Slut Shaming, Sex Shaming, and Social Norms

Slut shaming” has become a topic of perennial interest in the feminist blogosphere, but recently it has become an object of attention in the libertarian blogosphere as well. Predictably, sexual issues — like family and reproductive issues — are divisive to libertarians.

On one side of the spectrum, we have loud libertines, who find any sort of negative attitude towards sex (adopted as social norms, at least) unpalatable and not in keeping with the kind of life in which individuals’ differences, preferences, and pursuits of their own personal welfare are taken really seriously. It has even been (controversially) proposed that slut shaming constitutes unjustifiable coercion, seeing as how sluts have not consented to the norms that shamers would attempt to enforce.

On the other side of the ostensibly libertarian spectrum, we find those who argue that one’s beliefs regarding the legitimacy and scope of the state are a proper component of libertarianism but that one’s attitudes towards sex are not. They would keep the libertarian tent large in this respect, admitting minimal state proponents espousing diverse attitudes about sex — from the ultra-Christian to the polyamorous. Because social norms are not paradigmatically, physical-force coercive, we need not discuss them as libertarians.

I speak here not so much qua libertarian, but qua moral philosopher and thoughtful person who tries not to behave badly. Though my libertarianism both informs and grows out of my commitment to freedom and autonomy more generally in life, I still haven’t heard much about slut shaming with which I can fully agree, even now having heard from various libertarians on this issue. Here goes.

On the one hand, I do think that some particular instances of alleged slut shaming are mean, misguided, hurtful, hateful, and hypocritical. On the other hand, I don’t think that substantive questions re: sexual promiscuity (and how such behavior affects individual well-being and the health of societies) should be considered somehow off-limits for discussion. And I definitely am not willing to claim that the informal enforcement of social norms is unequivocally bad in general. No, no, no. We do, and should want to, live in social groups where the informal enforcement of norms (as through shaming) is the primary mode of moral discipline — even if the content of the enforced norms is occasionally off.

There are a few questions commonly answered on OkCupid, a popular online dating service, that keep coming to mind. One is to the effect of: “Is it possible to have had too many sexual partners?” Also, there’s both: “Is a guy who’s slept with 100 women a bad person?” and “Is a girl who’s slept with 100 guys a bad person?”

Now, to take the second question first, it’s more than a little extreme to assume that anyone who’s had sex with 100 people is necessarily a bad person, and for that reason. There’s alot to a person other than his/her sex life, a lot of space in which to render oneself a “good” or “bad” human in general. So I worry when people answer “yes” to this. It’s even worse if the answer is: no, slutty men are not bad people, but slutty women are. Thank you, OkCupid, for exposing holders of this double standard before I waste my time with them.

The other question is a little more complicated. Though I consider myself something of a libertine, I do think that you can have had too many sexual partners. I don’t know where precisely the number falls, and it probably depends on the person — the answer has got to be more like in the tens or dozens of partners and not, like, literally a few. I take a really high number as prima facie evidence that someone may have impulse control issues and/or self-esteem issues, and/or might not be so careful health-wise. But I understand why people say “no,” that you can’t have had too many partners — they’re apparently rejecting the idea that sex is dirty, and you should keep your sex drive kind of under wraps, and hopefully only exercise it in the context of a highly committed relationship, blah blah blah. They’re rejecting the sometimes subtle sex negativity that pervades American culture.

So that is kind of setup to this topic. I’m totally going to avoid defining “slut shaming” explicitly because I don’t think it’s really necessary. But now we’ve arrived at the questions of the day: Is slut shaming wrong? Why or why not? If it’s sometimes ok, when?

Now, I’m not a sex blogger, and I’ll spare you the details. But I’m divorced, I wasn’t a virgin when I married either, and I’ve been dating (in New York City of all places, this hotbed of sin) for over 3 years. There are people in this world who would think I’m a slut, people who would disagree, and I couldn’t really care less either way. I sometimes casually engage in reappropriation of the term, but the important thing isn’t what the conditions of sluthood involve. At the core of this matter is how sexual activity does or doesn’t contribute value to people’s lives.

So I’ll ask you to think about it like this. According to every study of this I’ve ever heard of, the vast majority of American adults are sexually active, including before marriage. Most people begin engaging in sexual activities as teenagers and continue to some extent for as long as they are physically able. Sex plays various roles in people’s lives, and these often change over time: it can be recreational, meaningful, therapeutic, stress-releasing, relationship-solidifying, and etc. Sex is not without its physical and emotional risks, but these can be mitigated, and life is physically and emotionally risky whether you’re getting laid or not, amirite?

Humans like sex, as they well should. Individuals derive great value from sex, when it’s done on their own terms and in accordance with their own preferences. It’s time to stop pretending like sex is merely an incidental component of a happy life. For many of us, it’s in some sense necessary (though of course insufficient) for living thoroughly well. There, I said it.

Here’s where I’m going with this. It seems to me that many cases of so-called “slut shaming” are actually just “sex shaming.” People find out that someone — typically a woman — has ohmygod partaken in sexual activities of whatever kind at all, and rapidly she’s being painted as a slut/whore/sleaze/harlot/hussy/cunt.

I don’t want to make this thing even longer than it already is by including lots of examples, but they are definitely out there. Please feel free to comment with examples of slut or sex shaming if you’ve got ‘em!

I will say however that I have occasionally been a victim of sex shaming, but never slut shaming. In my late teens and early 20s, someone close to me found out that I was no longer a virgin and, shall we say, overreacted (e.g., by calling me a “pig” and an “embarrassment”). It was in no way about my being a slut, it was about my young adult self having even dared to wade into sexual waters at all. Big difference. Today, as an adult, if dating comes up in conversation with friends or acquaintances, I am much more likely to hear a “get it, girl” or nothing at all, than admonishment not to be such a slut or to keep it in my pants.

Sex shaming is terrible and wrong, because sex — much of it, anyways — is healthy and normal. Moreover, mere sex shaming is often hypocritical, in that its perpetrators are (or wish they were…) plenty sexually active themselves.

Genuine slut shaming per se — i.e., attempting to make someone feel bad for truly excessive sexual activity — is something of a different case. It is partially morally legitimate and partially illegitimate.

The informal enforcement of social norms has its place, but it’s typically reserved for cases of other-regarding norms. We shame and ostracize people who are liars, cheaters, thieves, murderers, and the like, because we need to minimize the occurrence of such behaviors amongst our ranks. Lying, cheating, theft, and murder are behaviors that harm third parties. We can’t have too many members of society free-riding on the norms enforcement of others, or these valuable norms will decay.

So actually slut shaming is on the moral up and up in my book when it’s actually about preventing harms to third parties. By all means, shame (with appropriate proportionality) the sluts who are cheating, infecting partners with STDs, breaking up relationships and families, sabotaging workplaces, and so on. These are genuine harms to third parties born out of sexual promiscuity. They happen. Shaming can make them happen less.

But I implore you to exercise caution: as far as I can tell, slut shaming typically occurs in cases when the alleged slut is harming no one but herself (if even that). Exercise moral caution. Is this person’s sexual behavior harming anyone other than herself? If not — and you’re not a close friend or family member — then back the fuck off.

And hopefully by this point it goes without saying that, if you’ve been outright sex shaming, you’re at best ignorant to the possible value of sex in people’s lives, and at worst plainly a hypocrite. Cease and desist with that shit immediately.

This has been moral philosophy blogging / sex blogging lite with Pamela J. Stubbart (@amelapay). Thanks so much for reading, and do let me know what you think in the comments. If you thought I shed some light on this thorny issue, your shares are appreciated.

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5 Comments

  • I find it odd you make no comment about the gendered nature of slut shaming. What makes enforcing the norm of sexual restraint through shaming particularly obnoxious is not just that it amounts to sex shaming, but that it specifically targets women. It thus enforces not just anti-sex views but also blatantly misogynist ones. And as the slut walks were designed to highlight, in a context where women are routinely victimised through violence, it re-enforces the attitude that “slutty” women are “fair game” for assault. I would thus argue that even if slut shaming seems to be preventing harm to third parties, and thus in your view is “on the moral up and up”, it is in fact never legitimate because of its inherently misogynistic nature. It is illegitimate and reprehensible, full stop.

  • Jil Ross wrote:

    I had a large group both male and female use “slut shaming” after a group rape situation.as if the rape wasnt traumatic enough they would spit on me and taunt me trying to get thrown out.the reality was I was with the same man for over 12 years to thst point and had never cheated. Im so damaged by what was done its difficult to think about sex and I have no sex drive. So to say it was effective is like cutting off your head to get rid of a blemish.

  • […] Notice in the abstract, though, that when there are (right­fully) fewer laws con­strain­ing sex, we need more informally-enforced social norms to guide peo­ple in this impor­tant domain of life, […]

  • […] a hard time basically merely for behaving like sexual creatures at all, then I don’t do that (read this: I’m trying to make “sex shaming” a thing). If you mean to include in “slut-shaming” […]

  • […] that I present Exhibit A: In another blog post she writes “I definitely am not willing to claim that [slut shaming] is unequivocally bad in […]

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