Slut from Reading

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The story consists of a single long paragraph composed of imperative statements made by an implied mother character. In the recording, each time Kincaid repeats this line—the word slut a glittering shard in the smooth putty of her voice—the audience laughs.

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I imagine them salty and dense, soft enough to sink your tooth into, but tough enough to stick. Nothing—a hard word, a slap in the face, a fast hand for your slow ones. Before it carried any sexual connotation, the word slut was a term for a slovenly woman, a poor housekeeper. A slut was a careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough, broom stilled against her shoulder—eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, always thinking of something else. Oh, was I ever a messy .

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A real slut in the making. My clothes entangled on the floor; my books splayed open and dog-eared, their bindings split. Dirty dishes on the bookshelf, sticky spoons glued to the rug. I would never have bathed if not commanded. Once my mother told me to change my underwear and caught me putting the clean underpants on over the dirty ones.

I was ashamed when she laughed at me, not for my unclean habits, but because we had company and they laughed, too. At a certain point, when I got in trouble and wanted to be seen as good again, I would clean my room.

But only when I wanted to be good, not because I wanted to be clean. I already understood Slut from Reading goodness was something you earned, that existed only in the esteem of others. Alone in my room, I was always good.

Or, I was never good. It was not a thing to care about alone in my room, unless I was thinking about the people outside and the ways I might need them to see me. The zoo had just acquired Jenny, a female orangutan. The scientist watched a zookeeper tease the ape with an apple. Did she have a sense of fairness to offend?

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Did she feel wronged, and what sense of selfhood did such a reaction imply? What did Jenny recognize in her own reflection?

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More than a century later, his musings led to the mirror test, developed in by the psychologist William Gallup. In it, an animal is marked with a sticker or paint in an area it cannot normally see. Then, it is shown a mirror. If the animal subsequently investigates the mark on its own body, it is seen to perform this self-recognition. The body in the mirror is its, and the mark is unfamiliar. Great apes, the Eurasian magpie, dolphins, orcas, and one Asiatic elephant were the only animals found to pass the test, as of Just think of all the things a woman could do rather than clean.

Which is to say, think of all the pastimes that might make her a slut: reading; talking; listening; thinking; masturbating; eating; observing the sky, the ground, other people, or herself; picking a scab; smoking; painting; building something; daydreaming; sleeping; hatching a plan; conspiring; laughing; communing with animals; communing with God; imagining herself a god; imagining a future in which her time is her own.

In the 19th century, a slut also becomes a female dog, and a rag dipped in Slut from Reading to light in place of a candle. It is a brilliant linguistic trajectory. Make the bad housekeeper a woman of poor morals. Make her maid service to men a moral duty, and every other act becomes a potentially immoral one. Make her a bitch, a dog, a pig, any kind of subservient or inferior beast. Create a word synonymous for them all.

Make sex a moral duty, too, but pleasure in it a crime. This way you can punish her for anything. You can make her humanity monstrous. Now you can do anything you want to her. Published by Bloomsbury USA. This essay was first published in the Paris Review, Winter Created by Grove Atlantic and Electric Slut from Reading. Via Bloomsbury. By Melissa Febos. Bloomsbury cleanliness Cleanness girlhood goodness Melissa Febos Mess slutdom. She welcomes recommendations for well-written, feminist, antiracist, and queer-centering mysteries.

You can find her on Twitter melissafebos and melissafebos.

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Slut from Reading

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Melissa Febos on the Uses of the Word “Slut”