Actress Olivia Thirlby Says ‘I’m A Slut And I’m Proud Of It’

But Will That Word Ever Be Empowering?

Back in August we got to see the hot and heavy trailer for Olivia Thirlby‘s new indie film with John Krasinsky, Nobody Walks. I was so excited about the movie, which is in theatres now, and I was equally excited to read an interview Olivia did with Metro. She described her character as a ‘slut,’ which I thought seemed totally fair, lol. But she also described herself as a proud slut, and went on to defend the term as a source of empowerment. It got me thinking about the word ‘slut,’ and a couple of other words that, to me, will never be truly empowering. Click inside to read more of the interview and join me for a long-overdue meeting of PITNB’s popCULTURE CLUB: theoretically putting the “culture” back in “pop culture,” one post at a time…

So here’s more of the interview. After telling Metro that her character in Nobody Walks ‘is a slut,’ the article goes on to say the following:

Before you get the wrong idea, Thirlby has a few things to say about that particular word. “I’m not a fan of slut-shaming. I use the term slut in a very sex-positive way. I’m a slut and proud of it. All women should be,” she says. “When it comes to Martine and Martine’s sexuality, which is a very specific thing that we focused on nailing — no pun intended — she doesn’t compartmentalize her sexuality.”

The role gave Thirlby a chance to examine a very modern take on sexuality — one that happens to jibe pretty closely with her own personal philosophy, as it turns out. “She’s comfortable with the notion of having sex with her friends, and I think that’s something that she does, and that’s something that’s pretty popular among the young kids these days,” she says with a laugh. “And it’s, I think personally, a very healthy view of sex. You have sex with your friends — why not? They’re trustworthy, you know them, you like them, you know? You have sex with your friends but then you’re still friends the next day.”

Now I know that this is one of the new feminist jams– to challenge a culture of slut-shaming. And I believe there are many reasons to challenge this so-called slut-shaming. One issue that comes to mind is the way rape trials are often handled in the courtroom. A woman’s sexual experiences often come into the conversation when she is accusing someone of rape. Basically, if you can prove the woman is a slut of some sort, you are one step closer to depicting an innocent client (who might have totally raped someone). That is awful and wrong on at least 27 levels. Slut-shaming might be wrong… but is slut-celebrating the way to go? And am I totally a dork (or a lame, or anti-feminist, or old, or closed-minded) for thinking that maybe it’s not? (sorry, you don’t have to answer that; I’ll deal with that when I take a good, hard look in the mirror later tonight, while thinking about all the slutty things I did circa 2006).

Here’s one slutty thing I always did in 2006. Facebook photo shoots in dresses I totally could not fit:

*Note: this pic and the hundreds of others just like it are now private. I’m a Mom now. And I don’t need people wondering WTF happened to my waistline. Moving on…

I guess the other reason the interview got to me is because Olivia Thirlby‘s presentation of casual sex and young people having sex with their friends seems a bit naive to me. I’m supposed to believe that hella kids are having hella sex with hella friends… and everybody’s fine????? Nobody ever wakes up feeling awkward? Please. I’ve seen too many in-house hook-ups on Jersey Shore to buy that.

You could argue that people only feel awkward because of societal expectations of femme sexuality… but I’d have to call bs. Sometimes, casual sex really is just awkward (and awful, and weird… especially if it’s with a friend… not that I know from experience or anything slutty like that) because it’s awkward! Right? Maybe it’s just me… but casual, young sex among friends does not automatically constitute ‘a very healthy view of sex.’ It’s gotta be more complicated than that.

Here’s my other thing about the word ‘slut.’ It’s a fun word. I spent the majority of my early twenties trying to reclaim it. That gets kinda complicated when you’re starting a family and you’re trying to convince the guy you’re with that being a slut is totally cool and empowering and fantastic… lmao! No, but seriously. This has been an ongoing issue in my household. So I def have my own personal relationship with/concerns about the Slut Power movement.

I guess I’m thinking that it’s a cool theory (slut celebration), but the practicality of it is something else. Like, I lurve the idea of a Slut Walk… but I can’t help but problematize this idea that slutdom (in and of itself) is empowering. (I’d also say that no one-word description of a person or woman is automatically empowering… so maybe ‘slut’ is no more or less empowering than ‘mother’ or ‘professor,’ because MAYBE the word itself is not enough.) Even in the case of Olivia Thirlby‘s character– the ‘slut’ she plays comes to live with a married couple (played by John Krasinsky and Rosemarie DeWitt) and proceeds to sleep with the husband. Now to be fair, the wife gets caught up in her own extra-marital ish (from what I understand– I haven’t seen the film), but obviously, all these affairs create hella drama. Being a slut (if you’re a man or woman) is cool and all… but it’s not always that nice! People get hurt– or are we going to pretend that it’s fine because it’s empowering for women? I dunno y’all…

And Other Words That Simply Are Not Empowering, As Much As We’d Like Them To Be:

My feelings about the word ‘slut’ are similar to my feeling about ‘bitch’ and ‘nigger’/'nigga.’ When Lupe Fiasco dropped the AH-MAZING song Bitch Bad (which problematized the very hip-hop notion of the ‘bad bitch’), he even got Kanye West thinking about the word ‘bitch’ and whether or not it can ever, really be empowering.  Like ‘slut’ it can be a fun word and it can be an appropriate word in certain situations. I mean is there really any other word for Victoria Grayson on Revenge? No, no there isn’t.

But is it empowering? Can women (or men) really, really reclaim this word?

Speaking of reclaiming, there are lots of words that can totally be reclaimed. One of my favorite chapters in Eve Ensler‘s Vagina Monologues is titled Reclaiming Cunt. I love that word!!! Not as a description of a person, but as another word for vagina. It’s a great word. It can be empowering to call your vagina a ‘cunt,’ I suppose. But calling yourself a ‘bitch’? Empowering? I’m not sure. Again, it can be fun and appropriate. But I don’t know that it’s empowering.

‘Nigger’/'nigga’ is also a problem for me, lover of all things rap, trap, and hip-hop. Y’all know I love 2Chainz. Love Jay-Z. A$AP Rocky. Lil Wayne. All of them. All avid users of the word ‘nigger/’nigga’.’ Now unlike ‘slut’ and ‘bitch,’ this is a word I do not use. Of course I’ve said the word. But I do not use it in everyday conversation. And writing it here makes me cringe a bit, but I hate the phrase ‘n-word‘ so there you have it. But ‘nigger’/'nigga’ is also very, very different from ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’. Oprah put it best when she told Jay-Z the following:

My generation and generations before me (coming up through the civil rights movement), that word carries a sense of hatred and degradation. I always think about when people are screaming it at your concerts, I think about Black men that were lynched and that is the last word they heard.

Unlike ‘bitch’ and ‘slut,’ ‘nigger’/'nigga’ carries a historical context more hateful and violent than I’ll ever fully understand. But having a mother who grew up in the sixties with 5 older brothers (my Mom then went on to teach African history, African-American history, and women’s history courses), that word was never okay in my house.  But it is okay in a lot of houses and a lot of neighborhoods, and even though I don’t use it, I do understand why and how so many black people do. But it’s not empowering! It may be appropriate in rap, or in a given context (I ONCE used it in an epic break-up conversation and trust me, it was totally, completely appropriate given the egregious circumstances, lmao) but it’s just not ever going to be empowering. IMO.

Like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut,’ ‘nigger’/'nigga’ seems to be this word that people think they can take and spin on its head. If they use it enough. I just don’t think that’s what’s happening. Women have been called sluts and bitches (or variations of) for years. Now we’re telling men (and each other, and our daughters, and our sons), yes we totally are sluts and bitches and that’s awesome and respectable! But is that cool? Is that what we want? Similarly, after years of ‘nigger’ being a racial slur (still is) do we really believe that pronouncing the word differently (‘nigga’) makes it a term of endearment? I’m not saying that it’s not and I’m not saying that sluts and bitches aren’t awesome! These are real questions I’m asking. And I also understand that everything is complicated by context, so the real question (for me, at least) is are there any circumstances in which these words are empowering?

Now, in defense of all feminist theories I have to say that I totally respect Olivia Thirlby‘s movement here, as someone looking for new ways to define empowerment. We can all still be feminists and totally disagree on some things. I once tried to argue that a woman could not reclaim her body and that could be empowering. Hella people disagreed with me, but hopefully we can all still coexist.

I’d love to hear what you guys think about Olivia Thirlby‘s quote and this whole movement of reclaiming certain derogatory words. I was a literature major, so no one will ever be able to convince me that some words are just words, lol. All words carry meaning (IMO), some more controversial than others. Can words like slut, bitch or nigger/nigga be words of feminine, black, individual, or social empowerment?

Again, let me just say that I love the idea of the Slut Walk (as I understand it). And I may or may not need to attend one in the near future.

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  1. miguel

    I can honestly say – since reading this entire post…it is becoming something more common nowadays. I’m friends with a guy at the moment, and we don’t have a solid relationship…I wouldn’t call it “friends with benefits” either, only because it further complicates the situation, but we do have sex on occasion…and must say – I’ve had sex with a few of my friends, who I am still friends with today. Here I thought it was just me. LOL.

    • miguel, it’s totally not just you! And I don’t think casual sex (even among friends) is the worst thing, but I also don’t think it’s always totally uncomplicated. As you say, sex can ‘further complicate’ a situation which makes ‘casual sex’ kind of an oxymoron at times.

  2. bleedingEars

    The book ‘Cunt” is an awesome if not sometimes an uncomfortable read. I encourage both men and women to read it.

    • bleedingEars, ha! Never heard of it til now but I’m reading the description on Amazon. It sounds like a more detailed, theoretical version of that chapter I was talking about. Thanks for recommending!

    • bleedingEars

      I think you’ll really like it. When it was given to me I was like…”ahhh NO”…haha… but after reading the first few chapters… I was sold on it.

  3. I think that “slut” really means a woman that is sexually active. Decades ago, this might have been considered a horrible thing, but now I think women want it to be seen as a part of a normal human experience.

    However, I don’t know if the progress we want in regards to the way “normal” female sexuality is treated (and regulated) will be done through by using an old word. We need a new word that means “I’m sexually active, and its normal”.

    • Krissy, ‘We need a new word that means “I’m sexually active, and its normal”.’

      YES. I agree. And I see what you’re saying about ‘slut’ now coming to mean ‘sexually active’ in certain contexts… it’s just that it can also mean ‘sexually active with mad people everywhere’ as well. So yeah. You’re right– we need a new word!

  4. Lindsey

    I think that sometimes when people try to “reclaim” words, they just get stuck in the past. The more you use a word, in whatever context, the more you remind people of its past context and the negativity that went along with it. Can’t we just move on already? Why cling to these words? Just let them go.

    And I agree that slut-celebrating is every bit as silly as slut-shaming. The same people who complain about the word ‘slut’ used in a negative context are usually the first in line to call someone else a ‘prude’. It’s equally judgmental, just in different ways.

    • Lindsey, thanks for weighing in on this. I think you and Krissy are pointing to the same issue. We need to be more creative and get some new vocabulary.

      There’s plenty of judgmental ish in feminist theory. We see it a lot with the stay-at-home mom/working mom debate. It can get very competitive and a similar mentality exists when it comes to sexuality I think. Someone who is not so sure about slut-celebrating (like me) might be labeled close-minded or even prudish in my thinking. We need to open it all up a little more if real conversations are going to be had.

  5. Jennie

    I feel like there can be issues when trying to “reclaim” a word like slut, because so many people use it in a negative context, and only see it as defining a certain type of behaviour, which is not necessarily the same behaviour that the people reclaiming it are referring to. So there can be major confusion over what you mean when you say that word. Does it mean condoning the sexualization and objectification of women? Where is the line between “I’m free to be openly sexual” and “feel free to objectify me as a sexual object.” Just some things to chew on. I’m as conflicted on the subject as you are Shannon. I’d love to be able to act/dress how I want without being judged, shunned or objectified, but I worry about the potential for inadvertently feeding into the very thing I’m trying to rebel against.

    • Jennie, I’m with you on this one: ‘I worry about the potential for inadvertently feeding into the very thing I’m trying to rebel against.’

      But I think that’s an issue with ALL theory. It’s really hard to work against a dominant school of thought because we only have THAT language to work with. The issue of dress is really interesting. I remember on another post there was some discussion about having the freedom to dress the way you want to dress AND acknowledging that you CAN send a particular message in extreme cases. No, being scantily clad is never an invitation for objectification or physical/sexual assault AND at the same time there’s a reason most of us wouldn’t walk home alone after a long night of clubbing in miniskirts and tanks or whatever. We should be able to express ourselves sexually and make smart, safe decisions (which is why I took issue with Thirlby’s statements about young, casual sex– because it doesn’t always involve safety which is a huge issue).

      Thanks for commenting Jennie! This is tricky stuff, but I love hearing new thoughts on the subject.

  6. fmx

    It’s these type of words, n**a, bitch, cunt, in the same sense as slut where it’s both a slur/insult and a compliment at the same time. I don’t think either word in their context can be *reclaimed* when it’s beginnings started as an insult. I find that no matter which way you look at it these words they are aggregating, and offer nothing intelligent in a negative or positive context. Words like “promiscuity” are not as offensive and derogatory as slut, it just is what it is. It’s hard because when people say bitch, cunt, dick, it’s usually meant in a derogative way or empowering way that is implied as one or the other. As far as ‘slut’ it’s just inconceivable how this is empowering especially for pre-teens and teenagers, that it’s now cool and totally legit to call yourself a slut, and sleep with dudes who totally don’t have std’s, herpes, and pregnancy bearing gifts.

    • fmx, LOL– the STD part is real. I mean, somehow we have to be willing to talk as much about the responsibility that should come right along with all the fun in sex. We’re just not there yet.

      I’m glad you said that you don’t think ‘reclaiming’ these words is possible. I think that’s true, especially for the insults. I don’t think ‘cunt’ could ever be thrown at someone in a non-insulting way, but as an anatomical word, I like it… lol.

  7. pat

    You made a big mistake about the the rape charge. Even if you can prove that the girl is a slut it will make no differeces the only way to get out of a rape charge is to prove 100% that you were not with that women on the day she claims you raped her. trust me iv seen many men get caught on it and no matter what their said of the story if they were there with her they she must be telling the truth he raped her. Even if you didn’t have sex. Rape is by law any unwanted form of touching so drunk kisses are rape if she doesnt want it. walking pass a girl and have you hand bump her is rape. and i have seen many men get stuck with it. the law is all in favor of women if she says a man did something bad to her then the man better to able to prove with a duoght that he didnt or he is guilty. so wheather a girl is a slut or not has nothing to do with courtroom rape cases. But yes most girls that claim rape are sluts that sleep with anyone or anything

    • pat, you’re interpretation of rape and the law is very different from my understanding of it. I’m also not sure where you’re getting this info from but I’m not convinced that ‘most girls that claim rape are sluts that sleep with anyone or anything.’ I do know that this happens, I just think that it doesn’t happen most of the time. And there’s also the fact that many more rapes take place than are reported, since most attacks are made by individuals who know the victim personally (boyfriends, family members, etc).

    • Caliss

      Have you ever read the news? Children get raped! Are 6 year olds sluts? Do you know what, may be I am misunderstanding you. Did you mean sluts “cry” rape and make false rape accusations? If so I apologize for the outrage. However, I believe people with emotional problems, vindictive agendas, and compulsions (to lie) are probably the ones reporting fictional rapes. I reserve the word slut for people who sell sex or might as well be selling it, people who have consensual sex with others without any physical (orgasm, etc) or emotional gain, I think rape and slutyness are not linked at all.
      Promiscuity is a choice, rape is not.

  8. LJ

    I agree with previous statements that new words would be better, rather than attempting to change the meanings of older words. Although saying that i often refer to many of my friends as slags, we also use knobhead affectionately. But in England we are known for being quite derogatory towards our friends and its just affectionate humor, however i think we aren’t using the words to empower them, we are using them because at the core the words are insults,which is why people use them as ‘affectionate humor’

    • LJ, I can get with the ‘affectionate humor’ idea and these words– and the ones you mentioned– can totally be funny. I like that you point out that there are contexts in which the words might be harmless or playful, but not necessarily ‘empowering.’ Really good point.

  9. Kate

    I can understand the sentiment behind anti-slut-shaming, however, I definitely feel concerned about “sleeping around” being the new normal. Sexually active is fine to me, in committed relationships. However, I am not sure if we want to be telling anyone (women OR men) that it’s okay to have sex whenever with whomever. Maybe I’m a bit old fashioned, but I still think that sex is something special to be shared only with a lucky few.

    • Kate, I think it’s kind of crazy that we are def living in a time where saying ‘sex is something special’ is, like, outrageous and old-fashioned, lol! I just don’t think it should be like that, but I also get that it’s hard for women to find that balance between being anti-slut-shaming and anti-slut-celebrating. I’m glad you shared this comment.

  10. Jenny

    http://youtu.be/EJoYZjsF5Ss

    This video is really great at explaining how reclaiming a word can be empowering. Jenn is very careful to explain that if you reclaim a word then you can never force it upon someone else. Certain words, phrases and topics can be emotional triggers to really painful stuff and so it is unacceptable to force reclaiming the word onto another person.

    I attended the recent Slut Walk in London and it really was a fantastic rally. There were many people speaking on all sorts of topics. There were rape victims and their families, representatives of support groups and many more. It was upsetting and empowering. The whole point behind Slut Walk is to stop this culture of victim blaming. The onus should not be on the woman to avoid being raped but on the man NOT TO RAPE.

  11. Megan

    I’m 22 and I feel like I’m judged because I haven’t had sex yet. It’s not for a religious reason or because I’m waiting until marriage, I just haven’t been in love yet. I don’t even like telling people because they always think it’s weird. So for one, it should go both ways. Secondly, I agree with Kate. Are we really okay with telling our daughters it’s okay to sleep around with whoever they want because it feels good? That doesn’t seem like a good message to me. Sex is normal and should not be shamed, but it’s also not some frivolous activity that doesn’t have consequences. Like you said Shannon, if someone is going to be promoting sleeping around because it’s “empowering”, then you also have to have real conversations about keeping yourself safe.

    • Amber Stone (@amber_stone)

      Agreed.

    • Megan, thanks for sharing this. We don’t talk a lot about what could be called virgin-shaming; that’s as problematic as this so-called slut-shaming because either way you’re assuming that we should all take the same approach to sex which is just not possible (or interesting, for that matter).

  12. Caliss

    I am so disgusted. Reclaim what? Slut is and always will be slang for prostitute. Try reclaiming your own bodies and having a bit of self respect! As far as the N word goes, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with people. Just because a white person adds a “g” and an “a” to the word NIG, doesn’t mean they respect you, no matter how much rap they listen to! And shame on the black people who claim to appreciate what our ancestors SUFFERED for, the right to be more than a NI***R.
    Being dirty and promiscuous comes with allot more baggage than being called a slut. And with teenage girls across the globe being pushed into sex, ostracized for having it, date raped, plain old regular raped, gang raped etc, what is the purpose of promoting promiscuity and slutyness? Please, young women, if you feel the need to have multiple partners and to be promiscuous, practice the art of secrecy and respect your selves. Have sex with someone who gives a flying eff about you. And remember, loose lips sink ships.

  13. Grey

    I think it is sad that women who are sexually active has to be defined. Women should be able to express themselves in any healthy way they like the same as men. I mean if she wants to have sex with her friends nothing is wrong with that. In fact Olivia and I should be friends.

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