Putting Shaming to Shame

It’s risky for women to get frisky. Whether or not she does, critical condiments (and condoms) will be peppered in. Slut is such a spice frequently tossed, but it’s not settling well with many stomachs.

“Slut is the absolute worst insult you can call a girl or a woman.” according to Leora Tanebaum, author of “I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.”

With hookup culture at its hype across United States college campuses, slut shaming has become a regular byproduct. Hookup culture is defined as a culture that “ accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters, including one-night stands and other related activity, and focuses on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding or long-term commitments,” according to the Urban Dictionary Online.

In contrast to hookup culture, however, slut shaming is not an entirely a new concept, with origins dating even further back than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, “The Scarlet Letter.” To “slut shame” is to “degrade or mock a (typically) heterosexual woman because she enjoys sexual activity, frequently participates in sexual activity, or is rumored to be sexually promiscuous,” according to Tanebaum.

Yes, even if the woman hasn’t actually participated in sexual activity, simple perception is sufficient for her to be rendered “whorish.” Calling someone a slut, too, “causes the offender to draw further negative conclusions about her character,” adds Tanebaum.

In a survey of Wake Forest University students, the majority agreed that regardless of fact or fiction, simply hearing that others had gotten a taste of a fellow female student could spoil her reputation. Seventy-five percent had even gone so far as to say that if they heard someone was a slut, they would automatically consider her to “have no morals,” be a “terrible person,” or “a cheat.” However, there was much variation with regards to what would render her as slutty.

Such discrepancies ranged from what the individual wore to the number of sexual partners. The number of perceived sexual partners especially contributed to the level of sluttiness, with 89 percent of students considering 10 or more to be the magic number in contrast to a very mere 2 percent considering three or fewer.

Still, one factor was unanimous: the individual is female, and even the most minute of behaviors, like the amount of makeup she wore, could contribute to her perceived promiscuity.

One student, who shall remain anonymous, defined a slut as: “someone who searches for gratification and worthiness in the form of affection from others, especially sexual partners.”

Another anonymous student said that a slut is “a girl who casually gives up her body for some form of sexual intercourse and does so with many different partners.”

While many other respondents agreed with the above definitions, others denied the term and instead claimed that, “Nobody has the right to call anyone a slut for a decision that they make.” Slut shaming, however, still prevails. And despite the casual nature of hookup culture, the consequences of slut shaming are anything but.

A Recipe for Disaster

Though the perceived loose lips of a “slut” are deemed shameful, it is really the loose lips of the offender that cause real damage. “She’s ruined for life,” says Tanebaum.

It is, indeed, difficult to forget the publicized suicides of adolescents Phoebe Prince and Hope Witsell, all due to being labeled as slutty. Though suicide is a rarer consequence, issues such as having a lesser likelihood of being hired for a job due to perception as slutty are quite common. Publicity, too, does not yield many benefits.

A paramount example comes from the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal of 1998, which spread from an internal to an international affair. “Overnight,” said Lewinsky, “I went from being a completely private figure to a completely humiliated one worldwide. I was seen by many but actually known by few.”

Lewinsky was crudely rendered “a little tart” in a 1998 publication of the Wall Street Journal. It was as though she was a dessert on display in a glass case, subject to any and all criticisms of passers-by.

Clinton, on the other hand, was “glorified for being a womanizer,” says Tanebaum, “which is also the case among heterosexual males who are perceived to participate in similar activity.”

Interestingly enough, in the Wake Forest student survey, 92 percent perceived Lewinsky to be among the sluttiest of celebrities, along with Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift. On the other hand, when presented with some spicy male celebrities, such as Hugh Grant, Channing Tatum, or Cristiano Ronaldo, and asked to explain their reasoning for whether or not they branded them as slutty, 82 percent did not perceive them in a negative light. Instead, they pardoned any charmer-like behaviors, going so far as to say, “[Grant] isn’t slutty, he’s super hot.”

These responses show the immense power that being associated with whore-like behavior has on a female individual. Slut shaming forms a brick barrier of negative preconceived notions around whom it victimizes, blocking others from seeing any value in the individual, to a point of further isolation.

In fact, a study at Cornell University revealed that college-aged women are far less likely to form friendships with women they consider promiscuous because they view them as threats. This, in turn, may cause women to lash out against other women in an attempt to rise above the competition.

Furthermore, with regards to mental health, slut shaming replaces empathy and compassion with shame and humiliation, according to Lewinsky in her March 2015 TED talk entitled, “The Price of Shame.” “Public humiliation, whether on the news or within a college campus, is a commodity in an industry of shame,” added Lewinsky.

Humiliation, according to a 2014 meta-analysis psychology study, is also an even stronger emotion than happiness or anger. It can thus leave deeper wounds in those who undergo victimization than perhaps what the offenders can perceive.

“Those wounds are further deepened by the Internet,” said Lewinsky. “With just one click, we become more numb to the human lives behind the humiliation.”

Writer Danica Johnson agrees. “As a culture,” she wrote in an article for Everyday Feminism magazine, “we are quick to use the words that paint female sexuality as disgraceful, regardless of excessive or relatively no participation within it.”

This negative, socially constructed notion of female sexuality could even be considered oppressive in that it traps women in what feminist theorist Marilyn Frye describes as a “double bind” of oppression.

Frye says that in the United States, particularly younger, heterosexual women, “are in a bind in which neither sexual activity nor sexual inactivity is all right. If she is heterosexually active, [she] is open to criticism for being unprincipled or a whore…if she refrains, she is labeled as ‘frigid,’ a ‘man-hater,’ or a ‘bitch.’”

Tanebaum adds that, essentially, if one is a heterosexual female, she is “damned if [she] does and damned if [she] doesn’t [participate in sexual activity], regardless of the choice to participate.” This reveals a further layer in that there is potential for a woman to be rendered a slut even in cases of rape. The questions of choice and consent disappear from the equation, which can, in turn, provoke even more traumatizing consequences.

We’ve All Got a Shame Allergy, But We’ve Got the Cure

Regardless of whether consent is a part of the recipe, Lewinsky believes that the culture of slut shaming must be put to an end.

Although it is a very intricate problem, it can be changed through compassion and empathy. “Though I [actively chose] to make the mistakes I did at 22,” said Lewinsky, “I would not have been able to recover from the harsh criticisms had it not been for the empathy and compassion with which close family and friends surrounded me.”

She adds that, “It is easy to forget that a woman is dimensional, and has both agency and a soul, and, thus, it is easy to shame her for it. But, to quote Brené Brown [a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work], ‘shame cannot survive empathy.’’”

In empathizing with or showing compassion for an individual as opposed to criticizing them or writing them off as valueless, the industry of public humiliation can finally be shut down. “We talk a lot about freedom of expression,” says Lewinsky, “but we need to talk about our responsibility to freedom of expression.”

What Lewinsky means is that the choice on whether to shame another or to use constructive words lies within everyone. She also encourages starting a conversation and taking action.

In addition to Lewinsky’s TED talk, active efforts have been made to end the regime of slut shaming. On March 22, 2015, Melissa Harris-Perry discussed such efforts, including detailing how people are fighting against slut shaming on her weekly MSNBC talk show.

Harris-Perry first referenced popular ABC sitcom ” Scandal,” and a recent episode in which two characters subtly sent a message to audiences advocating for victims. The message was that even if slut shaming occurs, nobody should ever feel ashamed for “owning [their] bodies and using them in as many ways and as many times as they want, and having great sex along the way.”

E! News Correspondent and guest speaker on Harris-Perry’s show Alicia Quarles spoke to non-victims, telling them to push back against Internet backlash. “Let’s use our words to build rather than to harm,” she says.

Amer Ahmed, another guest and the Intercultural Center Director of Swathmore College, agreed: “Men need to take more responsibility,” he says, adding, “I think we need to have a conversation about the implications of our actions and how they affect women. We have to get honest with each other and address those issues.”

Harris-Perry concluded that to successfully push back against slut shaming, society’s current notions of sexuality and the tie with the double standard it carries must be severed. It will involve conversations among the sexes that evoke self-awareness about what it means to be either a male or a female in society with or without participation in sexual activities.

Through collaboration, empathy, and compassion for others, the tools are at the ready to build a more inclusive environment for all individuals and finally toss slut shaming down the drain.

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