Lifestyle

Nice to meet you! I’m a slut

‘Slut’ is a derogatory and gendered term first used in the 15th century to refer to ‘a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern’. It has since become a weapon used to bludgeon female sexuality and to shame young women not only for having sex, but for talking about sex, for looking like they might have sex or for putting their vagina to any use beyond menstruating or birthing children. It’s only now with the arrival of Fleabag, that ‘a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits’ seems to have been allowed into popular media. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acceptance speech at the 2019 Emmys resonated hard with me when she made the point that “It’s just really wonderful to know – and reassuring – that a dirty, pervy, angry messed up woman can make it to the Emmys”. This is not, however, another article about Fleabag and the icon that is its creator (as wonderful as she may be).

‘Slut’ definitely became an ugly, charged word for me at school. I was sexually active from an age that might be deemed ‘early’, or perhaps ‘premature’, by the majority of society and certainly by some of my peers who took no prisoners when it came to slut-shaming. Between the ages of 14 and 16, I was harshly cautioned (almost every day) that my actions were leading me down a slippery slope to becoming a ‘slut’. ‘Cautioned’ is a little euphemistic; ‘accused’, ‘berated’ and ‘shamed’ might provide a more accurate picture of my experiences in my small-town,  small ‘c’ conservative comprehensive. Over time this pretty much annihilated my self-esteem and lead to a massively complicated relationship with sex.

I suppose my peers weren’t wrong? Five years later and I probably would, if asked, describe myself as a-bit-of-a-slut. With the crucial difference between then and now being that I no longer have to endure a torrent of abuse for being sexually liberated. Instead, my peers celebrate, support and sometimes even commend it. If someone were to hurl ‘slut’ my way now, I would respond with “yeah, and?”. Reclaiming this label, however, has not been a straight-forward process; the sex-positive movement is huge and encompasses a multitude of things beyond my own experience and understanding, so establishing a personal narrative amidst the masses of things to think about has been a challenge.

I don’t want to mislead anyone into believing my journey from confusion and shame at 14 to a sense of liberation and empowerment at 20 was made in one swift leap from secondary school to university. From 14 to 19, I was a serial monogamist, flitting from relationship to relationship – some very healthy, others incredibly toxic. I’m glad I can say that my most recent romance, my sixth-form sweetheart so to speak, to whom I was committed for a little over two years (until heartbreak Hilary worked her magic) marked a period of calm and maturity. There’s the very brief backstory. Following this extended period of monogamy, I underwent a dramatic transformation from a victim of ‘Heartbreak Hilary’ to ‘Hoe Hilary’ personified. Within ten days of singledom I had experienced my first three one-night-stands, and consequently taken the morning after pill not once, but twice (I despair at HT19 version of me for this blatant disregard for my sexual health). Somewhat inadvertently, I had subsumed my entire persona in a haze of Bridge Thursdays, VKs and random sexcapades – and this remained to be the case throughout the rest of my first year. ***I would also like to add that, after some concerned advice from the college nurse, my tutor and the lovely pharmacist in Boots, I went back onto the contraceptive pill – oh and my 2020 New Year’s Resolution has been to use a fucking condom Christ it really isn’t that difficult.

And so, I rapidly went from sobbing over the idea of being alone to having a really good time enjoying what I naively believed to be the best parts of singledom; inconsequential, spontaneous sex with whoever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was new. It was empowering. It was fun, until it wasn’t. I’m still not sure when exactly it was that I emerged from the depths of my sex-mania and thought “shit, this isn’t funny anymore”.  

By late-Trinity, it had become more than just the ‘I’m-free-to-do-whatever-I-want’ honeymoon phase people often go through fresh out of a long-term relationship and had become who I was – or at least who I felt to be in the eyes of everyone around me. All this was of course not helped by the infamous imposter syndrome many of us feel upon leaving the little ponds that are our schools to tackle the oceanic chaos that is the University of Oxford. I felt the need to rebrand myself; I was no longer the ‘smart’ or ‘hardworking’ one – at least not in comparison to my Oxford peers and so I spent some time soul-searching, on the lookout for other aspects of my personality I could hype up to make myself feel socially interesting. Desperate, I know, but nevertheless a process I’m sure (I hope? Is it just me? Surely not?) many students endure at the beginning of their university experience. I spent some time considering what other stereotypes I could comfortably slide into and, eventually, I arrived back at my former companion ‘slut’ but a reformed version this time: less shame, more crazy-sexually-liberated-oh-my-god-what-a-legend fun. So, I thrust myself into a routine of excessive drinking and random sex and, in the meantime, gradually accumulated a healthy repertoire of stories which meant, at least once a week, I had some new elaborate sexploits to laugh about in halls. I began to wonder if I preferred dramatizing my experiences to entertain others over the experiences themselves. However, after the social anxiety I had felt during my first term, I was so overjoyed when I found this ‘thing’ I was good at doing and good at talking about that I was terrified to let it go, or even slow it down, in case people lost interest. I know my friends better than that now and understand that they value my sanity far more than they do my stories.

The term ‘hypersexuality’ did occasionally loom over my mind,  particularly during Trinity when it had been a few months since my break-up and, after going off the rails, had yet to show any sign of returning to them. I lapsed into an impossible dialogue with myself as I desperately tried to locate the line between sex positivity and hypersexuality and quickly discovered that said line is neither clear, nor straight, nor fixed for any given individual.

What has been essential to my understanding of leading a sexually positive lifestyle, is the recognition that all the time is not always the best time to be having sex; being ‘sex positive’ doesn’t simply mean having a lot of sex and not caring what anybody else thinks – as much as not giving a fuck has been an important part of my journey. It involves a lot of taking downtime to reflect and emotionally check-in with yourself. For me, at least, practising this is what has made living a healthy sex-positive lifestyle possible. I make sure, now, to set aside an evening, a couple of evenings, or even a week to take the time to remind myself there are plenty of fulfilling experiences to be had beyond sex. Part of getting myself into a more me-oriented mindset has been deleting Tinder (fun as it was, I’ve had my time). Now, I’m actively enjoying being alone which has been a first for me. I can confidently say that one year into singledom (as of the 4th of Feb. Huge), I feel as though I have experienced enough highs and lows, ‘this is the best’s versus the ‘what am I doing?’s, to have reached a healthy level of self-awareness where I know when to go and, more importantly, when to take a time-out and ask myself the hard questions we all have a tendency to neglect during the frenzied period that is an eight-week-Oxford-term.

*Note to reader*/DISCLAIMER/a quick fyi

What works for one individual (i.e. me) won’t necessarily work for another (i.e. you) – and what works on one occasion won’t always work (or be sustainable) over longer periods of time. I’m afraid I cannot provide any clear answers, or a set-by-step wikihow guide on how to live a healthy sex-positive lifestyle; my learning has solely come through making mistakes and then taking the time to actively engage with myself and reflect. Also, I did consider asking to keep this anonymous, but that would defeat the point. Hopefully, through openly owning this slightly confusing, really quite incoherent narrative, I’ve at least highlighted that there is indeed a safe space for ‘a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits’ to exist without fear, censorship, or shame.

Alice Garnett

Alice is our resident sex columnist whose interests include pints, pink, and all things love-related. When she's not evangelising Singledom she's busy hyping up her East Midlands home town, demystifying bisexuality, and writing for other publications such as Lithium Magazine and Adolescent Content.