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Slut-shaming is the practice of criticizing people, especially women and girls, who are perceived to violate expectations of behavior and appearance regarding issues related to sexuality. The term is used to reclaim the word slut and empower women and girls to have agency over their own sexuality. Gender-based violence can be a result of slut-shaming primarily affecting women. It may also be used in reference to gay men, who may face disapproval for promiscuous sexual behaviors. Slut-shaming rarely happens to heterosexual men.
Examples of slut-shaming include being criticized or punished for: violating dress code policies by dressing in sexually provocative ways; requesting access to birth control; having premarital, extramarital, casual, or promiscuous sex; or engaging in prostitution. It can also include being victim-blamed for being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.
Definitions and characteristics
Slut-shaming involves criticizing women for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct, i.e., admonishing them for behavior, attire or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable. Author Jessalynn Keller stated, "The phrase [slut-shaming] became popularized alongside the SlutWalk marches and functions similarly to the 'War on Women,' producing affective connections while additionally working to reclaim the word 'slut' as a source of power and agency for girls and women."
Slut-shaming is used by men and women. Women who slut-shame other women continuously apply unfavorable sexual double standards. The term is also used to describe victim blaming for rape and other sexual assault. This blaming is done by stating the crime was caused (either in part or in full) by the woman wearing revealing clothing or acting in a sexually provocative manner, before refusing consent to sex, thereby absolving the perpetrator of guilt. Sexually lenient individuals can be at risk of social isolation.
However, Kennair et al. (2023) found no signs on a sexual double standard in short-term or long-term mating contexts, nor in choosing a friend, except that women's self-stimulation was more acceptable than men's.
The action of slut-shaming can be a form of social punishment and is an aspect of sexism, as well as female intrasexual competition. Slut-shaming is a form of intrasexual competition because the term "slut" reduces the value of a woman. Being termed a "slut" is against a woman's gender norms.
The social movement falls into the category of feminism. This raises controversy because gender roles have a significant role in the social movement. The topic of slut-shaming sheds light on the social issues that are associated with the double standard. This is because slut-shaming is commonly aimed toward women, and not men. Slut-shaming is common in America because it is such a high-context culture, which means it is easier to be victim blamed.
Researchers from Cornell University found that sentiments similar to slut-shaming appeared in a nonsexual, same-sex friendship context as well. The researchers had college women read a vignette describing an imaginary female peer, "Joan", then rate their feelings about her personality. To one group of women, Joan was described as having two lifetime sexual partners; to another group, she had had 20 partners. The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as "less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant" than the Joan with two.
There is no documented date of origin for the term slut-shaming; nor the act of it. Rather, although the act of slut-shaming has existed for centuries, discussion of it has grown out of social and cultural relations and the trespassing of boundaries of what is considered normative and acceptable behavior.
Literary characters who were killed or died by suicide as a result of their sexual choices include Ophelia of Hamlet (c. 1600); Little Em'ly of David Copperfield (1850); Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter (1850); Madame Bovary (1856); Anna Karenina (1878); Daisy Miller (1878); Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891); Lily Bart of House of Mirth (1905); and Charity Royall in Summer (1917).
In 1892, Canadian writer E. Pauline Johnson criticized 1887 novel An Algonquin Maiden for killing its protagonist and having male characters posthumously label her a "squaw," a racial and sexual slur that displayed "glaring accusations against her virtue," which Johnson felt was undeserved.
Beginning in the 1960s, second-wave feminism contributed significantly to the definition and act of slut-shaming. Tracing back to the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War, men made up a majority of the labor force while women were socialized and taught to embrace the cult of domesticity and homemaking. Author Emily Poole argues that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s increased the rate of both birth control use and premarital sex. Moreover, feminist writers during the 1960s and 1970s such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Kate Millett encouraged women to be more open about their sexuality in public settings.
Slut-shaming has correlation to an individual's socio-economic status, which is characterized by wealth, education, and occupation. In the 18th century, "slut" was a common term used by men and upper-class women to degrade lower-class female servants. The context behind upper-class women and men calling their servants a "slut" includes when the servants were being sexually assaulted by their male employers. Upper-class women calling other women "sluts" proved their adherence to their socio-economic status over their gender.
Slut-shaming is prevalent on social media platforms, including the most commonly used: YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Slut-shaming has occurred on Facebook in controversial exchanges between users that have resulted in convictions to menace, harass and cause offense.
In 2014, The Pew Research Center reported the most common targets of harassment on the Internet are often young women. Citing that 50% of young female respondents have been called offensive names and or shamed online. In particular, those who were 18 to 24 years of age experienced varying amounts of severe harassment at astoundingly high rates. Women who have been stalked online were at 26%, while the targets of online sexual harassment were at 25%.
In the Women Studies International Forum, researcher Jessica Megarry used the Twitter hashtag campaign #mencallmethings as a case study of online sexual harassment. Women used the hashtag to report harassment they received from men, including insults related to appearance, name calling, rape threats, and death threats.
In 2011, the SlutWalk protest march originated in Toronto in response to an incident when a Toronto Police officer told a group of students that they could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like "'sluts'".
The Slut Walk movement has embraced the slut-shame label and has engaged in an act of resignification. Ringrose et al. call the Slut Walk a "collective movement" where the focus goes back to the perpetrator and no longer rests on the victim. This act of resignification comes from the work of feminist scholar Judith Butler. In her 1997 work, she argued that labels do not just name and marginalize individuals to categories, but also open up an opportunity for resistance.
Krystal Ball characterized the comments of Rush Limbaugh during the Rush Limbaugh–Sandra Fluke controversy as follows: "If you are a woman who stands up for your rights, you are a slut and your parents should be ashamed of you and we should all have the right to view your sex tapes online. This type of despicable behavior is part and parcel of a time-worn tradition of Slut-Shaming. When women step out line [sic], they are demeaned and degraded into silence. If you say Herman Cain sexually harassed you, you are a slut. If you say Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed you, you are a slut."
Slut-shaming has been used as a form of bullying on social media, with some people using revenge pornography tactics to spread intimate photos without consent. In 2012, a teenager from California, Audrie Pott, was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party. She committed suicide eight days after photos of her being assaulted were distributed among her peer group.
James Miller, editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, wrote a controversial article defending slut shaming. The article was later taken down, but still received criticism from some libertarians, such as Gina Luttrell of Thoughts on Liberty, an all-female libertarian blog.
Comedians Krystyna Hutchinson and Corinne Fischer of Sorry About Last Night host a podcast entitled Guys We Fucked, The Anti-slut shaming podcast. This podcast has over 200,000 listeners on each episode that is on SoundCloud. The podcast exists to de-stigmatize discussing sex so that slut-shaming becomes less of an issue. Hutchinson told The Huffington Post: "We want to make people feel more comfortable in their own skin. We just got a message from a girl from New Delhi, India, about how she loves the podcast because it makes her feel like it's OK to be comfortable with your sexuality and enjoy sex. And that made me so happy".
Activism against slut-shaming takes place worldwide. Participants have covered their bodies in messages reading "Don't Tell Me How to Dress" and "I am not a slut but I like having consensual sex" and march under a giant banner with the word slut on it. Activism has occurred in Vancouver, New York City, Rio, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, and others.
In 2008, hundreds of South African women protested at the local taxi rank wearing miniskirts and t-shirts that read, "Pissed-Off Women" after a taxi driver and multiple hawkers confronted a young girl about wearing a short denim miniskirt and penetrated her with their fingers, calling her "slut" repeatedly. Protesters wanted to make their message clear; they wanted men to stop harassing women, no matter how short their skirts were and that no matter how short it may be, it is never an invitation.
After the gang rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, August 2012, football players spread videos of the assault to other classmates, some of whom posted the videos to Twitter and Instagram. The pictures and video were later removed by authorities; however, that did not stop people from hash-tagging "Whore status" or "I have no sympathy for whores" in their tweets. Members of the collective Anonymous reported names of the rapists and classmates who spread the footage to local authorities. They took to the streets and internet requesting help from the community to bring justice to the Jane Doe who was raped.
Members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company have developed a play, Slut: The Play, in which they address the damaging impact of slut-shaming and slut culture. The creators state that their play "is a call to action – a reminder" that slut-shaming is happening every day, almost everywhere. Slut is inspired by real-life experiences of 14- to 17-year-old girls from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The play was shown at the 2013 New York Fringe Festival.
In her statement on the production, and of slut-shaming in general, author of Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum writes:
A teenage girl today is caught in an impossible situation. She has to project a sexy image and embrace, to some extent, a 'slutty' identity. Otherwise, she risks being mocked as an irrelevant prude. But if her peers decide she has crossed an invisible, constantly shifting boundary and has become too 'slutty,' she loses all credibility. Even if she was coerced into sex, her identity and reputation are taken from her. Indeed, the power to tell her own story is wrested from her. The Arts Effect's SLUT written by Katie Cappiello vividly represents this irrational, harmful, terrible circumstance...This play is the most powerful and authentic representation of the sexual double standard I have ever seen.
After experiencing slut-shaming firsthand, Olivia Melville, Paloma Brierly Newton and approximately a dozen other Australian women founded the organization, Sexual Violence Won't Be Silenced, on August 25, 2015. The association seeks to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and online sexual violence. The founders also launched a petition to the Australian government, requesting that they better train and educate law enforcement officers on how to prevent and punish violent harassment on social media.
Among gay and bisexual Men
Gay and bisexual men are also victimized through slut-shaming because of their sexual activity. There has been research supporting that LGBT students were more likely to be bullied and called sluts than heterosexual students. Researchers discussed how these negative experiences of victimization by peers, friends and strangers can lead to physical harm, social shaming, and loss of friendships. Unlike heterosexual people, LGBT people are more likely to learn about safe sex practices from friends. Gay and bisexual men are at highest risk of HIV. Most of the education that young gay and bisexual men receive about safe sex practices is learned from friends, the Internet, hearsay or trial and error.[failed verification]
Criticism of non-heterosexual men's sexual activity can either be said in a humorous context or not. Judgementalism happens when someone mentions gay men's sexual risk behavior or that they have multiple sex partners. This implies that their behavior is "slutty" and dirty.
Street harassment includes cat-calling, victim blaming, and slut shaming. Judgmentalism is not a pejorative word compared to women, and slut-shaming may have a positive connotation with men depending on context and relationship.
Among Black women
Though slut shaming affects women from different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, black women are disproportionately affected by the act of slut shaming. This can be attributed to both misogynoir and historical myths, which have worked together in dictating much of the public perception of black women. Due to these biases, black women must stand against more prejudice based on an often false perception of their sexual activity. Furthermore, it is also true that women from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk of being slut shamed. Black women experience financial disenfranchisement in comparison to their white peers which in turn adds to the unbalanced nature of the slut shaming they experience.
Myths about black women were established and cultivated during the time of slavery and onward to further oppress black women and justify committing acts of rape and sexual assault regularly on black bodies. One of the myths popularized was the myth of the hyper-sexual black women or the Jezebel. This myth, also known as, the myth of promiscuity, popularized the idea that black women were inherently more sexually charged and deviant than their white counterparts. Black women were determined by the Western world to have a wild, promiscuous nature and immoral, loose, and impure practices and values. This myth was then used as a solidifier and justifier for violating black female bodies with no consequence.
Furthermore, black women were forced into sexualized positions regularly, for instance during slave actions they were forcefully stripped of all clothes, and required to be paraded around for the masses, nude. These same involuntary actions would then be spun and used by white society in order to shame black women and reinforce the ideas created by the myth of promiscuity. This forceful sexualization of black women only furthered the ideologies prescribed to them by white society in a process of dehumanization and shaming that would be continued throughout history in new inventive ways.
Today the myth of promiscuity or the “Jezebel” still permeates the black female experience in a myriad of ways. For instance, the Hip Hop and music industry's portrayal of black women is hypersexualized and deeply stereotypes them both in character and in physicality. The industry not only perpetuated the already existing ideas of the myth of promiscuity but additionally, it directly correlates the physical characteristics often found in black women such as a large behind which is often addressed in Hip Hop music, with having a sexually promiscuous nature. Although these ideas were not created by the Hip Hop/Rap industry and have been around since the time of enslavement, they are popularized and reinforced by the overwhelming sexualization of specifically black women within the music being created today. Hip Hop contributes to the overexposure to slut shaming experienced by black women manifest both verbally through lyrics used and visually through imagery in music videos and album covers. The imagery that accompanies overtly sexual lyrics is often of the stereotypical normative black female body often adorned in minimal clothing. This imagery of black femininity is then streamlined into the media to be absorbed by the public, therein altering the public's perception of both the standard black female body and the behaviors of black women in general. The effect of this reinforces the public perception that black women are inherently hypersexual beings.
Yet another contributor to the high rates at which black women encounter slut shaming is because of income inequality. Slut shaming does not permeate high-status circles of women at nearly as high a rate as it does within communities of women that are low-income. As those individuals coming from the powerful position within the already existing ruling class have the ability to dictate what activities, attire, and body standards are deemed respectable they can remove themselves from experiencing slut shaming much more readily than their marginalized, low-income, BIPOC counterparts. On the flip side, black women are more likely to face poverty because they are statistically more likely to experience unemployment, lesser pay when employed, and often less of a chance to rise in position in comparison to their white female counterparts let alone their white male counterparts. So therein, these systems of misogynoir place black women into a financially disadvantaged state and those who are from lesser incomes are more likely to experience slut shaming thus black women are further placed in the position to experience slut shaming at a greater rate. Furthermore, white and upper-class women are often participators in the shaming of fellow women, especially black women as this practice allows them to maintain the existing hierarchical dynamics wherein white high-class women are a symbol of ideals of “true womanhood” and purity and black women are ascribing the characteristics of as deviance and sexually immorality.
Although the myth of promiscuity was constructed by white society and spread through all social orders including, political, economic, and educational, today those same ideals can be seen distinctly within the interior social structures of the black community. Black women, in order to gain any social standing, had to do everything in their power to remove themselves from the idea of being promiscuous. For black women distancing themselves from all forms of perceived sensuality allowed them to a rise in social positioning. In turn, they forced themselves into a strict modesty culture in order to assimilate and rise in standing within white social structures. Those same women who conformed to the modesty standards set by white society and did so in order to shirk their preconceived sexual nature that was also ascribed to them by white society seem to have little to no sympathy for black women within the community that chose not to assimilate into this system of demanded modesty. Therein the process of slut shaming is even perpetuated internally from black female individuals to one another.
Among lesbian and bisexual women
Along with gay and bisexual men, lesbian and bisexual women are also key victims of slut-shaming and bullying. Bisexual women are mainly bullied by other women due to their “open option” choice of preference for both genders. However on the other hand, bisexual and lesbian women are fetishised due to the porn industry, and from this fetishisation a group of people would only see them as a “porn category”. Lesbian porn is one of the most searched for categories in the porn industry. Lesbian women have struggled with the concept of straight men trying to convert them into a different sexuality as they are viewed by that group of men as a porn category or a “sexual object, this is due how some groups only understand the concept of lesbianism only what they see on media. Women in the porn industry are putting on a show to entertain, so they’re shown as feminine seductress figure that’s very promiscuous, which of course is false to reality. Linking to that issue, lesbianism is considered to exist outside of the male gaze, therefore there’s this frustration for some men that they are unable to pursue women in these groups. However, there’s also group of individuals that view any members of the LGBTQ+ community as predatory. Especially some women towards lesbians, how they assume members of that community will actively pursue them due to their preference and stereotype them as predatory. For bisexual and lesbian women, both genders vent their frustration based on homophobia, false media and their indifference to “societal stereotypes”.However, this does not only apply to lesbian women, but gay men are also stereotyped to be predatory by some groups of heterosexual/straight males.
- Female intrasexual competition
- Free the nipple
- Honor killing
- Madonna–whore complex
- Post-assault treatment of sexual assault victims
- Sexual bullying
- Victim blaming
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As we explored in chapter 2, 'slut-shaming' is an umbrella term for all kinds of language and behaviors that are intended to make women and girls feel bad about being sexual.
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The phrase [slut-shaming] became popularized alongside the SlutWalk marches and functions similarly to the 'War on Women,' producing affective connections while additionally working to reclaim the word 'slut' as a source of power and agency for girls and women.
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Certainly the individualizing admonishment to 'think again' offers no sense of the broader legal and political environment in which sexting might occur, or any critique of a culture that requires young women to preserve their 'reputations' by avoiding overt demonstrations of sexual knowingness and desire. Further, by trading on the propensity of teenagers to feel embarrassment about their bodies and commingling it with the anxiety of mobiles being ever present, the ad becomes a potent mix of technology fear and body shame.
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It encouraged women to be angry about whore stigma and slut shaming for pursuing sexual pleasure or trading sex for money
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