There is a kind of schizophrenia that society works mightily to induce in women about beauty, sexiness, body image. The main thread of it goes like this: women ought to be both stereotypically gorgeous, and unaware of it. If we are not beautiful enough, then we face penalties everywhere — even the workplace, where women who are “very thin” earn nearly $22,000 more than their “average weight counterparts,” and blonde women make 7% more money than women with other hair colors.
But if a woman who manages to meet these standards expresses any awareness of it whatsoever, then she risks being attacked as shallow, vain, self-centered and even manipulative. Or she risks being seen as “asking for it,” because awareness of your sexuality is “slutty,” and that’s what slutty slut sluts do: sluts “ask for it” and deserve whatever they get.
The above is from a post by Clarisse Thorn, which centers on the public persona of Britney Spears as a jumping off point for considering sexuality, visual presentations, and gender narratives. I found the above selection compelling for a few reasons.
First off, the word "slut" has been all over the news in recent months. Most notably, perhaps, was Rush Limbaugh's use of it as an attack on women seeking birth control access. (Actually, the undercurrent of Limbaugh's comments was basically an attack on women demonstrating any form of power, as well as seeking any form of equal rights.) But I digress.
Back to slut. Slut has become a strange word.
It's regularly used by social and religious conservatives to damn women who express any sense of desire for the pleasure and beauty of sexuality and sexual expression.
It's also regularly used by a certain segment of women - primarily educated and younger - who are attempting to reclaim the word as a part of reclaiming sex itself. One more recent manifestation of this effort are the Slut Walks, during which women have marched through downtown areas, many dressed in what you might call "skimpy" clothing, as part of an overall rally for women's rights, especially the right to full expression of sexuality. Besides the unexamined race issues that have appeared in these gatherings, I also wonder, in focusing on "slutty" dress for example, if the women in these gatherings aren't also reinforcing a limited, superficial understanding of sexuality.
It's also the case that another group uses the word slut - on occasion: people you might call "polite, middle class liberals." In these cases, the use is reserved for times when someone's behavior crosses the "norm line." What is that norm line?
Well, I think it includes everything from women who outspokenly embrace their sexuality to any form of kink. Specifically, I'm convinced that anything which is perceived as a threat to standard middle class sexuality - hetero or homosexual - triggers the crap out of many liberal folks. And when it comes to women doing the triggering, the word "slut" as a way of making an appearance.
So, there's the word slut, and then there is this issue of awareness of your sexuality.
I have to say that somewhere along the line, early on, I swallowed some of this pill myself. It's taken years of my adult life, and a lot of experience, in order to be able to speak much about sexuality. In fact, I would argue that for most of my teens and 20s, I was often way out of touch with my sexual needs and desires, entangled in some male version of internal slut shaming. Which is to say that I had my share of relationships and sex, but there was nearly always something missing, and entirely too often a sense of guilt and shame attached to my experience.
Fantasies - not something to develop or share. Masturbation - best kept hidden away from everyone, including my partner. Experimenting in bed, or elsewhere - reserved for the rare occasion when my guard was down. Usually after the consumption of alcohol.
I have never been one of the guys, in terms of hanging out and going on in graphic detail about sexual experiences or even attractions to women. Instead of figuring out life-affirming ways to express all of that, I've often dismissed such talk as objectification - which a lot of it tends to be - and simply offered little of myself in such situations. In other words, there has been a distinct "withdrawal" that has occurred with others - even those who I am dating - when it comes to talking about and sharing stories about sex and sexual expression.
Women, as Clarisse points out, face a large amount of socialized judgment around sexuality that men tend not to.
I, though, have internalized some of that same judgment - enough that it has been only in the past few years that I have begun to feel more comfortable in my own (sexual) skin. And there's still a long way to go.
I know I am not alone. And when I think about the accepted ways in which men - dudes, good old boys, guys - are able to express their sexuality, it's pretty limited as well. We are judged in different ways. Boxed into a "penis performance" corner. And often do not have full body sexual experiences as a result.
We might be labeled a "stud" by other men and women, but it's almost all about the cock doing a few specific things, in a few specific places, with X number of partners.
There's little room for subtlety. Little room for the sharing of dynamic energies that can occur between people who deeply love and care for each other.
The label "foreplay" itself assigns much of sexual expression to a warm up position: something necessary, but not sufficient.
It's all pretty troubling. And for the majority of us out there - regardless of gender - we are experiencing sexuality in a straightjacket. Often without awareness.