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In human sexuality, slut-shaming is a form of social stigma applied to people, especially women and girls, who are perceived to violate traditional expectations for sexual behaviors. Some examples of circumstances where women are "slut-shamed" include violating accepted dress codes by dressing in perceived sexually provocative ways, requesting access to birth control, having premarital, casual, or promiscuous sex, or being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted (which is known as victim blaming).
Definitions and characteristics
Slut-shaming is defined by many as a process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct, i.e., of admonishing them for behavior or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable. Emily Bazelon says that slut shaming is "retrograde, the opposite of feminist. Calling a girl a slut warns her that there's a line: she can be sexual but not too sexual." Amy Schalet argues that too much sex is a liability for girls, which often causes the discourse on the topic of girl's desire for sex to be non-existent, and that ignoring the fact that girls have sexual desire in sexual education, media, and the social sciences results in girl's having difficulty developing sexual subjectivity; she says sexual subjectivity is the capacity to feel connected to sexual desires and boundaries and use these to make self-directed decisions. Many have stated that slut-shaming is used against women by both men and women. Jessica Ringrose has argued that slut-shaming functions among women as a way of sublimating sexual jealousy "into a socially acceptable form of social critique of girls' sexual expression". The term slut-shaming is also used to describe victim blaming for rape and other sexual assault; e.g. by stating that the crime was caused (either in part or in full) by the woman wearing revealing clothing or acting in a sexually provocative manner, before refusing consent to sex, and thereby absolving the perpetrator of guilt.
Men and women alike are culprits of "slut-shaming": The study "Birds of a feather? Not when it comes to sexual permissiveness," published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, notes that sexually lenient individuals are judged more negatively than non-permissive peers, which places those who are more permissive at risk of social isolation. The researchers from Cornell University found that similar sentiments appeared in nonsexual, same-sex friendship context as well. The researchers had college women read a vignette describing an imaginary female peer, "Joan", then rate their feelings about her personality. To one group of women, Joan was described as having two lifetime sexual partners; to another group, she had had twenty partners. The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as "less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant than the Joan who'd only boasted two".
In the media
The SlutWalk protest march started in Toronto in response to an incident where a Toronto Police officer told a group of students that they could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like "sluts".
The term has since been used when describing the comments of Rush Limbaugh during the Rush Limbaugh–Sandra Fluke controversy. Condemnation of Limbaugh following the incident is argued to have increased public attention to societal shame around women being demeaned in the media for use of birth control.
Kaitlin Menza argues that slut-shaming is a common form of bullying on social media, with some people using revenge pornography tactics to spread intimate photos without consent. In 2012, a California teenager, Audrie Potts, was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party. She committed suicide eight days after photos of her being assaulted were distributed among her peer group.
James Miller, editor-in-chief, for the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada wrote a controversial article defending slut shaming. The article was later taken down, but still received criticism from some libertarians, such as Gina Luttrell of Thoughts on Liberty, an all-female libertarian blog.
With the proliferation in the use of social networking tools, the practice of slut-shaming is becoming more prevalent among social media platforms, including YouTube and Facebook.
In the YouTube community, users such as Jenna Mourey (aka Jenna Marbles) speak out against “sluts” in their videos. In a video released in December 2012 entitled Things I don’t understand about girls Part 2: Slut edition, Mourey scorns women who engage in casual sex:
“A slut is someone that has a lot of casual sex. [...] It’s the girl that you’re like, ‘Pyeah [sic], yeah, she’s a slut.’ Yeah, that girl. Those are the group of people that I’m talking about. [...] Help the sluts of the world make less bad slutty decisions. [...] We need to look out for the sluts of the universe together. Because I think they are just a little lonely and sad.”
Lewis Webb, PhD candidate at Umeå University (Sweden), emphasizes that Mourey’s opinion is one among several in the YouTube community and that “the medium [of Youtube] is increasingly being used to attack and malign female reputations and criticize female sexual behavior.”
Slut-shaming is also commonplace on Facebook. In the summer of 2015, twenty-three year old Australia resident, Olivia Melville, was the target of slut-shaming by Chris Hall, a man who screenshotted her Tinder biography and posted it on Facebook. Melville’s biography was a lyric from the song “Only” by the rapper Drake and read: “Type of girl that will suck you dry and then eat some lunch with you.” The post spawned a plethora of comments, calling Melville a “bitch” and a “cunt.” One comment on the photo even alluded to the threat of a sexual assault: “You know the best thing about a feminist they don’t get any action so when you rape them it feels 100 times tighter.”
There are several instances in literature in which women are degraded or admonished for their sexual behavior. In these novels, men are largely exempt from the public outrage that their female counterparts endure for engaging in relationships deemed socially inappropriate:
- In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" to display her adulterous affair to her whole town.
- In Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the title character is abandoned by her husband after she tells him how she was coerced into a sexual relationship with her former employer, Alec. He is completely disgusted by the revelation and claims that she is "not the woman he fell in love with."
- In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the title character has a highly public affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. Anna is rejected by her friends, while the reputation of Count Vronsky remains more or less untarnished.
In school dress codes
Some believe that school dress codes are a form of slut shaming, and are unfair to girls and women. Some believe that these dress codes "violate Title IX, the federal law that ensures non-discrimination in educational environments." On Monday, September 22, 2014, "about 100 pupils walked out of Bingham high school in South Jordan, Utah." Students staged a walkout because more than a dozen girls were turned away from a homecoming dance for wearing dresses which violated the dress code rules. "School staff allegedly lined up girls against a wall as they arrived and banished about two dozen for having dresses which purportedly showed too much skin and violated the rules." It is believed that this act was awkward and humiliating towards the female students, which spawned the walkouts.
Certain dress code restrictions in schools across North America are believed to be perpetuating sexist standards, since they concentrate specifically on females and what they are and are not allowed to wear. There is also an emphasis placed on the effects that girls’ wardrobe choices have on their male classmates, which is seen by many as inappropriate. In March 2014, a group of middle-school girls from Evanston, Illinois protested their school’s dress code, which prohibited them from wearing leggings to school under the pretense that it was “too distracting for boys.” Thirteen-year-old student, Sophie Hasty, was quoted in the Evanston Review saying that “not being able to wear leggings because it’s ‘too distracting for boys’ is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do.” In a Time magazine article covering the incident, Eliana Dockterman argued that teachers and administration in these schools are “walking the fine line between enforcing a dress code and slut shaming.”
In September 2014, a similar incident occurred at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York. Within the first few days of the semester, two hundred detention slips were handed out to students who violated the school’s dress code. Approximately ninety percent of the slips distributed were given to girls as their clothing was deemed “disruptive to teaching and learning.” Many claim that making girls feel guilty for the actions of boys is similar to telling victims of sexual assault that they were “asking for it” by dressing in a particular manner and has thus been linked to the practice of victim-blaming.
A Canadian teenager, Lauren Wiggins, was given detention in May 2015 for wearing a floor-length dress with a halter neckline. The punishment prompted Wiggins to write an open letter to the school’s assistant vice principal at Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, New Brunswick. In the letter, Wiggins concentrated specifically on the fact that females are often blamed for the behaviour of males, saying that if a boy “will get distracted by my upper back and shoulders then he needs to be sent home and practice self-control.” She was then given a one-day suspension after writing and submitting the letter.
Attempts to stop the practice
Members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company have developed a play, Slut: The Play, in which they address the damaging impact of slut-shaming and slut culture. The creators note that their play "is a call to action – a reminder" that slut-shaming is happening every day, almost everywhere. "Slut" is inspired by real-life experiences of 14- to 17-year-old girls from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The play was shown at the 2013 New York Fringe Festival.
In her statement on the production, and of slut-shaming in general, author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum writes: "A teenage girl today is caught in an impossible situation. She has to project a sexy image and embrace, to some extent, a 'slutty' identity. Otherwise, she risks being mocked as an irrelevant prude. But if her peers decide she has crossed an invisible, constantly shifting boundary and has become too 'slutty,' she loses all credibility. Even if she was coerced into sex, her identity and reputation are taken from her. Indeed, the power to tell her own story is wrested from her. The Arts Effect's SLUT written by Katie Cappiello vividly represents this irrational, harmful, terrible circumstance...This play is the most powerful and authentic representation of the sexual double standard I have ever seen."
In April 2013, Emily Lindin, founder of the UnSlut Project, created a blog to share her stories on sexual bullying to “provide some perspective to girls who currently feel trapped and ashamed". The blog now consists of entries from members of all ages, ethnicities, and genders. The film, UnSlut: A Documentary Film, coincides with the project and is screened across the country.
After experiencing slut-shaming first-hand, Olivia Melville, Paloma Brierly Newton and approximately a dozen other Australian women founded the organization, Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silenced, on August 25, 2015. The association seeks to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and online sexual violence. The founders also launched a petition to the Australian government, requesting that they better train and educate law enforcement officers on how to prevent and punish violent harassment on social media.
Gay male slut-shaming
Gay men have traditionally been relatively tolerant of promiscuity. However, this changed considerably with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Condom use as a safe sex practise became prominent in the late 1980s as a result of the AIDS epidemic, though the availability of antibiotics and antiretroviral drugs in advanced economies has led to condom fatigue among men who have sex with men. Some public health officials argue that the government should promote increased condom use among gay men, while others believe the government should promote pre-exposure prophylaxis for prevention of HIV/AIDS using drugs like Truvada. Some people argue that public health officials are slut-shaming men who are unwilling to use condoms. Some reports indicate that gay men who use Truvada to lower their risk of contracting HIV are shamed for doing so, based on perceptions that Truvada users are more promiscuous.
Some gay rights activists have said that environments which have slut-shaming are more likely to lead to gay men engaging in practices which lead to increased rates of HIV infection.
- Lamb, Sharon (27 June 2008). "The 'Right' Sexuality for Girls". Chronicle of Higher Education 54 (42): B14–B15. ISSN 0009-5982. (subscription required (. ))
In Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality (Harvard University Press, 2002), Deborah L. Tolman complained that we've "desexualized girls' sexuality, substituting the desire for relationship and emotional connection for sexual feelings in their bodies." Recognizing that fact, theorists have used the concept of desire as a way to undo the double standard that applauds a guy for his lust, calling him a player, and shames a girl for hers, calling her a slut.
- Albury, Kath; Crawford, Kate (18 May 2012). "Sexting, consent and young people's ethics: Beyond Megan's Story". Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 26 (3): 463–473. doi:10.1080/10304312.2012.665840.
Certainly the individualizing admonishment to 'think again' offers no sense of the broader legal and political environment in which sexting might occur, or any critique of a culture that requires young women to preserve their 'reputations' by avoiding overt demonstrations of sexual knowingness and desire. Further, by trading on the propensity of teenagers to feel embarrassment about their bodies and commingling it with the anxiety of mobiles being ever present, the ad becomes a potent mix of technology fear and body shame.
- Legge, Nancy J.; DiSanza, James R.; Gribas, John; Shiffler, Aubrey (2012). ""He sounded like a vile, disgusting pervert..." An Analysis of Persuasive Attacks on Rush Limbaugh During the Sandra Fluke Controversy". Journal of Radio & Audio Media 19 (2): 173–205. doi:10.1080/19376529.2012.722468.
It is also possible that the Limbaugh incident has turned "slut-shaming", or other similar attacks on women, into a "Devil-term". It may be possible that Limbaugh's insults were so thoroughly condemned that he and others (such as Bill Maher) will have a more difficult time insulting women who are not virgins, or attacking them in other sexist ways.
- McCormack, Clare; Prostran, Nevena (2012). "Asking for it: a first-hand account from slutwalk". International Feminist Journal of Politics (Taylor and Francis) 14 (3): 410–414. doi:10.1080/14616742.2012.699777.
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- Denise Du Vernay. Feminism, Sexism, and the Small Screen. pp. 163–182. in Joseph J. Foy; Timothy M. Dale (24 April 2013). Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory. University Press of Kentucky. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-8131-4151-0. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
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This type of despicable behavior is part and parcel of a time-worn tradition of Slut-Shaming. When women step out line, they are demeaned and degraded into silence. If you say Herman Cain sexually harassed you, you are a slut. If you say Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed you, you are a slut.
- Menza, Kaitlin. "Teen Girls Take A Stand Against Slut Shaming: What It Is, And Why You Should Care". Huff Post Teen. Huffington Post.
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