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Slut Shame: Attacking Women for Their Sex Lives

In 2011, it’s still considered perfectly acceptable to attack women based on their supposed sluttiness.
 
 
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On January 26, Loren Feldman wrote an open letter to media personality Julia Allison’s father, alleging to her expertise at oral sex and her promiscuity. The post, which has since been removed, is a prime example of the ease with which the accusation of being a slut is still hurled at women as a way to shame and degrade them.

Allison has plenty of company. To name a few, sex bloggers Kendra Halliday, aka The Beautiful Kind, who lost her job when a technical glitch outed her real name, and Lena Chen, who found herself paired with the Gawker headline “Worst Overshare Anywhere Ever” after posting a photo of herself after her boyfriend had ejaculated on her face. The Today Show’s Kathie Lee Gifford inspired a Change.org petition after she told Jersey Shore reality star Snooki that she should “value herself more. Don’t give yourself away to just any jerk, okay?” Slut-shaming can happen to anyone⎯well, any woman. Maybe you’ve written about your sex life, or maybe you’ve just been bold enough to express the fact that you don’t want to have kids. Maybe you wore a revealing outfit on a red carpet (see January Jones’ Golden Globes dress) or Tweeted a cleavage photo (Meghan McCain).

Lilit Macus, editor of Crushable.com, wrote an essay for the New York Post about why she didn’t want to have children and was told, basically, that she’s a big ol' slut too. “In the past, most of the comments directed at me had been about selfishness or not doing my ‘duty’ as a woman by having kids, and I think this is because I grew up in a conservative part of the country where most of my peers married and had kids young,” says Marcus. “But the responses to the Post article claimed I was a loose woman or that my desire not to have kids meant that I was sleeping around.” The assumption that women “owe” our bodies for procreation and that if we use them for pleasure instead (or in addition), we are somehow going against nature is part of the backdrop that encourages this type of thinking.

Author Kerry Cohen is an example of a woman who’s explicitly embraced her sexuality in her memoir Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, only to be told that she “wasn’t slutty enough” to truly call herself a slut, proudly or otherwise. After Marie Claire ran a piece on her calling her a “sex addict” (a term she didn’t use to describe herself), Jezebel asked, “Is ‘Sex Addict’ Memoirist Kerry Cohen Even Actually a Slut?” The lesson Cohen took away is that there are nuances to who’s allowed to use the term. “It's interesting because slut-shaming has morphed lately and now you can either get shamed for being a slut, or you can get shamed for not being the right kind of slut (meaning, you aren't proud enough of your slutdom).”

Yet there are those who make the case for slut-shaming, explicitly even. Blogger Susan Walsh is one of them. At hookingupsmart.com, she repeatedly encourages readers to call out sluts, for their own good. She writes approvingly of the much-discussed recent book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, and concludes, “Women are better off when the number of promiscuous women is low. If you are not promiscuous, it is very much in your best interest for your female peers to reject random hookups as well. We may not want to pillory sluts, but societies have always had social contracts to benefit the whole group. There is strength in numbers.”

This issue is tied to our deepest notions about what it means to be a woman, and whether our sexual choices are ours to make freely or not. The through line from Feldman to Walsh is that women who are sexual, or are perceived to be sexual, are somehow going against what’s “right” or “natural.” It’s also clearly not just men who are doing the shaming. As Andrea Grimes confesses in “I Was a ‘Pro-Life Republican… Until I Fell in Love,” her public bashing of other women wasn’t really about abortion, but lording her virginity over her peers. She writes, “I absolutely loved slut-shaming. Because I was saving myself for marriage–well, oral sex doesn’t really count anyway, does it?–-I knew that I would always be right and virtuous and I would never be a murderer like those sluts. The issue couldn’t possibly be up for real debate, to my mind: either you were a baby-killer slut, or you behaved like a proper Christian woman and only let him get to third base.” Clearly, who is a slut is in the mind of the beholder (see Emily White’s excellent Fast Girls for exploration of high school slut-shaming in action) and, more importantly, their decision to use the word is almost always in a way aimed to be insulting, demeaning and denigrating to the woman’s personhood. “Slut” is meant as a way to put women back in their place (with legs firmly closed), and make them ashamed of their perceived promiscuity, as well as make others join in on this shaming.

However the women “slut” is being hurled at feel about it, the fact that it is still, in 2011, the go-to insult for women, is problematic. We need to work to neutralize the term so that it doesn’t wield the impact that it once did. Writers have been reclaiming the word, from the classic polyamory primer The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, to groupie memoirist Roxana Shirazi, author of 2010’s The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred Backstage. Yet those who continue to use the word mean it as anything but a proud proclamation.

Some activists fighting back against one of the most insidious forms of institutional slut-shaming are the organizers of SlutWalk Toronto, to be held April 3. The event was organized after a representative of the Toronto police department stated that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” This equation of perceived slutdom with an incitement to violence, the ultimate “she was asking for it” argument, is the logical end point for those who think women’s bodies are under some sort of communal control. Their walk also includes a poster campaign, one of which tells us to “Reclaim the Word Slut” and at the top says something I think speaks to the issue more succinctly than anything else: “Slut isn’t a look. It’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence.”

Editor's note:This post has been altered since publication to protect the privacy of a previously mentioned individual.

Rachel Kramer Bussel ( http://www.rachelkramerbussel.com) is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and reading series host. She has edited over 38 anthologies, including Gotta Have It, Best Bondage Erotica 2011, Fast Girls and Orgasmic, is senior editor at Penthouse Variations and a columnist for SexIs Magazine, and offers up daily food porn at Cupcakes Take the Cake ( http://cupcakestakethecake.blogspot.com).

 
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