Respect - more than just a word.

Slut Shaming

Girl at a protest holding a sign that says "Believe it or not my short skirt has nothing to do with you"

Photo: Anton Bielousov via Flickr (CC)

There is a word in the English language that girls become familiar with fairly early on in life. Historically, this word has been aimed at women deemed sexually promiscuous and who defy certain boundaries of ‘femininity’. It was and is still used as a verbal punishment for behaviours or qualities women and girls are not supposed to embody. But it is really the body that this word aims to control.

You’ve heard it countless times, maybe you’ve been called it yourself; maybe you’ve been the accuser.  That one syllable we know is aimed to sting, to degrade, to humiliate, to shame.

Slut really has no definitive meaning.  If you take a look in the dictionary you might find it is defined as:

slut definition

But as we know, you don’t have to be displaying low hygiene standards and having sex with multiple partners to be called a slut. Actually, you don’t even have to be having sex at all. The word has many more meanings that come with a variety of negative connotations. It is a term used to degrade and belittle women for apparently expressing their sexuality, through the way they dress, talk, dance, ‘flirt’, even walk.

This is called slut shaming.

By attacking and degrading girls for their sexuality – whether they are sexually active or not – this means that any action, no matter how small, can be interpreted and criticised as ‘overly sexual’ – something society has long deemed women ought not to be.

From ‘flirty’ to ‘loose’, to ‘bitchy’ and ‘desperate’, slut shaming encompasses a whole range of insults. What all of these insults have in common however, is that they are all targeted at women, and they are all specifically concentrated on the female body….

…. Why?

Throughout history women’s actions and sexual freedom has been regulated by men and religious groups who try to control women’s bodies, through restricting access to reproductive and contraceptive choices and through the use of physical and sexual violence.

As women have gained access to reproductive and political rights, their freedom to express their sexuality and break the codes of ‘feminine’ behaviour previously imposed on them has also increased, hoorah!

But despite these fantastic advancements for women, the sexist ideas about the way women should behave and their sexual choices have unfortunately hung around. This is why slut shaming still has so much force today. Because when a girl is called a slut they are being sent a much louder message: you are not valued for your intelligence or your personality – your only value lies in your body and your sexuality.

When guys slut shame they are also reinforcing the message and the belief that women’s bodies and sexual freedom should be controlled by men.

Slut shaming is closely connected to issues of victim blaming and rape culture, which promotes misogynistic beliefs that women’s sexual promiscuity is to blame for their experiences of sexual assault and violence.

SlutWalk Movements

 Image credit: David Shankbone

Image credit: David Shankbone (Flickr)

In 2011, women in Toronto protested against a local policeman’s views on sexual assault, having told college students, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Their protests were called SlutWalk and have since sparked movements across the globe challenging harmful, victim-blaming language and slut shaming.

The SlutWalk rallies promote women’s freedom to express their sexuality without judgment, to wear whatever they want without being sexualised and blamed for sexual violence and to challenge the ongoing use of the word slut to shame and degrade women and girls.

While across the globe women and men are speaking out against slut shaming and victim blaming, ‘slut’ continues to be a slur many of us face in our daily lives, or at some stage in our experiences as girls and women.

Experiences of slut shaming can be confusing because they simultaneously draw attention to the value placed on women’s sexuality while also sending the message that women’s bodies and sexual expression is something  to be ashamed of.  From a young age, girls are taught to display virtues associated with ‘femininity’, to be ‘ladylike’, ‘sweet’ and ‘pretty’. We learn that their value comes from their appearance and sexual appeal. But once they reach an age where they want to begin expressing and exploring their sexuality, they become subject to criticism from those around them, from guys, from the media and other negative influences that promote control over women’s actions and sexual freedom.

So… How can we stop slut shaming?

Putting an end to slut shaming requires some big changes in culture and the value of women and girls in society. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to try and challenge ways of thinking and ideas, especially when those ideas can be pretty hurtful and can seem so common. But there are important actions you can take to change these attitudes and promote a culture where women are respected and treated equally.

Be aware

Sometimes we don’t notice the things going on around us. Being aware of slut shaming can help us identify situations where someone might be having a negative experience and figure out how we can help out. Sometimes we might not realise that we ourselves can be responsible for or involved in slut shaming. By paying closer attention to the way words are used and their meanings we can begin to challenge people’s use of them, or try using them in a positive way.  Slut shaming is also a form of bullying which means that serious action can be taken against those responsible.

Talk to people

Starting conversations with your friends, family and peers about slut shaming can be an effective way of getting people to think about the meanings and consequences of the words they use. It can be scary to confront people’s behaviours and ideas, but speaking calmly to them about the way their words make you and others feel can be a positive step to changing attitudes.

Start your own movement!

There’s power in numbers. Once you start talking to friends and peers about slut shaming you might realise you share similar ideas and want to get your message out there. This could be as simple as getting a group together to start conversations with others, or making your own facebook page.

If you’re experiencing slut shaming, there are people you can speak to and recourses you can use to find help. Being attacked or ridiculed through slut shaming is a serious form of bullying. Check out our posts here to find more information on bullying and ways to get help.

Follow the links for more of our posts on Sex  & Consent, Bullying, and Women’s Rights. 

Relevant links:
Reachout
Youth BeyondBlue
Kids Helpline

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