Spirits, alcoholic ones, have their way of sinking their depressive tendrils deep inside, drawing up everything we keep locked away. My man and I spent the night apart, out and about Brooklyn. We lace fingers and make our way home, bellies full of fried food and spirits. He falls asleep soundly, peacefully.
It's four a.m. in the city and my buzz thickens into a well of paranoia, self-doubt and shame. You might call it a moment of self-induced slut-shame. I don’t need anyone else to do it to me—I’m just fine shaming the hell out of myself. What for? Past traumas, religious mores that never fit, old lovers I conjure up despite knowing better. Feeling like I’m not enough. Having those days when being a woman makes you feel like you’re the “mule of the world.”
“I…want to die,” I whisper, slowly, trying to see if the words fit. The words sound hoarse, strange, even to me—but they resound true. And throughout different points of my life, this sensation of the world’s pointlessness has taken hold of me.
My man sleeps so lightly that my guilty whisper jolts him out of sleep.
“Babe, don’t say that. Come here,” he says gruffly, sleepy-panicked. He yanks me into the warmth of his heartbeat and whiskey breath. I let myself cry.
Slut-shaming cages the desires, behaviors, ways and wiles of women, queers and self-professed sluts with gendered, patriarchal, Puritanical (or Islamic, if you will) expectation. So, the Anti-Slut-Shame Committee says: I’ll fuck as many people as I want—don’t make me feel guilty. I wear thigh-highs and miniskirts in December—that’s my prerogative. I masturbate, watch porn, get my face smacked with dicks, cheat on my husband, skinny dip—and it’s none of your damn business.
I’m no slut-shamer, but I cringe when I hear the phrase. The word "slut" grates my ears.
As a novelist, I often use the word "whore," especially offering the point–of-view of an old-school male character. When I say it, my mouth opens in a long O, giving space to the word and all of its glory. Embedded in the term itself are eons of history, etymologically it has evolved from the Sanskritic Ka, (as in Kama, desire), then it meandered through centuries, a linguistic river that has become the present day word. It sounds much like the Bengali word "haor" which is a swampy, saucer shaped shallow depression. "Whore" is a romanticized notion of female sexual power.
Before I get caught up in my semantic wet dream, let’s get real. In a capitalist world, whore means one thing—a person who sells themself, their body for sex and other lustful ends.
Transaction. Fantasy. Goodbye. Repeat.
Half-hour later, my man is deeply asleep, and I’m starting to feel suffocated by his arm over me. I wriggle myself away to think. Lately, nothing gives me the space I need to think. It used to be inhaling a cigarette, sitting on my lame excuse for a stoop and staring at the ugly condos that never get sold. But right now, at this moment, the things spinning in my mind are what I’m going to be. What is the point of everything that I’m doing? I used to be much more fearless—a mark of being very young—fueled by rage, ambition and big fucking ideas. I took pride in my sexual abandon, from fisting a girl in a play to loving people hard, letting them know that they could pour their hopes, dreams and malaise with the world into me. The kernel that stoked this fire was a rape at fifteen.
I’ve talked myself out of circles through therapy, though my relationships with my sister, mother, father and my man. Yet that dark place persists, waiting to see you come in for a spell.
That feeling isn’t only connected to physical sex or sexual violence and sexual slavery, which reside in the dark underbelly of our culture. It’s about the pervasiveness of a whore paradigm. There remain residual feelings of guilt over violence outside of my control. I have desires that directly conflict with my Muslim upbringing. I embraced prayer and piety as a young girl, even teaching myself salaat from a book. Islam was a vehicle for spiritual sustenance, but at the same time I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts, eat pork or sleepover friends houses. My folks took pride in being good, in both the ethical and religious sense.
Eventually, I shed those lessons, to teach myself new ones.
I write for a living. For most of my adult life, I could not say that this was true (even now to say I am making my living from writing would be bullshit). For most of my adult life, I’ve been writing a novel. Now that I’ve branched into online journalism—the word "whore" has taken on a whole new meaning.
I work with a variety of editors. Some are looking for political content, others lifestyle (whatever that means), fashion and culture. For the ones I write for most effortlessly, like The Feminist Wire, collecting my truest ideas—there is no mention of what sells, clicks or ads that clutter the page. Recently, I got the go-ahead from the editor of Cosmopolitan.com to write about sexual desire and its relationship to intellectual stimulation. I’m still waiting to see the green light on it, something writers are used to. Editors are our gatekeepers. They keep a pulse on what sells, clicks and ads that clutter the page. The stories I’ll find mine alongside include “Girls with Junk in the Trunk are Smarter” or “Why Lazy Sex Might Just Be the Best Kind of Sex.”
It’s all kinds of pink, intoxicating, catchy.
It's a guidebook to being a whore.
This isn’t a claim to slut-shame. Nor is it an attempt to lambaste a site that carries unique cultural value in this neo-sexual, in-the-nude liberation moment we’re in, here in the U.S. (And, in fact, many of us do want to read about “What to Do When He Wants to Finish on Your Face”).
But these images, words and stories lodge themselves into us, and churn up our deepest insecurities, self-destructions. They allow us to coast on autopilot without taking time to let meaning seep in.
We might not be selling our bodies on a street corner (the most crude trope of sex work)— yet we’re learning everyday how to be whores. We’re desperate to consume culture, trends, heterosexual male desire. We will ourselves into being someone of value. Price tags attached, of course, to all of the brands you’re plastering on your lips, hips, tits and ass.
What are the names we put on all of this? Sexy? Alluring? Glamorous? Provocative?
Let’s try boring.
We’re bored of whoredom. There’s a malaise that’s set in with seeing a naked girl thrusting her tongue out while swinging butt naked on a wrecking ball. The whole display oozes capitalist intent, a thinly veiled guise to fatten rich men’s pockets.
A couple weeks ago, Rashida Jones’ mild Twitter rant addressed this boredom. Although she started on a judgmental foot:
This week's celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores— Rashida Jones (@iamrashidajones) October 19, 2013
Let me clarify. I don't shame ANYone for anything they choose to do with their lives or bodies...— Rashida Jones (@iamrashidajones) October 19, 2013
BUT I think we ALL need to take a look at what we are accepting as "the norm"...— Rashida Jones (@iamrashidajones) October 19, 2013
There is a whole generation of young women watching. Sure, be SEXY but leave something to the imagination.— Rashida Jones (@iamrashidajones) October 19, 2013
Jones progressively shaped her thoughts into something I agreed with.
I asked friends what they thought of her rant, which ranged from agreement to serious disagreement and calling her out as a—you guessed it—slut-shamer. Said one dear girlfriend, “Girl, the only people who aren’t BORED are WHORES. Because they’re getting PAID for getting LAID!”
But are they actually getting laid?
I don’t know what names we have for women that are queer, fat, hairy, curvy, brown, black, cankled, freckled, pimpled, crip, celibate—who indulge in their desires, who enjoy sex, who enjoy a multitude of positions, people and prerogatives.
A slut? A whore? Disgusting? Shameful?
How about normal?
That might be scary to some. To see a complex, vulnerable and extremely flawed person as a glimmering object of desire.
But isn’t the old trick to turn what scares you into just another person standing around in their underwear?
Slivers of morning light peek through the blinds. I linger between bed, bathroom, living room and kitchen. Toss, pee, sit, drink. I trace an invisible line around myself and count the ways I would alter my knobby toes, scrawny legs, hairy pussy, doughy belly, flat nipples, blind eyes.
My man snorts, murmurs some dreamy nonsense. I inhale his hot breath, which arouses me. I work my way through, past traumas, religious mores that never fit, old lovers I conjure up despite knowing better. I give myself pleasure, which finally lulls me to sleep.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer, youth educator, and performance artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for Elle.com, Fashionista.com, thefeministwire.com and is currently an Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Bright Lines, is forthcoming by Viking Penguin in 2014. Follow her @tanwinandini.