Saturday, February 27, 2016

A woman's appearance is not an excuse to sexually harass or slut-shame her

The Urban Dictionary defines slut-shaming as a "phenomenon in which people degrade or mock a woman because she enjoys having sex, has a lot of sex, or may even just be rumored to participate in sexual activity."

The reality is that many of us, regardless of our gender, have at one time or another slut-shamed a woman. The most common scenario is labeling women who are exposing their skin or wearing tight clothing as sexually promiscuous. These character judgments about women based on their appearance are harmful especially for young girls who grow up internalizing these messages. What is even worse is that the perception of women as sluts is used to blame victims of sexual abuse, commonly known as victim blaming.

A good example is when a few days ago I came across an article about celebrity and model Amber Rose who appeared as a guest on a new show called “Its Not You, Its Men” hosted by Tyrese Gibson and Rev. Run. I was shocked to find out that both hosts slut-shamed Amber Rose during a segment.  Basically the hosts told Rose that the way she dressed encouraged people to assault her.

Rose admitted to the hosts that she is frequently sexually assaulted. She explained to them that fans, both men and women, frequently ask her if they can touch her breasts or behind. In return, Rev. Run said, “They are asking you to do that because of [the] representation of what you are wearing and stuff and what it seems like in their mind what you’re representing.” He then told Rose, “Dress how you wanna be addressed.”

Fortunately, Rose quickly criticized their notions that the manner in which a woman dresses is an invitation to be sexually harassed by explaining that a woman’s provocative appearance is not the equivalent of consent to touch her.

Nevertheless, what Run and Gibson said to Rose is a common occurrence for many women, especially in the school setting. In fact, slut shaming starts early. According to a 2011 survey by the American Association of University Women, slut-shaming is one of the most common forms of harassment experienced by middle and high school students. Among the third of all students who admitted to experiencing “someone mak[ing] unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about” them in person, 46 percent are girls. 

School dress codes are notorious for policing girls’ appearance. An L.A. Times article reports that school administrators all over the country slut-shame girls through the use of dress codes. For instance, a girl who recently won her lawsuit against a school district was suspended for wearing a t-shirt that read “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian” because it was deemed a violation of the high school’s dress code.  The assistant principal directly told the student that her t-shirt was “promoting sex” and an “open invitation to sex.”

School administrators’ notions about young women’s clothing are wrong, and their approach to policing women’s appearance is misguided.  Suspending young women from schools promotes the shaming of young women for their appearance and reinforces the idea that women are to blame for sexual assault. I believe that society in general needs to change its beliefs about women and their appearance. But change cannot come without first creating awareness of these issues. 

To me, the SlutWalk campaigns that began in 2011 in Toronto, Canada have been great at the transnational level for challenging rape culture by creating awareness that it’s not acceptable to victim-blame women.  The SlutWalk rallies began after a Toronto police officer suggested to a group of young people that "women should avoid dressing like sluts" as a prevention to sexual assault.  Since then the SlutWalk has become a transnational movement of protest marches that call for the end of rape culture. I primarily have a positive view of the SlutWalk campaigns because of the movement’s ability to attract the attention of the mainstream media on an issue women have worked for years to address.  

I acknowledge the criticisms surrounding the SlutWalk movement. These are the failure to include women of color and its perpetuation of the male gaze. However, I agree with feminist author Kaitlynn Mendes that the SlutWalk movement has been instrumental in bringing a key feminist issue back onto the public’s consciousness and the ensuing feminist discussions are more widely available for the general public. I remain hopeful that the campaign evolves into a stronger movement to promote societal change to end the shaming of and violence against all women. 

1 comment:

Kate said...

A huge part of the problem with slut shaming, victim shaming, and the confused rhetoric around sexual violence is the lack of focus on training men and boys how to behave. Girls - not all girls of course, but many American girls - are socialized to follow unspoken cultural rules, to satisfy unexplained cultural expectations. From a young age, I knew that it was "inappropriate" to fail to wear a bra (it might get cold!), to flirt too aggressively (men will get bored without the pursuit), and to ever reference women's personal problems like a period in front of boys. As I got older, I learned not to directly call out a man's inappropriate behavior in front of his friends, to think carefully before getting into any situations with men that were isolated and potentially dangerous, and to take care of my personal problems (like needing contraceptives) on my own.
I have a serious problem with every one of these cultural pressures, but my point is actually that men do not seem to receive the same cultural messages. While I cannot speak for men, I do have two brothers and I have been in a number of heterosexual relationships, during which I have observed the unspoken rules that men and boys seem to respond to. Those rules include pressure about the way in which they express emotion and pressure to prove their masculinity and heterosexuality. But it does not seem to include an awareness of how they use their body to influence other people, or how to respond to women they perceive as provocative. In fact, it seems that many times they are socialized to believe that women who are worthwhile will make it difficult for boys to have sex with them. The flip side of this coin is that a girl who does make it particularly difficult is not worthwhile or respectable.
Bringing society's attention to the issue of slut shaming is so important, because it articulates the pain that many women and girls have experienced. Perhaps also turning society's attention to the messages we send to young men and boys will also help change the narrative.