If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1
Special note: I fact-check, I spell-check, I grammar-check and I check for broken links. If you see errors, please send me a message, don’t let me stay out here with toilet paper trailing from the soles of my intellectual shoes.
CONCRETE TIP #4:
Stop participating in slut-shaming.
Before we jump to “why,” please take a moment to complete these two short thought exercises (remember, you agreed to do some work):
1. Think about the last time you talked about sex “with the guys.” Did you in any way over-estimate: your cumulative number of sexual partners, the frequency with which you have sex with your current partner(s), the number of instances of “non-mainstream sex” in which you’ve participated (and for this I mean threesomes, kinky sex, etc. even though I think that stuff is pretty normal and more mainstream than we are led to believe but aaaanyway)? Why? What led you to over-estimate? If you didn’t, why not. If you are the type who never utters a peep about your sex life to anyone else, think about that – why is that something you choose to not talk about? Do you feel comfortable not talking about it?
2. Get pen (or pencil) and paper. Jot down all the words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the word “slut.” Actually write them down, don’t just think them in your head. You’ll need this list later.
First, let’s start with a definition. Quite simply, slut-shaming is shaming women for interest, participation or procurement of sex. It takes many forms. It’s not unrelated to my first post about dress codes. Criticizing a woman for what she is wearing (oh that skirt is too short, she looks so trampy, that’s too much makeup, she looks like a ho, stripper heels, etc.) is a form of slut-shaming. Calling a lower-back tattoo a “tramp stamp.” Suggesting that it is a woman’s responsibility to prevent and control a man’s response upon looking at her physical form. In short, slut-shaming is engaging in critique about a woman based on her choice of sexual partners, the number of sexual partners and frequency with which she seeks out sex OR external markers you’ve learned indicate any of the previous (i.e. clothes, make-up, race, age, alcohol/tobacco/drugs consumption, etc.) – if you are judging, snarking, etc. women based on any of that, you are slut-shaming. I’m sure you’ve done it.
I’m not treading new ground here. This is an old trope. One in which women and men are supposed to occupy two opposite ends of a spectrum: gentle/aggressive, pure/lustful, controlled/wild, sought/seeker, etc. While old men work to pass laws against the un-natural-ness of abortion, they do nothing about the un-natural-ness of marketing pills to help old men counteract the diminishing hydraulics of old age. It’s normal for men to control women’s sexuality while viewing their own as not in need of any control.
While training for my upcoming 5-mile race (this will be the next series on this blog, after Feminism in Action), I noticed that my adductors (adductor magnus for you anatomy and physiology nerds out there) were really sore. My first thought was to wonder if they were weak or if I had over-worked them the previous day. But, my second thought was to have an internal chuckle that I was having soreness in muscles used to pull the knees together when I spent pretty much all of my 20s keeping my knees wide open.
I had my first sex at 17. I didn’t “lose my virginity.” Where would it go? What would be lost? I didn’t lose anything; I had a new experience for the first time. After that first experience fizzled out (ahh boyfriends who flunk out of college and aren’t able to return to keep a good thing going), I moved on and kept trying new things. LOTS of new things. Most of the time, it was quite a bit of fun. Sometimes, it wasn’t. Given the statistics, I have the very good fortune of never having been sexually assaulted. When I say “sometimes it wasn’t,” I mean just that – sometimes it just wasn’t all that great. Like a lousy book, or the movie adaptation of Dick Tracy, or a too-small portion of nachos. I was also lucky to have a mom who encouraged exploration (safely, of course!) and who might have even uttered the phrase “try before you buy” at least once. I’m an adventurer by nature, if not by trade and have collected lots of interesting experiences.
Am I a slut? If “slut” means a woman who enjoys consensual sex without shame or guilt and without needing to provide any reason for seeking out sex, then I am a slut. More importantly, do I care if other people think I am a slut? The short answer is: not really. The slightly longer answer is: not really but I am annoyed that I should even have to imagine how other people will interpret my adult choices with regard to sex and feel free (or obliged) to judge me for it. I am angry that I may be discriminated against based on my sexual history. Maybe I won’t be but I am not happy that I even have to give it a passing moment’s thought.
And is that even what we mean when we say “slut?” Do we actually mean “a woman who enjoys consensual sex without shame or guilt and without needing to provide any reason for seeking out sex?” Look at your list from the exercise #2, what kinds of words did you jot down? When you hear the word “slut,” what is the image you see?
No but wait, where’s the harm?
The harm is when a report of sexual assault is called into doubt (or a victim relentlessly questioned) because the victim may be considered a slut. When sexual experience is used as an indication of character. For example, I eat quite a bit of ice cream but I hate anything banana-flavored (I wish that were innuendo but it’s not, banana ice cream is just disgusting. Sometimes banana ice cream is just banana ice cream). The fact that I eat a lot of ice cream doesn’t mean I should be force-fed banana ice cream, does it? Does it mean that I were to be force-fed banana ice cream, some part of me would “secretly enjoy it?”
The harm is when old white dudes decide that women who report sexual assault are seeking a “coveted status.” The harm is when old white dudes try to write different kinds of rape into law, when they try to say that some rapes count and some don’t. If you think it’s no big deal because these old white dudes are merely marginal outliers, defy all Internet wisdom and read the comments. Or, in current events, Santa Barbara anyone?
The harm is when slut-shaming lowers a woman’s self-confidence, making her more susceptible later to manipulation and emotional abuse. It’s pretty hard to advocate for yourself when you’ve been told that you’re worthless via slut-shaming.
The harm is when women don’t carry safer sex protection because it might make them “look like a slut” and then end up feeling pressured into having sex anyway, without the protection.
The harm is when women would like to try something new or interesting sexually but won’t tell you about because they don’t want their partner(s) to see them as a slut. Do you really want your female partners keeping all those fun ideas to themselves out of fear that they’ll be judged? Purely selfishly, slut-shaming might be borifying your sex life!
It comes down to control and regulation. Women are not Wall Street. We don’t need to be regulated or controlled. We don’t need to be told how to use and enjoy and care for our own bodies. We don’t need to have our freedom to use, enjoy and care for our bodies determined by men. Quite frankly, we’d just like to be. When you slut-shame you perpetuate a culture of control and regulation — is that the kind of culture you want?
— Participate (or volunteer) at your most local Slut Walk. I’d post a link but each Slut Walk site is hosted locally. Just do a google search for “slut walk” and the name of your nearest city. The link above is to the original Toronto Slut Walk.
— Call out friends who are slut shaming and educate them on how slut-shaming harms women.
— Take a close look at ALL of the language you use to talk about sex. Is one person “getting some?” Is someone else “giving it up?” Is sex really a commodity we give and get? Do we actually “lose” virginity? Jaclyn Friedman says it better: “When we don’t expect sex to be a mutually satisfying experience shared by two people, it leaves us vulnerable to some truly poisonous alternative ideas, including the stubborn myth that sex is a precious commodity that men acquire from women.” You should really read her whole piece, What’s Desperately Needed in Sex Education Today.
— Talk about sex. Openly. Of course, make sure the person you’re talking to is OK with talking about sex but in general, talk more about sex. Sex is not dirty or an inappropriate topic. The more we talk to each other, the more we learn and the more we normalize that idea that sex is … gasp … totally normal. Especially talk to your kids about sex, different talks at different ages but keep a conversation going. If you can’t talk to your partner(s) openly and honestly about sex you either a) need to do work on yourself, i.e. therapy to get better at talking about it or b) you need new sex partner(s) who are open to talking about sex, or both.
Did you know that the definition of “virgin” has changed throughout history and what constitutes “virginity” depends on who you ask? Hanne Blank wrote a fascinating history on virginity that everyone should read: Virgin: The Untouched History
Laci Green, dissecting slut-shaming that is framed as feminist but is well … it’s slut-shaming:
Laci Green, demo’ing what slut-shaming looks like:
Slut-shaming isn’t something rational, professional people would do? Yeah, unfortunately, it totally is. The Young Turks talk about a slut-shaming incident with TSA:
Note: Even in trying to give sex-positive coverage, note the subtle sex-shaming that seeps into the commentators’ conversation (e.g. The commentators actually “decide” that a woman’s outfit is “not slutty” instead of challenging the idea that we have the right to judge people by what they decide to wear)
Can men be slut-shamed? Nooooot really.
Meghan Murphy takes this conversation further. There are no sluts, slut is a meaningless word because it basically a false identity (because all it does is identify women who engage in particular behaviors by a double-standard). She argues for calling it woman-hating and I can’t say I disagree with where she’s taking the conversation: It’s not ‘slut-shaming’, it’s woman hating
Ew. Slut-shaming in action. This is hard to watch but I think watching this makes it really clear how creepy slut-shaming can feel:
Leigh Clay takes on slut-shaming in her TEDx Talk: