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Facebook misogyny: ‘slut shaming’ or just woman hating?

“Slut shaming” may be the latest cause célèbre to sweep to our shores, but it just looks a lot like old-fashioned misogyny. From the US-based Salon and The Guardian in the UK, to the Canberra Times in…

Facebook “slut shaming” pages reflect deeper problems with society’s discriminatory attitude towards women. Flickr/Franco Bouly

“Slut shaming” may be the latest cause célèbre to sweep to our shores, but it just looks a lot like old-fashioned misogyny. From the US-based Salon and The Guardian in the UK, to the Canberra Times in Australia, commentators are bemoaning the trashing of young women’s reputations while simultaneously relishing the opportunity to get the click-inducing word “slut” into a headline.

So what exactly is this pernicious problem that the mainstream media have just discovered? A lot of concern has centred around a variety of Facebook pages that aim to humiliate women deemed by the contributors to be “sluts”. The controversy over the “12 year old slut memes” page is probably the most prominent example, but similar pages, like: “Shit sluts never say”, “Shut up you filthy skank” and “Twinkle twinkle little slut, close your legs you filthy mutt” have also been the subject of Change.org petitions and running battles with Facebook over appropriate use rules.

There is still very little academic literature on slut shaming but the term is frequently taken to mean “the act of criticising or insulting individuals for their perceived sexual availability, behaviour, or history as a way to shame or degrade them”.

The accepted wisdom in much of the general commentary regarding these sites is that they aim to disgrace women who are openly (hetero)sexually active. One Change.org petition, for instance, suggests that the problem with such pages is that they denigrate “sexually confident women”. But even a cursory examination of the sites shows a more complex picture.

Yes, the pages are pretty awful to look at and they do contain screen shots of status updates, comments or photos that users have decided are “slutty”. These can range from something as innocuous as a profile picture that shows cleavage, to the public posting of detailed messages about the great sex you had last night. Whatever the content, it is practically guaranteed that the comments will be heavy on misogyny.

And this is the real point. These pages do not singly aim to embarrass or harass women seen as publicly promiscuous. They just aim to demean women.

Take the current “Slut Memes” Facebook page. It contains several pictures of women who have simply dared to be in public and weigh over 50kg at the same time. These pictures routinely receive comments like: “Save the whales. Harpoon fat chicks” and the ubiquitous “Sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuut!”

It is clear that there are instances where being a “slut” has nothing to do with whether or not you are proudly proclaiming your love of promiscuity. As Leora Tanenbaum explains in her oft-quoted Slut! Growing up female with a bad reputation:

Girls may be called sluts for any number of reasons, including being outsiders, early developers, victims of rape, targets of others' revenge. Often the label has nothing to do with sex - the girls simply do not fit in.” That is, “slut” can operate as a sexualised slur to be used against any and all girls and women – from 3rd graders to world leaders – regardless of how they look, dress or act.

The anxiety about slut shaming therefore tends to miss the point. It helps to generate attention because rallying against slut shaming sounds like a lot more fun than trying to end systemic sexism and inequality in heterosexual relationships. Just as Slut Walks managed to create infinitely more media and public interest than the traditional Reclaim the Night marches, articles on the importance of women who love to have lots of sex with men tend to get more clicks than articles on women’s right not have sex with men if they don’t want to.

An image from the Facebook “Slut Memes” page. Facebook

The growing media obsession with sluts can actually be understood as quite pernicious. As feminist blogger Meghan Murphy recently explained:

The solution to the sexual double standard that shames women for having casual sex, being promiscuous, enjoying sex, having female bodies, leaving the house, whatever, is not…to turn “sluts” into a special-interest group. You see, there is no such thing as a “slut” or a “non-slut”. [T]erms like “slut-shaming” reinforce the very dichotomies feminism works to destroy. Us vs them. Good girls vs bad girls… Like sex, don’t like sex, whatever. You aren’t a “slut” either way. You’re a woman.

It is perhaps most accurate then to see slut shaming as the electronic equivalent of street harassment. When women are wolf whistled, or propositioned, or called sluts by (usually male) passers by, they’re targeted because they are women. It has nothing to do with how they dress or if they really do have sex with multiple partners on a daily basis.

The phenomenon now known as slut shaming is a red herring. The trend is just a continuation of the wider cultural problem of bullying and intimidating women. What these pages capture publicly, for all of us to see, is a snapshot of only a few kinds of vilification that women commonly experience. And, sadly, they show us how far the fight for women’s equality still has to go.