Thursday, September 05, 2013

This is what slut shaming looks like


Your wish is granted.  You can now get a gender-neutral t-shirt with quotes from this post on teespring.  All proceeds go to Girls, Inc.—a foundation that helps girls overcome gender, social, and economic barriers.

I hear the term slut shaming bandied about frequently on the internet, especially in the world of YA lit.  I've even been accused of slut shaming in CREWEL, which made me simultaneously want to bang my head on the desk and smile, because well, that's kind of the point of the book: the myriad ways in which society sees and treats women and girls, even how they treat each other.  A lot of times these references to slut shaming leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, because it's really easy to cry "slut shaming" without thinking about what it means in terms of the narrative or in terms of our culture.  In fact, I pretty much hate the term, because, to me, it feels even more abused than the word "literally" (and we saw how that ended up).

You see, one of the reasons slut shaming bothers me is because I know exactly what it's like to be slut shamed.  If you know me, you know that I have no issue talking about S-E-X.  It's a personal anomaly.  I grew up in a household where sex was a four letter word.  I was warned about it. I was taken to church. I was given the talk by my mother and aunts who shared their personal horror stories about mistakes they made involving the dreaded S-E-X.  I was told in no uncertain terms that my parents were done raising babies and they would NOT raise another.

And this was before I ever had sex.

My parents are good people, but like a lot of Americans they harbored an unnatural fear of S-E-X and this fear was disproportionately laid on their three daughters rather than their one son.  I don't say this out of malice.  I honestly believe they were terrified for us.  We were girls. We were weaker. We were easily tempted. At least, that's what it felt like.

The funny thing is that I never, ever believed it.  I'm certain that was due in a large part to the heady cocktail of being a teenager, and therefore both all-knowing and invincible (maybe that was just me), and my own peculiar ability to consider the abstract nature of the issue.  You see, I never believed I was a slut for liking boys.  I never thought it was wrong to have sex before marriage.  And I was perfectly happy to share those feelings with other people.

Of course, that just meant I was branded a slut at school.  A pretty girl who didn't blush artlessly when sex was mentioned?  A girl who might even talk openly about sex?  Well, there's only one word for her after all.

Slut.

I was a slut long before I ever let a guy get to second base with me.

Most of the time, the term merely stung.  Other times I seemed to slip into the role, falling victim to the prophecy of others, including that of my parents.  They said I was a slut, so maybe I should act like one.  I'd be lying if I said I never, ever did anything I regretted.  We all would be.  It's funny, though, how few sexual experiences show up on my regret list.

In high school I learned that a girl could be a slut for letting things get too far.  She could be a slut based on rumor alone.  A girl could be a slut for the clothes she wore or the people she hung out with.

Looking back as an adult, the only two things I know to be true about slut shaming are that it always, always involves judgment—and not rational, objective, well-meaning judgment, but self-righteous, close-minded judgment—and it's nearly always leveled at girls.  From the things I see and hear about high school these days this hasn't changed much.  Sure, a guy might be referred to as a man-whore, but what do you expect after all?  He's only a boy. I don't even know where to begin with that fallacy, but I have an idea.

Which leads me to why I stopped watching TV on my night off and wrote this blog post.  I encountered a well-meaning, but, shall we say, poorly reasoned blog post by Mrs. Hall. You can read it here. Go ahead, this post will keep.

I could tear this post apart, but I actually don't want to.  What I want to point out is that this is slut shaming and this is how it begins—insidiousness masquerading as innocence.

Take for instance the photos included in the original post of teenage boys in swim trunks, making muscle poses at the beach. Since the post was published and after some dressing down in the comments, a new post has been erected, featuring the boys eating apples fully-clothed.  I'm glad that Mrs. Hall was able to see the hypocrisy of posting those photos with that post, but I wonder if her opinion of those photos has changed?  Does she look at those photos and think sexual or lewd or scantily-clad or sultry? I bet not.  I'd almost guarantee those photos are tucked back in the photo library. And that's exactly what bugs me so much.

The double standard that a boy is a person and a girl is an object.

Now I'm a big fan of being involved in your kids lives, but I have this funny desire to respect my children.  Which means that when my son is 16 and he shows me a girl on his FB page in a tank top, I'm going to be more inclined to ask him about WHO SHE IS than I'm going to be to hit the block button.  Because posts like this do nothing more than promote the idea that a girl is only an outward appearance.  A temptress.  A sexual succubus intent on dirtying up the minds of the boys around them.

And here's the thing.  A teenage girl doesn't need to worry about a guy thinking sexual thoughts. He's going to.  And a teenage boy doesn't need to worry about a girl thinking sexual thoughts. She's going to. It's called biology, yo.  And it's totally normal.

What's not normal is pointing fingers or sanctimoniously declaring no second chances.  What's not healthy is to shame a girl for wearing a tank top while posting pictures of your sons topless on a beach.  What message are we sending to both the young men and women in our culture when we do these things?

I'll give you a hint. It's not a good one, and they're getting that message of hypocrisy loud and clear.  The problem is they're internalizing these messages and learning to judge each other based on appearance or sexual attractiveness, and when we do that—when we hit the block button and choose to look no further—we're feeding into a sexist hegemony that not only undervalues our girls but our boys as well.

In the end, I'm tired of reading about how to "fix girls." If only we could tell them how to dress or act or if maybe we could lock them in a tower until they were sufficiently modest and comely.  Throughout time, "proper" woman have been expected to stay inside, to not court controversy, to avoid the male gaze. We've told them to be good and pure.  And I think in 2013, it's time to get pissed off and say ENOUGH.

I'm not locking myself up. I'm not wearing turtlenecks and floor length skirts. I'm not averting my eyes.  I'm not repressing my sexuality, and I'm certainly not going to let you shame me for it.

I couldn't clearly articulate why I believed what I did back in the good, old slut-shaming days of high school. It was a a feeling, an intuition, but now I have those words:

I'm a girl, but more importantly, I am a person.  I am complex.  I am a walking mass of emotions, ambitions, opinions, and skills.  I am a work in progress.  And I don't need you to fix me.




21 comments:

  1. Amen, and also--you are awesome. <3

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  2. Fabulous! Thanks for this.

    How quick we are as a society to claim that girls need fixed and boys will be boys. Girls must be controlled and boys cannot be contained. This is damaging to BOTH boys and girls. We need to cut it out!

    I want this on a t-shirt:
    I am a person.
    I am complex.
    I am a walking mass of emotions, ambitions, opinions, and skills.
    I am a work in progress.
    ...And I don't need you to fix me.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, Eddie. Yes. Yes. Yes. Also I will wear that shirt.

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    2. Seconded on the tshirt!

      Really fantastic post, its all things I'd want to say but wouldn't be able to articulate anywhere near as well.

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    3. I want this shirt for myself AND my daughter!

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  3. BAM! You said it. I saw that post the other day and I was disgusted. I am proud of who I am and that includes being proud of my sexuality and my body. All women should be. If men can do it, why can't we?

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  4. That last paragraph is amazing. I would like it on a tank top, please. One that will show my bra straps, which might not match my shirt (oh no) and will show off most of what I have in the way of cleavage. I approve of every bit of this. It's the hypocrisy that really makes all of this horrible. Men can be topless everywhere and it's appropriate, but women are slutty if a bra strap is visible? WHAT? For real? And do not get me started on the fact that underwear being visible in public is a huge taboo, but bathing suits, which are underwear made out of a different material are totally acceptable.

    When I started college, I had a lot of people make assumptions about be because of the way I dressed: low cut shirts, visible bra straps with tank tops, short skirts. I got judged for that, and even started dressing more conservatively, which seriously makes me mad NOW. Because my short skirts? They said nothing about me as a person. I might have worn the "sluttiest" clothes on my freshman year hall, but I was then and remain to this day the least sexually active. There's not a direct correlation between the clothes someone wears and their sexual proclivities. Also, why is sex wrong for women but not for men? This would not be puzzling if we held up homosexuality as the ideal, but we do. How are the straight men having sex if the women are acting the way they wish them to? In other words, our culture is a hot mess and we need to stop being so close-minded and illogical. Sex for everyone, when and if they want it, with no side helping of shame or double standards, please.

    I wish I had a powerful point to end on like you do. Alas, I do not, so I will just applaud you again.

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  5. Amazing amazing amazing post! *stands up and applauds*
    I don't really have much to add to what you've already said and I don't think I could say it any better, so just THANK YOU!

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  6. Yes! Perfect response. It's like you articulated what I thought.

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  7. Bravo. I have so many feels about this that I'm just going to leave it at that.

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  8. I cannot begin to tell you how much this post means to womankind.

    After reading Mrs. Hall's blog, I'm starting to wonder if maybe I'm a man. Ya know, since I'm doing exactly as any man is expected to, which is: be a person, be different, be okay with my sexuality. I mean, that's the message her blog is insinuating, right? That there are no real standards for men, because if they do screw up, it's because of a woman being too manly (aka sexual). Only temptress women are causes of "bad" sexual behavior and/or naughty thoughts, which is why Mrs. Hall believes women should be instructed on how to act, and that they should do what she believes is expected of them.

    Hey, women, remember this:

    No tank tops, no pouty lips, no makeup, no taking photos in INTERIOR SPACES (god forbid).

    Come on, you sluts! That's just tooooooo sexualized for her precious baby boys. How will they ever keep it in their pants? They'll never leave the house with girls taking those kinds of photos because they'll be too busy spanking it while scrolling through Facebook. Jeez, why doesn't Mrs. Hall just teach her boys how to be a monk. Or, better yet, teach them respect and tolerance.

    Then again, Mrs. Hall's blog suggests women shouldn't be unique, stylish, or sexually free. Because, hey, that's a man's prerogative (enter in her family half-naked at the beach). Am I right, or am I right? (Cue vomit-inducing noises.)

    Therefore, regardless of my awesome vagina, I am man. Here me roar.

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  9. I adore this post. You hit it right on the head.
    I certainly have committed some slut shaming in my time and now feel very guilty for judging other women merely by their appearance or their actions and not as living, breathing people. It's something I even have to curb occasionally now. But despite this past (and sometimes present behavior) I remember a time in college where our school newspaper posted an op-ed written by a young woman about how other young women needed to start dressing more conservatively so as not to lead men into temptation (it was a Christian college and some people were very conservative. I, however, came out of that college experience much more liberal than I had been going on). For some reason this article really infuriated me. How dare this person blame other women for "causing men to lust"? Even certain sections of the Bible refuted her accusations (not all of them, but some pretty important ones where Jesus tells his audience "And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell" [Mark 9:47]. Jesus didn't put the onus for the sin on the person being lusted after; he put it on the person doing the sinning).
    So I decided to write my own response to her op-ed and say just that. It was gratifying, especially when several of my friends complemented the piece after it was published (my shining glory in my college career. Not really, but it was pretty cool to see my name in print). It opened up a dialogue with at least me and my friends about how women often get blamed for guys' bad behavior (or perfectly natural behavior if you're not at a conservative Christian college). I hope it opened up a dialogue for others at my school, including the woman who wrote the original op-ed.
    Anyway, rant done. Your blog post is awesome (and the other comments are as well).

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  10. I really enjoyed reading this post. Also, I think its often women shaming each other that does the most damage.

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  11. This post rocks. So true. I'll take a shirt please.

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  12. A fabulous post!!

    Loved this -> I'm a girl, but more importantly, I am a person. I am complex. I am a walking mass of emotions, ambitions, opinions, and skills. I am a work in progress. And I don't need you to fix me.

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  13. Ah, your attitude is so refreshing, Gennifer. Mrs. Hall's post made me very uneasy-the whole tone was very OTT, patronising and demeaning towards young girls and just made her come across as very snobby and judgy. I understand her views about nudity on social media and it's up to her how she parents her sons, but I don't think she has any right to tell other people how they ought to behave. She makes it seem like the onus is on young girls to watch what they expose boys to, instead of giving her sons any responsibility for their thoughts/behaviour.

    I really hate this double standard and I see it everywhere at the moment. A woman only has to admit that -shock, horror- she enjoys sex, and people automatically brand her as someone of 'loose morals'. Yet it's expected of men to 'play the field'(I don't think it's fair that men to get ridiculed for being inexperienced either). I've also noticed how female bodies are thought of as somehow more sexual than male bodies-men can get their chest, legs and abs out without anyone thinking it's 'rude'. A woman flashing such flesh is called all sorts of names.

    I was lucky in that my mum has always had a pretty liberal parenting style and I didn't have any rules about dating. She trusted me to make good decisions (or to make bad ones and learn from them) and stressed that I could tell her anything. But to be honest we rarely talked about it-because sex wasn't a taboo or forbidden topic, I wasn't particularly excited to rush out and do it- in fact I always knew I wanted to wait until I fell in love-but that was my own choice, not something anyone forced on to me. I'm very grateful to my mum for letting me choose for myself.

    I really don't get why there is so much nosiness and interfering with other people's sexuality-it's no one else's business but your own!

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