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Slut Shaming: All About the History and Prevalence of this Despicable Practice
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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"My mother sat by my bed every night and made me shower with the door open in fear that I would be finally humiliated to death," Monica Lewinsky said. In the late 1990s, Lewinsky’s affair with then-President Bill Clinton came to light, and Lewinsky, who was a 22-year old intern at the time, was vilified in the media. The vicious attacks on her character and sexuality are considered one of the first examples of cyberbullying — and showcase the serious consequences of slut shaming. 

What is slut shaming, and why is it so prevalent — online and in real life? What are the consequences of this harmful behavior? Learn about the history of, research behind and examples of slut shaming.

What is slut shaming?

A sexist behavior, slut shaming is the practice of critiquing and often humiliating women and girls for aspects of and issues related to their sexuality. People insult women and girls for practices that are not considered inappropriate for men and boys, highlighting the double “boys will be boys” standard. For instance, promiscuity may be expected of men and boys, while it is criticized in women and girls. 

History of slut shaming

Slut shaming as a practice has been around for centuries. Below are just a few of the many instances of slut shaming throughout history, starting back in Ancient Rome. 

• Ancient Roman dress codes

In the Roman Republic, women were categorized by their sexual purity based on a dress code. For example, married women wore stola. Meanwhile, prostitutes wore togas or similar garments. This was meant to differentiate between the two classes of women, according to Lewis Webb, highlighting the sexual virtuosity of married women and criticizing prostitutes for their supposedly immoral behavior.

• Dolley Madison

In the 1808 election, Dolley Madison, the wife of James Madison, was slut shamed. Federalists accused her of performing sexual favors for congressmen as part of a smear campaign.

Second-wave feminism

As gender roles became redefined during and after World War II, so did the definition of sexuality. Premarital sex increased in the 1960s and 1970s, as did the use of birth control. With it came new labels and ways of thinking about women and their sexuality.

• Monica Lewinsky

As discussed above, Monica Lewinsky faced countless attacks for her affair with President Clinton, despite the fact that he was clearly in a position of power over her. She was the subject of insults and humiliation, with The Wall Street Journal calling her “a little tart,” The New York Post labeling her “Portly Pepperpot” and Maureen Dowd describing her as “ditsy” and “predatory,” according to The New York Times. Because the internet was fairly new at the time, slut shaming took on a new life of its own as a form — perhaps even the first instance of — cyberbullying.

Examples of and research about slut shaming

From stringent dress codes for girls (but not boys) in high schools to criticizing women for having nude photos of themselves spread on the internet, often without their permission or knowledge, to verbal and physical attacks, slut shaming is everywhere. Here are some examples of slut shaming in the real world, media and literature, as well as research concerning the practice. 

• Cornell University researchers study

A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships conducted by Cornell University researchers found that “sexually permissive” individuals are judged more harshly by their peers and are the subject of social isolation. In the study, college women read a story about a woman called Joan. In one version, she had two sexual partners during her life, and in the other, she had 20. The women rated the 20-partner version of Joan as "less competent, emotionally stable, warm and dominant than the Joan who'd only boasted two."

• Phoebe Prince

In 2010, Phoebe Prince, a high-school student in South Hadley, Massachusetts, committed suicide after being bullied by her classmates, who, among other insults, called her a “slut.” The incident led to six of her classmates being criminally prosecuted for their harassment of her. New anti-bullying legislation was enacted in Massachusetts later that year. 

• Pew Research Center study

A study of online harassment found that young women ages 18-24 are disproportionately harassed online, with 26 percent of the women surveyed saying they had been stalked online and 25 percent noting that they were sexually harassed online, according to the Pew Research Center.

• Party in Steubenville, Ohio

In 2013, a high-school student was publicly sexually assaulted at a party. Other partygoers recorded the incident and posted it on social media. The girl became the subject of vicious attacks and slut shaming on Twitter and other platforms. Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, the attackers, were both convicted of rape of a minor in juvenile court. 

The Scarlet Letter

Slut shaming appears in art, literature and other media. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is an early work of literature depicting slut shaming. In Puritan Boston in 1638, Hester Prynne, whose husband is presumed dead, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby. Her community forces her to wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing and endure public shaming, standing on a scaffold for hours as the townspeople humiliate her. 

Issues with slut shaming and why it must end

Slut shaming is far too prevalent and extends far beyond hurtful name calling and insults. From public humiliation to ostracization, women and girls experience consequences for behaviors that are often tolerated and even applauded in their male counterparts. As illustrated in the above examples, slut shaming can ruin someone’s reputation, irreparably damage a woman’s self-esteem and even result in death. 

Labels like “slut” carry weight. They directly attack a woman’s right to her sexual freedom and expression. Women and girls become the targets of verbal and sometimes physical attacks on social media, in other online forums and spheres, in the media and in person. In fact, slut shaming isn’t really about sexuality at all. It is about control and putting women in their place, an attempt to dictate how women and girls should act, behave, dress and do. Whether or not a woman’s sexual “promiscuity” is perceived or actual, isn’t it time we put an end to this despicable practice?

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