Why Author and Actor Karley Sciortino Wants Women to Reclaim the Word "Slut"
If you’re a woman, chances are you have a complicated relationship with the word slut. Whether it’s used to be degrading, hurtful, funny, or harmless, slut sounds barbed and tends to incite controversy. That’s not surprising considering its history is rooted in gender-based oppression. But perhaps the very fact that it’s so loaded and powerful is exactly why we should embrace its potential to be empowering. That’s what Karley Sciortino has spent much of her life doing: reclaiming the word by reinterpreting it as a celebration of female sexual autonomy, thereby minimising its capacity to police women’s bodies and shedding the shame it’s intended to rouse. Cursing the coloniser in their own tongue, so to speak.
Sciortino has occupied a variety of positions throughout her career, including Vogue columnist, actor, influencer, and dominatrix, but you probably recognise her as the woman behind the blog and book by the same name, Slutever. Most recently, she’s the creator and star in a documentary series on Viceland premiering January 24, also titled Slutever, in which she investigates everything from happy endings for women; male sex dolls; and love, sex, and gender roles, in general, during a journey of “slutty” enlightenment.
So in anticipation of her upcoming project, we picked Sciortino’s brain about how we should redefine success, what it means to be sexually autonomous, and how to create a post-shame culture. She also let us in on how her unconventional career unfolded, plus the best advice she’s ever gotten from a sex worker. Read through our interview below for her keen insight and funny anecdotes.
MYDOMAINE: Tell me a little more about how your career evolved. How did sex transition from a topic you were interested in—both personally for the pleasure and in a scholarly way, almost—into a full-blown career?
KARLEY SCIORTINO: It’s sort of a cliché answer, but I grew up in a really strict, devout Catholic family where I was told I shouldn’t have sex until I was married. Sex was a big no, and sometimes there’s nothing sexier than being told no. I think from a young age I thought of sex as a tool for provocation because it was just a way of rebelling. And then when I dropped out of college in 2007, moved to London, and was living in a squatter’s commune, I started writing a blog, which was called Slutever. I was living as this freegan in a vaguely artsy, drug-fueled hostel with drifters, addicts, and wannabe artists. So I just started blogging about my life in this spot.
I was writing about my sex life a lot because it was something I found interesting and was curious about since I was younger. I started to realise that writing about my sexual experiences was a way of having control over my sexuality. It was cathartic. I could claim my sexual experiences by controlling the narrative through writing about them. Over time, it just became more sexually driven. And years later, I moved to New York and started working for a dominatrix because it was the only job I was qualified for, I think. And I was writing about her, experiences in the dungeon, and some of her clients, and I got more interested in the psychology around sex and fringe sexual behaviour. Sexuality and desire are often considered taboo, and that’s really when Slutever became, for lack of a better term, “a sex thing.”
MD: Interesting! I read somewhere that you always wanted to write a book but that it felt too daunting for a long time. What made you decide that it was the right time, and why did you decide to use the same title as your blog?
KS: Any writer aspires to—or at least thinks about—writing a book. I was writing about sexuality for over a decade, and I just felt like it was the right time to look back on my sexual history from a bird’s-eye view and ask how my upbringing, sexual education, etc., shaped my sexual identity, exploration, and mishaps and made me into the person I am today. The book is essentially about female sexual agency and redefining the idea of the “slut.” And I feel like all of the experiences I’ve had over the past 10 years—from exploring my sexuality, going through breakups, dating men and women, trying open relationships, doing sex work, working for a dominatrix, all of these things—have been the research about what a sex life is.
So I used my experiences from when I was young up until recently as a jumping-off point for larger issues about female sexuality and for my column on Vogue. But I feel like right now is the right time because, culturally, we’re going through a shift when it comes to the way that we think about women and sex. I think that now, more than ever, there’s less slut-shaming, and yet, there’s still not many people who are like, “Yeah, I’m slutty.” Increasingly, though, women are owning their sexuality. So I’m honored to be apart of that conversation.
MD: Yeah, It’s definitely an interesting time for both cultural progression and regression. So it sounds like you’ve done a lot of internal work to feel empowered and connected to your body, sexually and otherwise. Do you have any advice for people who might feel empowered as well but then still feel hurt when they’re slut-shamed?
KS: Well, something that took me a long time to realise is that not everyone has to respect you. I wanted people to take my sex life seriously. And socially, you want to be able to have sex with as many people as you want and be respected by those all people. And then I realised I don’t need to have everyone’s respect. Not everyone has to like me. If they do, I’m probably a little bit boring. Some people are never going to respect a woman’s sexuality or a woman who’s openly sexual at all. So maybe trying to gain that respect is a waste of your time.
I’m not saying you should just plow through life unapologetically or sleep around without consideration of your worth to people. You know, you should have sex in a thoughtful and respectful way, but I think if female sexuality pisses people off, that’s their problem. There are plenty of friends, boyfriends, and co-workers to go around who will accept you for you and who won’t slut-shame you. I’ve also just thrived around people who also value sexual exploration because the qualities that are emblematic of someone like that are that they’re curious about the world rather than thinking of it as something degrading or shameful.
MD: How do you define self-acceptance and how has that definition or feeling changed as you’ve grown?
KS: I think self-acceptance is complicated because the goal is to be able to accept yourself while also realising that there is room for improvement once in a while. I’m more concerned with being easy on myself. We can be way too hard on ourselves. I think it’s more just going through life and trying not to spend too much time regretting things and worrying about what everyone thinks and not turning ourselves into victims and improving ourselves over time. Seeing ways to improve is the path to self-acceptance.
MD: Did you have any aha moments about what it meant to be sexually autonomous? Or a specific moment or memory when you felt really empowered?
KS: There are a couple people I wrote about in my book who I consider my slut heroines, so to speak. It was the dominatrix I worked for and Madeline; she’s an escort. What I like about both of them is that they do these things most people consider tragic. But when they talk about it, it’s with such pride and passion. They love their jobs and find joy in their jobs and when someone talks about what they do in that way, it’s contagious.Through her confidence about it and joy around it, I see her and her work as really empowering. It taught me that when it comes to sex, or any subject, if you’re confident and proud of yourself and you’re happy, other people will see you in that same light. If you feel bad about your sex life, or if you’re apologetic about it, then other people are going to be able to see that.
MD: What makes sexual autonomy and reclaiming the word slut radical?
KS: I think that the word slut has been triggering for people for a long time. Even within the feminist movement, there’s been a huge divide for years over whether we should reclaim that word or whether we should eradicate it and stop using it altogether. I personally think that it’s far more radical and practical to reclaim the word since you can’t really erase it from the social lexicon just because it’s mean or because women don’t like it. People are going to use it to put women down no matter what. But I think reclaiming a word lessens the power it has for people to hurt you with it. Instead, we can have that word and use it as a tool for your own empowerment.
I remember when I saw Bikini Kill when I was a teenager and Kathleen Hanna had the word slut scribbled on her stomach in lipstick, and that image is so powerful but it’s also funny and self-aware and loaded. So many words have been reclaimed by the communities that felt oppressed by them. But people are still unnerved by it, even women who support female sexual agency. I think it’s radical to be like, “I’m a woman who has multiple sexual partners, I’m sexually curious, I have sex with whoever I want, and I’m not ashamed of it.” I also think levity and humor are such powerful tools for resistance. Calling yourself a slut is also just funny. Laughing about it and having fun with it is a better option, to me, than just constantly being offended by it.
MD: Is there anything you know now that you wish you could’ve known when you were younger?
KS: I wish I had known that not all men will be intimidated by a woman who’s sexual. Growing up in a conservative religious family and just being a person in the world who was watching TV and movies in the ’90s and 2000s, I thought that if you were a girl and you were openly slutty or sexually curious, you’d intimidate men—that that persona puts men off. And actually, I’ve realised over time that most guys, just like women, would find that admirable and see that as a positive quality.
MD: Whats the best advice you’ve ever received?
KS: I got really good advice from my dominatrix friend who told me threesomes were the best because you only have to do half the work, and if you’re tired, you can take a break and someone will take over for you.
MD: I feel like using the word slut in a more normal way and reclaiming it also sends a powerful message to younger women who are just discovering their sexualities and what it means to be horny and sexually active.
KS: Think about how much less power being called a slut has to harm you if you heard one of your favourite pop stars positively call themselves a slut and say, “Who cares?” I know it sounds so obvious, but I really feel like having slutty role models of women who are like, “I’m smart, funny, intelligent, responsible, and I’m happy, and I don’t care,” is so powerful for young girls developing their sexualities.
MD: That speaks to how this can help make post-shame a reality.
KS: Yeah. And even if you’re slightly embarrassed or unsure of yourself, fake it until you make it.
MD: And that embarrassment or shame is usually driven by some other person’s concept of the word slutty, not your own internal values.