Islam: Day 23 – Slut Shaming: Moral Criticism Gone Awry

Yesterday I wrote about my bad habit of criticizing others. There is a legitimate role for criticism, but it is often executed poorly.

The Atlantic recently published an article titled, “There’s no such thing as a slut.” Two sociology professors moved into a college dorm room in 2004 and interviewed a group of 53 college girls every year until they graduated.

They found that the female students frequently participated in “slut shaming,” where they would question and insult other women for their (perceived) sexual habits.

They also found that there was no objective definition of slut shaming, that there were double standards for wealthy female students and poor female students, and that the practice fostered a divide between wealth and poor female students.

To Armstrong, it seemed like even though the wealthy and poor women were slut-shamed roughly equally in private, it was mostly only the poor women who faced public slut-shaming. And it only seemed to happen when the poorer women tried to make inroads with the richer ones.

By Armstrong’s tally, more rich women than poor women took part in hook-ups throughout college. The poorer women seemed to notice that their wealthier dorm-mates were more sexual, but felt they couldn’t get away with being similarly libertine. The wealthier women, meanwhile, seemed unfazed by accusations of sluttiness if they came from their lower-status peers. (Think of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, for whom public displays of sexuality were the rocket fuel on which they jetted to fame.)

This is a good example of what Rumi meant when he wrote, “The fault is in the one who blames. Spirit sees nothings to criticize.”

These students were most likely very afraid of being labeled a “slut” and that fear drives them to criticize other students for their “sluttiness.”

But it’s also a good example of taking what has traditionally been considered a virtue, chastity, and enforcing it incorrectly.

The enforcement in this case was done hypocritically, and without the goal of helping others live in a more virtuous way.

For example, if these female students were truly concerned with sexual mores, they would first try to live up to an objective standard of sexual behavior.  They would lead by example.

One student spent all her time trying to cover up her sexual trysts, instead of trying to not have them in the first place.

The woman with the most sexual partners in the study, a rich girl named Rory, also had the most sterling reputation—largely because she was an expert at concealing her sexual history.

“Rory was going to lie till the day she died,” Armstrong said. “She would only have sex with guys who didn’t know each other. She constantly misrepresented what she was doing and didn’t tell people where she was going.

If the students wanted to legitimately help change their fellow students’ immoral behavior, they would gently broach the subject and come from a place of love and concern. They would make the point that perhaps casual hook-ups is not the most rewarding way to live, and that there are significant benefits to restraint. They would point out that casual sex may prevent you from truly getting to know someone, and as a result, may lead to you view people as objects, rather than complex beings. Their criticism should be elevating, not cutting.

I think there is still a role for shame, as I believe it helps recalibrate people to do and be better, but it has to be used correctly. Religion spends a lot of time defining moral and immoral behavior, but they also spend a lot of time teaching people how to live with others whose behavior you find immoral.

This is perhaps another reason why we should learn from religion. We may feel like we know right from wrong, but we don’t always know the best way to live these values and help others live these values.

  • This is an interesting point and something I’m sure a lot of people struggle with. While it sounds warm and fuzzy to remove shame out of our everyday lives, it is wickedly tough. And as you write, shame can, paradoxically, help people live better lives. Delivering valid and helpful criticism is really tough. It’s certainly a skill that one can only develop with hard work and practice.

    I commented a couple of weeks ago on how negative visualizations seemed like a useful technique. Unfortunately – I KEEP FORGETTING TO USE THEM!! How do you keep yourself in check and remind yourself to put into practice what you’re learning? I find that it’s easy to think of these things when relaxed and calm, but when I’m under more pressure, it seems that I forget that these tactics exist.

    • I think we forget to compare shame to other alternatives, like laws, for enforcing good behavior. We have laws against sexual harassment, which don’t seem very effective. Being shamed by someone close to you and that you respect would be far more effective.

      While we want to avoid a Scarlet Letter type situation, when used correctly, criticism and shaming can be an effective motivator for people. It must be combined with compassion and humility and done from a good place, similar to how a parent would scold a child. I think religion is smart about this, and usually combines shame with a way to redeem yourself.

      Negative visualization is definitely easy to forget. There were a couple things that helped:

      – Ice baths – this was a physical reminder that I was supposed to be Stoic and doing negative visualization

      – Taking advantage of sad movies/stories/articles etc. A good sad movie will force you to contemplate how much worse your life can get.

      – Doing it at the same time everyday. I took advantage of my commute to do negative visualization. You might find linking it to an existing routine helpful.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Dale. I appreciate it!