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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4 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.

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