What’s up with slut shaming?

The used panty marketplace

Easy, slut, whore.

You’ve heard it all before. If you’ve been lucky enough to escape these insults being flung at you, then you at least know someone who’s been on the receiving end of them. That onslaught of negativity that’s wielded like a whip, shaming women and girls for the crime of having a sex drive. Slut shaming – hating women for having power over their own bodies – ripples throughout our streets and the internet day after day.

It’s nothing new. For as long as we’ve tried to control women’s sexuality, slut shaming was a part of society. In Ancient Rome, women were divided into two categories: acceptable and unacceptable. Forced to wear different outfits to distinguish them from each other, their rights were curtailed if they fell into the “unacceptable” category, like sex workers and waitresses did. Because of their professions, these women couldn’t press charges for rape. The understanding then was that unrespectable women were always asking for it. 

Not much has changed today, and women while women don’t have to wear a certain toga to announce their shame, we still classify “unrespectable women” as people who were asking for it. It’s no surprise, considering how much our contemporary society is influenced by ancient culture. Slut shaming is etched into our eyes, tinting the way we look at the world. From our earliest days on the playground, we’re taught to make others – and ourselves – feel awful for stepping outside of the lines.

And most of the time, that slut shaming still only applies to women. We all know the classic double standard, so often repeated it would be a cliche if it weren’t so true: a man with many lovers in his little black book is a stud, while a woman who sleeps with half as many people is pinned with a scarlet letter, harassed, and dragged through the dirt.

It’s not just that slut shaming hurts feelings, although that should be reason enough to avoid it. Shaming people for their sexual history (real or assumed) can inflict lasting, sometimes deadly damage on the people targeted – and the trouble starts with the weight of shame itself.

Shame is a social emotion

Undoing the shame we’ve been taught to feel starts by understanding the nature of it. What sets shame apart from most other emotions is that it’s not rooted in how we feel. Instead, it’s entirely dependent on what other people feel about us. Shame can’t exist in a vacuum. It only impacts us when the idea of what other people are saying circles around our head like small vultures, feasting on the wreckage of our self worth. Usually, we feel this shame because people tell us very directly what they think about our profession, our sexual history, or the outfit we’re wearing – and any insult that spreads is a threat to our social standing.

Many people, especially young adults, are petrified of their social clout changing under the pressure of rumors about our sexual histories. Gossip turns simple things we’ve done – a glance, an outfit, a kiss – into a shard of shame that cuts us to the quick. 

Sexuality is something we’re all taught to feel rotten about, so it’s no surprise that folks use slut shaming as a tactic to hurt others. Sometimes, it’s motivated by insecurity; we shame others to feel better about ourselves. Especially when someone acts in a way you never would, that challenges the way you’ve shaped your world. It threatens the rules and limits others have built for themselves. And to feel less small, people lash out.

One 2014 study actually found that slut shaming among women had less to do with sexuality and more to do with social class and standing. Calling one another sluts helped young women on both sides of the income spectrum feel more secure about who they were. For the young women on the bottom, “slut” referred more to a rich girl’s cruelty than her sexual history. 

Out of fear for our own social standing, we’ve learned to lash out like a cobra and bite the people around us who seem weak, exposed, or threaten our perception of ourselves. And this pattern of hurting each other to protect ourselves does more than just make us feel unwelcome at certain parties.

The lasting effects of slut shaming

More than just a rude thing to do, slut shaming has dangerous consequences to our wellbeing and health. Unsurprisingly, the research on slut shaming is minimal – I don’t have hard data on why, but I’ll take a wild guess and say the fact that most gatekeepers in the world of research still tend to be men. Still, people concerned about the way slut shaming ruins lives have done the best they can by looking at anecdotes and the way that shame in general erodes our personal happiness. 

When we’re ashamed, isolation swells. We don’t think we can trust everyone around us, even our closest friends, and it’s hard to be vulnerable with others. As ashamed as we are of the things said about us, we suddenly don’t advocate for our own pleasure, or even our own boundaries. As Tracy Clark-Flory puts it, this shame around sexuality has some women too embarrassed to get STD tests or pap smears – essential, sometimes life-saving tests.

When shame, humiliation, and isolation feed on each other, and we keep teaching others that slut shaming is okay – and even commendable – we are enforcing the idea that our autonomy is worthless.And that overwhelming realization is what has driven many girls and young womn to commit suicide in the wake of slut shaming. Often, the girls who have killed themselves are ones who were shamed for someone raping them. In those cases, the rapist is almost never shamed, but pictures of the rape taking place are circulated across high schools and colleges, and the victim is shunned.

According to their logic, if the woman was a “slut” to begin with, then how could assault be anyone’s fault but her own? The echoes of Ancient Rome still ripple out today. This phenomenon is so common, it has its own term: “victim blaming.” You hear people who have been assaulted justifying their purity as a knee-jerk reaction, listing their outfit or sobriety as if those things are the only ways to shift the blame off their shoulders. 

And it’s not just that slut shaming makes women and girls feel bad about their choices – it can even impact the outcome of pressing charges. In case after case, the rapists end up being the ones that are pitied, not the women. Judges sometimes are lenient with young men who come from "good families” or seem nice. With so much push back against women who just want to share the truth, it’s no wonder that 63% of rapes aren't reported to the police. Things like this happen every day –  not just in cases that gain internet traction or have high-profile defendants. And the real culprit is slut shaming.

Slut shaming even impacts our safety. Just this year, a disturbing and racist website has popped up that doxxes women in interracial relationships, sharing their online presences, contact information, and personal pictures. Women dating black and brown men are called “traitors,” then slut-shamed and harassed for who they’ve fallen in love with. In these frightening instances, slut shaming has gone past making us cry at home and gone into the realm of threatening our right to live our lives in peace.

It all boils down to one thing: power

The thing about slut shaming is that it actually has nothing to do with someone’s actions. People slut shame folks who have never gotten sexual in their lives. I’m pretty sure the first time I was slut shamed I hadn’t even had my first kiss. 

If it has nothing to do with our histories, then what’s the point? At its heart, there’s just one motivation for slut shaming: control. Power. It doesn’t matter if the person getting shamed has never locked lips with someone else or has had over a hundred partners. When a woman steps out of line in a way that a man (or someone else) feels is beyond their ability to control, then anger bubbles up.

Women have always been taught to stay in line. To follow rules. When slut shaming rears its head, it’s usually to punish women who have done anything that strays from the rules about what “good girls” do. With sexual revolution after sexual revolution happening over the years, we’re all feeling less and less like putting up with men controlling every aspect of a woman’s body. Women and queer folks are remembering our own bodily autonomy – and the people who thrive with things just the way they’ve always been can’t stand it.

Leora Tanenbaum, author of the book I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, knows quite a bit about this phenomenon of hate and power, and she puts it best when she says that a “‘slut’ is repeatedly described as someone guilty of the crime of agency.” 

That’s the big kicker. “Girls and women,” she continues, “are supposed to be sexy in an understated, effortless way – not slutty in an assertive, obvious way.” When women and high school girls choose to feel proud of themselves, who they are, and their bodies, they’re punished. Without ever being stated outright, an ultimatum is issued to girls around the world: get back in line, or prepare for punishment. When they’re “out of control” or “acting out,” these independent women are seen as someone who needs to be shoved back into the mould they escaped from. 

But isn’t it time we were all guilty of the crime of agency and choice?

So...let’s fight the power!

We could talk about the reasons why slut shaming exists, and the way it impacts our lives until we keel over. But listing out everything that’s piled onto girls, women, and the LGBTQ community only gets us so far. If we’re going to free ourselves from the call to slut shame others that’s been imprinted into us all from a very young age, we need to take action. Sitting and noticing the passing breeze of violence and shame only help slut shaming continue to be normalized. Just take a look at any other tragedy or international disaster – we adjust. In a matter of weeks, whatever had seemed unthinkable before is just the “new normal.” 

That’s what’s been happening with slut shaming for millennia. It’s a damaging way to look at the world, and we’re all so used to it, we’re just now looking around at all the ways it’s ripped communities apart. We’ve normalized hating people for their freedom for a few thousand years too long to just point it out when we see it and think we’re done.

We need to take action. When you hear someone slut shaming someone else, say something. Conversations where we encourage each other to think differently can be positive and friendly – you don’t need to go into a full brawl to get your point across. 

If you hear someone say something judgmental like, “I can’t believe she’s wearing that,” do more than ignore it. Respond by saying something along the lines of, “I think she can wear whatever she feels like wearing.” Then move on. That’s it. Your friend or acquaintance will feel a little guilty or embarrassed, but that’s fine. They’ll recover. 

Bit by bit, we can show one another the way we should be interacting. But more than correcting our friends, there’s a lot more we can do to fight slut shaming. We all need to make a stand. And it starts with looking inward at our relationship to ourselves.

Be true to yourself – and be proud of your choices.

If you’re queer or a woman, you’ve been told to second guess yourself since you left the womb. Most likely, you’ve gotten straight up slut shamed just for your audacity to exist in public. It’s understandable if you’ve buckled from the weight of slut shaming over the years, and internalized the things people have said about you. Words hurt. They leave marks on us that last forever if left unchecked.

But if there ever was a time to stand up and brush that weight off your shoulders, it’s now. Remember that slut shaming has nothing to do with you – it has everything to do with people who waste their time judging others for living life. Their negativity is in no way a reflection of your true worth and value.

Start being proud of yourself. Remember reasons you’re loveable and unique. Celebrate everything that makes you, you. Include your sex life in that list. Any time shame starts to creep in, remember that it exists only because of the power we give to what others may think of us. If we’re living our best lives, then who cares what people have to say? You’ll always have the old friend from high school who thinks you’re attention-seeking and extra, or the grandparent who thinks you’re going to hell. 

You have a choice: you can succumb to their anger and let them win, or you can love yourself just the way you are. Live your best life and let the cards fall where they will. It helps to acknowledge that everyone’s best life looks different – personally, mine includes orgies. Yours might include monogamy, one night stands, or celibacy. As long as each encounter is a positive one you consented to, you should only feel happiness for the journey you’re on. Sexuality is a spectrum that runs in every direction, and no two ways to feel sexual are the same. Instead of thinking there has to just be one way to live life, acknowledge the myriad ways we get intimate and love ourselves, and be honest with yourself about whatever that looks like. It’s okay. Sex is strange and evolving.

For what it’s worth, those of us that have been shamed for our sexuality have one thing in our corners: we tend to have stronger and deeper friendships. Maybe it’s because we’ve been through it all. But if you find people you used to love are slut shaming you, it’s time to let them go. More meaningful connections are coming your way, anyway – and it starts with you.

Be kind to others

In the journey to love ourselves, breaking free from judging other people is a powerful way to help us end those shaming habits for good. We’ve all been guilty of slut-shaming someone before. Even if it’s been a decade since we did it last, at some point we’ve all caved into the knee-jerk reaction of judging someone for their sex lives, clothes, or the rumors sprinting around school. I know I did, even though now I’m a sex writer who openly talks about threesomes and my orgasms, plastering it on the web for my exes and my mother-in-law to see. 

People evolve. And even if you’re still wrapped up in the habit of slut shaming others, you can start breaking out of it today. The next time you notice yourself judging someone for their sexual history, how they’re dressed, or the way they’re flirting or dancing or talking with another person, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing that. What’s the point in reacting the way you are?

Usually, you’re making a judgment call you have no right to be making. So stop yourself, let go of your judgment, and move on. 

Here’s the really hard, but most important part: if you said something judgmental already, be the bigger person and take it back. Have those hard conversations, so you can hold your head high and be proud of yourself for doing the right thing.

Make sure you’re not concern-trolling
If you’ve never been concern trolled, you’re one lucky devil. Concern trolling is a loophole that people escape through to justify their slut shaming. You’ve seen it before: someone goes out of their way to act concerned about another person’s welfare, when they’re really just judging the other person’s life. 

Think of it as a shaming with a worried brow and a halo slapped on top of it. If you’ve ever been at the receiving end of this, you know how exhausting it is. It’s not helpful, and instead is just humiliating. Concern trolling reduces you to somehow less than the person who’s giving you a lecture, and makes you feel like a child.

If you find yourself starting to talk about someone else’s life choices (either to them or someone else), ask yourself why. Even if your first thought is concern for them, stop and double-check that. Is their safety actually at risk, or are you just comparing their life to what you’d do? Often, concern trolling is a roundabout way to just keep spreading gossip. Although spilling the tea can be mighty tempting, it’s not productive, and ruins people’s happiness.

Your friend’s new BDSM hobby or panty selling side hustle says nothing about the content of her character, and your judgment is, if anything, a poor reflection of your own. There are times when it does make sense to talk your worries out with a friend. If they’ve been having unprotected sex, for example, then you should have a talk with them – but leave the judgment at the door. Try listening instead.

It’s on all of us to end slut shaming

People are complicated. We’ve all been slut shamed, and we’ve all slut shamed someone else. That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel on change. Instead, we can find it in ourselves to turn ourselves away from slut shaming day by day. Speaking up, saying something, and learning to love ourselves are the beginning.  

Living in a world ruled by slut shaming has been exhausting for all of us, but together – one step at a time – we can create a community we’re all proud to be in. And it starts with our pride in ourselves.