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Whither the Slut? Mandy Stadtmiller and Karley Sciortino Reveal All

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“Unwifeable,” a new memoir by Mandy Stadtmiller, begins and ends with the same scene. A single woman in New York—who describes herself as having been, for the duration of her adulthood, “a living don’t”; who, having given up alcohol and cocaine, has claimed indiscriminate sex as her “favorite escape-the-moment drug”—is lying in bed with a handsome near-stranger. Going through the motions of seduction, Stadtmiller writes, involves switching “into a character I can do on cue: the Slut.” Making her voice “as breathy and helpless as possible,” she asks the man, “Do you want me to touch myself?” But the man—who, we know by the second recounting, has since become Stadtmiller’s husband—refuses to play along. “What’s this thing you do, where it’s like you’re doing a show?” he interjects.

For Stadtmiller, to be a slut is, by definition, to play a slut: to act out a character in order to attract attention and love. A sexual-assault survivor—at fifteen, she was raped by a distant relative—Stadtmiller learned early on how to turn her vulnerability into what she assured herself was a strength. “Instigating sexual chaos provided me with the perfect excuse for my inability to save myself or learn from past mistakes,” she explains of her years of sometimes anonymous, often destructive, and always detached sexual encounters, which, she convinced herself, were part of a “vague empowerment narrative”: “See that fiery burning wreckage? I did that. That was me.” At nearly forty, she writes, “I considered myself unwifeable. And I liked it.”

The modern slut originated with the post-sexual-revolution rock groupie in the sixties, and has held cultural sway since then, through the powerfully libidinal Madonna in the eighties, the self-consciously carnal Courtney Love in the nineties, and the fictional but influential “Sex and the City” vixen Samantha Jones in the early two-thousands. All of these figures openly expressed sexual desire and agency as part of a trajectory toward freedom, but their unrepentant sexuality also often contained something like its opposite—a need for love, the possibility of an emotional unravelling, and, always, the potential for reform. The slut’s beckoning could also read like a dare or a seduction, as if to say, “Help me be good, Daddy.” Stadtmiller, like the icons of sluttiness before her, was allowed the sexual privileges of the white, middle-class woman, who, for all her emotional suffering, is relatively unburdened with the pressures of respectability politics. Before


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