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Image: Women march through downtown Boston during the "SlutWalk" in Boston, Mass
JOSH REYNOLDS  /  AP
Women march through downtown Boston during the "Slut Walk" in Boston, on May 7, 2011. The walk was held in response to a Toronto police officer who said women shouldn't dress like "sluts" if they wanted to avoid being raped.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/26/2011 6:27:59 PM ET 2011-05-26T22:27:59
Commentary

The summer of sluts was kicked off this week when msnbc cable host Ed Schultz, perhaps channeling Dan Aykroyd in his old "Saturday Night Live" debates with Jane Curtin (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”) called conservative radio personality Laura Ingraham  a "right-wing slut" on his syndicated radio program . Schultz apologized, but was suspended from his cable show for a week.

The incident provided an unexpected publicity boost to “Slut Walk” protests planned for cities all over North America. Chicago and Los Angeles will see parades of of self-proclaimed "sluts" June 4, followed by San Diego on June 11, with 70 or so walks in Seattle, Portland, New York and other cities through the summer.

The walks, which began in April after a Toronto police officer advised women in a York University audience not to dress like a “slut” to avoid sexual assault, are not only attempting to raise awareness about sexual violence, but to redefine the meaning of “slut.”

“We have taken up the word slut … to claim that a slut does not have to remain a pejorative and demeaning epithet,” Toronto Slut Walk organizer Heather Jarvis told me. “A slut can be someone who is in control and unashamed of their sexuality…. A slut can be someone who is unafraid to enjoy consensual sex. A slut can be someone who refuses to believe…that enjoying sex or owning one’s sexuality is an invitation of violence.”

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In other words, activists are attempting to do for “slut” what was done for “queer.”

This type of language makeover is called “reappropriation” by academics, so I visited University of California, San Diego professor Lisa Carmichael’s communications class. There I asked the 200 or so students, who had just studied reappropriation, what they thought of attempts to redefine the word.

They were divided. One young man pointed out that “slut,” like the N-word, aimed to mark the labeled person as an outcast. By standing together and proclaiming themselves sluts, Slut Walkers could sap the power of the word. 

But while almost all the students applauded the motivation of the walks, some weren’t so sure “slut” would be easily disarmed. A few recoiled at accepting the label for themselves. 

Whether or not the Slut Walk tactic works, it has clearly started a conversation.

Janet Hardy, a Eugene, Ore., writer and co-author of “The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities,” which has sold over 100,000 copies since it was first published in 1997, said she thought “an evolution away from the idea of being sexual as a source of shame is long overdue.”

Author Leora Tanenbaum was slapped with the label at age 14. She carried the hurt of that harassment into adulthood, finally exorcising it by interviewing 50 women ranging in age from elderly to teens who had also been called sluts for her book “Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” She supports the idea of the Slut Walks but feels “ambivalent” about making “slut” acceptable.

She found that girls are first called a slut (or skank or whore) not by men or boys, but by other girls, often irrespective of their behavior. “The overwhelming majority of the women I interviewed had not been sexually active at all, or even kissed a boy when they were called a slut,” she explained. “But the fact of being labeled a slut caused them to become sexually active, which is another reason to eradicate this term: it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

She also worried that adopting “slut” may be fine for the marchers, but what about younger girls? In the piranha tanks of junior high and high school, the word might still have sharp teeth, leading to more cases like that of Hope Whitsell, a Florida 13-year-old who committed suicide after being labeled a slut.

Jarvis countered that the Toronto organizers have heard from girls as young as 9, some of whom have been called sluts. They learned, Jarvis said, that being called a slut “doesn’t always have to be a shameful thing they need to feel bad about.”

It’s also possible that for a younger generation “slut” is already well on its way to being defanged. 

Some of the female UCSD students reported that among groups of girl pals, “slut” is hurled almost affectionately, the way young men might call each other “dumbass.”

When I asked one young woman if she had been scarred by being called a slut as a girl, she scoffed. No, she said. She just thought it was stupid.

Comedian and actress Margaret Cho, now appearing in the Lifetime series “Drop Dead Diva,” has long called herself “slutty” in her stand-up act (“Where’s my parade? What about slut pride?”). She told me she finds the word, and the behavior it signifies, “an empowering thing,” a celebration of “female sexuality and beauty,” not “an invitation to violence.”

Next weekend will see the premiere of “X-Men: First Class,” which will feature the character of Emma Frost, who uses sex and a dominatrix-inspired costume as part of her persona. Christy Marx, a writer of graphic novels and screenplays, has declared that “Emma Frost was created to be a slut. She certainly has nothing to offer a girl reader….”

But that comes from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, and the Internet has lit up with disagreement, much of it from younger women.    

Aimee LaPlant, a 19-year-old University of Missouri journalism student and owner of www.EmmaFrostFiles.com loves the Frost character. “When I was in high school, I lent my Emma Frost solo comics to some girlfriends who had never read comics before. They loved it and thought she was great. As for Emma Frost giving a negative image to young girls, no way! I mean, when I first became interested in the character of Emma, I was about 14 and thought she was pretty cool because she was witty and knew what she wanted.”

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction,"now in paperback.

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