I am 4 months pregnant and getting ready for my office Christmas party. I’m at that stupid stage where none of your “normal” clothes fit but none of your maternity ones do, either. But I want to look nice; since my first child was born 16 months ago I haven’t been out very often. I put on a stretchy tube dress, fishnets and high heels, things I don’t usually wear but which fit. I’m clip-clopping down the stairs and I hear my partner in the kitchen talking to our son. He hears me coming.
Doesn’t Mummy look …
He waits for me to appear before choosing the appropriate words.
… like a total slag!
He is right. I do. So I get changed and push the fishnets to the back of the drawer.
If your friend told you this story, what would you think of her partner. A bully? A sexist loser? A mean control freak? I tell my friends about it and they find it hysterical. Because my partner’s Mr Political Correctness Gone Mad. He’s more of a feminist than me. It just so happens that both he and I like using the word “slag”.
I am fond of “slag”. It’s way better than that other “s” word, “slut”. To me, “slut” sounds dirty in a not-cleaning-the-worksurfaces kind of way, where as “slag” sounds properly filthy. I like being a slag, me. It’s not a side of myself I need to share with work colleagues over turkey and stuffing. But in general I’m on the side of slagdom 100%. To me it means enjoying sex, not feeling ashamed, not feeling restricted by the oppressive, misogynist “morality” that tells you not to do things that men do freely and with pleasure. In addition, it has a special comedy value, at least if you use it with an Eastenders accent (“leave it aaaht, you slaaaaaag!”).
In the past I’ve been called a slag and it’s been meant as an insult. I’ve known it straight away and it’s angered me. It still angers me now. It means “you’ve slept with too many men”. It means “you don’t deserve respect”. It means “you’re a woman and you can’t play by the same rules as the men”. This kind of “slag”, said with this kind of intent, is not a word I’d ever want to hear from my sons. I don’t want them to think of women this way and I hope they never do.
It’s often been claimed that whereas promiscuous women are called “slags”, promiscuous men are called “studs”, with far more positive associations. Personally I’ve never heard anyone, ever, described as “a stud” (but maybe I don’t hang out with sufficiently “studly” men). I have heard men described as slags, but only ever gay men. Heterosexual men are never slags. The worst I’ve heard for them is “tart”, and “tart” just sounds fun. Most of the time, I just don’t hear heterosexual men being defined in terms of their promiscuity or otherwise. There is a huge inequality in terms of how and where these different words are applied.
When my partner and I use the word “slag”, we are of course “reclaiming” it. We do so casually, although the more I think about it, the more I fear it’s a risky practice. There’s a liberal smugness to reclaiming words – you can’t use it, but I can. As though your own use of it can capture all the things you believe without dragging all the usual associations with it. As though your intellect is so great it can redefine language for everyone else, all the stupid people who use offensive words with no comprehension of what they’re doing. It seems to say “because I’m better, the rules don’t apply to me”. It’s arrogant, and it’s also terribly unrealistic.
There’s also the risk of sending out the message that “actually, it’s all okay now. You can call women slags. Research has shown they love it really!” Then when you turn around and say “hang on, that’s a bit sexist, really”, you’re accused of inconsistency and hypocrisy. “Feminists, eh? They don’t know what they want!”
So should we be using the word “slag” in front of our sons? Is our nice, liberal household enough to counteract all the other meanings that are attached to it? Probably not. My partner probably shouldn’t have said what he did, and I shouldn’t have found it so amusing. But if we’re afraid of these words – if we never use them and instead just tell our sons that they are bad – are we not then reinforcing the “outside” meanings? How, exactly, can you ever get it right?
I still haven’t worked it out. It’s not something you can resolve by individual items of vocabulary alone. In the meantime, though, “doesn’t Mummy look rather inappropriately dressed for a works do, but those are very nice tights nonetheless” might have been the best option.