Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Why do women slut-shame?

Everyone I know is familiar with the sexual promiscuity double standard. Men who have sexual experience are studs. Women who have sexual experience are sluts or whores. Of course, the label slut doesn’t have to come from true promiscuity at all. It is just the perception of promiscuity. A girl or woman could be called a slut even if she is a virgin, as long as she dresses provocatively or has large breasts or speaks frankly about sex. She may not even do any of those things, but she may be someone other women look down upon for some reason or other.

I noticed two instances of slut-shaming this past weekend.

On one occasion, it was a social gathering, and one woman remarked that all the “whores” at her school were on the field hockey team. Most likely, they weren’t literally prostitutes. But the remark was intended to shame these women as definitely unlikeable and beneath her, and then vaguely too sexual.

On the other occasion, at church of all places, one church member remarked jokingly called another member a “slut” because of the latter’s shoes (which had been part of a Halloween costume) with stiletto heels. It was a joke, of course, and the recipient took it that way, too, but the joke hints at the truth—the truth being that even if you are a “good Christian,” if you also happen to be wearing certain clothes, you will be stigmatized sexually if you are a woman.

What baffles me most about this slut-shaming is that is often comes from other women, whether it is seriously putting down another group of women or jokingly putting down a close friend. Why do women engage in slut-shaming? Is it for the same reason men engage in wimp-shaming? I know a lot of men who call other men wimps, pussies, faggots, or any other name that denotes the men as “less manly” (manly, in this context, meaning heterosexual and not in any way like a woman, because “of course” the worst thing a man could be is like a woman). Men who do this seem insecure to me. They need to put other men down as less manly so they can appear comparatively more manly.

So is that what women slut-shaming other women is about? Do they worry they themselves might be labeled sluts? Do they want to appear less slutty? I don’t know. That may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. After all, rarely do het men parade around in “gay” outfits and say “Look how gay I look” to other het men unless they want to get beat up. And yet a woman could wear what she considers herself to be a “slutty” outfit and say “Look how slutty I look” to her fellow non-slutty friends and get a couple of laughs and that’s it.

I don’t know what it is. And I’m also not sure if it’s my place to stop it. I’m always a bit wary, as a man, of telling women what is appropriate or inappropriate to do (from a feminist perspective). Any thoughts?

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Jessica Valenti’s almost my hero

A while ago, I read Full Frontal Feminism, and then I just recently finished He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. There are some things I dislike about Valenti (sometimes she does seem to be trying too hard to be hip and humorous, for example), but she’s genuinely a refreshing feminist voice that is able to articulate well what we all know and often can’t express properly.

The book does get a little tedious by the end (she lays it out as 50 “different” double standards, even though most of them are different facets of the same double standard, just so her publisher can boast a long list as opposed to three really long chapters, I guess). Still, Valenti is able to point out many sexist phenomena without sounding like a whining perpetual victim. She’s also able to get across well how sexism against women is actually harmful to men, too, which is really important to progress. We can’t, if we want to live in an egalitarian society, keep thinking of problems between groups and oppressions as us vs. them. “They” may appear to have privilege and benefits, but even those privileges and benefits come at a cost of freedom for all groups.

For example, the expectation that women will either take their husbands’ surnames or consider it while men always keep their names clearly puts men in a position of privilege (his name is important but hers isn’t). Nevertheless, men are often like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. If they want to get out of the “royal treatment,” they face many obstacles. I thought it was just social pressures (my parents raised a huge stink about me wanting to take my wife’s last name), but apparently in many states a man cannot even take his wife’s name if he wants to, and in the states he’s allowed to change his name in the procedure is far more costly and involved than the woman-taking-her-husband’s-name procedure is.

Of course, there are also some supposed double standards that she exaggerates. For example, she makes it sound as if women are considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids, whereas men are not considered selfish if they don’t want to have kids. That hasn’t been my experience at all. The extent to which the double standard does apply, I think it has to do with single people thinking about the future, as opposed to married couples talking about the present. In other words, if a single man says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” instead of thinking he’s selfish, people just won’t believe him. They’ll think, “He just says that now. When he gets married, though, some woman will turn him around. I bet he’d make a great father.” If, however, a single woman says, “Yeah, I don’t want to have kids,” the selfish police will come out in droves.

When married couples talk about not having kids, though, the selfish label isn’t gender-specific. My wife and I definitely don’t want to have kids, and I think we’ve heard the selfish line about equally. No one has said, “Your wife is selfish.” They definitely think both of us are.

She’s no Susan Brownmiller, but Jessica Valenti’s got some good points to make, and she is now my… almost-hero.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Double Standards

This essay is in response to the following letter, which was originally published in the August 2004 issue of San Francisco magazine:

Lesbians with Attitude
After reading Diana Kapp’s “The L Weird” in your July issue, I couldn’t help but think how hypercritical the lesbian women in the story are. They struggle to tolerate “clueless straight people” in their everyday lives and have “perfected the eye roll” for dumb questions. They admit they socialize mainly with other lesbians, because straight people just don’t get it.

The women you interviewed come off as elitist and exclusionary. They want tolerance and acceptance, yet they offer none in return. What if straight people said how exasperated they were by clueless lesbians? You’d better believe those same lesbians would be crying foul faster than you can say “dyke march.”

If we want to be accepted, we have to practice what we preach. And yes, I am a lesbian, too.

Marie Taylor
San Francisco

First of all, I have to say that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Straight people are definitely in a different situation than gay people are in. If that weren’t the case, Ms. Taylor wouldn’t have to end her letter with the proclamation that she is a lesbian—messages would stand alone themselves. Ms. Taylor knows, though, that messages do not stand alone themselves. Messengers are often equally as important as the messages themselves. By extension, a lesbian woman rolling her eyes at clueless straight people is not the same as a straight person rolling her eyes at a clueless lesbian.

I’d be interested to hear just what would make a lesbian “clueless” to a straight person? I don’t think Ms. Taylor’s hypothetical scenario exists. It’s argument for the sake argument—it’s not rooted in reality at all. Ask any lesbian “What ignorant questions have straight people ever asked you?” and she’ll likely come up with a whole slew of them right away. As a straight person, I can’t think of a single ignorant question any lesbian or gay man has ever asked me relating to sexuality. Even though I myself am not gay, it’s easy for even me to think of some stupid questions straight people might ask lesbians: “So when are you going to get a boyfriend?” “Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Maybe you just haven’t had a real man yet.” “You’re going to have a kid? How? Lesbians can’t reproduce.”

The truth of the matter is—and if Ms. Taylor really is a lesbian, she would know this—heterosexuality isn’t just heterosexuality; it’s heteronormativity. It is the dominant sexual culture in America. And the dominant culture generally tends to be the one that asks ignorant and “clueless” questions of the marginalized cultures. As a man, I’m rarely asked questions that annoy me because of their ignorance. As an Asian-American, I’m asked these questions quite frequently. As a college-educated person (which means I’m numerically in the minority but also still in the dominant educational culture), I’m almost never asked questions out of ignorance. As a devout (i.e., not nominal) Christian, I frequently encounter ignorance and prejudice.

It’s only natural for marginalized cultures to want to make “safe” spaces for themselves from annoyingly ignorant questions, from misunderstanding and prejudice. Separatism has its benefits, just as integration does as well. I challenge Ms. Taylor to take a poll of straight people: “When was the last time you had to roll your eyes because a lesbian asked you a stupid question about your sexuality?” The fact of the matter is most lesbians, at one point or another, in an effort to fit in, tried “being” straight, but far fewer straight women have tried “being” lesbian.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

The Slut/Stud Double Standard

Everyone—even backlash-prone, conservative anti-feminists—agrees that there is a slut-stud double standard. Do I even need to tell you what that double standard is? I don’t think I need to explain it. You’ve heard it a thousand times, probably. People do tend to disagree about whether that double standard is justified in any way. Some people say it somehow stems from evolution, as if all the heterosexual men who are sleeping around really want to get all their “conquests” pregnant (and what about gay men, then?). Those who oppose the double standard make it all sound so simple, though: let’s just not call promiscuous women “sluts” and not call promiscuous men “studs.”

Obviously that approach hasn’t worked. I’ve known many who have tried it. Yet, many of my most ardent feminist friends, in a moment of low self-monitoring have uttered—maybe even unconsciously—the word slut in reference to a woman who “sleeps around” or who even dresses in a less-than-dignified fashion. We need to go beyond the name, beyond the word, to the root of the problem. As all critics of “political correctness” know, changing people’s language is only a start—you must also change how people think.

Now, you have to understand, first of all, one essential way in which the slut-stud double standard gets perpetuated, and it is not through mere name-calling alone. Right now, if you take any randomly selected heterosexual man and ask him, “How easy would it be for you to sleep with ten different women in the next week?” he will most likely, in all truthfulness, say, “It’s impossible,” or “It’s possible, but it would be very difficult.” (This is all, of course, hypothetically assuming that he would want to sleep with ten different women in a week.) If you posed a similar question to a randomly selected heterosexual woman about sleeping with ten different men in a week, though, the odds go up that she would respond, “Easy, very easy.”

Right or wrong, we admire “studs” not only because we live in a patriarchal culture, but because there is a certain admiration for someone who, however disgustingly to us, can accomplish what is not easy to accomplish. We also look down on people who give away what is much sought-after.

Naturally, you would say this is a “vicious cycle,” right? You would say, “Well, it’s because of the double standard itself that women are told not to ‘give away’ their sexuality, and men are told to ‘conquer’ women’s sexuality.” Of course it is—I’m not denying that. I am saying, though, that even if we disagree with the system of sexual judgment or its origins, we still have to recognize that it is easier for a woman to have sex with many men than it is for a man to have sex with many women.

So, the solution is not just to resist uttering the s-word whenever you see a woman you deem as less-than-virtuous. A revolution has to happen. Men have to stop giving it up so easily—men have to be desired, to be “conquered,” too. Women, in turn, need to take a risk and be more “slutty.” We need to achieve a balance through behavior and desire. We have to stop subscribing to the myth that a man must take every opportunity he can to have sex with a woman. We have to stop believing that woman have to “save” themselves any more than men do for some “special person.”

I’m not saying all women should sleep around. In fact, I’m personally (though, not politically) against pre-marital or promiscuous sex for both sexes, but seeing as how most Americans do not subscribe to the “abstinence-only” approach, we must recognize that as long as any promiscuous or pre-marital sex exists, it should be viewed as equally respectable or disrespectable for both sexes, and that can happen only if people start shifting their own personal attitudes and desires. We can’t just withhold the uttering of the name slut or stud.

Further reading:

“Blame One of the Sexes”
“Shades of Desire”
“Worse Than Sticks or Stones, the ‘Slut’ Label Cuts Deep”
“The Double Standard Thrives”
“Slut vs. Stud, the sexual double standard”
“Hot for Teacher – Debra LaFave”
“Sex Sobers in Controversial Sundance Documentary”
“Sleeping around? Do it with class!”