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Examining the Motivations for Slut-Shaming

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In the US, we are experiencing some serious moral confusion over women’s bodies. The confusion is borne out of the intersection of hypersexualization in the media and the conservative agenda that pushes abstinence and demands decreased funding for Planned Parenthood. Whether women are being told to be pure and chaste, or being cast as sexual objects in the media, the message is the same: our only value lies in our bodies and what we do, or don’t do, with those bodies.

Examining the Motivations for Slut-Shaming

This is most commonly described as the virgin/whore dichotomy and can be seen in nearly any establishment or ideal that focuses on women. Take beauty pageants, for example. Many contestants tout traditional values such as abstinence until marriage and female purity — immediately after strutting around in a bikini on stage. However, the very fiber of these pageants is, well, beauty, and outward appearance. Like any other realm that places females in a challenger role, from running for president to auditioning for a movie role, the foundation is built upon the notion that sex sells.

One telling example of this disturbing dichotomy is former Miss California Carrie Prejean, who gained favor because she promoted herself as a virgin, waiting for marriage. Americans all over the country ‘respected’ her for her purity while drooling over the breast implants that the Miss California organization subsidized for her. Then, when some racy photos of her came out, the Miss California winner lost her crown due to “breach of contract.” This story is rife with contradictions and is a very telling example of the short-circuit we encounter when it comes to women and their sexuality. Are we supposed to be pure …or are we supposed to be sexual objects? I propose that much of this dichotomy is derived from fear of female sexuality.

Examining the Motivations for Slut-Shaming

Women are hidden behind burqas or victim-blamed in rape cases because the idea of self-possessed female sexuality is subconsciously threatening.

In a Jezebel interview with Jessica Valenti, author of ‘The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women,’ answers a question about the intricacies of female sexuality and the complexity of the female orgasm. The supposition being that these “purists,” or people obsessed with female purity, simply do not understand female sexuality. This leads to fear, and fear leads to ignorance, anger, and sometimes violence. A sexy woman is less terrifying if she’s only an image in a magazine; a sexual object without feeling, desire, or all the mysteries of her sexuality. But God forbid it’s a real-life woman taking ownership of her sexuality.

And the lack of information from a young age does not help. In the US, the government allocates funding for abstinence-only sex education in public high schools. With federal funding, which many schools need, and pressure from religious groups in the US, many schools choose to teach this abstinence-only sex education. Not only is abstinence-only education harmful to teens in that it paradoxically promotes more teenage pregnancies, the spread of STDs, and abortions, but it often aims its rhetoric at young girls.

Examining the Motivations for Slut-Shaming

In The Purity Myth, Valenti outlines some strategies used by abstinence only sex educators to push the purity agenda on teen girls. One method involves a male volunteer from the class and a piece of tape. The educator places the tape on the boy’s arm and pulls it off again. The piece of tape is presented to the class and the educator exclaims, “See how dirty the tape is? This is what happens when you have sex before marriage.” The idea being that the girl is the tape, and when she comes into contact with the opposite sex before the sanctity of marriage, she becomes “dirty.” This and many other examples of defining a woman’s virginity as a “gift” for her future husband, only to be unwrapped on the wedding night, is the cause of misunderstanding, fear, and the perpetuation of chastity as the standard of female morality.

And this is the real issue. Women wearing itsy-bitsy bikinis or “sexy pirate” costumes on Halloween is not the issue, and these things certainly do not make women sluts. The issue is that women aren’t the ones taking ownership of their own sexuality.

Valenti talks about the overlap between the agendas of the virginity movement in America and the feminist movement. The question being that both movements are against the hypersexualization of women: “The big difference, of course, is that, with feminists, we’re choosing what kind of sexuality we’d like to put out there; with the virginity movement it’s adults (and a lot of men) deciding what appropriate sexuality is for younger women. It’s anyone and everyone except young women themselves defining young women’s sexuality.”

Examining the Motivations for Slut-Shaming

Shouldn’t we be deciding for ourselves what’s appropriate without the fear of slut-shaming? The thing that many people seem to forget is the will of each individual woman. What if the mostly nude woman on the cover of Vanity Fair reached her lifetime ambition by posing in front of that camera? Is that any less valuable than a woman achieving her goal of becoming a neurosurgeon? Does a woman’s sexuality really define her morality, her intelligence, or her humanity?

We don’t need to to tear down the models in the magazines, or slut-shame the women wearing mini skirts, or tell young women that they must be modest in order to set the balance of men and women at an even keel. The only way we can ever hope to overcome the prejudices against women is to completely divorce the idea of sexuality with morality. We can all start by examining our motivations. So the next time you think about calling a woman a slut for any of the myriad of pre-conditioned reasons, stop, think, and try to see this woman as more than just her body.

Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together. Email her at ariana@thewaywardpost.com and follow her journey on Instagram @surrealife.

42 Comments

  1. I despise people who same women for wearing clothes that they deem as inappropriate. Especially when mothers tell their daughters to “cover themselves up,” because their uncles are coming home. I mean, why should the uncle have a problem with what a little girl is wearing? Unless he’s a pedophile…then the problem is with him, not the girl.

  2. Sarah Ubitel

    wow, this is so powerful. Sad Sad Sad, the crap women have to go through in this male dominated world….

  3. Ariana Rhyder

    In my experience it definitely is an issue that not just men participate in. One of my earliest experiences in online clusterfucks was a woman who was complaining about, in her own words “skinny bitches” who go to comic conventions, because obviously they don’t actually like superheroes or sci-fi and are just there looking for dudes to hook up with…

    • Charleen Washington

      I’m never surprised that people, regardless of their gender, are horrible. For some reason, the immediacy of social media, which can come with the ability to say awful things with little to no consequence, brings out the worst in people.

  4. Slut shaming is an awful thing. Just because women dress sexy doesn’t mean they are asking for harassment, are being slutty, or are telling men “fuck me!”. A person can admire another without being a crass disrespectful douche bag. I’ve had plenty of men that still somehow managed to act respectfully towards me while still seeing me as sexy and wanting to have sex with me. “Testosterone” is not an excuse to treat a person like shit just because you think they’re sexy.

  5. My biggest pet peeve is the way school dress codes are phrased- I have a boy and two girls in public school. My boy has never had to worry about dress code- everything he owns falls within the school dress code. The girls have rules about skirt length (even with leggings underneath), about strap width and how much shoulder is shown on a dress or shirt, etc. The reason given is that the girl dress code is to reduce ‘distraction’ in the classroom. It makes me beyond angry that my girls are receiving this message as young as kindergarten. I have a friend who basically makes the argument that it’s about ‘self-respect’- if you respected yourself, you would dress extremely modestly at all times. You know what? I respect myself… I respect myself in shorts above the knee just as much as capris. The idea that anything a girl/woman wears is subject to being sexualized and then criticized makes me angry! And I think the dress code rules have gotten more stringent with time, at least where I live. I never had this level of dress code scrutiny when I was in public school.

  6. Lucretia Asher

    Funny how slut-shaming has little to do with actual sexual activity. Rather, it is largely a function of gossip, cliques and social control. And though it might be tempting to dismiss the topic as the stuff of pubescent drama, in reality, the practice has hefty political import.

  7. Lena Dzeko

    Don’t call women sluts and don’t call men fuckboys. I believe that it will take centuries to change this behavior because people are slaves to previously established social standards, like a herd of sheeps. ?

  8. What aboout the reverse?? How in media, a female virgin is a wholesome, beautiful woman and a male virgin is a complete loser? People think there’s obviously something wrong with him, he must be a greasy creep or have a tiny penis, no wonder girls don’t want him. Probably a closeted homosexual etc. That is so wrong too but nobody bothers even bringing that issue up!

  9. Lana Urie

    What is even a “slut”, and why do people care? Before the agricultural revolution and before we mastered animal husbandry we were worked under the system of the alpha gets the best or most mate, and we weren’t monogamous. Monogamy didn’t come into place in human relationships until organized religion changed it. Religion did it in order to give men stake in the creation of a civilization. Before monogamy only 60% of men mated with women and men who couldn’t mate simply checked out of society and ventured into the woods somewhere instead of being oppressed by the alpha males and their harems. It seems the whole world is brainwashed by these so called “ethical rules” religions have been feeding them.

  10. Jennifer McSween

    I always assumed the “slut shaming” stemmed from a mix of jealousy/competition between women & men not wanting to raise children that they don’t know whether or not is theirs throughout certain cultures, particularly the ones based around Abrahamic religions. That need to discourage women from having sex with more than one person inherently places a value on sex with a woman which makes a man who has sex with more women seem like someone who has accomplished something. In reality he’s just a dude who happens to have had more sex partners. There are plenty of examples of cultures that do not “slut” shame, by the way!

  11. Lauren Gilson

    I’m sooooo over it!! People can be so attached to others people’s lives that is shocking. Who bloody cares? It’s 2016, the deaths related to pregnancy are extremely low, divorce is not a big deal as people say and everyone knows how to buy a condom. People talk like it’s 1500. Let everybody live the way they want!

  12. To each his/her own. I still prefer to retain some modesty and reserve my most intimate parts for that special someone because then he does feel special. But calling people names and outing them just because they have casual sex or wear more revealing clothes, it doesn’t mean they should be or could be called names.

  13. Jennifer Collard

    Slut shaming is just a new term for the headlines. Girls are sluts and whore to other girls/women and guys they will not have sex with. A guy would never call a girl he has. Girls are taught that sex is something they give to a guy , not something they give to themselves. That it is for the enjoyment of men not women. That sex is for guys they are in relationships with. Not guys they want to have sex with. That’s where the wrong lyes. And as long as people grow up with this mentality, there’ll be lot more slut shamers in future generations.

  14. Deborah Henry

    People need to get over it. It is just sex. It is just your body. Your decision. Your consent. Having sex isn’t shameful.

  15. Diana Hewitt

    Humanity has progressed beyond living merely for survival, if a woman wants to partake in sexual activity without any means of procreation does that still make her “irresponsible” for having sex. Promiscuity doesn’t mean they will have sex with anyone persay, it means they engage in sexual activity with many partners. They can still have preferences and standards. Its silly to argue evolutionary ideals because they hold no weight in modern society other than explaining why we react to certain behavior such as women controlling their sexuality in a way that was once deemed immoral.

  16. Evelyn Sandler

    Here’s to hoping the third-wave feminists have a different perspective on what earning respect means than the prior two waves have displayed. Although the first wave did have the right idea….the second wave just totally lost it in the “free sex” environment of the 60s..

    • Kaitlyn Barrett

      There are a lot of us, as women, who don’t hold to the hyper-sexual standards of the modern-day feminists movement, partially because we do want to be respected for our minds and hyper-sexual behavior simply doesn’t establish a basis on which that respect can be earned.

  17. Kim Hartford

    Slut shaming is a horrible, and I’m definitely against it, but the overreaction against it also hurts women. ?

  18. Leah Helms

    One of the most pervasive gender-based double standards with which women must contend is the “virgin-whore dichotomy”. This paradox prescribes that women be sexy but not too sexy, chaste but never prude. Calling women sexual slurs is a way to rein them in, in a sense, by making them adhere more strictly to these boundaries or risk facing social consequences. And it needs to stop!

  19. Pamela Sanabria

    Slut shaming reflects broader systems of power that continue to demean and harm women and prevent us all from achieving true gender equality. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. A culture that primes women to internalize their own sexual objectification, values their bodies and sexuality over their intelligence and opinions and punishes those who transgress a sexual narrow norm is undoubtedly harmful to the fight for progress. Luckily, there are courageous activists educating the world through powerful documentaries and plays, books and speeches.

  20. Roberta Bennett

    It’s a massive double standard!!! It takes two to tango, but inevitably it’s always the women who are singled out and branded sluts. Nicole Scherzinger criticised ‘Magaluf Girl’ for giving oral sex to 24 men in a club, but made zero mention of the men involved; in fact, hardly anyone did. They were just as complicit as she was. Just recently two couples were caught apparently having sex outside a Belfast nightclub and yet again it was the two women who were called sluts. Excuse me, there are two other people having sex in that picture! ?

  21. Susanna Milton

    Women are often as guilty of slut-shaming as men, and in a world run ragged with sexism and male-built hierarchical constructs, the last thing a free and open society needs is women holding each other back. There are many explanations for why some women do this, but the one thing we know is that it needs to stop. Everyone, all of us. Stop.

  22. The patriarchy is not a good thing; we may seem like a progressive society but male dominance is still rampant. Slut-shaming only serves to reinforce patriarchal views of how a woman should behave.

  23. Slut shaming is taking us all backwards. It is of absolutely no use to anyone, quite apart from the fact that it is vicious and disgusting. We gain nothing by demonising sexuality and castigating those who enjoy sex, instead we return to the same old patriarchal standards for women that simply cannot be tolerated.

  24. If we all stopped hating each other for things that have absolutely no effect on our lives, the world might actually turn into a nice place. We’re never going to progress as a society if we’re all so determined to keep each other’s heads below the water. And if anyone thinks that slut-shaming or any other kind of enforced inequality is okay, they’re in wrong!

  25. Slut-shaming is indicative of a society that retains archaic and hypocritical views towards sex, and it’s time things changed.

  26. Christina Norelli

    The whole “slut-shaming” hullabaloo is mostly about “rape culture” and about guys not wanting to marry girls who’ve had a lot of sex partners. A lot of guys will label most women a slut, but men are fine with allowing a slut be a slut. Not sure how that dilemma works for them.

  27. There is nothing I hate more than overhearing a woman speaking ill of another woman because of how she chooses to express her sexuality. Now, I’m not saying that slut-shaming is tolerable or even expected when men do it and intolerable when women do it, because the fact that slut-shaming is even a thing still baffles me.

  28. Slut-shaming is far more harmful than simple name-calling — although being denigrated publicly in itself can be traumatic, as the suicides of a number of slut-shamed girls attests. Once a girl or woman is regarded as a “slut” she becomes a target for sexual assault. And if she is sexually assaulted, she may be assigned the “slut” identity ex post facto to rationalize the crime and to protect the assaulter. The girl who was raped at a party in Steubenville, Ohio in 2013 was vilified by strangers and peers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; they could make sense of the horrible crime only by assigning the “drunken slut” label to the victim. ?

  29. Caralin Ellis

    Slut-shaming is not really about women’s sexuality. It is grounded in the belief that men get to assert themselves, and women do not. It may be getting a lot of attention these days, but slut-shaming is really just a catchy way to signify old-fashioned sexism.

  30. I don’t many people don’t understand this. I think some people refuse to admit what is true that they are willing to block out anything that interferes with their perspective. But it is true: women can be mean to other women. And I’ll take it a step further: they are as much responsible for this “mans world” than they are willing to admit.

    But how many studies out there show that women do compete against one another? Dozens of studies. I admit it alienates me when they engage in this kind of talk, and don’t call out their own peers on the matter. But instead they selectively use a mans opinion to further exploit a cause that is non-existent. Yes is true that we can be too much, but is not entirely our problem. I believe jealousy plays a bigger role in it.

    Social class goes far beyond calling women “sluts” or other inappropriate names. You can even see it in todays social networking of women on tv. But women do have some resilience. I give them that. But I also believe many don’t want to be looked upon any different if they say something that goes up against those within the same peers. But is highly subjective, and oftem times, those that do cry sexism are as guilty as us when we cheat. Is not rocket scientist, but yet, they make it sound too complex to understand. This issue goes beyond that social class. But this is a start.

    I told my niece, who attends the University of IL, that we have much to lose because we don’t come from good economic backgrounds. And those that do have good economic backgrounds don’t. So maybe competition is a good thing. But then again, no one ever said that you won’t make enemies along the way.

  31. Michelle B.

    The females who feel they have to compete with other females and say derogatory things aoput them have not matured from childhood. I never felt I need to because I am fine with who I am and no other persons thoughts about me define who I am or what I am truly about. If they like me fine , if they don’t fine but don’t lower yourelf to calling me names either because men pay more attention to me due to my self confidence. I don’t demand it it just comes naturally. If you’re jealous then learn to be confident in your own skin. Right?

  32. It’s called internalized misogyny, in the same way that internalized racism inspires some black people to refer to themselves as the ‘n’ word. The ‘n’ word would not exist without the existence of racist, white supremism to begin with. ‘Slut shaming’ would not exist without the prior existence of misogynist, patriarchal values instilled into society via male imposed and male serving religious and political ideologies. It’s sad to see, but some women play along to get along.

  33. If you are to ask me, I find slut-shaming more harmful and degrading than simple name calling. Young girls should be properly guided! Slut-shaming is a catchy way to signify old-fashioned sexism. *tsk*

  34. Women have always been more interested in policing other women’s sexual behaviour than men have. Men only care when a) it’s their wife or girlfriend or b) the woman seems to want to have sex with every man but him.

    Women, on the other hand, want to keep sex scarce and costly, so they get very angry at other women who give it away too cheaply. Thus, they accuse each other of being sluts. It’s all about female-female competition for the most desirable mates and goodies, and has nothing to do with the so-called patriarchy.

  35. While this is a behavior worth “outing”, can we not also say that it is endemic of a wider set of behaviors which run rampant through society, and keep problems like wealth and judicial disparities at the peak of their power? People who label other people are showing disrespect for others, themselves and the world at large.

  36. Brenda Stow

    I personally think of slut-shaming as sexist because only girls and women are called to task for sexuality, whether real or imagined while boys and men are congratulated for the exact same behavior. The essence of sexual double standard: Boys will be boys, and girls will be sluts.  

  37. Name calling is childish and it’s demenaing to the person who does the name calling as well.. So fed up hearing women calling each other derogatory names as bitch, slut, or any other demeaning name. It’s just wrong. And I won’t watch a show that calls women these names. Too many tv shows and movies that perpetuate it. Grow up and realize you are being one if you call someone a name just to try and make yourself feel better and make them look bad. It’s disgusting. I had a friend that called another of my firends a bitch and I unfriended her in person. It doesn’t fly with me. Just don’t tolerate it from anyone, period!

  38. If you watch humans, you will see this type of demeaning words and actions used to self establish a superiority to others. It by no means establishes the superiority outside of one’s own mind. Humans who are unsure of themselves use these methods to try to get a sense of control inside. It is really a very sad display but it happens all over the place.

  39. I personally think that everyone has a right to express sexuality and “labeling” is a NO-NO. Thanks for this empowering piece!

  40. Thank you for putting this issue so eloquently.

    If ever someone will call me “slut” I will respond: “I’m not. I am a psychologically healthy woman who knows what I want while you are a coward who cannot handle sexually assertive women.”

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