So your friend just got out of a long, nearly sexless relationship.
Now, he’s doing what any newly single person would do: hitting up the dating apps, swiping right a ton, going on dates as often as possible — sometimes five or six per week, even. When you talk, he’s going on about all the sex that stems from these dates. Can anyone really manage to enjoy that many sexual partners, you wonder? Wouldn’t you get tired? But your friend appears to be loving every minute of it. “They can’t get enough of me!” he tells you.
This particular person is a guy, but what if it was a woman? Would you condone the same, sex-filled, promiscuous behavior if it were told about a female? For many people, there’s a salient difference. A guy getting laid a ton is a Romeo, a player, a stud, a Don Juan. But if a woman were to play out the same exact scenario, a very different type of word starts creeping in: loose, easy, promiscuous, whore, slut.
That last word is the root of the term “slut-shaming,” a practice that most people engage in to some degree at some point in their lives, sometimes without even realizing it.
1. What Is Slut-Shaming?
“This one guy was not into dating me seriously because I was too promiscuous for his taste (even though he had no problem sleeping with me), and because I also slept with women.” – Maria, 29
Slut shaming is “when someone is shamed for being sexually provocative or promiscuous, or being perceived as not having control over their sexual behaviors,” says Dr. Janet Brito, a sex therapist based in Hawaii.
However, not all people are slut-shamed equally. “Specifically,” Brito notes, it’s most often applied to “women who sexually behave outside of societal norms.”
This can take on many forms, including “blaming someone for being sexually assaulted, shaming someone’s kink interest, negatively judging someone’s wardrobe as being sexually inappropriate or used to garner the sexual attention of men,” says Brito. It can even go as far as what someone the outfit someone has on, or how they present themselves with their clothing.
“When we tell women and girls what’s appropriate or inappropriate for them to wear, we’re communicating to them that their value diminishes based on how sexy someone views them as being,” says Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “That is slut-shaming.”
But the issue doesn’t begin and end in the changing room. Because of the way sexual desire is framed differently depending on someone’s gender, men are often expected to be sexual, whereas women’s sex lives are explicit and implicitly policed. The tacit understanding, for many people, is that a woman’s value as a person (or as a partner) is diminished by the amount of sex she has.
“One of the most common ways this happens is by people asking about the number of sexual partners their new partner has been with,” says Caraballo. “Most of the time when it’s asked, it’s designed to make some assessment on how worthy or ‘used up’ someone is. What’s more important to inquire about is the kind of sexual contact people have had before, and their experiences using protection or testing for STIs, and/or any related medical conditions that you might want to know about to manage your own risk more effectively.”
Women are simply subjected to much more stringent standards when it comes to their sexual history — not because they’re more likely to carry of transmit STIs, but because their decisions to have sex are considered suspect on some level.
That leads to all kinds of backwards thinking, with women who experience any kind of negative consequence for sex are often thought to have “deserved it” — an infection, an unexpected pregnancy, a less-than-consensual encounter — simply because they were having sex in the first place.
2. How Does Slut-Shaming Negatively Impact People?
“I’ve been made to feel weird about my sexual preferences by previous partners. Because we’re taught early on to think of sex as something dirty, I feel anything that deviates from the standard vanilla sex narrative that we’re most often fed is looked at as even dirtier.” – Elsa, 27
While some sex-negative attitudes — like, say, kink-shaming — arguably impact both men and women in similar ways, slut-shaming is a very gendered practice. But while the primary impact is felt by women who are typically punished for being sexual beings rather than celebrated for it, men still experience negative effects, albeit slightly different ones.
“Slut-shaming is abusive behavior and no one wins, to be honest,” says Caraballo. “People who engage in it do so to boost their egos but this feeling is fleeting and can’t really help them contend with their own sexual internalized shame, thus inhibiting their ability to really embrace their own sexuality.”
When you’re belittling someone else for their sexual choices, you might feel better in the moment, but in the long run, you stay trapped in a regressive mindset that doesn’t reflect sex in any kind of healthy way. And of course, the receiver is left unable to embrace their sexuality to the fullest.
“Some negative consequences of slut-shaming for women are increased shame, feeling bad about their sexuality, self-doubt, and feeling unworthy,” notes Brito. Thus, women are often put in a conundrum where there’s no right answer. If you hew to what society dictates, you’ll be forever frustrated — and if you seem not sexual enough you might be mocked for being ‘frigid’ — but if you follow your desires, you’re likely to be castigated or mocked for them.
There’s a reason, for instance, that the concept of the “stripper name” exists. Women who engage in sex work need to maintain some degree of anonymity, hiding their true identities to avoid facing any negative consequences from their choices. Former porn actresses have been fired from jobs as simply on the grounds that having sex on camera makes you unfit to be in a professional setting for the rest of your life.
“Slut-shaming also perpetuates so many myths about sex/sexuality, and spreads misinformation more broadly, which keeps us in the sexual dark ages in mainstream culture,” says Caraballo.
Considering the broad range of negative impacts, it’s a good idea to start trying to confront instances of slut-shaming in your own life.
3. How Can You Unlearn Slut-Shaming Beliefs?
“When I was a teenager, I was very much anti-choice when it came to abortion, even though I was more generally leftist and no longer very religious. But a conversation with my older cousin made me realize that my position was basically that I believed women deserved to be punished, essentially, for having sex outside of a certain context. When I had to actually think it through a little bit, I changed my position completely.” – Ian, 30
While men aren’t the only ones with slut-shaming beliefs — women often police other women’s sexualities as well — they are a special case. Meaning, men are often guilty of judging without being judged themselves, critiquing women’s decisions without ever feeling their own decisions put under a similar microscope.
They can trust that they won’t be removed from consideration for having had too many past partners (or possibly not even asked in the first place), or that people won’t joke about their genitals being used up and worn out by too much penetrative intercourse. Considering the relative place of privilege that men occupy when it comes to slut-shaming, it behooves them to start extending some of that non-judgmental attitude they’re on the receiving end of to people who aren’t — namely, women.
For Brito, that starts with unlearning the idea that sex is dirty, period. “Stop internalizing the shame surrounding sex,” she says. “Affirm yourself as a sexual being — so that you can also affirm others as well.”
If you can see sex for what it is — two people engaging in a mutually pleasurable leisure activity — then you won’t be as likely to lose respect for someone for engaging in more of it than you do.
Furthermore, it’s important to try to root out anti-women attitudes that might be playing a role in how you see female sexuality. You can do this by no longer “subscribing to negative notions about women that degrade them to objects and less than human,” says Brito. Instead, look to “form and nurture relationships with women that are respectful and demonstrate value toward them as people and not sexual objects.”
Reading this piece? That’s a starting point, too.
“I think that guys can continue to educate themselves by reading sex-positive materials and articles like this one,” says Caraballo. “I would also recommend that men take time to listen to the women and femmes around them about sex and relationships.”
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