Shame Culture, Media, and "The Punished Slut"

By Madison McKeever

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Author’s note: This article focuses on the power that language can have over us. For this reason, I’ll be utilizing Tr*mp to indicate an expletive, because the man himself is undeserving of any degree of power or respect.

 

S-L-U-T. Its rhythmic cadence has the unique power to uplift or destroy in just one sharp intonation. Steeped in an oppressive linguistic history going back even further than we can truly trace, “slut” has long been used to instill in women the shame of social ostracism and the connotation of lost morality. The tides of stigmatization are changing, but mainstream media and society still associate the word itself with disadvantageous sexual double standards established by men and antiquated sociocultural structures. Kristen Sollée, author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, points out that, “‘slut’ is currently caught in the crosshairs of an intra-feminist debate. Some who have suffered from the slings and arrows of this gender-based epithet are taking it back in their own unique ways-but not without pushback from others who feels it’s better left unsaid...where some hear vicious misogyny in a single syllable, others hear freedom, sexploration, and self-love.” On the whole,  “slut” still isn’t in the socially accepted lexicon of identifiers, but is it the terminology that makes people nervous or is it the connotation of brazen female sexual autonomy?

Media representation matters. We can shrug and say “it’s just fiction,” or, "not everyone thinks that way," but that would be  reductive and inaccurate. Media portrayals are how we make sense of ourselves.  They're one of the reasons women learn to police their actions and be ashamed of the word “slut”; it’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe. The impact of representation, or lack thereof, matters in ways that have long-term consequences. Whether or not we are aware of it, the characters we directly and passively interact with via reading, viewing, gaming, and listening to have an enormous impact on our worldview and therefore a responsibility foisted upon them to eliminate the single narrative.  Books, television, podcasts, news, games, and movies all come together to forge the basis of our worldview and how we think of  and construct meaning. So, what does it mean that we repeatedly see sexually enlightened women in media facing repercussions for their actions? How are we supposed to encourage and teach respect for current and future generations of sexually autonomous women when our only frames of reference are the negative messages fed to us by various media outlets? And what are the implications of this single narrative?

As we know, our media is often exempletive of societal and political values, tensions, and issues. Keeping this in mind, consider the pattern in television and movies wherein the female characters who have sex or are implied to are usually issued retribution for their actions. Aka the so-called “sluts” usually die first. This is a trope that we’ve seen perpetuated through countless narratives, an ideology that has been replicated again and again since its conception in classic horror films like Psycho,  A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If we look at the sartorial choices of the character Pam from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her outfit includes a halter top and short shorts. As writer Kristen Cochrane points out, “visual signs and signifiers, like exposed skin and ‘provocative’ clothes, were a precursor to a message relayed by many horror films: suggestive female sexuality can be deadly.” 

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Pam later dies a slow, painful, and gruesome death, and it doesn’t take much to draw the connection between her outfit, its implications, and her eventual fate. Although Pam never has sex on screen, her outfit is intended to speak for itself, which is a eerie echo of modern-day rhetoric towards women’s clothing choices and implications of consent. Classic horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street played directly into this, and thus, set up a pseudo equation we’ve seen recreated over and over in media and literature for the last 50 years:

Scandalous behavior or clothing=implication of promiscuity=imminent death for female characters.

Through strategic messages and suggestive linguistic phrasing, media outlets have been able to ingratiate the binary of purity- impropriety into the heads of anyone who consumes media. Pam chose that outfit, so her body was an open invitation. Otherwise known as the Madonna-Whore complex, we repeatedly see this dichotomy where the “good girl” lives on in perpetuity and purity and the “bad girl” gets what she deserves.  Basically, Whores= bad, Madonna’s= good, which is a hegemonic misrepresentation of presumed sexual disparities between genders.

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Although first coined by Freud as a psychological ideology to represent the impact of male assumptions about the binary nature of female sexuality, the Madonna-Whore complex has come to be recognized in many other facets of life as well. The Madonna-Whore complex in media is so damaging because it inherently prizes one side over the other, and the side that wins is almost always the one that our Patrician forefathers tirelessly championed. The message that we’re repeatedly force-fed is that of good (restrained sexuality) versus bad (unrestrained sexuality) and mutual exclusivity. Until the norm is to discourage sexual binaries in any realm, there will still be problematic representations to negatively impact media consumers.

Although the Victorian era has long since ended, our media seems to have retained many of the tropes that arose from literary classics like Anna Karenina, Daisy Miller, and Madame Bovary. Despite the differences of a few hundred years, we continue to repeatedly see sexually enlightened women as maligned. Maybe our media heroines are no longer dying of tuberculosis, but apart from slasher films it’s far more subtle than that. If microaggression theory can teach us anything, it’s that the negative subtleties are often far more insidious than overtly destructive rhetoric. Look at American comedy classic of the early aughts, The Office, which worked to constantly question the authority of culturally embedded stereotypes towards marginalized populations (Gay Witch Hunt anyone?) At the same time, let’s compare Pam Beesly, sweet Pam with her buttoned up oxford shirts and discomfort with PDA, to Meredith Palmer, the resident bad girl of Scranton, who is consistently the butt of many jokes related to her body count. You may recall Michael Scott’s infamous taunt; “You’ve slept with so many guys you’re starting to look like one!” Meredith is portrayed as the hot mess, middle-aged, single mother (the trifecta of historically-constructed images of flattened sexuality) who can’t get her life together. But, she manages to excel sexually and is constantly referred to by the other characters as “gross,” “bleh,” or “ew.” Sure, Meredith keeps vodka hidden in her desk at work and takes a shit in a paper shredder, but the bulk of criticism toward her comes from the idea that Meredith’s sexual appetite is considered beyond that of female normalcy, a facet of her identity that’s open to ridicule or scrutiny. Meanwhile Pam is seen as the harbinger of morality, and we’re expected to root for her successes for the duration of the show. We see this binary repeated over and over in various media depictions, but the scope of this equation has expanded much further than just televisions across the country.

Although we’ve evolved as a sexually educated society since Freud’s time, there are still lingering myths that remain as a result of patriarchally-endorsed epistemic violence.  It’s epistemic violence when we encourage young girls to engage in sex-negative culture and call each other “sluts” maliciously. It’s epistemic violence when we perpetuate ideas like “Never sleep with a guy on the first date if you want him to respect you,” or “He won’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.” Ah yes, anecdotal clichés that have served many a woman well.

As psychologist Kerri Pickel and many other authors point out, the long-held myth that has proliferated in media and culture in general is that masculinity is inextricably linked with active hypersexuality, and by default, femininity is linked with passivity. Soooo, men are horny and insatiable and women put up with it begrudgingly. Despite being disproved as early as the 1950s, the vestigial societal discomfort with female sexual desire and autonomy still exists. Thus, if women are seen as sexually autonomous, it takes away from the long held assumption that women enjoy sex less than our horndog counterparts. The assumption, might I add, that many red-blooded American men are incredibly proud of and eager to play into. The paradigm we’re familiar with is one of double standards; men with many partners are smooth and macho “players,” and women with many partners are dirty and irresponsible “sluts.” So, are men afraid of losing their (supposed) status as “highest libido holders of the species”? Are the sluts still getting punished to assuage fragile male sexuality? Or is it indicative of a wider residual societal discomfort with female sexuality in general?

In the study, “She’s Just a Slut”: The Effect of Language on the Perceived Value and Worth of Women, psychologist Melissa Marie Hughes examines the dramatic connection between language and perception, and looks at the detrimental role of presumption.  In her study, two groups of participants were presented with a fictional woman named Stacy. One group was given word pairings that referred to Stacy as “slut/slutty” and the other group was given word pairings calling Stacy “flirt/flirty.” Her findings concluded that “the participants who were exposed to the word ‘slut’ did perceive Stacy somewhat more negatively overall and in relations to word pairings that were both specifically related to promiscuity and specially unrelated to promiscuity.” It should be noted that the participants were of mixed genders, but the results still work to reaffirm societal discomfort with displays of female sexuality.  The other startling revelation that Hughes uncovered is the idea that the level of perceived culpability correlates directly to the expected or actual level of harm. Stacy was a slut, so she got what she deserved. We can call upon other violent sexist language here, canonical gems like “She wanted it,” and the classic, “She was asking for it,” which is sadly still endemic language applied to victims of sexual violence. This indifferent attitude has been learned through socialization and has scary, real life consequences.

It’s not a large or unrealistic jump from consuming negative media messages toward female sexuality to Elliot Rodger aka the Isla Vista killer, who referred to women of the Alpha Phi sorority as “bitches” and “sluts” before going on a shooting spree that killed two of them. It’s also not unrealistic to compare media consumption habits to the shame culture that has been framed around sex workers, the bane of conservative America’s existence. Kristen Cochrane points out that, “the promiscuous woman is painted as evil, inconsequential, or disposable. The slut doesn’t get to become a lawyer and live happily ever after.” Historically speaking, the slut who revels in her sluttiness always has to be punished. Sex workers’ rights advocate and author of The Whore Next Door, Siouxsie Q., says that “In a capitalist patriarchal society, women who have the power to make men give them money through their own mysterious magic is a terrifying proposition that threatens to dismantle everything.”

Sounds an awful lot like white/christian/heterosexual/cisgender/capitalist/male insecurity to me.

In literature and media depictions, the slut is offered a path to redemption only if  she falls victim to another male-constructed trope, such as “the hooker with a heart of gold.” This is the woman who doesn’t want to be involved in sex work, but had no other option; no education, no guidance, no support system. She wants to be saved or released from the prison of performing for male desire, she dislikes sex work. We as viewers love, support, and root for this trope, it’s the modern day fairy tale wet dream conjured up in Pretty Woman (and c’mon, who didn’t want to be Julia Roberts when they were little?)

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Even feminists fall for the triumph of this trope in real life, promoting an agenda where no woman should ever have to engage in sex work. This is a valid mission for marginalized women who don’t want to be sex workers, but the assumption that sex work and autonomy are separate is blatantly untrue. Furthermore, a slut who wants to be a slut gets no such allowances from media consumers, or in real life. The message we’re shown is that a hooker, porn star, sugar baby or stripper who engages in sex work by choice is no longer worthy of consideration or respect. Although many sex workers don’t have the privilege of choosing their profession, there are plenty who exercise agency to utilize their skills for financial gain, just as in any other industry. Nonetheless, it’s a message we’re well acquainted with; the sluts must be punished until they fit back into established gender confines. The line between media depictions of this message and the real life implications is terrifyingly thin. According to the Sex Workers Outreach Program, sex workers in America are 400 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers, and women of color and trans women are disproportionately affected by this violence. Kristen Sollée points out that “sex work remains criminalized in the United States, and those seeking respite from abuse via police intervention can therefore be arrested, sexually assaulted, or coerced into providing their services to escape punishment.” To further illustrate the media-to-reality connection, try naming more than five mainstream media depictions of sex work where the message doesn’t portray images of violence, debasement, or the implication of inferiority. I’ll wait.

We as a society have an exhausting urge to compartmentalize, but everything, sexuality especially, exists on a spectrum. Virgins are not good people because they abstain from sex, and unabashed sluts are not bad people because of their sexuality, so we need to stop punishing them in order to fulfill a Christian-inspired hierarchy that dictates a person’s worth. The American psyche is saturated with repressive female sexuality, dating back to our Puritanical ancestors and the days of female deference.We still link heightened value to low body counts, especially for women, harkening back even further to a creepy biblical connotation that sleeping around “ruins you.” 

Apart from media representations, we see other variations of this phenomena in the ubiquitous slut-shaming culture that exists today. Slut-shaming is often defined as maligning women and girls for presumed sexual activity, emphasis on the presumed here, which reflects the sexual assumptions that women are subject to based on their clothing choices, actions, interests, or friend groups. Slut-shaming is our modern day witch hunt. While we may not burn women at the stake anymore, slut-shaming is condoning rape culture, which is positing physical and emotional terrorism against female-identifying bodies as the norm. Every few weeks a new article goes viral about a high school, or even middle school, girl who is sent home from school for wearing something deemed inappropriate and overly sexualized by their school administrators. In this narrative, the girl is told over and over again that she is inviting unwanted attention onto her body by her clothing choice. As Kerri Pickel points out, “ It becomes easy to able to label ‘slut’ to a girl who violates the dress code and to blame her for making herself a target while boys evade responsibility.” The placement of blame falls directly onto the girls, and often at an age when their sexual-emotional development is at its most vulnerable. Girls are warned repeatedly against the dangers of inciting male desire with spaghetti straps and even the slightest glimpse of thigh, and often sent home or suspended for any indiscretion. The sartorial implications of this trend are astonishing when you reconsider Pam’s outfit from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the short shorts and a halter top, with her eventual fate in the film. If we look at that same connection through a modern lens, the parallels to slut-shaming teenagers for their outfit choices at school and killing sexually active female characters in horror movies are staggering. The similar variable in both equations is perceived guilt based on connotations garnered from problematic stereotypes.

One of the most shocking and indicative examples of this phenomena has been at the forefront of news in recent months. If we look at Stormy Daniels, a proud stripper/porn star/ mother/writer, the bulk of the criticism toward her has not been in regards to her accusations against Tr*mp, but instead about her status, and therefore questionable credibility, as a sex worker. Stormy Daniels has been lambasted, her reputation has been dragged, and her integrity and trustworthiness have been repeatedly questioned. The media has largely disregarded that she risked her career, safety, and financial stability to expose a man who has been sexually violent to numerous women and has repeatedly gotten away with it. The main narrative that we hear about her references her occupation and the cultural implications that arise from her decision to be a sex worker. Despite that, Stormy Daniels, a sexually autonomous woman who has wholeheartedly embraced her slutty powers, is the one woman who may have the power to defeat Tr*mp. Imagine that.

If you haven’t mentally blocked out your early childhood years, you likely remember the adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But words can, and do, hurt. If you’ve ever been called a slut out of ignorance or spite, you know just how much it can sting and linger on your skin long after the words have been spoken. But, womxn are the ones who can alter that narrative by reclaiming “slut” as a powerful compliment. To me, “slut” is a beautiful, sex-positive descriptor that I frequently use to describe badass queens who are working to destroy damaging stereotypes. Subverting “slut” takes away the patriarchally-imbued power it once had over women, and while it’s no easy task, the work is being done by tireless advocates and kweens everyday. Unsurprisingly, Her Highness Judith Butler summed it up best in her groundbreaking book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, when she said, “there is no purifying language of its traumatic residue...and no way to work through trauma except through the arduous effort it takes to direct the course of its repetition.” Advocating for sex positivity in the face of so much opposition is how we will rectify the course of linguistic and representational history, alter the established narrative, and impact change for sluts everywhere.