Growing up in NYC, I have seen the beginning of every clothing trend come into existence and travel via the mycelium network of the internet across the nation. A failed elementary school fashion designer myself, I have continued to keep my finger on the pulse of fashion happenings out of my genuine love for the art of self-expression. I have always seen fashion as a defining aspect of culture and more significantly, a generation. Though fast fashion has fastened its grip on our social media obsessed peers, I believe that the evolution of clothing has blossomed into a much more highly curated thing than it was decades ago. That being said, it did not take long for me to notice the shift to more expressive clothing, taking direct inspiration from the slogan t-shirts of the coveted early 2000s. Brands no longer shy away from telling it like it is, leaving no stone left unturned. Gone are the days of logomania; uncensored sexuality has penetrated the market. It didn’t take long for me to soon scroll across the frenzy of young women wearing an array of tank tops, trucker hats and t-shirts with phrases like “I <3 SLUTS” and “I <3 MILFS,” or even something more explicit, brazen across their chests.
Funnily enough, these shirts parody the iconic “I <3 NY” t-shirts that to me hold no greater value than a quick cash grab. I’m not sure how thrilled other native New Yorkers are with a cultural staple being refurbished as revolutionary sex-positive t-shirts. As someone who wades through the waves of the ironic, post-ironic, and post-post-ironic, I did not see an issue with these t-shirts when they first popped up on my radar. It seemed obvious that they were made as a statement against the icky epithet “slut” for people to buy and embrace. I myself mulled over purchasing one to flaunt my own support for slut activities. However, time and an empty bank account delayed my purchase and desire to own one of these shirts. Over time, the fashion critic in me began looking at them with a, well, more critical lens. I couldn’t get behind this alleged version of sex positivity for some reason. The word “slut” just felt too dirty and tainted to me, and even if it was worn by people I felt weren’t using the word disparagingly, the concept of “slut reclamation” felt weak.
The “I <3 SLUTS” genre of tees is not the sole culprit, but I do believe they best exemplify the synthesis of commodity and sexuality neatly tied up in a quirky phrase for Gen Z to gobble up. A quick Instagram search of slogan t-shirts will no doubt find a plethora of other colorful clothing items that bank on the packaging of female sexuality and pleasure. Women have inherent ties to this issue because most of the words used on these shirts are words that have societal connotations toward women, and are now primarily being promoted towards us. As a feminist, I understand that not everything must be a revolution. I realize we live in a society where euphemisms and colloquial usage of words can take precedence over denotation for the sake of practicality. That being said, when activism or social commentary is tied to these shirts as a form of marketing, I think it’s completely fair game to put into question the true intentions of these brands. Pointing out their ugly hypocrisy is something not a lot of people want to do when they could simply just “enjoy things,” but I think our shallow analysis of this culture is not enough if we have genuine goals towards understanding how these systems of oppression continue to be reinforced.
Our generation has once again come to terms with the fact that these systems are so much larger than us. To combat these systems, we have inadvertently leaned into the patriarchy with no real knowledge of the long-term effects of our actions. This is something we have done numerous times, turning serious subject matter into memes and ironic jokes as a coping mechanism for the grim reality we face while exploring sex as young adults. Instead of telling women that sex is shameful, with its only purpose being to serve masculinity, we are teaching women that sex is an inherent part of their womanhood and they must embrace the type of sexuality that the patriarchy has pushed onto them. The onus rests on women to guide our conversations about sex when it is the collective effort of group dialogue that creates progress.
I think asking a few questions led me to truly understand the ripple effect of these shirts in our current culture. What do these shirts actually reclaim? How do they work to change the meaning of these insults in our society? The way they’re being used doesn’t actually do anything but validate the use of the word by attaching more complex associations to it. Reclamation does hold value for oppressed groups to be re-empowered, but it can’t act as justification for wrongdoings that we can’t defend. How does loving sluts and female sexuality actually make it so women can feel comfortable and safe about exploring their sexual desires, or lack thereof? I find the real irony in this is that these shirts are often proudly paraded by women and girls who are unfamiliar with their bodies, insecure in their sexual advances, and victims of continuous sexual harm. What does this say about the men wearing these shirts? Should we criticize them with as much vigor as we do women, or are they just as clueless about their role in the subjugation of women’s bodies? We all have to take responsibility, some more than others, for the things we do, say, and wear, even if we don’t intend to perpetuate these values.
So where does that leave us? Unlike the “I <3 SLUTS” t-shirts, I don’t have a memorable phrase that will fix all of our woes for $14.99. I think the best thing we can do comes in two parts: recognize and act. We must recognize that these shirts themselves don’t fix the issues plaguing society and, most importantly, take some action on trying to deconstruct how we value and talk about sex. Instead of loving or hating sluts, we should be “slut neutral” and move towards not using words that defile the intricacy of sexual relationships. It is so easy for us to claim that we love and support female sexuality while doing nothing to ensure the protection of women having sex. Steps we can take to truly love “sluts” include donating to funds for sex workers, promoting safe sexual activity by providing people with access to contraceptives and birth control, advocating for reproductive rights, and continuing to educate oneself and others about what healthy sex and sexual conversations look like. I think these efforts extend much further than a parody tee and have significantly better results.
Featured graphic via Magdalena Saliba.
Nakia is a writer for Sex and the Crescent City. She is a freshman from NYC majoring in philosophy and digital media practices. She enjoys all things pop culture, is a big fan of reading, and a major cat lover.