We need to talk about "slut-shaming." As a term, it's enjoyed a rapid proliferation —likely because it's useful and very pertinent to the experience of being a woman. The phrase "slut-shaming" takes an insidious, malignant cultural tendency to police, judge and condemn women for being comfortable with their own sexuality and neatly and concisely sums it up in two words. "Slut-shaming" should be a great rhetoric tool for us to all have handy! Recently, though, I've begun to feel exasperated whenever I come across it in feminist writing.
As an accessible concept, "slut-shaming" has made it easy and convenient to point out insidious sex-negative sexism. It's even graced the pages of the New York Times — a testament to its institutional legitimacy as a concept (we made it!) and to its pervasiveness (we're everywhere!). So why don't I feel relieved or as though we've made some kind of important rhetorical shift? Shouldn't I be happy that more and more people are gaining the language and context necessary to parse outdated, sexist ideas about sexuality — ideas that all too often present themselves as common sense?
Well, no. Because "slut-shaming" doesn't mean anything anymore. When we call everything slut-shaming, we seriously erode its power as a concept. It's like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: automatically say that anything that expresses a not-entirely-positive view of something sexual is "shaming," and everyone will become so desensitized to the idea that the term ceases to elicit anger or outrage or any feeling at all. "Slut-shaming" has become a nebulous blob of a buzzword, flopping around the blogosphere ineffectively and hollowly.
Back in the old days, before everything on the Internet had been coated with a thick layer of slut-shaming accusations, it was useful and insightful to say that Rush Limbaugh slut-shamed Sandra Fluke when he publicly called her a whore for taking birth control. It opened up a conversation about sexism and regressive attitudes about sexuality in broadcast media and the world at large. Now, however, the term is deployed basically every time someone does or says something not completely celebratory about sex. In the past month, we've heard that the sleeping video of Justin Bieber is slut-shaming. Dress codes are slut-shaming. Telling your neighbors to stop screaming with delight during sex because it disrupts your sleep is slut-shaming. Obamacare ads saying that insured women will be sexually carefree are slut-shaming. The aforementioned New York Times article examines a study that claims that to give another woman a disdainful look for wearing sexy clothing in a professional setting is slut-shaming, and that slut-shaming is hardwired into women because of evolution. An email that recently landed in the Jezebel inbox lamented the fact that the general public was slut-shaming an x-rated 5K run by saying it was degrading to women. Another email links to a Return of Kings article called "24 Signs She's a Slut" (I mean, duh, of course it's slut-shaming; it's in the Return of Kings mission statement that sexually active women should be shamed). The body of the email reads, "Sick of this SLUT SHAMING!!!"
Some of these things do demonize and attempt to shame women for sexual behavior that deviates from traditional gender expectations, it's true. But a term that can ostensibly cover 1) conservative ads meant to depict wanton female sexuality as a threat, 2) public outcry over an athletic event that seems to mostly center around crotch shots of women in bikinis, and 3) an article posted on a self-identified misogynistic website with the gleeful intent of depicting "sluts" as sub-human is clearly far too broad to be useful.
Furthermore, the proliferation of "slut-shaming" has resulted in an inaccurate conflation of "being critical" and "prudishly or maliciously taking issue with female sexuality." Not all criticisms of public displays of sexiness are meant to shame, which is something many people seem to have lost sight of. In the past few months alone, several high profile and self-proclaimed feminist pop culture figures have been accused of "slut-shaming" by hoards of dissenting sex-positive women and men. Sinead O'Connor was accused of it; Annie Lennox was as well, and so was Rashida Jones (more on her hot mess of an essay later). If these accusations of slut-shaming led to a nuanced discussion of the ways in which we interpret, discuss, view, construct and consume public displays of female sexuality, I would have absolutely no problem with that. But all too often, "slut-shaming" is used to police women... for policing other women, which is just hypocritical.
In the a feminist sphere, telling someone she's slut-shaming has mutated into a method of dismissing her argument without engaging with it on any level, of taking issue with her tone and refusing to hear the content. Of course, the tone of these allegedly "slut-shaming"open letters and essays was often scolding or problematic in some other way, but still. It's unproductive for feminists to tell other feminists that their thoughts/anxieties about a certain kind of representation of women in pop culture have no validity whatsoever. And so not only has "slut-shaming" lost its meaning, it's also become censorious. Rather than helping to facilitate debates about how we view sexuality — as it originally did — it now shuts them down before they can even start.
The series of fitful debates about whether someone is "slut-shaming" a public figure can be seen as the feminist equivalent of smarm. As defined by Tom Scocca, smarm is "an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone." Both sides of the slut-shaming debates are smarmy. In condemning a public figure for objectifying herself and profiting off of her own sexuality, you ignore the larger context in which her actions take place, and you attack a woman personally as a some kind of brainwashed dupe of the patriarchy, as someone who thoughtlessly harms women by complying with destructive sexual norms. Conversely, in accusing someone of slut-shaming a public figure, you dismiss their tone as judgmental and not sex-positive. You characterize them as prudish and a bad or backwards feminist and, as such, you don't deign to engage with the content of what they're saying. All this talk of "slut-shaming" causes us to plow blindly through nuance and to get worked up over distracting trifles. When we tell women that it's ignorant or old-fashioned to feel uncomfortable with over-sexualized depictions of women in the media, we lose sight of the context in which those depictions take place. Because of this, the way we tend to talk about "slut-shaming" can be harmfully reductive.
Saying that feminist discomfort with commoditized sexiness is automatically "shaming" encourages a "you're either with us or against us" logic. It facilitates sweeping value judgments: i..e, Lady Gaga's thong is either good for women or it's bad for women; Miley Cyrus' naked music video is either empowering or objectifying. But there's power in recognizing that a specific performance of sexuality can be at once subversive and pandering: yes, a pop star's decision to wear a thong and twerk and flaunt her sexuality can be a celebration of the female body and of female sexual agency; yes, it can be an inspiring rejection of the misogynistic notion that women should behave chastely and "appropriately" in the public sphere. However, such decisions occur in a very specific context. The entertainment industry has a history of commoditizing female sexuality and objectifying women in order to market the idea of sexual availability. When Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, et. al. make overtly sexual music videos and put on blatantly erotic performances, it's both a reaction against prohibitive, oppressive attitudes about female sexuality and a canny response to the established fact that (young, heterosexual, female) sex sells. We don't have to choose between Team Empowerment and Team Oppression in reacting to that.
A good example of just how reductive talk about "slut-shaming" can be comes in Rashida Jones' recent Glamour essay. She wrote it in response to the furious Internet reaction to a series of poorly-composed Tweets she'd written about how women in pop music are over-sexualizing themselves. ("This week's celeb news takeaway: She who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores" was the first of the series). As HermioneStranger pointed out on GroupThink, "[H]er tweets did not contain criticism of patriarchal institutions; they contained criticism of the women who don't overthrow those institutions. Once again, women are to blame for their own oppression." That's the problem with accusing another feminist of slut-shaming: to do so is to take a culture of systemic sexism and reduce it to two women arguing over the behavior of a third women. The issue isn't whether it's good or bad that such-and-such pop star has gyrated sensually for profit and for attention. The issue lies with a system that turns female sexuality into a product and then markets it to us — not to mention profits immensely from our frenzied "IS WHAT SHE DID FEMINIST OR IS IT GROSS?" debate. I mean, it was our collective outrage that made Miley Cyrus' twerking at the VMAs the top story on CNN, after all.
Tellingly, Jones' essay — which was firmly in the "media representations of unabashed sexiness are total capitulation to patriarchy!" camp — lauded Lily Allen's recent "Hard Out Here" music video as "a controversial send-up of tits-and-ass culture" and criticized Rihanna's "Pour It Up" video. This overlooks the fact that Rihanna exerted a huge amount of creative control over that video: she fired her male director halfway through over creative differences. Dismissing the finished product as part of "tits-and-ass culture" refuses to take into account and fails to perceive that the video is — at least partially — Rihanna representing and taking charge of her own sexuality. Putting Rihanna on par with the sexualized woman-props in the background of the "Blurred Lines" video is an immense over-simplification of what she's doing in the video. Ayesha Siddiqi argues at the Hairpin that, though the "Pour It Up" video featured very sexualized strippers, it's clear that they're "very clearly displaying their athleticism and dance skill for their own sake, not to titillate an audience (and there wasn't one in the world of the video)." As Sarah Nicole Prickett put it in the same Hairpin discussion, "Rihanna is both Stripper and Customer." She's using a traditionally sexist vehicle to celebrate and reclaim ostentatious female sexiness as women-centric — which is a doubly powerful statement considering the ways in which white "sexually empowered" female pop stars tend to exploit nonwhite bodies and cultures as props and/or accessories. It's discrediting to Rihanna to act as though she's a nothing but a sexualized object in a video of her own making, a video that that clearly celebrates her as a woman — especially since "Pour It Up" also serves as a reaction against Miley Cyrus' twerk-filled year of blatant cultural appropriation, which was marked by a deeply offensive tendency to turn her black backup dancers into overly-sexualized, dehumanized spectacles. Again: we need to employ nuance in examining this, which is why simply yelling "slut-shaming!" isn't a sufficient response. Misreading "Pour It Up" as typical patriarchal objectification isn't objectionable because it's shaming; it's objectionable because it fails to consider the bigger picture.
Conversely, as a "send-up of tits-and-ass-culture," Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here" and the accompanying music video epitomize what can go wrong in "slut-shaming" talk. "Hard Out Here" is what happens when you make totalizing statements about OBJECTIFICATION VS. SHAMING and confine your understanding of sexuality in pop culture to that. Like a lot of well intentioned "slut-shaming" outrage, Lily Allen's video erases the experiences of nonwhite women. Throughout the video, she's is fully clothed. She sings, "Don't need to shake my ass, 'cause I have a brain," but her black backup dancers twerk and gyrate — brainless by her own definition. The lack of nuance in the "SEXY IS GOOD" vs. "SEXY IS HARMFUL" debate can lead feminists to overlook issues of race and intersectionality; to disregard the specific, racialized ways that we as a culture sexualize black and brown female bodies; to forget to take into account the way in which mainstream American culture tends to mean "white female sexuality" when it talks about "female sexuality." As Laura K. Warrell pointed out at the Racialicious, "reclaiming sluttiness" is a fraught process for Black women: whereas "the default setting for white female sexuality continues to be purity and sexual propriety," she argues, "animalistic exoticism continues to be both the fantasy and the default of Black female sexuality... when their sexuality is talked about at all." That's something that doesn't get addressed enough when we talk about "sexual empowerment." Not thinking carefully about the meeting place of race and sexuality, it would seem, is a side-effect of having to pick a side in the Sexualization of Women Wars.
In addition, the statement of "don't need to shake my ass, 'cause I have a brain" reveals a major problem with the way we talk about sexualiziation. It establishes marketable sexiness and substance as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive, and it creates a limiting model of what it is to be a "good" feminist. But dismissing that model thoughtlessly does nothing to further feminist debate or understanding. If "don't need to shake my ass, 'cause I have a brain" is wrong, it doesn't necessarily follow that "I can shake my ass and have a brain" is right. The media's vitriolic response to Lady Gaga's, Kelly Clarkson's, Jessica Simpson's, Christina Aguilera's, etc., weight gain shows that conventionally sexy pop stars aren't really permitted to stop being conventionally sexy in our culture. There's real social, economic and corporate pressure to shake one's ass and to conform to some desired, sexy ideal — the decision to do so doesn't float out of the mystical ether of female empowerment, unattached to any social norms or stereotypes.
Being both critical of and thoughtful about the idea that exaggerated and intentional sexual objectification somehow precludes being a relatable, human (i.e., brain-possessing) public figure can be useful. Doing so can help illuminate the deep complexity involved in reclaiming female sexuality in pop culture. Women have long been used as sexy props in music videos, photo shoots and movies. An optimistic feminist could compellingly argue that the old adage "men act and women appear" isn't true of the media landscape any more, but it's far from an established fact. So some some feminists don't think that the reclamation of the barely-clothed female body is working, because it resembles a long-standing sexist tradition of objectification too closely. What benefit is there in refusing to hear that viewpoint? If someone believes that the assumed audience of a piece of sexy media is still heterosexual and male, that's not "shaming": that's articulating a dissenting opinion. Is there any real point in shutting that thought down automatically, even if you think it's wrong? Why do we feel the need to cry "shaming" when it's as easy to say "I see where you're coming from, but I disagree. Here's why..."?
It's unproductive to expend our energy criticizing female pop stars for profiting off of their sexuality: they're just navigating an existing system, and if they don't do it someone else will. And it's equally unproductive to police fellow women for expending that energy. It smacks of censorship to shut down feminists with differing opinions just because they're not as optimistic about the prospect of women working adeptly within a traditionally male-dominated system. Disagreement (even poorly-articulated disagreement) is not necessarily meant to shame. And just why do we need to come up with a coherent conclusion about the State of Sexuality anyway? What do we gain from summing up something so complicated and nuanced up in broad, easily digestible terms?
We can all stand to benefit a lot from recognizing that navigating public representations of sexuality is a complex and often contradictory process. With that complexity in mind we should instead attack, debate and pick apart the systemic, societal, sometimes racialized prejudices against female sexuality and those systems that profit off of them — not the women who are caught up in those systems or the feminists frustrated by them.
Image by Jim Cooke.