Slut-Shaming and Prude-Shaming: Why Can't Women Talk About Their Choices Without Fear?
I started sex blogging before there were blogs. It was the early days of the Web, and I was posting about my encounters on bulletin boards and static sites. As a result of starting on platforms that either came with a like-minded audience or were islands in a vast darkness, I enjoyed a great freedom of expression. There was no battle, just story.
Had I stopped to think about it, I might have been led to believe that society was moving toward a more open mentality in regard to sexuality. This would have have been a misconception, naturally, as I was writing anonymously, gender-ambiguously, and with the awareness that my use of language made it impossible to guess that I was actually only fifteen at the time.
Online, I existed in a vacuum. In meat space, there was no such thing. The name of the battle was written on the wall –- literally and figuratively. Specifically, it was written on a bathroom stall in the girls' bathroom at school and the men's bathroom at the local movie theater: that I –- full name –- was a slut, a bitch, the antichrist, etc.
Even so, sex was not a political thing with me. The words “patriarchy” and “sex-positive” were intellectualisms with which I would have never colored what I was doing. Even a decade later, when I started to write professionally about my encounters, I remember telling people, “I don't want to be like those bloggers who are so concerned with making a political statement with sex that I doubt they still know what it's like to cum.”
While I had had my share of emotional vandalism for having the audacity to pursue my pleasures, enduring indignities of varying degrees both in meatspace and, later, in cyberspace itself, it took me a very long time to understand that it was the very freedom that enabled me to enjoy these pleasures that was at stake.
The reason for this was a combination of self-absorption, privilege and having grown up in so many different cultures that being perceived as different or even subversive was part of the norm for me. Nothing is really a battle for freedom until something is denied to you as a consequence of your behavior. By virtue of academic merit, I was never denied any opportunities. I was never silenced. I was never threatened with violence or constant harassment.
It wasn't until I moved to the continental United States that I began to understand how real and paralyzing harassment can be. The sexual revolution may have come and gone, but freedom has not yet been won.
And nowhere is this more clear than on the campus of one of the most forward-thinking institutions in the country: Harvard.
A TALE OF TWO WOMEN
Once upon a time, a Harvard freshman by the name of Lena Chen started a blog to chronicle her sexcapades. Her blog, Sex and the Ivy, became popular, and the popularity brought with it the eyes of less understanding readers. A sporadic target of ridicule on IvyGate and other college news and gossip blogs, Chen eventually had a nervous breakdown after an ex-boyfriend posted graphic images of her online, prompting a slut-shaming field day. She was an attention-whore, a slut, a tramp, an example of everything that was wrong with today's feminism, etc.
But slut-shaming isn't entirely about sex. In fact, slut-shaming isn't the right word because more than sex, it's about control. Slut-shaming is only half of the equation. To complete the tactics for control, you also need prude-shaming.
Meet Janie Fredell. At around the same time Chen was blogging about her hook-ups, another movement was gaining momentum on campus at Harvard: the abstinence movement. In 2007, Fredell wrote an essay on the Harvard Crimson about the allure of abstinence. She was a prude, a patriarchy-pleasing, gender-stereotyping, heteronormative anti-feminist.
The debate on having or not having sex reached a fever pitch on campus toward the end of the decade. However, when Harvard students gathered to hear these two women debate their views –- no doubt looking for blood –- they were were disappointed. They didn't realize the two women would find so much common ground over the harassment they'd both met for voicing their positions on sex.
That's what this is about. Not whether you're having sex or not having sex. It's about having a right to choose one or the other and not be exposed to ridicule or attack because of it.
SHAME ON, SISTER
Jessica Grose is the managing editor of DoubleX, a sex-politics blog on Slate. An incisive commentator on everything from pop culture to politics, Grose did freedom something of a disservice with a piece last week dealing with the apparent move by many prominent sex bloggers to button up and get more serious.
The piece was essentially in response to a recent conference organized by Lena Chen entitled “Rethinking Virginity.” Grose writes:
Two years ago, the New York Times Magazine called her Harvard's best representative of the hook-up culture. Given that she once termed herself a "bleeding-heart nympho," it might seem surprising that she organized and hosted a conference last Monday at Harvard called Rethinking Virginity, which aimed to explore, among other things, "what the future of abstinence should look like."
Grose was in attendance at this conference, the focus of which she only mentions dismissively on her way to another point, as “a utopian space in which no one is judged for any kind of sexual behavior —- whether it be Jesse James' mistress Michelle "Bombshell" McGee or someone who chooses to be abstinent.”
That other point Grose was making? That the panelists in the “The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming and Sexual Scare Tactics” session shamed her when she asked their views on non-monogamous unprotected sex.
That's funny. Especially when you take into account that the rest of the article seems to be nothing more than an exercise in shaming Chen for a variety of things, among them having the nerve to have a monogamous relationship and write a serious piece about the exclusion of non-heterosexuals from the abstinence movements on campuses around the nation.
Lena Chen's conference, first of all, is a response to “Rethinking Sex,” a conference put together by the Love & Fidelity Network, which while it “champions individual decision when it comes to 'staying pure,' it condemns choice when it goes against their ideal” of heterosexuality.
As a way to open the conversation to all, Chen brainstormed "Rethinking Virginity,” seeking to discuss the religious, economic, medical, and legal origins of virginity; who benefits from the construct of chastity; what “healthy sexuality” means; the diversity of cultural sexual norms; virginity and LGBT identity; and whether there can ever be such a thing as sex-positive abstinence education. The conference site reads:
In the years since the sexual revolution, overt displays of sexuality have become a part of the pop cultural mainstream, conservatives have lamented the “hook-up” culture and casual sex, and feminists have critiqued the so-called revolution for merely reinforcing sexual desires, expectations, and practices that cater to male interests and generate capital. Branded “sluts” if they do, and “prudes” if they don’t, girls today are caught in a Catch-22 in which deviation from a narrowly defined norm could ruin their sexual reputation. What does sexual liberation look like in contemporary America, what has changed, and what hasn’t?
Whether the conference met its rather lofty goals of answering all the questions it presented is one thing, but one can't fault Chen for making what is decidedly a valiant effort in opening the floor for conversation.
WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
Let me be clear about something: I don't consider myself a feminist because I have no idea what feminism really is anymore –- assuming I ever did to begin with. I drowned somewhere between the first and the third wave and, frankly, as much as I love engaging in gratuitous intellectual wankery, my main concern is with people enjoying the freedom to choose to do what makes them happy –- within reason, of course.
So allow me to take a stance as a human being, flawed as that makes me: There is a battle here, but it's not a battle about having sex or not having it. It's about being free to choose when we have it and who with, whether that's before or after marriage, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, transgender, straight, other, or Prefer Not To Say. We will not get further shaming and nitpicking one another on our personal journeys.
People change. What may have fulfilled us in high school or college may not be what fulfills us now. Should we not have the right to enjoy our choice because we no longer want to hook up with someone different every night? Should we be condemned to a lifetime of unhappiness because we believe in the sanctity of marriage but chose the wrong partner for it?
If we are fighting for freedom by denying others any freedom, then we're not really fighting for freedom. The collateral damage should not be the very thing we're fighting for.
So, here I am, over a dozen years since I first sat at a keyboard to write about my experience, letting the sobering conclusion sink in that I've been taking a political stance without meaning to do so for much of this time.
I am happy to report that I can still remember how to cum. The choice to enjoy sex is mine. You may not agree with it, but I will fight to the death your right to make that choice –- and voice it.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.