said “You get boys interested you. How do you do that?”
The other said “She plays hard-to-get. I’ve seen her do it, she’s really good at it.”
I was surprised, because I had never had any notion of playing; if anything, I thought that I’d made it easy for men because I acted so experienced. But in that moment I realized something about myself.
“I don’t play hard to get,” I conceded regretfully. “I think I just am hard to get.”
I started realizing that I had many involuntary defences in place. It took years to recognize them all, but the first I recognized was that I was never interested romantically in someone unless they seemed different in some radical way—wildly intelligent, outstandingly creative, even just as unskilled in blending in as I was. Unless I could identify with or respect someone, I’d feel nothing towards them. I don’t do this in the hopes of finding a “worthy” suitor. It’s not a standard I ever decided to have. It’s an involuntary part of me that kept me insulated from sexuality even through the storm of teenage hormones, a filtering system that I have no control over. The tragedy is that I never had any chance of becoming a slut. My outer line of defences is as reflexive as a sphincter—it prevents me from enjoying any kind of sexuality that isn’t charged with a non-sexual subtext, be that intellectual connection, emotional identification, intrigue for the profoundly unique/unusual, or even admiration for the uncommon goodness of someone’s heart.
I wish I could surrender to the simplicity of pure sexuality the way other people seem to be able to. I wish I could separate my thinking mind from my sex-brain. But you’re talking to someone who had an active erotic imagination for years before most kids even start health class in sixth grade. I can surrender, but only once my mind has approved a would-be challenger as appropriately rare, special, uncommon beyond his or her choice in hair colour or taste in clothes. I infrequently identify these individuals, but when I do, the desire to surrender to my impulses is as powerful as anyone’s—I’ve simply had a lot more experience learning to control them.
By no means do I think this is a morally superior way to be—morality indicates choice, and I only pretend that my pickiness is an act of choice to feel like I have any control over it. I’m trapped by it, if anything. I wish I could just be attracted to someone based on their appearance and interest in me—but unless they get through my involuntary screening process, I can only receive their attentions with disdain or extreme guilt.
There have been a couple young men, in recent years, who I have respected and enjoyed the company of immensely. Men who offered their affections in very respectful ways, and to whom I could only say “I’m sorry. I wish I had executive control over my heart.” But I don’t—I can’t even be swayed by material wealth or social position, though it would have served me well in the past to be more materialistic.
I briefly dated a pilot, who was also studying for pre-law. He had money, a car, he cooked me dinner, and went with me to ballets. He looked like young Nick Carter, which explains my initial interest, and was intelligent enough to make me try to override my own boundaries. I wanted to be more interested in him, but none of it was enough. I ended up telling him to leave me alone when his texts became too gynaecological. And I recognized a terrible flaw in myself that I may be powerless to cure.
I need to feel like someone has unfettered access to my mind because I can let them have any access to my body. I need to feel like I would tell them almost anything before I’ll do anything for them in bed. I need to feel like they know me so well that I can’t hide anything from them before I’ll let them see me unclothed. And I encounter these creatures so rarely that I simply don’t have the opportunity to be a slut. I’m sure I would be if those who passed my screening filter were more numerous, but through some trick of genetics, I am essentially a G.I. Joe that comes equipped with every tactical defence accessory you came buy.
I wish flesh was enough. I wish the feeling of skin-on-skin was enough to overcome the feeling of numb meaninglessness I get when I try to make myself engage in activity with someone I barely know, or know too well to kid myself that I like them. But my brain reaches out into every part of my body. It has spies and special agents in every blood vessel and nerve ending. It has nothing to do with intelligence—when I say my brain won’t let me be a slut, that is NOT a comment on “being too smart to be a slut”, a sentiment I’ve been accused of having. I’m fascinated by the intelligent women I know whose formidable, eloquent minds seem to allow them so much freedom to indulge and explore. My own formidable, eloquent mind simply doesn’t allow the same.
When someone calls me a “prude”, it’s hilarious and exquisitely painful to metabolize. I want to tell them how determined I was to be anything BUT a prude. I want to tell them that all it takes to get me turned on is the opening notes of a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance, or an icy wind slicing up the inside my winter jacket. I want to tell them that I have an enormous fount of sexual energy and an unfathomable well of erotic curiosity. That watching a conductor command his orchestra makes me drag my nails over my throat in desire. I wish I was a prude or a slut—either would be easier to manage than being such a unrelatable contradiction.
I’m afraid for the men who pass my filter and give me permission to unleash this energy on them. I’m afraid that any human male can’t handle a sexuality that is rooted directed into the brain stem, amplified exponentially by imagination, acute sensory sensitivity, synaesthesia, and undercurrents of sadomasochism. I can’t even handle my sexuality at times; how could I ask some poor, unsuspecting man to? I think that’s why I like the idea of a man from a war-torn country who’s already seen more horrifying things than I can imagine and won’t be frightened when my energy hits him like a Japanese bullet train.
But then, it occurs to me that sexuality isn’t really meant to be controlled. It’s not supposed to make sense. Beyond the qualifiers “consenting” and “adult”, there’s really no moral territory it needs to honour. And maybe it only feels like mine must be perversely disproportionate to the rest of the world’s because they have more experience with letting it out around people. Perhaps there’s a lot of women who, like me, worried that they were going to accidentally wound the guy they were with, but who’ve learned from experience that it’s actually harder to fuck someone to death than you think.
Maybe once I reconcile my ruthless independence with the art of well-managed surrender, I might finally get to have my slutty phase. I’m truly restless for it to begin, since my sexual encounters have been as few and far between as a sparse chain of islands in the mid-Atlantic. And I often find it paradoxical that a woman who pole-dances, who writes erotic novels, and who spent a freaking summer in a frat house, gets as little action as I do. I just can’t imagine going out to pick someone up at a club and letting them come home with me—what if they want to use my shower? What if they touch my books? How do I say “time to leave” when they want to lie around watching Netflix after? These are things I would only share with a good friend, not a good-looking rando.
I am a Victorian father’s dream-come-true: a daughter who comes ready-equipped with all the defences against dishonourable behaviour. Unfortunately, I don’t think sex is dishonourable, or really related to honour at all unless you’ve mutually agreed to be faithful to someone. But these defences are integrated into me as thoroughly as if I were a cyborg. It’s maddening to be a slut by nature, confined to a mind that is essentially a nunnery.
One of my goals in 2015 is to find ways of exploring impulses that don’t impinge upon natural instincts; there has to be a communication there. I don’t believe these boundaries are as implacable as they’ve always seemed. It may begin with being kinder first to myself, and so to other people. I’m quick to write off potential suitors quickly, but my favourite experience is when people surprise me, when I’m proven wrong.
I listened to “Tale as Old as Time” the other day, and really heard one of the lyrics for the first time that I think applies here:
“Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong.”
Rather than trying to force myself to be something I’m not, I’d rather absorb more fully the willingness to change and respond to change, to relish the experience of being proven wrong about someone. Was that the elusive key to slut-dom all along? “Tale As Old As Time”? I should have been listening more carefully all these years 🙂