Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is “slut-shaming” immoral?


This afternoon, I walked away from a (now deleted) Facebook thread that came to the bizarre conclusion that it is okay to be a white supremacist or wear a Nazi swastikas, but that it is immoral to "slut-shame." I don't think the first part of that statement necessitates comment, but the question of slut-shaming is actually fairly interesting. Is this something people shouldn't do?

For the record, the term "slut-shaming" seems to refer to two different things. First, as it sounds, it is making a woman feel bad for being promiscuous. You slut-shame someone when you regard her as a bad person because she engage in sexual acts with a lot of different people (or in extreme versions, any sexual activity at all). Second, slut-shaming is also about people who look like they might be promiscuous. One slut-shames when one condemns Katy Perry, for example, for showing a lot of cleavage. (This complaint is what the thread was about.) The argument against doing this seems to be twofold. Just because someone dresses provocatively, doesn't mean they are promiscuous, and even if they are having lots of sex with multiple partners, there's nothing wrong with doing so.

Now Dave Chappelle's comments come to mind here (NSFW), but let's ignore them. Instead, let's deal with this systematically. First, it is worth noting that there is no male equivalent to “slut” or "slut-shaming." This is why many people on the thread considered the practice sexist. Second, what we call dressing provocatively, assumes that women's bodies are to be seen primarily as sexual invitations. So, complaining about cleavage assumes that a woman's sexuality is on display when parts of her breasts are. But if it's hot out, or if it's just more comfortable, why shouldn't a woman be able to wear a tank top (for example) without people thinking she is telegraphing sexual information?

These are, it seems to me, reasonable positions, but they can take clothing out of context. Most people consciously choose their outfits, and most people understand when they are walking into more conservative situations. So, it isn’t the tank-top per se that suggests promiscuity, but the wearing of the tank top in specific circumstances. (Wearing revealing clothing in a coffee shop may be fine; wearing it at a Christening may not be.) One piece of clothing can mean many different things. So, one shouldn’t assume that any article of clothing is necessary sexual, only that a piece of clothing becomes sexual in the right situation. Sometimes people don’t do this on purpose – we all make mistakes – but more often than not, we can compare clothing and context and make reasonable judgments about people and their values.

Next, as most of us grow to learn, clothing does not necessarily signify behavior. So, many conservatively dressed people are promiscuous and many suggestively dressed people are not. Clothing helps us play roles and control our public image. So, we cannot correlate outfits and behavior. The message of the second kind of slut-shaming is therefore simple: don’t assume that a person’s clothing tells you anything about their sexual lives. Tattoos used to be like this. You used to be able to know something about people’s lifestyle and values by what tattoos they had and where they were located. Not anymore. I suspect there are nuns with tattoos, these days.

It is however, the first form of slut-shaming that is the most complicated. Why? Because numerous religious and moral traditions make morally-binding claims about sexual activity. Some prohibit sex for pleasure, some prohibit sex without marriage, some prohibit certain types of sex. In traditions for which shaming is an accepted form of social control, slut-shaming is an essential part of moral life.

So, in reality, the fight against slut-shaming is really a fight against some traditional moralities in two ways. Sometimes it suggests that shaming is not a useful moral tool – yes, certain sexual activity is immoral, but making people feel bad about it is the wrong way of correcting their behavior. More often than not however, what people object to about slut-shaming is that it suggests that there is such a thing as too much sex. Since, as many people would suggest, the prohibitions against sex for pleasure, or pre-marital sex are archaic and illegitimate, it follows that sex in itself is never to be condemned. Have as much of it as you want, they claim, with as many people as you want, and as long as they are consenting adults who are making informed decisions,…full speed ahead.

I will admit, I am sympathetic to this position, but there is a problem with it. There can be such a thing as too much sex. It isn’t a universal number, but it exists. Sex is bad when it is self-destructive, or when it is neurotic, or when it is in service to harmful goals. And because this is the case, too much sex for one person may be three partners while too much sex for another may be twenty. If someone is having sex only because they are looking for affirmation instead of pleasure, or power instead of physical intimacy, or if they are compulsive or addicted, then the sex is too much. There is also a difference between someone who has a new partner each month and a new partner every single night. The latter is a red flag, if nothing else, and the person engaged in this behavior ought to reflect on their patterns even if, in the end, they and the people they trust for guidance decide they are behaving healthily/

In my mind, having sex because one enjoys it is fine, but one has to know his or her own motivations. Thus, if we are to determine whether slut-shaming is immoral, we have to look, not at whether or not someone is having lots of sex but why they are having lots of sex. In this case, slut-shaming ceases to be about one’s physical actions, but their mental state, and while we cannot determine this from someone’s outfit, we can often glean it from their attitudes and behavior. Slut-shaming, whether right or wrong, is infinitely more layered than most people allow.

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4 comments:

  1. I think it would be helpful to talk about what shaming means in this context. The situations you mention in the end of the post has to do with a person's mental state, and I doubt any form of shaming could be productive in that case. That would be like shaming someone out of depression or drug addiction. Probably immoral, definitely counter-productive.

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    1. Studies show shaming is ineffective and only does worse. For everything from shaming about weight, alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, etc. Look it up.

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    2. Sorry I misread your comment but yes it is counter-productive.

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  2. "...as long as they are consenting adults who are making informed decisions". E

    Excellent point. The latter part is usually missed out. If both partners are both on the same page, and know it's just sex, then the consent is informed.

    If one partner is deceiving the other that it's more than just sex when to them it's not, and the other partner believes it is more, the consent is not informed; and although it is between consenting adults, this liason is abusive.

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