Some reflections on slut-shaming, class, and power

I’ve just read this account in Al Jazeera America about a recently published study on college slut-shaming, and I’m feeling ambivalent.

On the one hand: Yes! Of course slut-shaming is about class! It’s long been the case that what passes as sexual liberation among those with cultural capital gets disparaged as sluttiness among the unlettered classes. And it’s about time that we bring class-consciousness into our discussions around slut-shaming. (Obviously, race/ethnicity, dis/ability, gender identity and sexual orientation are important parts of this story too. I don’t raise them here because the Al Jazeera article doesn’t raise them.)

However, I’m less in accord with bits like the following:

“Viewing women only as victims of men’s sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities,” Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology and organizational studies professor at the University of Michigan, said in a release. “By engaging in ‘slut-shaming’ — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.”

I mean, yes, to the extent that people should be held accountable for helping to reproduce unjust systems, then of course this accountability must extend to both men and women. Sure.

However, I’m just not on board with the liberal view that individuals are answerable for systemic inequities.  The thing about the interlocking systems of power that Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has helpfully termed “kyriarchy” is that we mostly reproduce such systems without ever deciding to do so. Even when we’re well-intentioned and trying really hard to treat people justly and to leave the world a little better than we found it, we daily, behind our own backs, reproduce the unjust system of which we are a part. We can hardly help it, having been socialized within the system.

Sure, some people are just assholes. And, I’ll bet that’s true of some of the Greeks in the slut-shaming study. Ultimately though, it’s really important to remind ourselves that tenacious systems of power are tenacious precisely because they operate through not just isolated assholes but through all of us – nice, well-intentioned folks included.

So, rather than deciding whether men or women are to blame, or trying to zero in on which men or women are to blame, we should focus our attention on understanding the mechanisms of systemic injustice. Taken with a grain (or a cup) of salt, this study may be helpful to that end.

 

[H/t CB for the original link.]

 

 

6 thoughts on “Some reflections on slut-shaming, class, and power

  1. No single raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood. Slut-shaming is woman-hating.

    – “Slut: any woman or girl whose sexuality has offended a man by existing.”

    And, understanding the mechanics of systemic oppression happens when we learn to articulate it – from raindrop to flood.

    The word “kyriarchy” is mostly useful for avoiding and preventing and obscuring the naming power of every single one of the systems of oppression it purports to umbrella. It is completely ambiguous. It makes it impossible to state that sexism – that pesky ol privilege-transfer mechanism – is employed by the patriarchy, the systems and institutions that exist expressly for male benefit at female expense, which are actively reinforced and maintained by men and employed against women. Now, take all the sexism words and replace them with racism: through which people of color are exploited by white people. Male privilege. White privilege. Ableism. Heterosexism. Classism. Who is doing what to whom and why. Stop being kyriarchist? Wat.

    Also, men are not werewolves. Men are not imbeciles, or infants. Men have free will; men are rational, reasonable, competent, full and complete human beings just like anybody else.

    So, let’s talk about it: men do this to us. Not women. But what about the not all men are like that? Because saying men do this always goes straight there, doesn’t it? And we never even get close to asking them why it doesn’t matter that it’s true.

    Fact: men do not *have* to do this to us. And no, we don’t make them. We can’t choose men’s behavior for them. Women don’t have collective power over men; and yet, people so universally insist that women be held in some way responsible for the behavior of men are asserting that women have some degree of power over men’s behavior and use it to compel men to oppress us. And unless somebody manages to articulate this, this one usually works because the fact that it’s nonsense is hard to notice because we’re all so used to hearing it and having it be treated as if it’s legit.

    Men choose to oppress us. And every man who chooses to not be like that proves that either way, this is choice.

    And that means that every man who chooses to act wrong is solely responsible for his choice and his behavior and he alone is accountable for whatever harm his choice and behavior inflict.

    And it means that every man who responds to the assertion that men oppress women by springing to his own defense – Not All Men Are Like That – asserts that he’s not like that, because he doesn’t do those things to us. Enter, NAMALT.

    The fact that Not All Men Are Like That has a logical inverse: you can’t say Not All Men Are Like without tacitly admitting that Not All Men ->Aren’t<- Like That.

    Any man whose defense is that not all men are like that because he himself chooses to not be like that is aware that some men are. And he is aware that the those men are the ones who are doing all of this to us. He just cares more about asserting that he's an exception than about the rule he's so sure he's not part of.

    And we know that men will not allow us to say, "men do this to us." That men sullenly, grudgingly sometimes allow us to say that it happens, period – that only started in the last 30 years or so. And always on the condition we make no mention of who's doing it. It's "violence against women" like this violence is committing itself, for no reason other than women exist and it finds us like destiny. When we try to say "men do this to us," without fail all the men who Aren't Like That feel like we're talking about them in saying "men do this." Even though we didn't say "all men do this," that doesn't stop them from telling us that saying "men do this" means we're accusing all men regardless of the fact that we never said that, and that we are somehow responsible for what they feel like we said, for what they have decided we meant. What we actually meant / said is never quite as valid as what he feels we did, whether we did it or not, and so the man who is completely convinced he's not like that inflicts on us the consequences of his feelings being more important than us and our reality could ever be.

    And openly acknowledging that what they feel happened isn't what actually happened never even so much as places in question the fault they find with us.)

    Blame men for choosing this behavior. Any man who actually isn't like that will be more concerned with finding fault with the ones who are, than dragging us into an argument because the most important thing is that they make us understand that we're wrong. And they'll keep going until we "understand," which they can tell we don't "understand" – if we did, we'd agree with them.

    And men enforce this so completely that none of us has never had this happen to us. Women are cornered into suggesting ambiguity in hopes of getting to say anything at all – as you've done here.

    And that doesn't make you in any way wrong, or the problem.

    It makes you a woman trying to speak her truth, in spite of it all.

    <3

  2. i agree that deciding whether women or men are to blame is not a good approach. but the alternative is not only to disipate responsibility for (often well-intentioned) actions and “exculpate” individuals from their individual contributions to the broader systems of injustice. i think there is room for attribution of responsibility without blame.

  3. I agree with saray. If we do not attribute responsibility to ourselves, why should any of us think we have any particular obligation to change things?

    The error, I think, is in trying to assign blame to others as a way of deflecting such personal responsibility. So, e.g. men who respond by saying, ‘but women do it too’ or ‘women do it worse’ or rich women who blame poor women or vice versa.

    But giving up on the idea of a kind of individual responsibility that comes from complicity, even in one’s own oppression, comes too close to treating collective social ills as unattributable natural facts, rather than as things that we do to ourselves and to one another.

  4. I recently had this conversation with another philosopher on Facebook. He asked whether I think that focussing on systemic mechanisms of injustice, as I recommend above, precludes blaming individuals who play roles in perpetuating that justice. For convenience, I’ll just reproduce below my reply to him on Facebook:

    “It doesn’t preclude blame. You’ll get no argument from me that blame is sometimes appropriate. However, I think that, very often, blaming individuals can distract attention from systems. And it can lead us to the too-comfortable fairy tale view that there are good guys and there are bad guys and we just need to stop the bad guys from being bad. Moreover, I would say that when you see an entire social group or subgroup (or a strong majority of a group of subgroup) behaving in similar ways, then it is likelier that some systemic mechanism is the main cause of the behaviour than that individual choices are. And, I’m keen to understand these underlying mechanisms precisely because individuals (good and bad) come and go. If we don’t address underlying systemic mechanisms, then the next set of individuals in the same context will behave in the same bad ways. Finally, one of my worries about blame is that guilt can make people less receptive to change. You blame me for causing you some harm. I feel guilty and ashamed. I don’t want to feel this way so I rationalize my behaviour (or deny it) and lash out at you for making me feel bad in the first place. Blame gets people’s backs up. And that just makes them more dogmatic. I think that a focus on underlying social mechanisms can help to carve out a space where people can admit that they are affected by those mechanisms and can seek to change.”

  5. i totally agree with you, lady day, about how important is to pay attention to the broader systems of injustice. but, like derek bowman points out, not attributing responsibility to individuals is a way of detaching them from those systems and taking away their capacity to change them. those systems are there because particular individuals enact them, over and over again, with their individual actions. i am not saying here that they do that necessarily out of evil intentions or completely out of free choice. i think the three of us agree that those systems have to change, and that blame, like you point out, lady day, distracts attention and make people less receptive. what i think is important is to separate responsibility from blame. i am responsible for every contribution i make to any system of injustice, but i am not necessarily blameworthy for that. i especially like julia markovits’ approach to blame & praise as something independent from right and wrong actions.

  6. Maybe there’s more to the study than the Al Jazeera report suggests, but basically all this seems to be saying is that in any system where there is dominant group and a subordinate group, members of the subordinate group will tend to police each other to follow the rules of the dominant group, and they are likely to do so in terms of existing structures (class, respectability, status, etc).

    This doesn’t say anything about the actual causes of ‘slut-shaming’ ie patriarchy. In fact it seems to obscure that. I have come across this apparent gap in supposedly feminist theory before, and it is concerning.

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