1.

 

always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?

—Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”

 

In the eighteenth century, “slut’s pennies” were hard nuggets in a loaf of bread that resulted from incomplete kneading. I imagine them salty and dense, soft enough to sink your tooth into, but tough enough to stick. What could a handful of slut’s pennies buy you? Nothing—a hard word, a slap in the face, a fast hand for your slow ones.

A slut was the maid who left dust on the floor— “slut’s wool”—or who left a corner of the room overlooked in her cleaning—a “slut’s corner.” An untidy man might occasionally be referred to as “sluttish,” but for his sloppy jacket, not his unswept floor, because a slut was a doer of menial housework, a drudge, a maid, a servant—a woman.

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 child. A real slut in the making. My clothes tangled on the floor, my books splayed open and dog-eared, their bindings split. 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 when I wanted to be clean. I already understood that 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 story goes like this: In March 1838, Darwin visited the Zoological Society of London’s gardens. The zoo had just acquired Jenny, a female orangutan. The scientist watched a zookeeper tease the ape with an apple. Jenny flung herself on the ground in frustration, “precisely like a naughty child.” Later, he watched her study a mirror in her cage. The visit led him to wonder about the animal’s emotional landscape. Did she have a sense of fairness to offend? Did she feel wronged, and what sense of selfhood would such a reaction imply?

More than a century later, Darwin’s musings led to the mirror test, developed in 1970 by the psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. It is used to assess an animal’s ability to visually recognize itself. 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. Great apes, Eurasian magpies, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, ants, and one Asian elephant are the most frequently cited animals to have passed the test.

 

Just think of all the things a woman could do rather than clean. Which is to say, think of all of the pastimes that might make her a slut: reading, talking, listening, thinking, masturbating, eating, picking a scab, smoking, painting, building something, daydreaming, conspiring, laughing, communing with animals or God, imagining herself a god, imagining a future in which her time is her own.

In Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary (the precursor to the Oxford English) a slut is simply a dirty woman. In the nineteenth century, a slut also becomes a female dog and a rag dipped in lard to light in place of a candle. It isn’t until the 1960s that a slut finally becomes “a woman who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive.”

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 one word 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.

 

One of the first orgasms I remember having was to the 1983 movie Valley Girl, starring Nicolas Cage. I was not interested in the chaste romance between Cage’s punk, Randy, and Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl, Julie. There was a scene, however, in which Randy goes to the punk club and runs into his ex, Samantha, a smoldering brunette. Their urgent exchange in the shadows of that club was so compelling that I ignored the fact of my grandmother dozing on the sofa behind me as I masturbated to climax, then again, and again, and again. I had no concept that my behavior might approach “a degree considered shamefully excessive.”

Female pleasure or any indication of it was nowhere found in our school’s sex ed curriculum. Wet dreams and male masturbation, of course. Boys, I knew, could masturbate excessively, though this cliché was treated with jocular resignation. “No one ever tried to hide a man’s penis from him,” writes Cara Kulwicki in her essay “Real Sex Education.” In order to talk about reproduction, sex ed curriculums can’t avoid describing men’s most common route to orgasm. Conversely, “women enter adulthood all too often without knowing what a clitoris is, where it is, and/or what to do with it,” writes Kulwicki. Girls’ sex ed was all periods and unwanted pregnancy, unrolling condoms onto bananas.

I was lucky to have no family or religious dogma that condemned sexual pleasure, and so I was as enthusiastic and messy in exploring my body as I was in exploring the woods around our home, in whose tangled depths I played all summer. I was free of the consciousness of self that a gaze brings. An orgasm was a private thing, a firework in the dark of my body.

 

The psychologist Henri Wallon observed that both humans and chimpanzees seem to recognize their own reflections around six months of age. In 1931 he published a paper in which he argued that mirrors aid in the development of a child’s self-conception.

 

Five years later, Jacques Lacan presented his development of this idea at the Fourteenth Annual Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad. He called it le stade du miroir, the mirror stage. Before it reaches the mirror stage, the infant is simply a conduit for her own experience. Self-conception is piecemeal—here is a foot, here a hand—but perhaps closer to what Lacan would later call the Real. There is no I. Then the baby sees herself in the mirror. The image of her own body disturbs and then delights her as she identifies with it. The self becomes unified and objectified simultaneously, and the uneasy grasping for a fixed subject begins. The baby cannot tell the difference between the mirror self and the actual self. It is the first story she tells herself about herself: that is me. It is the beginning of self-alienation.

 

The summer after fourth grade, my classmate Vicki had a pool party for her birthday. Vicki lived in a characterless mansion on the west side of our town, in a housing development of identical mansions. I lived in a gray-shingled house in the woods with a tiny black-and-white television and cabinets full of foods no one at school had ever heard of. Vicki had more Barbies than friends, and she was very popular. Most notably, Vicki had a pale white Popsicle body and freckled cheeks, while I was the first girl in our grade with breasts.

In her spacious backyard, she commanded us as she did on the school playground, except on that day she did so in a pink bikini with a squared top. The other girls also scampered around her yard in their suits, legs straight as clothespins, bellies bright white, chests flat and unmoving as they ran. I kept my T-shirt on. Underneath I wore a bright green one-piece with a decorative zipper on the front, bought on sale at T.J. Maxx, rather than the Gap or Puritan. Those were places where I thought only rich people like Vicki shopped.

As we sat around the patio table eating pizza, a girl complimented Vicki on her suit. Vicki waved dismissively as she took a bite and then swiped a dribble of grease from her chin with a paper napkin. We all watched her chew and then regally swallow.

“This is for babies without boobs,” she explained. “When I have boobs, I’m going to get one of those suits with a zipper right here.” She pointed coyly at her pink top. “And I’m going to unzip it all the way down to here.” She dragged her finger down until the whole cohort laughed, even me, with my heart in my gut.

 

The role of the mirror stage is ultimately “to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality—or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.”

The baby, Lacan tells us, can see herself before she can control herself. It is this temporal dialectic that makes the mirror stage “a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation.” This fragmented self is reconciled by the creation of an anticipatory body, an “ ‘orthopedic’ form of its totality.” The creation of a story about the body—I will have boobs, I will have a bathing suit, I will unzip it all the way to here—to reconcile the distance between the image of the self and the experience of the self allows us to move through space, to have a conception of identity that feels solid, though it is not. It is the construction of a fiction that will eventually harden into something else.

 

After presents, Vicki ordered us all into the pool. I lingered at the table and tried to demur, but she insisted and so I waded into the shallow end with my T-shirt on, its wet hem sticking to my thighs as the whole party watched.

“No, Melissa,” Vicki shouted, exasperated. “Take off your T-shirt! You can’t play with a T-shirt on.” Someone giggled. I stared down at the blue water, my feet rippling at the bottom. Then I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled off my shirt.

If I had hoped that it might be seen as luck—me in possession of that thing they all wanted, most of all Vicki—then my hopes sank before my shirt hit the concrete. They stared at my zippered swimsuit in silence. No, they stared at my body, and in those scorching moments I knew that there are some people we love for having the things we don’t and some people we hate for the same reason.

Though I spent hours staring in the mirror at that age, I hadn’t yet learned how to see my own changed body. That afternoon, I glimpsed her, a glimmering double that was the only thing others could see of me. Vicki and I never played again, not because what girls did at recess or on the weekends was no longer playing—instead a kind of work to become an impossible thing and to discipline the bodies that failed worst at this—but because she had recognized that we were different, a fact I’d already known. It would be another year before anyone would spit in my face, threaten me, or prank-call my home, but by the time they whispered slut into my ear, I already knew whom they meant.

 

Gallup’s mirror test answered the question of an animal’s ability to recognize itself in its reflection, but it did not answer Darwin’s first question: Did she have a sense of fairness to offend? Did she feel wronged, and what sense of selfhood did such a reaction imply? Darwin’s ultimate question about Jenny was always the same: How human is she? The acceptance of poor treatment has often been interpreted as a validation of such treatment, at least by its enactors.

Queen Victoria, who visited another ape named Jenny in May 1842, described the animal in her diary as “frightful & painfully and disagreeably human.”

Say the ape, the Eurasian magpie, or the elephant looks in the mirror and recognizes the paint smeared on her body by the researcher. The animal who passes the mirror test then investigates her own body for the offending mark. What if she finds nothing, but the mark on her reflection is confirmed by all the other elephants? How long before her reflection replaces herself?

 

2.

 

What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe.

—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth


“She’s tight,” they kept saying with glee about this girl or that. This was before tight meant good or mad and after it meant drunk or cheap.

“What about me?” Is it possible that I actually asked this? Of course. I was a child.

“No, you’re loose as a goose.”

I know exactly what I wore that day: button-fly jeans, short-sleeved shirt with a floral pattern. It must have seemed important. I must have looked down to see what they saw. There was no mark, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

 

The geese in our town shat everywhere. Their long black necks were as fat as the pipes under our kitchen sink, their identical heads sleek with white-feathered cheeks. Their wingspan was enormous. Sometimes they flew in a V formation, their muscular wings beating in unison, their bodies’ improbable masses gliding over us in an arrow, honking as they sliced through the sky.

I felt loose as a goose in my bedroom, the book of feminist erotica that I’d pilfered from my mother’s bedroom clutched in one hand, the other hand between my legs, no mirror anywhere in sight. I felt loose as a goose in the bathtub, the door locked, the water rushing warm as the inside of my body.

I did not feel loose as a goose in Kimmy’s kitchen with her older cousin, or with that stranger in his twenties. I did not feel loose as a goose with that ninth grader after school. Still, I let them touch me. It seemed that when my desire and theirs met, the result ought to be some shared reward, though it never was. My desire found a dead end in them and there was no easy route out.

 

I recently reread Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and found it almost too painful to finish. I had not remembered that it was a novel about dying of a bad reputation. I only remembered that Lily Bart was beautiful, that she becomes addicted to “chloral,” and that such a fate seemed either likely or appealing to me.

As a child reader, I loved tragic stories of smart women whose difference led to ruin. Better yet if they were also beautiful. The romance of tragedy was a balm I could apply to my own sorrows. I felt different in so many ways, not least of which in the way I looked—not blond and freckled like the most popular kids but tan and green-eyed, with the body of a woman. I had always been told I was exotic—what are you?—but it had started to feel like an insult.

Tiffany was not a close friend and it would likely have been the only sleepover we ever had anyway. The smells of other people’s houses sometimes allured me in their novelty, but the cloying smell of Tiffany’s house made me instantly homesick.

Tiffany’s older brother was more interesting than either Tiffany or her ruffled bedroom. When she introduced us, I felt burnished by his attention, the kind I’d already become an expert at detecting. I could feel a man’s gaze when it sharpened with interest, like the birds who flitted at the feeder in our yard could feel mine. Desire filled my bones with air. Tiffany noticed, too. Later, when she suggested we play truth or dare, she dared me to ask him to join us. Then she dared us to go in the closet. There he kissed me, probing the inside of my mouth with his tongue. As the dresses shifted on their hangers in the dark, I recognized the mix of fear and excitement that fizzed in me. The familiar sense, when he touched me, that I no longer existed. Not girl but vapor. My body a thing in his hands, my mind a balloon bumping the closet ceiling.

On Monday, I was summoned to the vice principal’s office and arrived to find Tiffany waiting there, a tissue clenched in her hand. She told the vice principal that I was going to get a bad reputation. She thought I ought to be punished for her hurt feelings. I had used her, she said. I did not think to apply the same word to myself. I did not think her brother had wronged me, though it had not exactly felt like a choice. When the vice principal suggested that I apologize to Tiffany, I did, my face burning, without knowing exactly for what.

 

In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s mother teaches her daughter that society’s regard is everything. That “a beauty needs more tact than the possessor of an average set of features.” That she must manipulate and manage both her gifts and society’s esteem to get what she needs, to be safe. It makes sense that Lily is always looking in mirrors; she knows very well that the specular self is the social self, the one on which her life depends.

But there are two Lilys: the one ravenous for approval and security, who believes entirely in “the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled,” and another, more private one. When she disobeys society’s rules, the rules of her mother, in that grace period before the other inhabitants of the cage begin to punish her for her transgressions, she can feel it, “one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears.”

 

First, it was just the other students in my class, kids I’d known since first grade. I was loose as a goose, mostly because of the way I looked. It only took a few true stories to stoke that fire.

One night, I was eating dinner with my family and the phone rang. A tiny bolt of lightning struck in my chest and I leaped up to answer the call in the next room. “No phone calls during dinner,” my father reminded me. I ignored him and snatched the phone from its cradle. There was a shuffling and then a girl’s gravelly voice shouted, You’re a fucking whore! into my ear. I fixed my face and went back to dinner. That first time it happened, I wondered if I should have apologized more sincerely to Tiffany.

 

It is Gus Trenor’s wife, Judy, who is Lily’s best friend early in the book. It is she who warns Lily, in her pursuit of a potential husband, about the dangers of being perceived as “what his mother would call fast—oh, well, you know what I mean. Don’t wear your scarlet crepe-de-chine for dinner, and don’t smoke if you can help it, Lily dear!”

Lily doesn’t marry that man and she doesn’t fuck Judy Trenor’s husband, but she does accept something she needs from him: money. That is enough.

 

The most frequent caller, she of the gravelly voice, was Jenny, a sophomore at the high school. One day after school, Jenny’s older boyfriend and his friends had noticed me. Their attention, as with every older boy’s, dazzled me like headlights on a dark road. I froze, exhilarated and scared. Nothing physical had happened between Jenny’s boyfriend and me—just an exchange of light. That was enough.

I became the mistress of the telephone. No one got to it faster. I came directly home after school and parked myself next to the beige contraption with its long, curly cord. It was not always Jenny—sometimes other voices told me I was a slut and described the ways they were going to punish me for it—but I came to know that gravelly voice.

 

There were times that we exchanged more than light. I always got burned. Every time, I was sorry before it ended, hot with regret by the time I got home. I already knew the story that I was helping to kindle with my own body.

They told us to say no to so many things in school, but never how. My father insisted that boys were not to be trusted under any circumstances. My parents encouraged me to respect my body, to protect it. But what did that mean? For better and worse, I’ve rarely been capable of summoning respect simply because I was told to. Sometimes the things I did felt like a kind of protection.

 

Jake and I had hardly ever spoken. He was the older brother of a classmate I’d known since elementary school. What he thought he knew about me was enough. In the busy hallway of school, he stopped directly in front of me, reached out a hand and roughly groped my breast through my shirt, his gaze steady on my face. I froze. He withdrew his hand, smirked, and walked away. In twenty-five years, I have never spoken of it aloud, though I have thought many times how lucky I was to be confronted by him in a school hallway and not behind a closed door.

 

I had not been a fearful child. Now I was afraid to go to school. I feared my own body, which seemed cursed. Most of all, I was terrified that my family would discover how reviled I had become.

The part of me that knew how to climb trees and disagree with my teachers, who drew “deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration,” she was not gone, though it felt that way. The other one—“gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears”—her dark smoke had obscured everything else.

Here’s the thing: they were calling me a slut before they ever said the word, before I let any boy touch me. They saw the mark on me and though I didn’t see it, I came to believe it was there. People can be mirrors, too. With hindsight, I understand the instinctive shame girls feel at this kind of treatment. The story of us has been revised to include the thing that warrants humiliation. Even when we know it’s not true, or at least not right, a part of us believes it. We are not ashamed of being humiliated, but of what we have become. To tell my mother that they called me a slut would have been to reveal that I was one.

 

For months, Gus Trenor insists that Lily pay him special attention. She avoids him, but he will not be placated. In their final, terrifying encounter, he sends her an invitation under his wife’s name. Lily arrives at his door that evening to find that his wife is not even in town. His whining swells to menace. He feels owed, not only because “the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed to have a seat at table” but simply because he wants her. As Lily rebuffs him and tries to leave, the careful manners that govern the world inside their gilded cage evaporate from him like steam. How quickly his desire, when thwarted, turns to hatred. It is on this grave miscalculation of Lily’s that the whole book, and her life, turns.

Though she does not pay that debt with her body, she pays it with her reputation, which amounts to the same thing in the end. Whatever power she has held depends entirely on the esteem of others, and once that falters, it becomes clear to both Lily and the reader that he can do anything he wants to her.

 

We were studying some aspect of American history, discussing a true rumor about some dead president, when my teacher said, “The thing about reputations is that they are usually true.”

There it was: my reluctant sense of fairness, my feeling of being wronged. It bloomed in me like a corpse flower, rare and putrid. I was afraid to be angry. If I let myself get angry, I would have to face my own sense of the injustice, the true breadth of my own powerlessness. There are benefits to believing what they say about you.

Did I argue with him? Probably not, though I knew he was wrong, and not only on behalf of my own bad reputation. What is a reputation but the story most often told about a person? Perhaps the bad stories told about white men throughout history have mostly been true. After all, the threat of punishment for telling false stories about white men has often been great. Likewise, the ability of white men to correct the record. But the stories those men tell about women, queers, or anyone who is not white? Power is required to inflict punishment and to revise the public record. You need a weapon to defend your own name. If you don’t have one, they can say anything they want about you.

I don’t think my teacher meant that reputations are usually true in the Lacanian sense of a self that is built by social collaboration. He meant that if they say you’re a slut, you’re probably a slut. Which implies that a slut is a kind of woman, rather than a word used to control women’s bodies.

 

Some Buddhists believe in hungry ghosts. When a person dies and is consigned to this role, the experience that follows is considered a milder version of hell. The hungry ghost might have an enormous belly and a long, needlethin neck. Invisible during daylight, she roams the night, ravenous. Maybe the food turns to flames in her mouth. Maybe she can only eat corpses. Maybe her mouth itself has gone putrid. In any case, she can never satisfy her hunger. She is always disappointed and she is never full.

The harassment only lasted a year, but that was a forever. At school, I was tormented. At home, I became angry and sullen. Some nights, I sought relief in the gazes of men. After, I burned with self-hatred, as if I’d ingested a poison that was slowly blackening my insides.

 

Lily doesn’t want to die; she just wants to sleep. Her life, now one of poverty and isolation, offers only that relief. She is so tormented by the events that led to her ruin that the opiate sleeping draught is her lone route to “the gradual cessation of the inner throb, the soft approach of passiveness, as though an invisible hand made magic passes over her in the darkness.”

I would also have found it “delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness,” to “[wonder] languidly what had made [me] feel so uneasy and excited.” But I did not find my chloral for a few more years, and that was lucky, because otherwise my story would have ended the same as Lily’s.

It is how the story of the slut almost always ends. Sometimes, she is exiled, like Little Em’ly in David Copperfield or Hester Prynne. Rarely is she redeemed. In the 2010 film Easy A, a high school student who wants to appear more interesting starts fabricating sexual exploits; in the end her sex is a farce and her virginity intact, and thus she emerges unscathed. But mostly, the slut dies. The trope of the murdered slut in horror movies is so familiar that it has a name: “Death by Sex.” By contrast, only one woman is ever allowed to survive a typical horror movie: the “Final Girl,” who must be as pure as her dead friends are dirty.

Daisy Miller dies of Roman fever. Nana Coupeau dies of smallpox. Ophelia dies by drowning herself. Tess Durbeyfield dies by execution. Emma Bovary dies by swallowing arsenic. Anna Karenina dies by throwing herself under a train.

 

I did not die. I withstood. By fourteen, I started having sex with girls and stopped feeling like I had poisoned myself. Sometimes when our desires met, there was a shared reward. After one year of high school, I left it for good. My pain had felt exceptional, though my story was an ordinary one.

The following summer, I worked as a maid for a roadside motel in town. There, one of my coworkers was an older girl who it took me a few shifts to recognize: Jenny, my most frequent prank caller. She still had that gravelly voice, smoked menthols, and used a lot of hair spray, but there were stretch marks on her belly and dark shadows around her eyes. There, both of us sluts in the oldest sense of the word, we became a kind of friends. We traded complaints about filthy guests and shared her cigarettes while we waited for the washing machines to complete their cycles. We both remembered those calls she made to my home, each of us breathing into the strange darkness of the other, but we never spoke of it, because while there were so many words for what back then, there weren’t yet any for why.

There is a part of me that still can’t bear to see it in other women: that shimmer, that man-sourcing of self, that vaporous need to please, to fill the invisible belly with the thing they told us was food. It hurts to look at them and I feel a twinge of that muddy desire to punish them, to prevent them, to protect them.

I suspect that as long as a part of me hates them, it is the persisting part of me that hates my young self, that is still afraid of being the girl in the mirror. Or even the less-young self, who sought attention as if playing the slots, who handed herself over for the impossible chance that it might pay off in some lasting way. She didn’t get punished the way I had as a kid for playing that mean lottery, but she did go broke in other ways.

I can’t undo the years of my life I spent marked. When you leave the cage, you take the mirror with you. It took me half a life to smash it. But now that I have? The gazes of men are worth nothing to me. When my beloved touches me, I fill my own body like a storm under her hands.

It turns out that almost everything they will call you a slut for being is a thing I want to be. I am finally loose as a goose, my wingspan unfolded its full length, my powerful neck raised as I slice into the sky. I am the same woman in the Innenwelt and the Umwelt. I am that careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough, bedroom a sty, pen stilled against her hand, eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, thinking of something else. I am a firework gone off in the dark, a spectacle of disobedience, a grand finale of orgasms anytime I want.

I don’t want to take the word slut back, like I don’t want to own a gun. It was never mine. You’ll never hear me say it to any woman, not as joke, not with pride or affection or irony.

The only definition of the word that I claim is the one of a rag dipped in lard and set afire. Call me that kind of a slut. Call me flashlight. Carry me through the dark if it helps. Here, take this story and watch it burn.