Sunday, 22 September 2013

Being called a slut

MEP Godfrey Bloom's remark a couple of days ago, to some women party members at a UKIP meeting, who admitted openly that they didn't clean behind their fridges - 'This place is full of sluts!' - was clearly meant as a jocular remark, but as might be expected, one likely to misfire. And indeed it has. I don't wonder that party leader Nigel Farage has clutched his brow in exasperation. No political party, especially one apparently making real headway in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, and especially one in the middle of an Annual Conference that must send out serious messages to the electorate, can pass off gaffes like this with an indulgent chuckle. I won't ever be voting for UKIP, but I do not wish to see them ridiculed.

Mr Bloom is the man who, not long ago, condemned foreign aid going to people in 'Bongo Bongo Land'. That phrase calls up immediate images of supercilious white English bwanas in pith helmets keeping down superstitious drum-thumping natives in Darkest Africa, and all the worst features of Colonial Life a hundred years ago. Africa may still be a continent full of poverty and wars, but it isn't Dark any more. Its problems, rural and urban, are largely a legacy from misguided and unjust colonial rule and exploitation, and they are curable. I personally think that every European country who selfishly grabbed a piece of Africa before World War II has an ongoing moral responsibility to make amends. And foreign aid is one way. If you must justify it further, then getting countries properly onto their feet with educational, medical, agricultural, manufacturing, housing and infrastructural programmes will stabilise them, and one day will turn them into significant political allies and trading partners. Either way, people opposed to foreign aid are spoiling the life chances of millions of people, and possibly condemning them to needless early death from war, disease or any of the many bad effects of grinding poverty and a life with no hope in sight.

Back to sluts. Can anyone call a woman a slut nowadays, meaning it to be taken as a joke?

At one time the word implied a low-class creature with no standards, who was badly dressed, dirty, unkempt, and almost certainly poor and ignorant. In other words, a victim of social indifference and prejudice, at a time when The Poor were a subclass, and judged by their 'betters' as guilty for their squalid way of life, its female members even more so than the men. It was no surprise if a desperate woman, forced to live a sluttish life, turned to prostitution. Thus dirt and sex were entangled, and a slut meant first and foremost a poor-class sleazy streetwalker who sold her body cheaply, simply for the means to stay alive.

It was of course a gross insult to call a respectable woman a slut. Her male family, or her husband, might well call out the perpetrator for satisfaction of the slur, whether the remark was justified or not. So in 1820 Mr Bloom would have faced pistols at dawn for his ill-judged remark. In 1920 he might still have been roughed up, and left with a black eye or two.

During the second half of the twentieth century a more metaphorical, more playful, usage of the word crept in, as the dire financial need to turn to prostitution receded. By 1970 the word could simply mean a good-time girl who didn't care who she slept with, nor how often. A cross but concerned mother on TV's Coronation Street could therefore accuse her misbehaving daughter of being a slut. On the box it had explosive but legitimate dramatic effect. But in real life it remained one of the worst things you could say to a woman.

Like many such words, 'slut' has lost some of its power in the last forty years. But it's still a word linked with easy, careless sex. You can however say it as a harmless throwaway remark to a friend who admits to sleeping with someone, or seriously thought of doing so, provided both of you are women of the world and know each other very well. You can get away with it if the word is said gently, with a shared smile and the right intonation, and is apropos of a confidence. It's still not a word I would personally ever write in a text or email, let alone in a handwritten letter, not to anyone, unless it were literally true and I really meant it to sting. Even then, caution would probably stop me. If a man ever called me a slut I'd take him to mean I was sexually wayward and probably none too particular about my feminine hygiene. I'd feel cheapened and disrespected. It most definitely wouldn't be the right word to chose, if he simply wanted to jest about my fridge-cleaning routine.

Is this being too sensitive? Well, we have all become a lot more aware of our individual value and self-worth. There is no need for anyone to accept a put-down, however jocular. Mr Bloom's 'slut' remark wasn't addressed to me, but I'm imagining how I would have felt if I had been there. And in a way Mr Bloom was attacking all women, myself included, who are not obsessive about the dust and fluff that gradually accumulates behind their kitchen appliances. He shouldn't be dismissing us with an inappropriate label.

I'm not going to retaliate and call him names here. I think his gaffe indicates the attitudes that buzz around inside his head. I'm saying no more. Of course he forfeits my support. If he believes that it's OK to belittle and insult women, he can't expect women to vote for him if they happen to be one of his East of England constituents, nor praise him if not. That is our sanction against him. I'm assuming that, as a politician, he will see this is as a perfectly principled position. It doesn't seek to destroy him, but merely registers proper protest, and attempts to educate him for the better.

4 comments:

  1. Hmm, am I the only one thinking that cleaning behind a fridge is a big burly male job? No sexism here.

    In Canada, politicians who speak off the cuff and get themselves and their party into trouble seem to either get quietly shuffled to the side, or experience wild popularity (see the mayor of Toronto for an example). :)

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  2. I had no idea that you could or should clean behind the fridge except just before installing a new one. Ooops does that make me a .....

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  3. Caroline, I'm afraid it does! But me too! (And I'm certain, most other women)

    Halle, I'm not sure this is burly man's job. They generally don't regard the kitchen (and especially cleaning the kitchen) as their territory. Unless it involves power tools. Trust me.

    Lucy

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  4. Some people's idea of a joke beggars belief. The man made a foolish mistake by using that word which probably rightly caused him to lose his position. He didn't do his party any favours either did he? The rear of my fridges get cleaned once in a Blue Moon, I am sure that is the same for most people.

    Shirley Anne x

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