School's Out: Slut Shaming and the Empowered Young Woman

So I said in my last post that in this blog series I wanted to look at, among other things, where young people receive their most influential messages about the values around sex, sexuality, and gender, and their proper performance. And I'm especially interested in doing this by thinking about education as something that doesn't just happen inside the classroom. One partial and powerful answer to this question is, of course, that kids learn from each other—especially for the ever-lengthening amount of time that a lot of us find ourselves in school.

There have been countless observations made here at Bitch and elsewhere about how the term "slut" has been used, abused, and reclaimed with varying degrees of success. In this post, I want to explore a topic that I've been having a lot of conversations about lately with a friend who works full time at my university. Her position happens to be managed by the undergraduates in the student government. She's said that while few undergrad students would raise their hands if asked "are you a feminist?," many more seem to feel like the work of feminism is done and what they've taken away from it is a message of sexual empowerment and freedom. What I wonder about is how much this message is a product of second wave feminisms and how much it is a reflection of the rampant oversexualization of women in the media. My friend hears this version of empowerment in watercooler talk about whose "number" is higher and who "got" whom after the bar last night.

A poster from Chapman University inviting campus-wide discussion on what it means to be a feminist

I can't say whether these voices represent any kind of statistical majority, and that's not the point. Ariel Levy and others have already written provocatively about "raunch culture" and the "female chauvinist pig." I simply wonder: What does it mean in a frustratingly static culture of heteropatriarchy (for anyone) to equate casual sex with female empowerment or female empowerment with casual sex?

First, though, I want to note: I'm totally opposed to slut shaming. And it's important to note that slut shaming often occurs even in the same breath as sexual bragging. Instead of writing these kinds of conversation off as just "girl talk" or "gossip" I want to think of them as important ways that girls come to know themselves and what others think of them.

One of SlutWalk Toronto's Posters suggesting the reclamation of the word "slut"

As we've seen through the many debates about SlutWalk, this issue is in some ways mainstreamed as a young hetero woman's fight. From a queer perspective, one of my first thoughts is that in part, for queer people, it's not our sluttiness that we've been most frequently attacked for in contemporary debates, although oversexualization is part of the overall stigma associated with non-normative sexualities. Admirably, with organizations of black feminists, Aboriginal feminists, and other feminists of color, SlutWalk has been publicizing the connections between slut-shaming and other forms of sexual violence that are visited on all sorts of people located differently because of their class, ability, race, sexuality and so on.

Nonetheless, in a climate where social relations are overwhelmingly defined in masculine terms, what is the likelihood that young women are having their liberating sex with men (and perhaps women—queers aren't above sexism) who understand their political intent? How does this change the misogynistic narratives that we see overrepresented among young men about sexual conquest? How can we account for the ways that our sexual partners interpret and perhaps brag about the meaning behind these sexual relationships?

We can't account fully for other people's reactions and opinions, and that's not something that young women should have to be hypervigilant about. I'm not suggesting that such young women aren't "really" empowered or that their politics of personal relations aren't making a change. I mean to raise questions about whether, instead of replacing the trope of men using women with something more equitable, the figure of the "no-strings-attached" woman might signal a growing cool factor attached to the idea of both parties (more or less self-consciously) using each other. If we are taking feminist ideas of relationality and relational selves seriously, then nowhere are we more clearly responsible for the meanings and values formed out of relation than in our intimacies. It takes, after all, at least two to tango.

The book cover of Kate Bornstein's "Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us" showing Bornstein standing with folded arms

What I'm suggesting is that it will be productive to see sex-positive movements like SlutWalk and others attend to the formation of critical feminist consciousness for young men, women, and, as trans theorist Kate Bornstein said, the rest of us. In expanding the conversation beyond the very important work of mobilizing the already politicized and critiquing outright opponents, what will happen to the availability of feminist self-identification and new ways of being sex-positive in all of our classrooms and campuses?

Related: Kristen Rawls wrote on SlutWalk in an October Bitch blog post, and Melissa Petro discussed the perils and power of reclaiming controversial words in a great post from November


Previously: School's Out: Popular Media and the Gay Teen Martyr

Comments

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The whole Slutwalk phenomenon

The whole Slutwalk phenomenon is a fairly typical example of the kind of debate the male media love to focus in on to distract from real issue of workplace and income inequality that they studiously avoid covering. I notice that when politicians are mocked for wearing trouser suits, there are no similar protests, although the nature of undermining a woman by what she wears is equally apparent in that situation. I would just love to see a trouser suit march. The matter which kicked off the Slutwalk frenzy should have been a fairly simple one of the offending police officer being fired or at least suspended without pay for saying what he did. Instead he faced no repercussions and everyone indulged in the typically self-indulgent student parades that achieve nothing, but add to the misinformation and distortions that pervade the media. "Feminists" who get bogged down in issues of sex are seized on by the media, the "Hugh Heffner Feminists" as I like to call them, because they allow feminism to be pigeon-holed as a sexual liberation movement. Bra-burners of the 70s, Paglia and her porno brigade in the 80s were beloved by the media because they were a delightful distraction for men who simply wanted to avoid talking about workplace issues. When the likes of Steinem can call Marilyn Monroe a feminist icon, this leads directly to the ludicrous situation of Hale Berry calling Catwoman an "empowering' role for women in the past decade. And we wonder why we are still making 30% less than our male counterparts. These are unnecessary and tedious distractions that have devastating consequences for women economically because they stifle the real debate. Until we have economic parity we will never get social parity, that is the reality of our system. Apart from economics there are only two areas feminists should be interested in: science and social history. It is in these 2 areas that women have made a real impact in changing our vision of what women were, are, and could be, yet I see very little in today's feminism addressing or respecting these areas. Like the best useful idiots they are obsessed with pop culture and their own navels, which is why, regrettably so few women today will call themselves "feminist."

Wait

Why isn't Catwoman an empowering role? Fans of the Frank Miller comic especially know that Catwoman is a story about a woman overcoming oppression in a non-traditional way. When Selina Kyle becomes Catwoman, she gives the finger to everything a meek, obedient woman is supposed to be. While second wave feminism had its problems, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thanks for your reflections,

Thanks for your reflections, Greta33. I agree that all these domains (economics, other social sciences, natural sciences) require feminist approaches - and I think so do all other modes of study and thought. Look for an upcoming post which will be about that very idea of pop culture in the commercial media as a distraction from pressing activist concerns!

And thank you, Law Feminist for your important reminder to never throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's crucial to historicize our liberatory gains and try to keep the useful stuff with us as we find new ways to subvert and create in the future.

A very well balanced article

A very well balanced article regarding a sometimes divisive topic in various communities; while sexual freedom has been an important tenet of feminism, it’s important to sometimes question if it hasn’t been coopted by western media for its own devices. While the movement to reclaim the term and identity of “slut” has and continues to provide positive result, there seems to be an increasing force in pressuring young women who may not wish to engage in casual sex to see themselves as sex-negative, conservative, or just plain “old fashioned.” It’s worrying that these women are not only facing the pressures media and men place on their sexual expression but that there is at times a subtle pressure from women themselves. When one claims empowerment through sexual conquest the inevitable insinuation is that you are not empowered if not engaging in such behavior.

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. You raise a really significant point that discussing these issues respectfully and productively can be very difficult for lots of important reasons. If there's one thing at the forefront of my mind right now, it's trying each day to think, talk, and act in ways that promote dialogue instead of division.

Thanks

Thanks for raising this topic without pontificating- it's so much more interesting and valuable to raise questions and invite conversation than to listen to someone tell me what I should/shouldn't do to be a feminist. More young women might identify as feminist if that pervasive notion of the feminist nag would die already. I had the same experience as your friend in my first feminist theory class more than a decade ago- one of a few hands in a room of 100 women to be proudly feminist. Listening to young women seems like the first step toward understanding how to change that. Glad someone is listening!

Old Fashioned

The other Anon above me said some of what I wanted to say myself. If sex is empowering, or the status of women and their equality rises when they're sexually liberated, what about those women who choose not to engage in casual sex? I think it's much harder for young women who choose to not engage (like myself, as a heteromantic asexual). There are no "winners" here: you have too little sex you're a prude, too much and you're a slut. The media tells women that if they don't give it up they can't snag a guy or keep him. When women are expected to yield or be labeled frigid, is it truly themselves yielding for the benefit of their bodies or their partners? I consider myself someone who is still learning about myself and I'm becoming comfortable in my skin, yet that is one of the only hang ups I'm not sure I can overcome. Surely, anyone with my time will not pressure me into doing anything I don't want to do, but how long can I "keep" a guy if I don't put out? I consider myself critical of the media and what I hear, but women in the media are portrayed as sensual and inately sexual and I just don't feel that way or view myself as such. Wanting to wait in a relationship seems harder to do then it might have once been.

This is a fascinating point,

This is a fascinating point, Anonymous! You have inspired me to write a blog post on the topic of youth and asexuality. Feel free to let me know if there's anything you think I should address in particular!

Awesome! Thank you for your

Awesome! Thank you for your consideration. I'm really only just beginning to understand my feelings about my asexuality. For me, I never really had a name for what I was feeling because I thought asexuals were void of all feelings for anything. Not so, and AVEN helped me out a lot in this regard (a google search will bring you there). I didn't date in high school, no one asked me out but the pressure in high school is if no one is dating you than no one wants you. I think part of my asexuality also includes not wanting to be seen as a sexual object. I'd rather sit down and have a wonderful conversation with someone, get to know them, love them, and then consider sex. In high school, of course, the stereotype is that guys don't want that either and need to spend the greater part of their youth "sowing oats." Further, I just see the logic in waiting to engage in sex. Having not been in a romantic relationship, I can't say what the future holds for me sex-wise and sexuality is fluid. With the right person, I may come to want those things for myself.

The media, though, does not feature asexuality in the slightest. People who don't understand it make judgements and run their mouths about what they think it is (repressed, boring, made up). If someone being interviewed or in a sitcom hasn't had sex or hasn't had sex in a long time, people feel sorry for them or wonder what is wrong with them. Women in tv shows are all shown as sexual beings, or even have an implied sensuality because other characters want to be with them sexually. Rarely are relationships shown to be based solely on two people loving each other's minds. For me, it has never really clicked that sex is an emotional need for people, though this seems to be the advice people give when the question is asked if sex is necessary in a relationship. Sex is supposed to be about sharing together, yet the advice given is (usually for the woman) to just have it to make the other person happy, otherwise they won't feel that you care for them

Just some thoughts! There are many opinions on asexuality. I look forward to your article.

I think that believing in and

I think that believing in and advocating sexual freedom and equality are easy, less "radical" ways for young people to associate themselves with feminism. Although participating in Slut Walk is a feminist act, it won't result in people calling you a bra-burning feminist or a feminazi. Engaging in conversations about wage inequality and racial issues, however, can result in such. I think it's great for more people to be public and proud of their feminist beliefs (I kept my hand down years and years ago when a teacher asked if anyone in the classroom identified as a feminist), but I wonder how much good it's doing if these feminists done understand the less "fun" and more privilege-centric issues like race and class.

For example, I've observed that online on blogs on Tumblr and even on rookiemag.com, it's popular and even trendy for young people to openly identify themselves as feminists, while not really accurately portraying feminist values other than fostering pride in women's bodies and sexuality. Many girls I follow on Tumblr write posts about pro-choice issues and Slut Walk and post pictures of their unshaven armpits, but they also take pictures of themselves wearing Bindis and Día de Muertos makeup without any understanding of cultural appropriation and its connection to feminism. Many people seem to have a selective view of feminism, openly accepting the issues that have to do with sexuality and ignoring those that are centered around race and class. I think this is a really interesting new trend. It's the opposite of the "I'm not a feminist, but..." statement. It's saying "I'm a feminist!" and inwardly thinking but...

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Miranda R. You've hit on a vital issue to bear in mind, which is the cultural appropriation and even colonialism that has been a part of the history of white, middle-class, Western feminisms and the self-reflexivity required on the part of feminists to avoid reproducing these asymmetrical power relations in future work.

I was also just thinking this morning that I should have perhaps qualified by conclusion about the importance of raising feminist consciousness by saying that "it will be great to see organizations or movements or marches like SlutWalk and others attend further to the formation of feminist consciousness" because in their own ways, they all do. I know that SlutWalk, in particular, has had a tremendous amount of thought around it on the part of some of its founders - and participants I'm sure. Although it seems to have been received most commonly as an invitation to reclaim the word "slut," its central mandate in fact has to do with inviting all women and supporters to demonstrate publicly, thereby pointing out that there is no such thing as "looking like" a slut, and that all kinds of women have been or could be the targets of gender-based violence.

This is a great article. As a

This is a great article. As a college first-year, one of the most striking revelations of my experiences with casual sex was that in my attempt to "fuck the patriarchy," I only succeeded in fucking patriarchically. I tried to use sex as a tool in subverting the patriarchal paradigm, but only ended up being used as a tool by it. This was mostly due to, as you so aptly pointed out, young men not understanding the "political intent" and merely viewing it as a continuation of the conquest narrative.

Because I subconsciously internalized the iffy-feminist-idea that sex=power, which is not in accordance with my own values regarding love and sex, it led to a huge disconnect. I can't speak for all young women, of course, but I for one became less empowered. It really speaks to the power of the patriarchy that it's led us to be so seemingly trapped in terms of changing it. Overall, I wonder if hyper-sex-positivism is not a reactionary overcompensation that many young women experience in an intensely real way.Thank you for encouraging discussion.

Hi Jo - I will be quoting you

Hi Jo - I will be quoting you for some time to come: "fucking the patriarchy" or "fucking patriarchally"? Brilliant. Thank you for sharing this piece of your story. It is so interesting to hear the experiences of other young women in these kinds of settings.