THE acquittal of Matthew Kydd in a rape trial in Norwich last week left an unpleasant taste. This was not because of any miscarriage of justice. The case should probably never have come to court as the circumstances were so ambiguous. What was painful was the vision of a girl sobbing in court as witnesses shamed her with one sexist cliche after another.

Witnesses described her as a 'slag' and a 'slut'. She dressed 'tartily'. She had even once won the joke title 'Slut of the Year'. The newspapers had an orgy with these insults, weaving them into their own accounts of her (s)exploits. None dwelt on the fact that earlier this year the girl had written a three-page refutation of her reputation as a slut, and pinned it to her door.

Jane Mills, author of Woman Words (a book about the origins and values of words relating to women), saw the coverage of last week's trial and says her heart sank. 'In the Seventies women made a lot of headway exposing the assumptions behind insults like this. But now the words are back in currency as if they were descriptions. There's nothing descriptive about 'slag' and 'slut'. They belong to a value system in which an actively sexual woman is seen as being disgusting.'

'Slag' carries the connotations of worthless refuse. 'Slut', whose origins are unknown, connotes dirtiness and untidiness. The term acquired its negative sexual sense of 'a promiscuous woman' in the late 15th century. From then on it was often interchanged with 'bold' and 'impudent' girls, that is, girls not controlled by men. By the 20th century 'slut' was a widespread term of abuse in Britain. It refers to lifestyle as well as sex. Girls get called sluts if they let the roots of their dyed hair show. Parents call little girls sluts for leaving their knickers on the floor.

In the late Sixties Germaine Greer tried to reclaim the image of the bold and impudent girl, something she probably prefers to forget given her current chaste and peevish persona. Then, however, she posed for a 'beaver shot' in an underground magazine. Greer's justification was that if women valued their sex as men value theirs, and flaunted it, the mystery and therefore the disgust would disappear. But this version of sexual liberation, if it worked at all, probably only worked for Greer. Most ordinary women recognised that the more available they made themselves, the more they were likely to be exploited.

Anyone who doubts that the disgust still exists should study last week's newspapers. The views given by two male students were particularly edifying. They thought the girl was 'an easy lay' and 'dressed tartily'. Though they played sex games with her, they backed up Kydd's defence that he avoided full sex because she 'smelt unclean'. They elaborated: 'She smelt really horrible, like she hadn't washed for days.' Here is 'slut' used in its fullest sense, not just a sexually promiscuous woman but a dirty, unwashed one. Promiscuous men never receive such treatment.

Perhaps this outbreak of double standards is part of a backlash against feminism. But you can't have a backlash if these attitudes never disappeared. Julie, an English teacher in an inner-city comprehensive, thinks that 'terms like slut and slag are back in fashion because they have never been away'. She describes how, each year, she holds a class discussion on the theme 'How boys slag off girls'. They talk about some of the most common insults, and the fact that they are often used if a girl breaks up a relationship or rejects a boy's advances. She says: 'The girls get very angry about the number of sexual insults boys use against them and how they have nothing to sling back.'

Several teenagers I spoke to confirmed the widespread use of these sexual insults. Ben, 16, and his sister Natasha, 15, both at a London comprehensive, described how 'slag' was the most common insult. 'The word gets used a lot,' says Ben. 'It means easy, a girl who sleeps with a lot of boys. Boys do sleep with girls like that, but it's not good to be seen around with them.' Natasha interrupted: 'My friends get fed up with that. We don't use the word so much, only when we're joking.'

Natasha is slightly touchy about how her group is seen by the boys. 'I go around with a pretty 'hard' group. Some of the girls in the group have that reputation and they tend to stick together. The boys might see us like that. But we're not.' Did they mind that reputation? 'I don't like them thinking about us like that, but it would only really hurt if it was true.' When I asked if there was a similar word for promiscuous boys, she said: 'No. I hadn't thought of that. It's not fair, is it?'

Jennifer, who is 16 and at a private school, had spotted this herself. 'The word 'slag' does get used more than me and most other girls would like. If a boy has slept with a number of girls, he's seen as a bit of a stud, a hard man. Girls might worry about him because of Aids but they wouldn't think he was horrible, with no morals.' Jennifer pointed out that 'slag' is now occasionally used to describe men. 'But,' she said, 'this is usually jokey.'

Jane Mills, now working in Sheffield, has also noticed teenage girls using 'slut' and 'slag' for men. 'Historically, it's unusual for a negative female word to be applied to men. But it's no cause for celebration. When women objected to those terms they weren't just objecting to the double standard. They were also objecting to the linking of sex and dirt, sexual pleasure and morality. Now the link is there for both men and women.'

Mills thinks that the threat of Aids is responsible for this shift, since all sex, both in men and women, can now be seen as a potentially contaminating act.

These trends in language suggest Aids is a good excuse for a culture frightened by sexuality. But language doesn't just reflect, it shapes our perception of the world. And the more we re-circulate these words, the harder it will be to find open and fair attitudes to sex.

Comments