Lauren Silverman, the 36-year-old married socialite who is currently pregnant with the child of The X-Factor star Simon Cowell, is keeping the gossip magazines busy. Did her husband know about the affair? Did she stay in the marriage just to get four million in pre-nup money? As usual, the media didn't miss a beat in slut-shaming first and asking questions later.
But the New York Daily News may have gone too far in its reporting of a new "bombshell" that a then 16-year-old Silverman had a sexual relationship with her 26-year-old high school teacher. The piece reads like a how-to guide for media gender bias: Silverman, who has a "talent for sex scandals," was 16 when she engaged in a "red hot" affair with a "handsome" and "well-liked" English teacher. When the romance was discovered by Silverman's mom, the married teacher was forced to leave the school, and the "hard-partying Silverman" soon left as well.
The only remorse anyone seems to have in the article is for the teacher, whom students were "especially bummed" to see go, and who one classmate recalled as a "cool, young guy who everyone liked". And of course, there was the obligatory descriptor of Silverman as a teen who "ran with the fast crowd". Unless you're describing someone in Pamplona, Spain with bulls chasing them, "running with a fast crowd" seems to be exclusively used as code for "slutty high school girl". Why is Silverman being shamed, why are the male participants not, and why do so many people care in the first place?
Human language has been around for about 50,000 years. And if prostitution is the world's oldest profession, gossip might be the world's oldest conversation. Ever notice how, if you sit down with someone you haven't seen in a while, the dialogue quickly turns to gossip about mutual friends? For thousands of years, humans have used gossip to glean information on people's reputations so we know with whom we're dealing. Who is trustworthy, who is generous, who is successful. And of course, who is a slut.
Our ancestors evolved cognitive tools to help prevent cheating, even though they (and we) are usually unaware of them. One of those tools is gossip. And it is frequently women who use the tool most pointedly. Whereas men tend to use direct aggression – that is, beating the crap out of each other – to diminish their male rivals, women are more prone to indirect aggression to reduce the value of fellow women. They call other women "hoes". They say they dress like "whores." By attacking their sexual behavior and appearance, they attack the two traits men most value on a biological level: faithfulness and attractiveness.
Interestingly, studies show that while men tend to attack down in intrasexual competition, picking on guys weaker than them, women tend to attack up (pdf). While the biggest victims of male aggression tend to be social outcasts, the biggest victims of gossip and slut-shaming among women tend to be girls viewed by their peers as attractive. Women, especially in their teens, are very good at taking down their biggest competitors for courtship.
As far as the double standard that makes us care more about female promiscuity than male, we likely have biology to thank. Women are always 100% certain about their maternity … nine months of baby-toting, labor, and birth leave little doubt. Men, on the other hand, are never sure (at least before the era of paternity tests). Studies show that somewhere between 1-4% of children worldwide are being raised by the wrong father. Not surprisingly, men are paranoid about female infidelity, as just one tryst by their partner can rob them of their paternity. So when it comes to exposing promiscuous women, both genders have a vested interest.
In these terms, the slut-shaming of Lauren Silverman makes more sense. The media has presented a narrative of her as promiscuous because it's interesting gossip. Nobody cares how many women Simon Cowell has slept with. If he went on Jimmy Fallon tomorrow and admitted to having an affair with a teacher when he was sixteen, the response would probably be a high-five.
And because women, especially pretty adolescent women, are disproportionately the victims of gossip and verbal aggression, it's no wonder that 20 years later all of Silverman's former classmates remember her as some sort of wild floozy, instead of the victim of statutory rape, which she was, at the hands of a married older man in a position of power.
The Daily News has figured out how to make a buck off our innate predilection for gossip, and the sexual double standard for which we're hard wired is just a hook to make their headlines more salacious and clickable. If we disapprove of the tactic, we can deny them the buck … by not clicking.