July 9, 2021

What Is A Prude And Should We Stop Using The Term?

We should never judge people for how many sexual experiences they’ve had or not had.
Written by
Ella Dorval Hall
Published on
July 9, 2021
Updated on
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You may have heard the word “prude” used in popular culture. Or perhaps you’ve been called a prude or heard someone else use the term to describe another individual. The word tends to have negative connotations as it’s often used to shame someone for not having enough sexual experiences or someone who may not feel comfortable openly discussing sex. If you’ve ever been called prude in this way, you know it doesn’t feel very good. But should we throw the word out altogether or is it ever okay to use? We’re here to answer all your questions. 

What is the definition of prude? 

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of prude is “a woman who shows or affects extreme modesty.” The word is not specifically condemning or even about sex, though it has often been used to shame people who are more reserved when it comes to their sexual experiences. It’s typically used to describe women, but can also be directed at a person of any gender or sexual orientation. Columbia University's Go Ask Alice! site, on the other hand, describes a prude as a “person [that] is overly concerned about whether what they say, what they do, how they dress, etc. is proper." 

Cofounder of Unladylike Media Cristen Conger said in a YouTube video that prude-shaming may used to make people feel bad for choosing to wait until marriage to have sex, for not having a first sexual experience like a kiss, for not having tried “wild” things in bed, or for waiting to feel a certain level of comfort with a partner before engaging in sexual activity. 

Why might someone be a prude? 

There are lots of reasons a person may not have a lot of sexual experience or like to talk about sex. It might be that they just aren’t ready; it could be for religious reasons, or it’s possible that they place a certain amount of value on sexual experiences that cause them to want to wait or withhold those experiences until it feels special enough for them. Some people may act “prude-like” because of past trauma that has impacted their feelings around sex and their ability to enjoy it. Others might have less sexual experiences because of medical reasons, such as pain during intercourse. Some may feel more modest about talking about sex because of their upbringing, culture, or religion. Others may feel they need to have a certain level of safety and comfort with a person before engaging in any sexual activity. 

The reasons someone might be a prude is their business. It’s important not to judge a person for their choices. The word “prude” should not ever be used to put someone down as no one should ever be defined by their sexual experiences. 

Can a prude be sex positive? 

Absolutely. You can be “prude” and celebrate your sexuality and the sexuality of others. In fact, sex positivity celebrates any amount of sex someone chooses to have. “There is an idea that wanting sex all the time should be the goal. But some people just don’t want to have sex all the time, or at all. Sex positivity has long been about ‘owning our desires’ but it should also be about owning our lack of desire, which is totally okay” writes Wendy Stokes in 8 Way To Be Positive You’re Sex Positive on The Frisky.  

How to stop being prude

If you’ve been called a prude, it can be hurtful and it may make you want to change. This could mean changing your mind about when you’re ready for sexual experiences, how much sex you’re having, who you’re having it with, when you’re having it, or the ways you talk about sex. But trying to change your relationship to sex, especially before you’re ready, can be dangerous. There is never a good reason to stop listening to your body and respecting your own wants and needs just to avoid the judgment of others. 

“There are going to be people who look down on you for your choices around sex and for asserting your sexual boundaries. They’ll express judgement, confusion, disappointment, or even get pushy. But understand this – that is not your problem, that is their problem. And there is nothing wrong with you” PRUDEmag editor Rebecca Sweets said in an interview with Teen Health Source. You do not need to change your sexual decisions in order to fit into cultural ideas of how much sex we “should” be having. 

When should we not use the word prude?  

If the word is ever used to judge a person’s sexual experiences, or lack thereof, don’t use it. If it’s used in a context that denotes something negative about a person’s modesty, don’t use it. People should not be shamed, policed, or criticized based on the number of sexual encounters they’ve had or not had. Instead, we should celebrate a range of sexual preferences. 

In her YouTube video, Cristen says that the idea of prude-shaming exists for the same reason that slut-shaming exists. Both are based on the idea that there is a “right” amount of sex people should be having, especially women. McHugh, M. C. & Interligi, C. M. reiterate this point in SlutWalk: Resisting Sexual Shaming, writing that “in both slut-shaming and prude-shaming, women’s sexuality is socially policed to conform to what has been deemed acceptable and ‘normal.’ “

There is no objective right amount of sex people should be having. The amount of sex or no sex that you want to have is always the right amount. 

Is it ever okay to use the word prude? 

Words that have historically been meant to shame a group of people, put them down, or make them feel less-than can sometimes shift meaning if the word is reclaimed by the group it targets. For example, the word “slut” is typically a slur but some have reclaimed it as a way to show pride in their sexual prowess and to celebrate the sexual freedom of others. The same can be true for the word “prude.” Some people wear the label as a badge of honor to signify they are proud of their decisions and the boundaries they’ve set. If you’re a self-proclaimed prude and the word holds a positive meaning for you, go ahead and use it! If you know someone else is also a proud self-proclaimed prude and you use the word to describe them positively, then that’s okay, too. 

There are even movements created around the word that aim to give it power. For example, PRUDmag is a zine that aims to redefine the word as a “liberation in which our ‘no’ is respected. 

The zine describes itself as a “home for spinsters, rule-makers, asexuals, relationship anarchists, and all others resisting a sex necessary culture. PRUDEmag does not defend an oppressive ‘purity culture,’  but rather defends prude / slut solidarity, acknowledging ‘prude’ and ‘slut’ as symptoms of the same systems. Whether our prudism is related to our sexual orientation, our trauma, our disability, our spirituality, or none of the above, prude identity rejects a one-size-fits-all sexual empowerment.” 

Alternatives to the word prude

While some people may want to reclaim the word “prude,” it might not feel right for everyone. There are lots of ways you can describe yourself, your experiences, or your preferences other than saying “I’m prude.” 

If you’re not having sex, perhaps try saying, “I’m abstinant,” or “I’m not sexually active,” or “I’m not having sex with people right now.” You might also tell someone that you are protective of your boundaries, and you simply know what you do and don’t want. If you’ve never had a sexual experience before, you might say you are waiting until you’re ready, that you haven’t found the right person or situation, or that you know it will simply happen when it happens, and that’s alright with you. 

If you are more modest when it comes to openly discussing your sex life or the sex life of others, you can tell someone the topic makes you uncomfortable. You might explain that you value your own privacy and the privacy of others when it comes to sex. You might simply say, “I don’t kiss and tell,” and leave it at that.  

If you feel insecure about your lack of experience while exploring with a new partner, it can help to be open about how you’re feeling. You might try saying something like, “I’ve only had a few sexual encounters. I feel nervous telling you this, but being honest with you makes me feel less nervous. It would help if we could take it slow.”  

If you’re someone who doesn’t experience much or any sexual attraction, you might explore asexuality and see if this description feels good for you. 

The bottom line

The word prude can be hurtful when it’s used to shame someone for their lack of sexual experiences. We should instead celebrate everyone’s choices to set boundaries for themselves, and respect any decision a person makes about their own body. While some people have reclaimed the word “prude” to give it positive meaning, not everyone has attached themselves to the word. If you prefer to say no to sex, to wait until marriage, and/or to feel a certain level of safety or comfort with a partner before engaging in sexual activity, that’s ok. Know that if anyone ever gives you a hard time for it, that’s their problem, not yours.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Ella Dorval Hall (she/they) is a white, eating disorder recover-er, sex and pleasure educator. She's worked at a national sexual health organization, Healthy Teen Network, training educators how to teach evidence-based sex education curriculums. Ella now hosts workshops, writes, and does 1:1 education that brings people the information and skills they need to actually enjoy sex. You can find more of Ella’s work on Instagram @unlearnings3x.

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