When Oppression looks like every-day Slut Shaming
By Maggie Forsythe
We started out this year talking about privilege, but this conversation isn’t complete without looking at those who do not have it. We highlighted the way privilege entitles people to actions that often harm others and how these behaviours are most often expressions of dominance and control. This month, we examine oppression, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority,” that is, using privilege or power and subjecting others to unjust treatment or control.
As young girls mature and develop bodies that are deemed sexually attractive by society, there is an increase of attention focused on body parts rather than the person as a whole. Girls are taught that their bodies are shameful and that they are responsible for boys’ sex drives. Popularity is often awarded to those girls with the “right” type of body, and acceptance is given to those willing to play along as their butts are slapped, bra straps pinged and breasts rubbed up against. To stand up against these “low-level” boundary crossings would be to rock the boat and risk being labeled “bitch,” “prude” or “unable to take a joke.” So, instead, women do what they need to do to maintain their social privilege—which sometimes means relaxing into a culture that treats their bodies like play things.
If and when women step outside of what is deemed sexually attractive to men, they become dirty and irresponsible. Having multiple partners, posting nude photos or wearing clothes in which they feel empowered all become fuel for slut-shaming. Women are trained by society and pop culture to align themselves with sexual availability—and yet to actually be sexually available is viewed as demeaning. The public sees Sharon Osbourne calling Kim Kardashian a “Ho” in an interview with The Telegraph for posting her own nude selfie, people calling out to Bella Thorne on Twitter saying things like, “You hate not having a dick on you,” and the internet blowing up when Megyn Kelly reported from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in a dress that had “spaghetti straps” saying, “it’s hard to take her seriously because she looks like she’s working for an escort agency.” We also see Ariel Winter’s mom saying, “I just want to see [Winter] have respect for herself and have some class” in response to her daughter’s posts on Instagram—a comment that implies that Winter’s clothes or photographs have a direct correlation to her abilities or value in society.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “slut shaming” is anything that stigmatizes a woman for engaging in “promiscuous or sexually provocative” behaviour—real or invented—largely because of perceived violations of purity and/or morality. Someone, other than the woman herself, determines what constitutes appropriate behaviour—but who makes these rules that determine this woman’s worth in society? Who enforces them? This governing of people’s worth happens in an even more overt manner as we police those who fall outside heterosexual norms and when we criticise people’s bodies for not matching up to idealized forms of beauty. We purposefully dismantle others’ value in society in order to feel more secure in our own (Armstrong, Hamilton, Armstrong, & Seeley, 2014).
The policing of women’s sexuality is also closely tied to victim blaming in sexual assault cases. The most prevalent experience survivors have is the heartbreak that comes with being held responsible for their own abuse, often by friends and loved ones—an experience often referred to as secondary wounding. As the campus sexual assault support advocate (CSASA), I regularly hear stories of parents who focus on their child’s choices to drink or to bring someone back to their apartment, of friends who laugh violence off as a misunderstanding and of peers who make cruel remarks about the survivor’s past sexual encounters. All of these things are meant to diminish the truth and dismiss the survivor’s pain. In essence, this happens because once we belittle women through shaming their personal choices or sexuality, they become people who might (understandably) be pursued, touched and violated without their consent. The messages survivors often receive—from friends, family, and the institutions that are supposed to support them—is that they have somehow brought this pain onto themselves.
In a society that constantly sends confusing and contradictory messages about women’s sexuality, we provide a shaky foundation for women to feel empowered—to make decisions about their own bodies, to say “no” to unwanted advances or even identify situations as sexual assault. As a community, we need to empower women to safely explore their own desires and to know they are important and not deserving of violence.