Thursday, July 29, 2010

Slut-Shaming

Many thanks to the commenter who has dubbed herself: (queer)bitch. I thank her for trying to correct my misunderstandings of Jaclyn Friedman's article about her newly discovered and embraced sluthood. Hers is the next to last comment on this post. Link here.

(Queer)bitch wrote: "congratulations for completely misconstruing the entire piece, and doing exactly what she discussed in her article: slut-shame. whether or not I choose to go out and do the same is not important, but I will defend any woman's choice to be a 'slut'."

I guess that if you are going to misconstrue something, it is better to miss it completely, and not just some of the parts.

Anyway, what is this thing called slut-shaming?

I suspect that I know where (queer)bitch is coming from, so let's fill in some of the theoretical background.

Presumably, for the properly deconstructed mind, when you call someone a slut you are shaming her. Certainly, there is some truth to this. But does this also mean that if no one calls anyone a slut then there will be no more slutty behavior? Or better, does it mean that the behavior previously derogated as slutty will come to be accepted as normal and positive?

Of course, one might reply that refusing to say that someone has the flu has no real influence on whether or not he has the flu. Saying that the world is flat does not make it any more or less round.

One needs to be careful about attributing too many magical powers to language and thought.

By (queer)bitch's logic, Friedman would be martyring herself for a cause, the cause of reducing or erasing the stigma associated with the word slut and thus liberating female sexuality from the patriarchal strictures that have attempted, for these many millennia, to keep it under control.

Does that sound like an accurate representation of (queer)bitch's point of view? I hope it does.

If I am right, then Friedman is saying that the free and open expression of female sexuality means that nothing is off limits or out of bounds. To her mind the last frontier would be a woman's ability to enjoy dangerous sexual encounters with anonymous men she finds on Craigslist.

Perhaps I live in a bubble, and perhaps I have missed the point completely, but from my limited experience I would say that most women would seriously object to that characterization of their intimacy. And that one of the ways they have of asserting the integrity of their own intimacy is by calling women who do not respect themselves... sluts.

Not one of the commenters, to say nothing of Friedman's defenders in other locales, seems to consider it pertinent that it is women, far more than men, who label other women as sluts.

For all I know many women become incensed by what they see as a caricature of their sexuality, and fear that they will have to suffer the consequences that will follow when men are persuaded that sluthood is intrinsic to female sexuality.

You can rant all you want about patriarchal misogyny-- and I am happy to provide a forum in the comments section-- but when you are dealing with slut-shaming you are dealing with the way women treat other women.

I am assuming that people are not so completely trapped in their theories that they have turned a blind eye to human behavior.

As for men, they rarely spend their time slut-shaming women, but, dare I say they have no real problem with a woman declaring herself to be a slut.

It's not going to make too many women happy but most men would join (queer)bitch in defending a woman's choice to call herself a slut. I am sorry to have to inform you that they would conclude that the label tells them what to expect and what not to expect from such a woman.

I understand that many people find this offensive. And I also know that Friedman herself declared that the men who read her article and planned to treat her according to their idea of what a slut was should not do so.

I  would say that if you want to have a say in the way people see you and relate to you, it would be much better to present a different portrait of yourself to the world.

Telling people not to look at you in a certain way, after you have gone out of your way, to the point of compromising your dignity, to insist that they do, makes no sense at all.

Given the disconnect between your behavior and the way you say you want to be treated, most men are likely to take the behavior as a better indicator of what to expect from you.

But, what happens when a woman or a girl is unjustly accused of being a slut? This may occur if she is as chaste as the driven snow or is sexually active within a relationship. Would this injustice be eradicated if we followed Friedman and started seeing sluthood as a badge of honor? Or would the women who are inclined to use this calumny simply find another word?

If slut-shaming means something, and if people are guilty of it, then it should be limited to those instances where women unjustly denounce other women as sluts. I suggested that they do so in order to defend the integrity of their own sexuality. But they might also do so, justly or unjustly, in order to gain a competitive advantage in the mating game.

When a woman is unjustly accused of being a slut she should respond swiftly and unequivocally. She should defend herself and  should not engage in any behavior that would lend credence to the charge.

So, I feel that (queer)bitch was wrong in saying that I was slut-shaming Jaclyn Friedman. By definition, it is impossible to slut-shame a woman who proudly proclaims herself a slut.


If the label still feels pejorative, then perhaps Ms. Friedman's sacrifice was for naught.

To say that what she meant is not the same as what the word means in normal usage, and then to blame people for taking the word to mean what it normally means, reflects two errors.

In the first place words do not mean what you want them to mean. Thinking that you have that much power is arrogant. In the second place, if you do not like the conclusions people draw from your self-definition, then you can take some of the responsibility on to yourself and nor try to shift the blame to others.

Much of the misunderstanding around these topics involves the concept of shame. I have written a book about this, and have spent much time studying it. I am happy to share some of my observations about shame.

Shame involves how you look to other people. Do they see you as a member of their group? Are you a friend or a foe? And do they see you someone who is worthy of greater or lesser respect within the group?

You feel shame when you are isolated from the group, when you feel rejected or ostracized. And you can feel a slightly different kind of shame when you have lost some measure of respect within the group.

Human beings are intrinsically social beings. As Aristotle said, there is no such thing as a human being living in total isolation, outside of any group.

What is the basis for human community? Simply, it is our ability to respect the separation between public and private. This separation is roughly equivalent to the separation between church and state, between sacred and profane.

This means, and I want to be very clear here, that neither I nor any other stranger cares what you or (queer)bitch or Jaclyn Friedman does in their private life.

Once you parade your private life around on the public square, it does become everyone's business, because you have insisted that they look at your intimacy. It tells them that you do not care about their community, their standards or decorum and propriety, and the orderly running of their society.

If you do it on purpose you will be seen as shameless.

Let's say that a woman reads Jaclyn Friedman and decides that she has so fully embraced her sluthood that she wants to expose it to the world. Or better, that she wants to expose it to everyone in her office.

Don't we all know by now that the good functioning of a business requires standards of decorum and propriety? Don't we know that women who want to pursue career success ought not to dress provocatively on the job, for fear of being distracting?

Friedman understands that her public exposure of her sluthood is not practicable for most women in the real world. But then, does she want to make the real world more accommodating to women who want to dress slutty? Or is she advising young women to strike a blow for women's liberation by dressing like sluts at work?

Anyway, when you fail to respect the separation between public and private, your emotional alarm goes off and you feel shame. Shame is a universal human emotion; it has a distinctly social purpose. It means the same thing no matter who feels it?

You feel shame when you have been caught with your pants down. Voluntary or involuntary overexposure produces feelings of shame.

The same applies when you expose your intimacy to someone who is effectively a stranger. This might happen in a random, anonymous sexual encounter; it might happen when your clothing malfunctions on the dance floor; it may happen when you reveal more than you want or should on Facebook.

When you feel shame, the shame is telling you something. It is telling you to put your pants back on. Or it might be telling you that you have made a mistake, that you have failed to show proper respect for the sensibility of others.

Shame is probably the most unpleasant human emotion. It is trying to tell you in no uncertain terms that your social being is in severe danger.

What happens when it's not so easy to put your pants back on? What happens when a compromising photo of you has circulated through your school or office?

Obviously, this is much more difficult and requires much more work to regain your respectability. If a woman's intimacy has been compromised she will not solve the problem by declaring that she has done nothing shameful, but that she feels good about her body.

That is not a solution; it compounds the problem because she is saying that she does not want to regain respect because she is happy that she has none.

Again, emotions try to tell you things. Shame tells you to cover up; fear tells you that you are in physical danger.

As Ari Mendelson wrote me in an email this morning, it is striking that Friedman feels afraid before her first hookup, but chooses to ignore what the emotion is trying to tell her.

I don't know how much psychology you need to have studied to know that when your emotion is signaling that you are in danger you must take it seriously.

You cannot write off danger, especially the danger that will exist when you put yourself in the  vulnerable position of having carnal relations, by telling yourself that you have taken some karate classes.

What happens when you decide to ignore whatever your shame is telling you. Surely, Jaclyn Friedman felt something like shame after her first hookup. And she chose to try to overcome it.

Here is how she describes her emotions after her first hookup: "Driving home late that night, I was overcome with an uneasy feeling. What had I just done? What did it mean? What would my friends think? Was this who I wanted to be? I sat in my parked car, paralyzed, for ten minutes that felt like an hour."

She continues: "I woke up the next morning feeling unmoored. Like something inside me had been knocked loose, but I didn't yet know if it was a part I needed, or something that had been in the way."

She observes: "Because any woman who indulges these urges carries with her a lifetime or censure and threat. That's a loud chorus to overcome.... A slut alone is a slut in difficulty, possibly in danger."

I find that a good description of a normal shame reaction, a reaction that is telling her that she should not have done what she did, or better, that she should not repeat the experience.

Effectively, recognizing that you have erred, not telling others about your experience, and not doing it again would have worked to help her to overcome the shame.

Everyone makes mistakes. As long as you are willing to accept that the mistake is not who you really are, thus, as long as you do not insist on repeating it and do not divulge it to others... the shame will eventually go away.

But this is not what Friedman did. She seemed to have thought that the patriarchy was trying to make her ashamed of her sexuality. In order to counter the negative judgment that she was suffering on her own, she told her girlfriends about what had happened.

Once she did, she discovered that they all thought that she had done something wonderful. Rather than judging her ill, they were cheerleading her exploits. As I said, they were enabling her to try to overcome shame by pretending that she had done nothing wrong, but that the world was wrong for seeing her as though she had.

This means that people who do not understand how to deal with an experience of shame are especially vulnerable to the siren song of anyone who tries to deflect the responsibility onto the ambient community and its values.

In the end it takes more than a friend to overcome the shame. It takes a group, even a cult where everyone opens their arms to you and makes you feel loved. For Friedman the group involves her participation and membership in the feminist cause.

One final question remains today, one that another commenter raised?

Is there a male equivalent for slut?

Let's understand first that there is no such thing as a human society where women take pride in random, anonymous sexual encounters. Thus the special censure that the term implies.

But what about men? You might, as Gray suggested, say that the male equivalent of slut is the womanizer, but usually womanizer is a man who is involved in a relationship or a marriage.

I would think that the closest is the Don Juan or even gigolo. Clearly, a Don Juan commands more respect than a gigolo, but not by a lot. Both figures merit serious disrespect.

Neither, however, involve themselves in random, anonymous sex. Don Juans and gigolos seduce women into thinking that they have found true love and a meaningful relationship.

But, someone should be asking, how is it that women are subject to so much more shame the men over sexual indiscretions? Is it because the stakes and the risks are higher for a woman? Or have we unjustly identified women with the sacred, with a fertile space?

In terms of the separation of public and private, if the important part of the experience of shame is exposure and disclosure, only a woman runs the risk of showing unmistakable signs of her indiscretion.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Regarding your question "Is there a male equivalent for slut?" Given that men and women are quite different, you're starting too far in. You need to back up a bit.

To wit:

How do you sexually shame a woman?
Call her a slut, a whore, loose.

How do you sexually shame a man?
Call him a pencil dick. Tell him he he can't keep up with you in bed, that he can't last, that he doesn't know how to please a woman.

Marsh said...

Terrific piece, Stuart.

switchintoglide said...

"Men rarely spend their time slut-shaming women."?
Try being a woman before you make such sweeping generalisations. For an expert, you sure are out of touch with the realities of womens' day to day lives.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comment, switchintoglide.

Admittedly I have no experience as a woman, but I do have some experience talking to men, and talking to them man-to-man.

It makes sense to me that women who are competing with other women for male attention and affection would be more likely to disparage other women in order to make them less desirable partners for said men.

Surely, this is what happened to Phoebe Prince, to take a recent, tragic example.

It may be true that once women start slut-shaming another woman, the men who want to ingratiate themselves with said women will start echoing their language.

But by and large, even given my limited experience, I still feel that women are far more likely to insult other women for their sexual behavior than are men.

switchintoglide said...

Your response erases queer women, lesbian women, bisexual women, and asexual women, never mind genderqueer and non-binary trans* persons. There is no one monolithic "women's" experience, and despite your attempts to neatly pigeonhole our behaviours as ". . .competing with other women for male attention and affection. . ." we do have individual wants, needs and desires beyond searching for desirable men all the time. It is so reductive to paint female behaviours in relation to sexuality as such--you ignore that women, like men, have individual reasons for individual behaviours, and do not fit neatly into outmoded theorems and essentialised gendered stereotypes that seem to rely more on a specious understanding of evolutionary psychology rather than clinical practice.

If you are a practitioner or therapist of sorts, you would do well to at least feign an interest in seeing the life experiences of others as legitimate, even if they differ from your acceptable moral or theoretical standards of behaviour. [Different strokes for different folks!] You are passing judgment, shaming, and moralising to a woman who did not ask for your opinion--how do you not understand that that is an exercise in male privilege and entitlement, and also completely unnecessary? I fail to see how your position in society makes you more adept at understanding Jaclyn's life experience than Jaclyn herself.

Also, as I had to comment on another reaction to this piece earlier:

". . .[Y]our characterisation of sex and dating as a marketplace is offensive to those of us who dare to think of ourselves as more than a piece of meat. I’ve been with the same man for four years now in a mostly monogamous relationship, and I can tell you that our relationship was built on a negotiation of dreams, goals, lifestyles, cohabiting, non-monogamy/monogamy, sexual orientation/bisexuality, and all sorts of other things that arise in a long term relationship between equals. I don’t however, remember haggling over the price of my sluthood."
-http://www.hookingupsmart.com/2010/08/04/hookinguprealities/i-earned-a-denunciation-from-now/comment-page-3/#comment-14336

I am struggling here to understand why you feel the need to give unsolicited advice to happy women about their own sex lives in such a condescending and self-righteous manner.

And before you dismiss me as a feminist harpy, or minion, or whatever derogatory term you have opted to box a diverse set of folks into to make ad hominem (and largely classist) attacks, consider that I am not strictly feminist identified, nor am I any big proponent of what the largely white and middle class feminist movement is about as both a poor person and and anti-racism activist.

Anyways, things to consider.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

There's lots to say about your remarks.

First, and most obviously, if JF did not want to hear what anyone had to say about her experience then she should have kept it to herself.

To presume that everyone must respond as she or you would want them to shows a disrespect for free thought and the free expression of differing opinions.

If anyone wants to declare herself publicly a slut she should be sufficiently adult to recognize that the world might not fall at her feet.

I know a lot of women who believe that JF is setting a very bad example when she claims that sluthood is a powerful and liberating and, I would say, therapeutic experience.

She might not exactly be telling other women what to do, but she is certainly pointing them in a certain direction.

Who tells people that they have had a positive and beneficial experience but that no one else should try it?

If you and JF believe that you have a right to control the reactions of other people, I would say that you are acting out a mild form of petty tyranny.

As for generalizing, that is what people do when they conduct studies about different kinds of behavior.

Whether it is in cognitive psychology or evolutionary psychology or behavioral economics people draw conclusions based on typical behaviors for people who belong to certain groups.

I cannot imagine what you were thinking when you said that we cannot generalize about human experience. Does that mean that we should ban science?

That feels like a form of know-nothingism that is unworthy of you.

Of course, anyone who gives advice gives it to an individual, and tries to make it fit the circumstances, the goals, and the wishes of that individual.

But if you imagine that one individual has nothing in common with any other, I think you are serious off the mark.

It's not for me to defend Susan Walsh's effort to think about the implications of thinking that sex functions within something of a marketplace, but I would point out that this is a staple of behavioral economics. One of its leading practitioners, Prof. Gary Becker of U. Chicago, won a Nobel prize for it.

You may not agree with what it claims. But to dismiss it imperiously because you find that it hurts your feelings does not really serve any purpose beyond allowing you to remain in ignorance.

Among the more interesting research in evolutionary psychology is Donald Symons' book, The Evolution of Human Sexuality. In it Symons has a great deal to say about the behavior of gays.

Check it out.

switchintoglide said...

http://wickedday.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/shameful-behaviour/

Anonymous said...

"Slut-shaming:" publicly or privately insulting a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women.

Slut shaming re-enforces the virgin/whore myth of female identity--women are either virgins and, like their virginity, are worth protecting; or, they are whores, and because their hymen has already been broken its okay to break their spirit or their bodies through psychological or physical violence.