Slut-Shaming Is Bad—But The Overreaction Against It Also Hurts Women
Jennifer Doverspike
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Do you believe there is a double standard in our approaches to female and male sexual behavior? Do you believe women should be able to wear what they like, and date whom they like, without wholesale societal judgment? That moral and religious arguments against certain behaviors is outdated, anachronistic, paternalistic, and patriarchal? That the sexual revolution in all its glory was a net “win” for America and for the world?

Then you’re probably using, and perhaps overusing, the term “slut-shaming.”

slut-shame [sluht sheym]:  1. To make any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires; to send negative reinforcement to women expressing their sexuality while not directing similar messages or even engaging positively with men who express similar sexuality. 2. To express any concern whatsoever about crude, sexual, or lewd behavior from men or women, especially if you’re a traditionalist.

Okay, that last definition was mine.

As a regular reader of Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Think Progress, I was already intimately familiar with the concept of slut-shaming, but it really hit the mainstream after Miley Cyrus’s annoying twerk-tastic performance at the Video Music Awards. (Accompanied by Robin Thicke, who doesn’t get nearly enough or similar amounts of crap for his Blurred Lines video. Because people take at face value his claim that it’s mostly parody. And because he’s a man.)

Was Miley exhibiting strong feminist behavior or was she demonstrating just how exploited a young Disney star could become? I’m not really sure and I don’t really care. What I do care about is this ridiculous new word in our lexicon and how it’s taking over every interaction in our lives regarding sexual behavior.

Jezebel, of all places, has an author that somewhat agrees with me on this point.

As an accessible concept, “slut-shaming” has made it easy and convenient to point out insidious sex-negative sexism. It’ s even graced the pages of the New York Times — a testament to its institutional legitimacy as a concept (we made it!) and to its pervasiveness (we’re everywhere!).

Putting aside the fact that being in the pages of the New York Times doesn’t mean the concept is everywhere (my circle of actual real people who live real lives over here in Oklahoma had never heard of it), Callie Beusman does make some great points.

“Slut-shaming” doesn’t mean anything anymore. When we call everything slut-shaming, we seriously erode its power as a concept. It’s like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: automatically say that anything that expresses a not-entirely-positive view of something sexual is “shaming,” …Furthermore, the proliferation of “slut-shaming” has resulted in an inaccurate conflation of “being critical” and “prudishly or maliciously taking issue with female sexuality.” Not all criticisms of public displays of sexiness are meant to shame, which is something many people seem to have lost sight of.

Pretty impressive for a term I’d bet half of us had never heard of.

An article entitled “When Slut Shaming Begins at Home” on Parent Magazine’s blog demonstrates those issues (yes, Parents Magazine. Now it is everywhere).

The seeds of slut-shaming are all too often planted well before their children reach the confusion of their teen years—and it all has to do with our society’s expectations of girls and women… Girls try to emulate the girls and women they’ve grown up idolizing by wearing revealing clothing or posting sexy images online. This upsets and worries parents, who often end up slut-shaming their kids as a result…What does wearing shorts have to do with this girl’s worth? I’m pretty sure that her body is her own and that wearing short shorts hurts no one, except for maybe the parents who can’t handle the idea of their baby growing up and becoming a sexual being with her own identity.

There we have it, ladies and gentlemen. Telling your daughter, in effect, “you can’t leave the house looking like that” is slut-shaming. (Some of the examples in that article have parents actually telling their daughters that they look like sluts or calling someone else a slut. I don’t condone modeling pejorative language like that in front of our kids, so that’s something on which we see eye-to-eye).

“Parenting,” as Christina Pelosi posits in the Huffington Post, “and slut shaming are two separate things.”

Slut shaming is telling your daughter that twerking is bad because that will make people think she’s a dirty girl and ruin her chances of catching a good husband. Parenting is telling your daughter that twerking is bad because it conveys an absence  of self-respect and dignity. …We can’t be so afraid of slut shaming that we won’t tell our daughters when their shorts are too short, their moves are too raw, or their make-up is in excess.

Blogger Kimberly Hall was widely accused of slut-shaming with her viral blog post, “FYI (If You’re a Teenage Girl). “

We have teenage sons, and so naturally there are quite a few pictures of you lovely ladies to wade through. …I think the  boys notice other things. For one, it appears that you are not wearing a bra… I can’t help but notice the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, and the sultry pout. …That post doesn’t reflect who you are at all! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say?

“Wow, Ms. Hall,” says Parents magazine. “Why not raise your boys to see women and girls as three-dimensional people with many facets, many traits, and many awesome qualities?”

Yes it not solely the woman’s responsibility to ensure a man controls himself around her and sees her as more than a sexual object. In fact this belief goes to the core of the original purpose of calling out the practice of slut-shaming.

But when a grown woman or older teenager wears revealing clothing it is for the purpose of looking and feeling sexy. It’s not always for a man’s benefit. She might want her friends to compliment her all night and call her hot. Or it could be for her own sake to get her groove back. Let’s concede the point that there’s nothing wrong with that. In addition let’s concede the clothing doesn’t necessarily have to be “slutty.” I know sometimes I purposely put on my skinny jeans with a tight t-shirt and boots and big hair because I feel like feeling hot. (That’s what hot passes for in these parts. Big hair and all.).

But when a 12-year-old throws on daisy dukes and a sports bra and poses for a selfie with a duck face and an arched back, it is up to a parent to explain exactly what she’s doing. Because guess what? She doesn’t know. And she doesn’t have to be sheltered or chaste to not fully get it, given that adolescent brains do not benefit from a fully mature pre-frontal cortex and hypothalamus—important for self control, delayed gratification, and risk analysis. That 12-year-old is imitating what she sees around her. Or she’s joking around with her friends but doesn’t understand the effect she’s having on her guy friends (or pervy old men). To explain the power of sexy clothing to a child who doesn’t fully grasp the implications of her actions does not automatically imply you are teaching her that men have no agency in how they look at women. It’s not teaching her that if she’s assaulted it is her fault (and as we all know rape is more about power than sex so dressing like a nun doesn’t give you some super shield).  It is in fact empowering her to make decisions about her actions and dress with her full knowledge.

When girls don’t get that lesson early in life they may have an unhealthy relationship with their sexuality well into college. The Heritage Foundation’s 2003 study on teen sexual activity has two key takeaways:

When compared to teens who are not sexually active, teenage boys and girls who are sexually active are significantly less likely to be happy and more likely to feel depressed. When compared to teens who are not sexually active, teenage boys and girls who are sexually active are significantly more likely to attempt suicide.

The authors, of course, tried to control for confounding factors such as the fact that teens prone to depression may also be the ones prone to sexual behavior (doesn’t that in itself say something?). However, although it’s still impossible to prove causation, “when teens were compared to other teens who were identical in gender, race, age and family income, those who were sexually active were significantly more likely to be depressed and to attempt suicide than were those who were not sexually active:

Teens should be told that sexual activity in teen years is clearly linked to reduced personal happiness. Teens who are depressed should be informed that sexual activity is likely to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, their depression. Teens who are not depressed should be told that sexual activity in teen years is likely to substantially reduce their happiness and personal well-being.

Conservative writer Wendy Shalit argued in 1999’s A Return to Modesty that the desire to pretend men and women are exactly the same leads us to medicate our boys to have them calm down at school and to teach our daughters to be as casual about sex as boys. Even as there are women who truly can be that casual, still there are many others, especially younger women not yet confident enough to stand up to society, who try to convince themselves they can be casual and instead bear emotional scars.

Advocating that there are gender differences between men and women bother those who believe that to be a pretext for gender discrimination. Heck, the misunderstanding of gender differences may actually lead to, say, parents treating their sons and daughters differently in a non-productive way. But although meta-analytic reviews of gender differences in sexuality show much less difference when it comes to sexuality itself, they do show very different emotional attitudes toward casual sex. The cause of that difference may be part biological and part socially conditioned. Some may see this and say that we must fight the social impulses in that case and argue that we are causing women to have negative attitudes toward casual sex. I wonder why we’re encouraging our daughters to do something they really don’t want to do, regardless of whether nature or nurture caused them to feel that way.

Studies on the college hookup culture highlight some of the factors that may swing someone either way. For example, a 2013 study showed predictors of sexual hookups among first year college women were “impulsivity, sensation-seeking, pre-college hookups, alcohol use, marijuana use, social comparison orientation, and situational triggers for hookups. Protective factors against sexual hookups included subjective religiosity, self-esteem, religious service attendance, and having married parents.”  Drug and alcohol use leads to one; self-esteem leads to another? It’s no wonder that the same research team had found in 2010 that “Penetrative sex hookups increased psychological distress for females, but not for males. Strikingly, the list of predictors of casual sex for men, although it also included alcohol use, was much smaller — an extroverted nature and previous hookup experience.

Considering the brain isn’t fully mature until the age of 25, it’s not much of a surprise that college hookup culture has an emotional cost. The Journal of Sex Research published a study in December, by still the same research team, indicating casual sex is correlated with depression among female undergraduates. Further, pre-college “hookup behavior” led often to early college experiences of sexual victimization.

We talk about the unhealthy relationship with food and the tension between teaching healthy living while still being body affirming. Why we don’t fret about the same with female sexuality is beyond me. That is not to say we’re not going overboard in all of the anti-“shaming.” The mother of three who posted the “What’s your Excuse” meme frustrated me to no end because I have trouble seeing how it can be inspiring. I’m just imagining the overwhelmed mom of young kids who feels like she can’t even get dinner on the table or her kids bathing on schedule and the meme just gives her once more thing she’s doing wrong (I may be talking about myself here).  But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “fat-shaming.” How about a difference in opinion?

There is a way to teach self worth via a sense of modesty and not allowing oneself to be dictated and exploited by a hyper-sexualized culture without creating women ashamed of sex or feeling unclean if they don’t hold themselves up as a model of chastity. Self worth can be “Hey I’m someone who really can have a one night stand without emotional side effects and I feel like getting some.” But, importantly, self-worth is also “Look, I know that guy in that bar is hot and into me but I’m not going home with him because I know I’ll hate myself later.”

We may not even be explicitly encouraging sexual behavior for teens but we are encouraging no consequences sexual behavior for young adults–which is what teens think they are. The more we confound discussions of “slut-shaming” with “teach girls that promiscuous sex is totally okay and not one word on the other side can be uttered,” the more we’re modeling harmful behavior for impressionable adolescents.

A 2007 study by Deborah Tolman indicates adolescent exposure to sexuality in media in general doesn’t affect their behavior.  Instead, it’s the type of message.

What made girls feel they had less control over their sexuality was when they saw women attracting men by objectifying themselves and when they observed men behaving as if commitment wasn’t important. The consequences of this, are that these girls may believe that they should present themselves as sexual objects, comply to the demands of boys and not listen to their own wants and needs. On the other hand, girls who saw women on TV who refuted men’s sexual advances usually felt more comfortable talking about their own sexual needs in their sexual experiences. They were more able to set sexual limits and therefore held more control over their sexual experiences.

Tolman advocates the viewpoint that societal pressures to be “good” as well as the sexual double standard is what leads to girls being unassertive about their own sexual desires, doing what others expect of them instead of what they feel inside, and focusing on being “ready” for sexual activity instead of sexual desire. My personal, anecdotal experience seems quite different: The concept of being “ready” at a certain age encourages high schoolers and freshmen in college to think they must engage in sexual behavior even if they don’t feel emotionally ready. Same objectification, same problem — but with very different takeaways.

There doesn’t have to be a strict dichotomy between religiously inspired abstinence education and a wholesale free for all on teen sex. Societal attitudes toward abstinent young adults almost borders on modesty shaming— to appropriate the term. Ones who do it for religious reasons at least have that as a fall back and may self select into groups that share the same world view. Heaven help the non-religious student who does not feel emotionally ready or feels as though she hasn’t found the right person, who may even hold off on relationships until she finds someone who will respect her choice. Is she a prude? Or is she just unable to attract a man? Maybe she’s too picky. No, she’s oppressed. That’s it.

A 2000 poll by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy further indicated “Almost three-quarters of sexually active teen girls admit they wish they had delayed sexual activity until they were older. Among sexually active teenage girls, those with regrets concerning their initial sexual activity outnumbered those without regrets by nearly three to one.”

I fully acknowledge the disconnect even among conservative circles with our young women. We still encourage a dating culture. We put our daughters into pageants and we teach them sexy moves when they take competitive dance and cheer. And then we tell them, in shorthand “don’t be slutty.”  I can buy the feminist argument that we’re creating a powder keg and hoping against hope our daughters aren’t lighting it. But to go in the other direction and pretend we don’t have a problem is just ostriching.

Some of the ‘good’ girls wait for the right one, for strong relationships that last at least a year. The December study shows no correlation with depression if a female undergraduate is having sex within the context of a committed relationship. But the season of bad decisions is not necessarily skipped, especially the younger one starts engaging in sexual activity. The much maligned “stickiness” example taught in abstinence education is illustrative. The metaphor of a tape that slowly loses its stickiness as it is used is intended to show how marriages can fall apart if the partners have engaged in sex with other partners — they gave the “stickiness” away. There are perhaps problems with that approach, for it can unintentionally cause a loss of self worth for young adults who choose a different path, or, more insidiously, for those who are sexually assaulted and as a result feel tainted. However, the example still works in its pure form. A woman may decide her first sexual experience will be with a trusted and long-time partner, perhaps of a year. The bar for the next encounter, however, is lowered. Perhaps she waits three months with the next guy. Then three dates. Then perhaps casual sex becomes no big deal… but, in reality, in those quiet personal moments, it’s still a big deal.

What will I tell my daughter at that age? I hope to have an open dialogue with her where she can tell me anything, including if she makes a decision of which I may not wholeheartedly approve. But part of that almost-adult relationship with my almost-adult teen would include some frank discussion of the less pretty truths of life, including the emotional costs of sex even when she’s a grown adult no longer living under my roof. Regardless of her attitude toward sex, if she has a healthy dose of self-worth she’ll make it through that tumultuous age. Even the study correlating hookup culture with depression shows that the risk of depression does not continue as the woman ages — something that makes sense when I consider all my friends that may look back on their college years with regret but also with a sense of “lesson learned.” My fear would revolve around the moment when she’s depressed over the latest hookup gone bad — and yes, perhaps with a healthy dose of slut-shaming from the mean girls — and cannot take solace in that long-term view. What life-altering and perhaps life-threatening decisions will she make then?

All Americans want this next generation of girls to become strong independent women with a healthy dose of self-esteem. But we cannot ensure that self-worth until we have an honest discussion of the true emotional costs of sleeping around.

Jennifer Doverspike is a senior contributor at The Federalist. A former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the Department of Defense, she has also worked for Sen. Tom Coburn and Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt. Follow her on Twitter, @SixFortyNine1.
Photo By Pinky_Kinky
Photo By Pinky_Kinky

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