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How do I behave sexually without someone thinking I'm a slut?

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gorg.mel asks:

How do I text my significant other without coming off as a thot or a whore?

Heather Corinna replies:

The idea that women who sexually express themselves in any number of ways -- like something as simple as expressing sexual desires to a partner through words, be it in speech or text -- are sluts, people without or with less value or only sexual value, "bad" women or any of the other crappy things usually meant by people who think like this comes from sexism.

It's sexist to believe that women can only sexually express themselves acceptably in certain ways or else they lack value or worth because they're women. Words like you're using here are almost exclusively applied only to women. Even when they're rarely used about men, they don't pack anything close to the same punch. We get questions from users who are girls or women nearly every day expressing this kind of concern. I could count the number of times on my fingers in fifteen years of this work that men or boys have expressed similar concerns, and most of them have been gay or bisexual.

Even the idea that people who are earnestly whores (who engage in prostitution or other kinds of sex work) are "bad" women is usually about sexism. Hint: they're just people with a job they can do or want to do for the same or similar reasons people choose other kinds of work, like so they can eat and keep a roof over their heads. It's also often about some other kinds of discrimination -- like discrimination around economic class or race: women of color, for instance, are far more frequently arrested for prostitution than white women -- but sexism is usually the biggie.

Ultimately, what you're asking me is how to avoid sexism.

Here's the bad news: we often can't. If only!

Sexism is pervasive, like racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia or other bias or bigotry. No one is magically immune or untouched by it, especially anyone who any of those biases are about. We can't avoid it by only behaving in certain ways, because this stuff touches everything, and it's very arbitrary: there isn't one set of standards everyone sexist shares that a person can know and easily meet.

In fact, that's a big part of what makes -isms of any kind so awful. Because it's not really about how we behave, we can't often avoid it by certain ways of behaving. It's about who we are, no matter how we behave. So, unless you choose not to be a woman -- and are also not considered a woman by someone -- you can't avoid sexism. Heck, sexism even impacts people who aren't women: no one's immune.

Here's the good news: you can make choices that limit how much, and in what interactions and ways, you have to deal with it. That includes your intimate relationships and your sexual expressions with someone else. There are some relationships, interactions and situations where the choices we make absolutely can greatly limit the amount or kind of sexism we experience.

There are two basic ways you can go about dealing with the stuff of -isms when it comes to your sexual choices and expressions:

1) You can do all you can to learn all the rules and standards others have for you, your sexuality and how you express it. You can do everything in your power to follow all of those rules and meet all of those standards. You can even construct your whole sexuality -- hell, much of who you are as a person -- to follow those rules and those standards. That would take up most of your time and energy, but you could try, should you want to do such a thing. Sometimes, you'd meet those standards and avoid some backlash you'd otherwise experience if you didn't. You might find you can meet them with some people most of the time. But you'll never meet all of them all of the time, not even with just one person.

Everyone with sexist ideas has different standards and "rules." Even those belonging to just one person will rarely stay the same for always. What standard they hold you, and other women, to for one year, month or even day, can change the next.

So even if you made a full-time job out of trying to behave in ways where no one will ever think of you poorly as a woman? It's practically guaranteed that at least once, and probably way more than once, despite all that energy, effort and chosen repression of yourself as a person, you are still going to do something that, to someone, means you're a slut, whore, or whatever word they or you use that means "woman behaving in a way which I think gives me or others permission to treat her like garbage."

Plus, in spite of you trying to follow all those rules and standards, that -ism will still be right there, likely all the more so because you enabled it. The big irony is that even when someone attempts to avoid sexism by following its every arbitrary rule and standard, they're actually soaking in sexism more, not less.

So, despite all of that Herculean effort, sexism is still going to be something you'll have to deal with, and probably quite often, since you'd be giving it your stamp of approval by agreeing to its rules and constructing your life and sexuality by its standards.

Here's the other option: 2) You can make your own rules and standards for yourself, live by those and let other people do the same for themselves; rules and standards where the same rules apply for people of any gender, without double-standards, and where the core of those codes is about respecting the basic humanity of yourself and other people, and only choosing whatever sexual expressions or activities you feel good about and want, and which also are wanted and okay with anyone you're sharing them with.

When it comes to sexual or romantic partnerships, if we're not talking about things like forced marriage, you can choose to only get close to people who aren't generally sexist and don't want to think or conduct their relationships or interactions in sexist frameworks. Sexism is often easy to spot: even someone calling anyone at all a slut or whore with derision, is showing us their sexism, just like someone using the N-word as a slur is demonstrating racism, or someone using "fag" as a slur is expressing bigotry about queer people.

Because sexism is so pervasive and often internalized, even someone who can't stand sexism may still sometimes find themselves thinking that way or having sexism influence their behaviour. But someone who doesn't want sexism in their lives or relationships will try and be aware of that, so if and when sexism does rear its ugly head, they'll take responsibility, unpack it and work to keep it at bay. So, even with option two, you may well still encounter sexism in your relationship: but if and when you do, no one will be trying to keep it around. Instead, you and your partner will be making efforts to get rid of it as best you can and both acknowledge it's not okay, but harmful and disrespectful.

You can communicate and cooperate with anyone you are in an elective (chosen), intimate relationship with to co-create standards or agreements that impact both of you; agreements or standards that afford everyone respect. You can build frameworks of being sexual together that acknowledge everyone gets to have a sexuality, and no one is "bad" or of less value for having one; frameworks that honor and recognize that sharing our sexuality with each other is something of great value.

And you can tell anyone who isn't on board with those healthy kinds of policies, standards, agreements and frameworks to just sod right off. In other words, you can simply choose not to get or stay intimate with someone who would think poorly of a woman for merely expressing herself and having a sexuality.

I think option two is the much better option. If you want healthy relationships and interactions of equality and mutual respect, I think it's the only option. It's the only solid way to create relationships that aren't steeped in sexism, and it's also a powerful way to help our whole world be less steeped in it. And all it asks you to do something we all need to do anyway to have healthy sexual relationships and interactions: to insist on mutual respect, value and kindness for yourself and others.

I'm assuming you're not asking me about someone confusing you with a prostitute, and I am also assuming that you're not worried that if you text your partner to ask them if they'd bring some soup over because you've got a cold they will find that so sexually offensive, they will call you names. I'm assuming you're asking about texting that is explicitly and intentionally sexual, and I'm assuming you're asking about doing that because it's something you want to do. I'm also going to assume anyone you call your significant other is someone who cares deeply about you, respects you, maybe even loves you and who you think is pretty awesome, otherwise you would not be giving them that place in your life.

In a healthy, safe relationship, it should be a given that it's okay for us to do mutually wanted, consensual sexual things without someone devaluing us. My hope is you feel able to express yourself sexually with someone you're that close with without fear they will call you names or mistreat you because of it. I hope you've chosen someone to be with who respects you and who you know will always aim to treat you with respect; someone who gets and appreciates that you have your own sexuality, just like they do, and there's nothing about that that isn't okay, including your desire -- likely like their own -- to express it sometimes with someone who wants to be involved with you and your sexuality.

If not, then you're probably with someone who just isn't safe for you to get close with. If so, it's just time to say buh-bye if you want something where you're treated with care.

People who think there's something wrong with women having sexual agency, desires and expression, and seek to demean or insult women they think that way about? Those are people you can't have a healthy sexual relationship with. If your significant other thinks that way or would say those things, they are probably not a good choice for you or any other woman for an intimate relationship with. Heck, they're probably not a good choice to even just sit next to on the bus.

Now, it may be that your partner does not think this way: but you do. Anyone can be sexist or think in sexist ways: not just people who aren't women. An awful lot of women -- probably every single woman in the world -- have internalized at least some of the sexism women have often been exposed to in many ways from birth. It's very hard not to.

However, you have control over the way you think, and the power to choose to accept or reject these ways of thinking. You can change your own mind.

So, if you think this is mostly about how you think or feel, you'll likely need to spend some time unpacking your own sexism. If, while you're doing that, you don't yet feel safe or comfortable with certain sexual expressions that get you thinking like this, that's okay. Just like for any other reason, it's always okay to hold off on anything sexual we don't feel good about until we do feel comfortable. Maybe you could benefit from reading some good books on these topics, like Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (I'll link to my piece in that anthology at the bottom of the page for you), Slut, by Leora Tenenbaum, or The Sexual State of the Union, by Susie Bright. Talking this out with your S.O. about these concerns may also help. And if your fears around being thought of as a slut for expressing yourself are super-pervasive, and are causing you great distress or otherwise limiting your life, this is something a good counselor could help you with, too.

While changing how we think takes effort, it's something we all can do. We rarely have the power or capacity to radically change other people's minds. We often can influence their thinking, and help move it a little if they, too, want to change how they think. But the only person's thoughts we can actually outright change -- and have to change first if we want others to change the same ways -- are our own. And when it comes to any kind of -ism, we are all best working to change our minds, for the sake of our own lives and well-being, and the sake of everyone else's. If you want a sexuality and sexual life you feel good about, you have to think about it and yourself in ways that support your value as a whole person, not that devalue you or any part of who you are.

You may also need to just take some more time to build trust with this person until you ARE sure they think of you and will treat you with respect, before you're sexual with them. I'd say if you're not sure, that's a good sign to slow things down sexually -- and in general -- and take more time to get to know each other so that you can find out what kind of person this is when it comes to this stuff. Sometimes when people are worried like this it's just a matter of moving too fast and needing more time to build trust and comfort before we get so intimate.

Lastly, I want to make sure you know this: unless you live somewhere or are in situations where someone perceiving you or your sexual behaviour as "slutty" or "like a whore" may result in you being stoned to death or otherwise inflicted with violence, being denied food, shelter or the means for you to fulfill your basic needs, your world or your life are not going to end if someone thinks or even says you're a slut. I promise.

I know of at least two authors who have published widely-read books in which they called me a slut by name. Beyond a passing annoyance and some brief venting with friends to let go of that annoyance, years after these books have been published, the impact this has had on me is pretty much zero. It didn't change my life. It didn't make it ginormously harder for me to survive,. It certainly didn't keep me from people in my own life who respect me. If anything, it probably kept people away from me who don't respect me, because those are the people who'd buy books like that and agree with thinking about people so disrespectfully. Thanks for the help, meanies!

The biggest reason something like that had almost no impact on me is that I chose not to let it. In my view, when someone says things like that they're telling me not to put any stock in their ideas, words or judgments because they're showing me clearly that they aren't people with even basic common courtesy, let alone thoughts of any real substance. There are people in the world who truly are great, forward-thinkers, and who also make efforts to treat everyone with respect. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much room in my head: why litter my mind and waste my time or energy with those folks and their mean-spirited crap when I can instead choose to engage with and put stock in people bringing at least basic good manners and thinking advanced beyond schoolyard-bully-think?

It feels bad when someone does that to you -- and it can feel scary to think about having it happen if it has not happened to you before -- but those lousy feelings don't tend to stick around unless we give them power and sign on to their devaluing of us. When someone thinks in these ways or says these kinds of things it tells us way more about them and their behavior than it tells us about us and our own. And what they're telling us, if you ask me, is "Don't put any stock in my ideas, because they're bigoted crap. Do yourself a favor and stay away from me, because I don't respect you, so I'm not safe for you to be around. Even if I'm not going to outright hurt you, I am a crummy, empty place to invest something as valuable as yourself in."

Just like someone who uses racial slurs, cissexist slurs or slurs about queer people shows us they're choosing to hold up racism, transphobia or homophobia, someone who uses sexist slurs, like slut, shows us they're choosing to hold up sexism. And just like those examples of other -isms show us someone probably isn't the kind of person we want to be around, let alone get very close to, the same goes here with sexism.

So, if you just pick option two up there, you've got the answer to this question, easy. If you don't engage with someone who thinks of you or other people that way, they or you aren't going to think of you that way. And if it's you who is thinking this way, invest some real time and effort into changing your mind so that the way you think about sexuality and gender -- and yourself -- is centered in respect, not sexism.

Here are a few links that might fill up your toolbox around all of this some more:

written 07 Aug 2014 . updated 07 Aug 2014

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