Is Slut Shaming Making a Comeback?

March 23, 2012

Katie Roiphe has published an article at Slate: It’s Not Just Rush: Liberals slut-shame just as much, in which she decries the pervasive slut shaming in our society:

These judgments, about women who sleep around or sleep with the wrong people or fail to settle down, these vicious or catty bursts of rage, or calm-holier-than-thou reflections on other people’s sluttiness or condescending screeds about how pathetic or sad or distasteful or lonely or sleazy it is to live so outside of conventional life, persist through all age groups and social strata, in big cities and small towns, on television news programs watched by millions, and on liberal blogs. 

What can I say? I find this development encouraging. I’m never quite sure what to make of Katie Roiphe. She’s the daughter of an ardent and famous feminist, but in 1994 she burst on the scene with The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, a book that held women accountable for choices that served to put them in danger of sexual assault. From an article at the New York Times:

One of the questions used to define rape was: ‘Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?’ The phrasing raises the issue of agency. Why aren’t college women responsible for their own intake of alcohol or drugs? A man may give her drugs, but she herself decides to take them. If we assume that women are not all helpless and naive, then they should be responsible for their choice to drink or take drugs. “If a woman’s ‘judgment is impaired’ and she has sex, it isn’t always the man’s fault; it isn’t necessarily always rape.

Obviously, this view put her squarely at odds with sex-positive feminists, infuriating Katha Pollitt and other prominent feminists of the time. One imagines she wouldn’t be welcome, or interested in attending a local Slut Walk.

In a 1997 book review a writer for the LA Times criticized Roiphe for not embracing the Sex as Empowerment Scam:

For Roiphe, who is 28, the sexual revolution of the ’60s had nothing to do with a desire to create a more erotic and more egalitarian society. Instead, Roiphe focuses on “bikinis from France, and the Pill, and nudity in movies, and honest and open marriages, and no-fault divorces” and then notes that “paradise” mysteriously failed to materialize. She is like the theatergoer who takes her seat during the second act and then loudly whispers to everyone around her that the plot makes no sense.

Mistakenly, Roiphe believes that the sexual revolution consisted simply of “having sex with as many people as you could.” She is oblivious to the fact that the sexual revolution–at least for many women–was less about mindless promiscuity than about finding newer, truer, less sexist and more ecstatic ways of being sexual. It was about the experience, not just the numbers; about creating something, not just getting lucky.

Fifteen years later, we all know that few found “newer, truer, less sexist and more ecstatic ways of being sexual.” They found ways of being sexual that were risky, superficial, awkward and unsatisfying. The sexual double standard is as prominent as ever, being biologically determined and therefore immutable. If anything, men have become hypersensitive to female promiscuity, warily inquiring about a woman’s number before investing one ounce of emotional energy.

So why is Katie Roiphe suddenly writing in defense of sluts?

In fact the trope of “sluts” is perpetuated in liberal circles as well as conservative ones, and there is a much more widespread tendency to judge women for their sex lives than we like to admit. There is a great deal of unacknowledged, uninterrogated contempt for women who are perceived as promiscuous, floating around even in right-thinking, fashionable, urban, blue-state pockets of the world.

…The slut is not a mythical creature on college campuses, a unicorn or dodo bird, vanished from the vernacular, in other words. The girls talk about being sluts or feeling like sluts or other girls being sluts, and if this seems exotic or surprising to us, we can think back to our own college lives, or to yesterday, when we heard someone expressing something very much like that over coffee about someone else for a sexual encounter, or sexual style or sexual existence they don’t approve of for one reason or another.

I can’t explain Roiphe’s mysterious mid-life conversion to sympathy for sluthood at the age of 44, but I can note that female promiscuity is not a problem “for one reason or another.” It is directly responsible for the near disappearance of fulfilling and intimate cross-sex relationships among young people in college, the mistaken and tragic sense that most college students have of themselves as sexual “losers,” the rapid rise of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S., and the creation of a “spinster class” of women now in their 30s and 40s. 

If liberals are willing to shame promiscuity, that’s a good thing, a rare example of people working effectively across the aisle. Let’s not forget the manwhores while we’re at it, OK? The sooner the casual sex culture gasps its last breath, the sooner we can begin to repair the harm to our young women and men, as well as the most important societal institutions of marriage and family.