Slut-Shaming Is The Status Quo: That Happened

slut-shaming rape culture

ColumnWhy is slut-shaming the default stance when it comes to women and sexual assault?

[Editor's note: Libby Lowe, our usual 'That Happened' columnist is out this week, so this post comes to us from writer Heather Kenny.]

Last week the internet was in an uproar about a story by a popular advice columnist at Slate, written in response to several incidents involving women and girls who were sexually assaulted at gatherings where they had been drinking. The author offered the seemingly sensible recommendation that women avoid getting blotto drunk to minimize their chances of being victims of sexual assault, advice that is in fact a type of slut-shaming.

The article’s point of view mimics that of society: the burden of safety is put on girls and women while barely mentioning the fact that men who sexually assault women are criminals–whether their victims are drunk or not. Instead of holding men responsible for their ghastly behavior, women are told to regulate theirs.

Whatever your opinion on this type of slut-shaming, there is little doubt that it reinforces the status quo, in which women are forced into a defensive stance when it comes to their sexuality. The messages are heavy on warnings: “Don’t get yourself into situations where you could be taken advantage of. Don’t walk by yourself at night. Look sexy, but not so sexy that you attract the wrong type of attention. Don’t trust boys to know when to stop.” In short, don’t ever make a mistake, or the consequences may be dire, and we’ll blame you for them.

We live in a society where the default setting for discussions about girls’ growing sexuality is fear and worry. Even scarier is that we’ve come to think of this slut-shaming as normal, even righteous.

What we forget is the potential negative effect of these slut-shaming messages on female sexual development.  People don’t exit adolescence and magically transform into fully developed sexual creatures with the understanding and confidence to successfully pursue their desires in respectful and mutually pleasurable ways. It takes learning and practice, especially for women, whose mechanisms of sexual pleasure remain somewhat mysterious even after decades of study. And learning and practice inevitably involve mistakes, which may include getting involved with or trusting the wrong person.

When the stakes are so high, as they are for women, it’s only natural for them to avoid anything they perceive as a risk—even those that may ultimately prove to be important and valuable learning experiences. Sex can be an ambiguous realm, after all.

This kind of negative, defensive conditioning can have physical repercussions as well. It’s hard for the body to shake off years of conscious and subconscious training from the brain. (Not to mention the effect of unrealistic images of female beauty and sexual response disseminated in advertising and pornography.) It’s tough to get turned on and fully enjoy yourself when you’ve been taught to always be on your guard.

Perhaps the reason so many women in their 30s and 40s experience a flowering of their sexuality is because they finally have the confidence to mentally throw off the slut-shaming messages and expectations forced on them. That’s wonderful, of course, but should it potentially take decades of sexual experience for that to happen?

It would be nice if we could take a more proactive and supportive stance toward women and sexual violence and encourage both men and women to help stop it. Maybe that’s a lot to ask for. But it wasn’t so long ago that people couldn’t imagine a black president or gay people legally being able to marry in their lifetimes.

Society can change its attitude about sexual violence to women, which goes hand-in-hand with our views of female sexuality and empowerment. But it’s going to take more than just repeating the same tired messages to women. It’s time to change the narrative in men’s minds, not ours.

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Image: cecooper

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DISCUSSION

One thought on “Slut-Shaming Is The Status Quo: That Happened

  1. I make lots of decisions based on keeping myself safe and I in no way relate that to shaming of any kind. I bicycle commute to work, there are roads I avoid because they are dangerous, I don’t go to certain clubs at night, because they have a reputation of problems, I don’t drink and drive, because its moronic, basically, i don’t put myself intentionally in situations that could be dangerous. Thats common sense.

    There’s no question the guys perpetrating these crimes are sick and twisted, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be outed and punished. You’ll get no argument from me there.

    Claiming however that people can do anything they want and not have the risk of bad things happening is silly and unrealistic. We know our world is a dangerous place, and people can do horrible things.

    Taking steps to minimize that is not shaming, but smart. Nail the bad actors, educate victims with common sense.

 

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