“Slut Panel” postmortem: Shame, shame, go away

As Lori wrote yesterday, the two of us spent Monday in Cambridge, MA, at the Harvard Rethinking Virginity conference. I, along with Lux Alpatraum of Fleshbot, Therese Schechter of Trixie Films and Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown, was on the panel entitled “Debunking the Virginity Myth: Feminist Responses to Slut Shaming” and my goodness did I have a great time. It was a real honor to be on a panel with such smart, funny ladies, and a privilege to be able to talk some of these issues out in a safe and supportive public space.

If you were to ask me what my biggest takeaway from our panel (which was lovingly nicknamed and introduced on the day as “The Slut Panel”) it would be that when it comes to virginity, sex and slut-shaming, women are in a real bind.

The panel opened with a discussion of what slut-shaming is, and Sady, who was the first to offer a definition, was careful to note that being labeled a slut can happen to anyone, even to people who have never had any sexual contact of any kind. Slut-shaming is often the result of perceived, rather than proven, sluttiness. As Therese then noted, sluttiness itself is entirely relative: In some cultures or among some social groups, she said, having slept with ten people over the course of your life is considered a pretty tame sexual history. In others, it makes you a dirty, untouchable slut. I added that, with definitions of what’s acceptable and what’s slutty being so malleable and poorly defined in our own culture, you often don’t know where the line between the two is until you’ve crossed it. And then – poof! – it’s too late: Other people have decided that you’re a slut, and you’re stuck with this damaging, divisive and damn stubborn label.

The fact that anyone can be labeled a slut, at any time, with any level of sexual activity under their belt, and the fact that sluttiness is a moving target, makes it clear that slut-shaming isn’t just about controlling how much sex women have*. If you can be called a slut without so much as kissing another person, then it stands to reason that your slut status must be based on something besides your level of sexual experience or activity. And often, it is. It’s based on what people assume about you just by looking at you – at your body, your clothes and the way you move through the world. Once you realize that, it becomes obvious that the slut label isn’t just about controlling how much sex women have: It’s about controlling how we dress, how we walk, how we talk, how we dance, how much we drink, who we talk to, how we feel about our own desires and so on and so on. And crossing the invisible, culturally-determined “slut line” in any of these arenas is enough to earn you a label that, no matter how much we denounce and detest it, no matter how well we understand its purpose and its perniciousness, somehow manages to seep into our brains and eat away at our certainty and self-assurance.

Despite how easy it is to be labeled a slut, it’s possible, one could imagine, if you try really hard, to avoid being tarred with the slut brush. If you dress properly and never drink too much and don’t flirt and don’t have sex and never think a sexual thought ever, you could probably escape the shame-fest, right? Wrong! Because, as Therese has discovered as she’s traveled around the country talking to people about virginity, the same culture that scorns women for being sexual also scorns them for not being sexual! Just as you can be slut-shamed, you can be prude-shamed or virgin-shamed! Shame for everyone!

In a culture where sex is everywhere, and where everyone is supposedly doing it, Schechter explained on Monday, older virgins start to feel like there must be something wrong with them if they haven’t done it or don’t want to do it. And it’s interesting to note that prude-shaming, unlike slut-shaming, can be directed at men. Therese’s blog The American Virgin runs a series called First Person, where self-proclaimed virgins talk about their experiences of virginity. Will, a 26-year-old virgin, wrote that he often feels that “in our society, virgins are treated as naive, inexperienced, and religious zealots. It is as if we can’t truly know what love is, or what sexual pleasure is like… Often, a virgin’s opinions can be dismissed in conversations about sex because of their perceived inexperience. I know that there are a lot of virgins that are ashamed of that aspect of themselves, and I think it’s due to the label that our society places on us, and the stereotypes that are held.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have sex: Either way, you’re screwed .

The slut-shaming/virgin-shaming bind, at first glance, looks like a right-left divide: Cultural conservatives slut-shame, while the more culturally liberal among us virgin-shame. But as Lux pointed out on Monday, that’s not always how things work out. When she was in college, Lux told the audience, she hung out with a liberal crowd who thought sex was awesome and believed porn was cool and described themselves as sex-positive. But when Lux started modeling nude and decided to post those photos online, they suddenly weren’t so cool about it. “I became untouchable,” she said. Her super liberal, sex-positive, pro-porn friends slut-shamed her. Lux is certainly not the first woman to be slut-shamed by her own “side,” nor would she be the last woman to be mocked and dismissed by liberals for being sexual. When it came to light last year that Miss California Carrie “Opposite Marriage” Prejean had in the past posed for sexy photos and made a video of herself masturbating, the glee on the left was almost palpable. Some of that glee was at the exposure of her hypocrisy, but some of it, undeniably, was good old-fashioned “your opinion doesn’t count because we’ve seen you naked” slut-shaming. What really should have discredited Prejean, apart from her bigoted views on marriage equality, of course, was the fact that her actions didn’t match her words, not that her actions were sexual. And what liberals revealed about themselves in the process of shaming Prejean for all the wrong reasons, was that we’re not as comfortable with sex as we’d like to think. We still think it’s dirty, and just like cultural conservatives, we we’re still happy to punish women who do it.

So we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Sex or no sex, women are subject to judgment and shame from every direction. We’re told to be sexy, but not to have sex. We’re told to be virgins, but mocked if we’re prudish about it, or if we hang on to our v-status for too long. There’s no winning, it seems. It’s hard not to think about it without getting thoroughly depressed.

Ultimately, the women of the Slut Panel, and most of the people at Monday’s conference, would like to create a world in which no one is shamed for their sexual desires or behavior. Everyone has the right to have legal, consensual sex that feels right for them, without enduring judgment or discrimination from others. And everyone has the right to not have sex, if that’s what feels right for them, without feeling ashamed of their decision. It is incredibly simple, and yet totally radical: Sex without shame should be the rule, not the exception.

But slut-shaming and virgin-shaming are part of our cultural status quo. They’re deeply rooted in the reality that in order to maintain a culture in which men are dominant, you need to keep women under control. Slut-shaming has been around for millennia, and since the sexual revolution, virgin- and prude-shaming have taken root, a mark of pretend progress that’s really just slut-shaming inverted and inflicted on those whose virginity once granted them privilege. Shaming people for their sex lives is our cultural default mode. Even when we’re conscious of how damaging slut-and virgin-shaming can be, it’s easy to slip back into them. Hell, one of the speakers on a subsequent panel engaged in some slut-shaming, probably without even realizing it, barely an hour after our panel had ended. Eliminating slut-shaming and virgin-shaming requires, in the words of Alastor Moody, constant vigilance. It means questioning our own judgments about other people’s behavior and decisions, and being aware of how we’re speaking and acting when we talk about sex. Ultimately, it’s going to take time, and a good deal of cultural work, to break down the enormous power of the words and concepts of “slut” and “virgin.” But it’s work worth doing: Once it’s done, all of us, no matter how much or how little or what kind of sex we have, can finally be totally, utterly and completely shameless.


*Yeah yeah yeah manwhores whatever. Let’s not kid ourselves: “Slut” is a deeply gendered term. By definition and by default, it refers to women. As “manwhore” demonstrates, in order for “whore” or “slut” to refer to a man, they need to have “man” tacked on to the front.

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13 Comments

  1. Ms. Junior
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Probably one of my favorite people right now is Christina Aguilera because she talks about slut-shaming and double standards for women in her music. “Stripped” was such a great album because pretty much all the songs had to do with that, and there were ones about her abusive father and an finally getting out of an abusive romantic relationship. Then, in “Still Dirrty” she says “Why is a woman’s sexuality always under so much scrutiny?” But yeah, I’ve noticed that as I’ve become more confident in myself, more people had decided that it’s okay to criticize me and call me a slut, and I’ve only slept with one person in a monogamous relationship. So the word “slut” is definitely based on perceived sexuality, and is used to silence women who are too powerful or confident.

  2. FeministDK
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant post!

  3. cleavernt
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    “*Yeah yeah yeah manwhores whatever. Let’s not kid ourselves: “Slut” is a deeply gendered term. By definition and by default, it refers to women. As “manwhore” demonstrates, in order for “whore” or “slut” to refer to a man, they need to have “man” tacked on to the front.”
    Right. Because no gay man has ever been slut-shamed by their friends–gay or straight–or their families. Or total strangers. No gay man has ever been accused of “deserving” an STI because of his preferences.
    Of course “slut” is a deeply gendered term, but that gendered nature is precisely why it is a frequent putdown used against and by queer men. Please remember that not all slut-shaming fits into a heteronormative paradigm.

  4. RuthieG
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    In Stripped pt. 2 there is the line “Sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut.” I’ve kinda stolen my mum’s copy of that album.
    Also, unrelated but yay! A Moody quote!

  5. Gretchen
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Whoo, Stripped! I got that album as a birthday gift when I was…13, I think? Maybe 14. I’m 21 now, and I still love it to bits.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Slut-shaming can have devastating consequences, one of which is sexual assault.
    At age 11, I started smoking and slipped outside the school grounds to go visit older friends across the road and play their guitar. I told someone about my friends, who were men. The someone told the boys I was a “slut”. I was still a virgin and in fact had no idea what sex was, never mind statutory rape. At recess one day, three of those boys sexually assaulted me by pinning me down and groping at breasts that were not yet there. It was a Catholic school. Turn the other cheek. Hail Mary full of Grace.
    Other kids watched and no one did anything to help. It was the day I learned I was powerless.

  7. IAmGopherrr
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    “*Yeah yeah yeah manwhores whatever. Let’s not kid ourselves: “Slut” is a deeply gendered term. By definition and by default, it refers to women. As “manwhore” demonstrates, in order for “whore” or “slut” to refer to a man, they need to have “man” tacked on to the front”
    Couldnt have said it better myself!

  8. Monika
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    I like the way you articulated your point. You opened my eyes to something I hadn’t thought about because it is outside my experience. Thanks.

  9. dharma-slut
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    but that gendered nature is precisely why it is a frequent putdown used against and by queer men.
    The worst part of insulting a man with the gendered insult of “slut” is that he has just been demoted to female status.
    … says the genderqueer who goes by the handle of dharma-slut…

  10. 2nd Wave Man
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I am persistently flummoxed by how surprised everyone is in this community that prude-shaming is a real thing. Not only that, but it doesn’t even get second billing here; it’s been tacked on, like the mention of the exception to a rule. No, the real focus here is obviously on slut-shaming. So much for the idea that it doesn’t matter how much sex you have.
    Just look at the wording. Therese has discovered that prude-shaming exists! (Is that like discovering a new species, where it didn’t exist before the white guy came along and spotted it?) There are people who actually get flak for being so frumpy and unsexy! We should remember those who aren’t as fabulous as we are. Poor dears. If only they’d take off those glasses and let down their hair.

  11. Sarah
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Great post. One thing I can add on slut-shaming that I have gotten as a bisexual woman is that some people will shame you solely on the basis of your sexual orientation. I do not know why some people think “bisexual” is synonymous with “slut,” but I have heard that stereotype before, sadly. =/

  12. naddyfive
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, Sarah… I’ve lived with and known several straight women who’ve had as many partners in one month as I have in my entire life.
    Yet I’m the “slut” because I’m bisexual and I don’t apologize for my sexuality. Or keep quite about it, demure in male company, etc.

  13. Liz
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been called selfish for being bisexual, since I can take both men and women off the market. I’m not sure how this relates to slut shaming, or if it does… Just sharing some more funny (read: not funny) slams against bisexuality.

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