[This article was originally published at On The Issues Magazine. Reprinted with permission.]
When I was in college, I was slut-shamed. On the one hand, I was encouraged to save myself for marriage, but, on the other hand, men and women were urged to enjoy their sexuality. I wasn't interested in settling down with one guy; I wanted to date as many guys as possible and I wanted to enjoy sex. So I chose to experiment.
When I was 19, I made a decision to rid myself of my virginity because turning 20 was a milestone to me. Granted, my first sexual partner was probably one of the worst guys I ever dated, but, for me, breaking that hymen was a rite of passage. The moment I bled on his sheets I felt like an adult for the first time. The experience was not all flowers and fireworks. It was messy and it hurt and the guy ultimately turned out to be a selfish bastard who bragged to his friends that I looked like a slut (since I wore heavy makeup), but I was really a virgin -- as if I were some kind of prize.
But I had finally done The Nasty and I wanted more! I recognized that my sexuality was a powerful tool that I could use to get what I wanted out of life. Not only that, I liked sex! Why shouldn't I enjoy it as long as I acted like a responsible adult?
American society is not kind to sexually active, single, straight women, especially when virginity is so popular among political talking heads. The purity movement and "hooking up" culture are at loggerheads, creating a great deal of confusion.
Chances are, if you're a woman who enjoys playing the field, you've been called a slut, whore, tramp, and a host of other slurs. There is no equivalent set of words for guys who play the field, and the words that describe them are positive, something to aspire to: Lothario, player, stud, Casanova. "Slut" is designed to humiliate and negatively judge a sexually active woman simply because she has a vagina.
Women Who Just Wanna
But what if a young woman wants to explore her sexuality? What if she does not want to wait for marriage or isn't really all that interested in marriage to begin with?
How is she likely to be viewed by friends, family, parish and society at large? There's another double standard for her. Leora Tanenbaum, author of Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation writes, "The thinking went like this: girls labeled "sluts" who are sexually innocent do not deserve to be mistreated, while other girls are guilty of the crime of having been sexual and therefore deserve to be bullied. According to this logic, only those who are innocent and 'good' are worthy of our empathy. The rest of them? Who cares -- they're 'sluts'!"
A particularly sad example is that of 13-year old Hope Witsell, a student in Florida who had engaged in "sexting" in fall 2009. She had taken cell-phone photos of her breasts and sent one to a boy's phone. After another girl found the photo and circulated it to her friends, the slut shaming began. The harassment was so intense and negative that Witsell committed suicide.
Young women are treated derisively, despite an increase and acceptance of casual sex. A University of Iowa study by sociologist Anthony Paik released in April 2010 confirmed the popularity of "hooking up" and "friends with benefits." "The United States has seen a major shift toward nonromantic sexual partnerships -- people becoming sexually involved when they are just casually dating or not dating at all," Paik said. "A quarter of the respondents became sexually involved while casually dating and a fifth did so as friends or acquaintances."
But slut-shaming may put young women at higher risk for pregnancy and disease. In addition to encouraging women to view themselves as property to be bought by the highest bidder, the purity movement is all about making sure that girls and women remain sexually naive and ill-informed about sexual activity and contraception.
Virginity pledges do not result in "pure" young women. In fact, teenagers who take virginity pledges are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who have never made the pledge. Due to negative societal attitudes, many young women don't want it to be seen as planning sexual escapades. They prefer to let sex "just happen," and instead of taking proper precautions, forgo birth control pills, condoms and other forms of contraception – all so that they don't look like sluts.
Who does the slut-shaming? Women are just as likely to slut shame as men. In fact, they may engage in the practice more than men. Nine Deuce (Rage Against The Man-chine) wrote in her blog, Sluts: "Slut-shaming is one of the chief ways that women attempt to compete with each other for male approval in a patriarchy that defines women's worth by their physical attractiveness and limits their ability to distinguish themselves by other means."
Tanenbaum makes a similar point in her book: "If you feel insecure or ashamed about your own sexual desires, all you have to do is call a girl a "slut" and suddenly you're the one who is "good" and on top of the social pecking order."
I was slut shamed much more by women than by men. A friend of mine who was a fundamentalist Christian and "saving" herself for marriage condemned my sexual exploration. She figured I couldn't possibly be worth much to any man because (1) I was no longer a virgin, and (2) she thought I gave myself away too freely. "Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?" she asked (she actually said that.)
At the time I was so hurt that I didn't have a witty retort. In retrospect, I should have challenged the line. I was not a farm animal that could be bought. That saying reduces women to property owned by a specific man. Secondly, getting the milk for free insinuates that once she's sexually experienced, a woman will screw anyone.
Patriarchy Doubles Up
Nothing could be farther from the truth. I enjoyed sex play, but that didn't mean I would screw any guy who came along. Some became miffed because they thought that, as a sexually free woman, I wouldn't pass up such a great opportunity to be with them. When I said no, they called me a bitch or a cock-tease. (A definition of "bitch" is apparently "a woman who will have sex with anyone - but you." A "slut" is "a woman who will have sex with anyone - including you.")
In one instance, an older married man wanted to take me to the movies. I planned to refuse him and asked my employment advisor for advice on how to handle it. She said that if I hadn't led him on, I wouldn't find myself in this situation. Her comments really pissed me off. It was another form of slut shaming: if I had problems with a man, the problems were my fault.
Rape victims are similarly dismissed, especially if they are sexually active and proud of it. Jessica Valenti, author of He's A Stud, She's A Slut: The Sexual Double Standard, writes, "How many times has rape been discounted because a woman was deemed a slut? How many times are women called whores while their partners beat them? How often are women's sexual histories used against them in workplace harassment cases? The sexual double standard is a lot more dangerous than we'd like to think."
The New Bedford, Massachusetts rape case in 1983 is a powerful example of slut shaming. Cheryl Ann Araujo was gang-raped at age 22 by four men on a pool table in a tavern while other patrons watched but did not interfere. Araujo risked being disbelieved because she was viewed as being loose, flirtatious, seductive and drunk – a slut. The case came out in her favor because the jury and the public were able to realize that no woman, regardless of her sexual experience and behavior, deserves to be raped.
No woman who voluntarily engages in sex deserves to be slut-shamed, either. A woman who enjoys her sexuality and takes proper contraceptive precautions is a responsible adult. Slut shaming lies along the continuum of patriarchal holdovers by which men are deemed to own women and women's bodies, and women's choices are narrowed by harassment and derision. Viewing women as either a virgin or a whore contributes to the perpetuation of an image that has cruelly damaged, sexually stunted and thoroughly inhibited women's free movement in society. It's really something that women should not tolerate, and should definitely refuse to perpetuate.