Slut-Shaming Hurts Women—So Why Don’t We Stop It Already?
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Slut-Shaming Hurts Women—So Why Don’t We Stop It Already?

It can lead to body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, and that's not all.

Slut-shaming is judging, harassing or bullying someone for their perceived promiscuity or the way they show their sexuality. It can be blatant and calculated, like calling someone a nasty name, whistling, making crude remarks or starting rumors. But it can also be subtle and unintentional—like someone raising their eyebrows when you disclose your number of sexual partners. You can even slut-shame yourself; feeling humiliated, ashamed or embarrassed by your sexuality is your own personal version of shaming.

“It is overt and covert,” says Kimberly Resnick Anderson, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and associate professor of Psychiatry at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, California. Either way, “You end up feeling like you've done something wrong or that you deserve some sort of judgment.”

When you're slut-shamed, it can become ingrained in your identity—and it can take a toll on your self-esteem and mental health, leading to issues years and even decades down the line.

When it starts
According to data, slut-shaming begins at a young age. A 2011 survey from the American Association of University Women found that 46 percent of middle and high school-aged girls had received unwanted sexual comments from other classmates. “Girls who develop physically at an early age, or early bloomers, and girls who actually engage in sexual behavior, are much more vulnerable to being targeted,” says Anderson.

But slut-shaming can happen at any age and anywhere—and affect people for the rest of their lives. One patient of Anderson's is in therapy today because she was subjected to sexual humiliation during her early teen years. “Rumors in school, in the workplace and even within families can have devastating consequences and legacies,” she adds.

As for those consequences, Anderson says, “They develop body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and relationship disturbances. It's hard to convey, really, and capture and do service to the legacy of something like this."

Why women slut-shame other women
If slut-shaming has so many negative consequences, why do we feel the need to bring women down—and why are the perpetrators often other women? “In my experience, women who've felt slut-shamed have felt more victimized by women than by men,” says Anderson.

“Much of it may come down to simple insecurity,” says Ashley Grinonneau-Denton, a certified sex therapist and founder of Cleveland Relationship Therapy in Ohio. Some women may project their insecurities about their sexuality or appearance onto other women.

“Because both women and men are intimidated by erotic female energy, women might be jealous that someone got sexual attention from a man or wished that they were as pretty or as sexy as someone else,” says Anderson. “They make the girl feel bad for an aspect of her femininity because they just want to take her down a notch,” she adds.

There's also a social aspect to it. Calling someone else a slut can help girls police social boundaries, creating and differentiating cliques within certain social classes. For one study published in the June 2017 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, sociologists interviewed 53 female students studying at a Midwestern university over the course of several years. The women were grouped together based on their affluence. The more affluent students associated the term “slut” with a woman’s social class; if they considered you “slutty,” it meant you came from a lower social class—regardless of sexual behavior. The less-affluent women considered snobby behavior slutty.

Why men slut-shame women
Men also shame women for their sexuality. Anderson says a few of her clients have felt humiliated by a girl at some point, even for something like being turned down for a date. “Sometimes men are punishing women for the perceived grievances of earlier life experiences,” says Anderson. “There's like a vengeful, ‘I'm going to show you because you didn't find me attractive or perceive me as masculine.’”

There’s also a power aspect to men slut-shaming women. Some men, accustomed to power, may not be comfortable with women having sexual power. “Women decide whether they're going to let you have sex or not, and because women hold the key, men are resentful about that,” says Anderson.

Ingrained cultural and religious mores are at play, as well. Some men may believe that women enjoying sex—even if it's with them—is immoral. "It's almost like the men are punishing the women for giving them what they want,” says Anderson.

How to stop slut-shaming
Slut-shaming takes a toll on body image, mental health and relationships. But there are ways we can be more cognizant of how we treat and talk to others.

  • Get to the root: If you catch yourself speaking negatively about someone else, take a moment to figure out the reason. Are you projecting your emotions? Are you jealous? “I think anybody who engages in that kind of behavior needs to look within themselves as to where some of those behaviors are coming from,” says Grinonneau-Denton. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the “why” in a safe setting, like therapy, or with a trusted friend or family member.
  • Teach your children: “We really have to make a commitment as a society to change the way we socialize our children starting from the time they can talk and walk,” says Anderson. Parents should make sure their children don’t feel embarrassed talking to them about sexual issues; otherwise it perpetuates the taboo, generation after generation. Once your child starts to socialize with other children, teach them about how to respect other people’s privacy. Let them talk openly about their feelings.
  • Support other women and educate: “Advocate for women's empowerment and for women to lift each other up,” says Grinonneau-Denton. Talk to others about why slut-shaming is harmful—and, if you want to get more involved in the movement, attend events like SlutWalks, which happen all over the country.

What to do if you’re a victim of slut-shaming
Rude comments can be difficult to brush off. But don’t be disheartened. Talking to a therapist might help. In the meantime, these strategies can be useful:

  • Disengage: Deflect negative comments you hear about yourself—that means understanding it’s someone else’s problem, not yours. Shield yourself from negativity by not internalizing it. Instead of allowing it to invade your space, talk to someone else about how you’re feeling.
  • Own it: Studies say if you base your self-worth on internal and intrinsic factors, you’ll be less likely to have issues with your self-esteem. So, instead of getting down about yourself, practice self-love; own your female energy and sexual power, says Anderson—shout it from the rooftops. Focus less on approval from others and own who you are as a person.

“Slut-shaming is a very, very humiliating experience and women do feel bad about themselves and their sexuality and they feel a lot of shame and confusion and guilt,” says Anderson. That's why it’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t happen in our day-to-day interactions, our families and our communities.

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