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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.

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    1. In reply to Fred Bloggs

      Comment removed by moderator.

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  4. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Hmm...wonder what the first three immoderate comments contained?

    You're right Meagan, it's the perennial old sexual double standard riding again on new media. A case of the oppressed identifying with the oppressor and judging and policing according to their standards when employed by females. So sad that they even use this misogynst term of abuse against one another. Like mud wresting or cage fighting spectacles. In the words of Anne Summers' book "Damned Whores and God's Police", there has…

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    1. Meagan Tyler

      Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Yes, always a worry Pat, when 4 of the first 5 comments have been deleted on moderation.

      The seemingly contradictory trends of young women having sex in so-called "hook-up culture" which (supposedly) celebrates casual sex and then calling women who participate "sluts" later actually seems to just echo the dichotomies you mention.

      One of the less cited examples of the memes on these pages, for example, features "scumbag steve" (as the oft repeated image has becomine known) and reads: "Calls you a bitch if you won't sleep with him. Calls you a slut if you do." That kind of sums it up. There are misogynist slurs to cover all situations, and whether or not they actually get applied to you have very little to do with your sex life.

      There is, as you point out, a serious cultural ambivalence surrounding women's sexuality generally but it does seem to intensify when we're talking about young women and girls.

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  6. Joe Gartner

    Tilter

    There is no doubt that there is a misogynistic vein amongst men in our society and that the facebook pages described in this article are an example of this.

    I have witnessed both men and women disparaging women who would take 'too many' sexual partners or the wrong type of sexual partner. It is not only men who engage in this double standard.

    What do we call a woman who vilifies another woman for their sexual behaviours when misogyny is not accurate? perhaps men should be called this as well instead of misogynists; after all misogyny is ' the hatred or dislike of women or girls'. I don't think that the majority of men who lambast a woman for her choice or variety of sexual partners necessarily hates women in general, and I don't think that a woman who lambasts another woman for her choice or variety of sexual partners hates women either. So what are we to call this rage against women who exercise freedom in number or variety of sexual partners?

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    1. Meagan Tyler

      Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      No, it is not only men engaging in this behaviour online (although nor is it, as one commenter below suggest, overwhelmingly young ladies). It is quite possible for women to participate in woman-hating as well.

      Exercising misogyny isn't necessarily about literally hating all women (many a misogynist will proudly proclaim to love their mother/wife/girlfriend, for example). But these insults exist and are leveled at women as a group.

      The point is that these insults get thrown as women *because they are women* not because they do or don't engage in particular forms of sex. The problem is women's status not their sexual activity.

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    2. Adam Richards

      Teacher

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      "There is no doubt that there is a misogynistic vein amongst men in our society and that the facebook pages described in this article are an example of this."

      Does this vein run through all men, most men, half the men, some men, or a few men? I think quite often we are extrapolating a noisy majority's behaviour onto a group as a whole. It is intellectually sloppy to generalise in such a manner.

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    3. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Adam Richards

      Unfortunately, a lot of people have poor vocabularies, and don't know what "misogyny" is.

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    4. Adam Richards

      Teacher

      In reply to Adam Richards

      Opps. It should read noisy minority.

      It most definitely is not a Freudian slip. Just a result of being distracted by the goings on outside the window while typing.

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  7. Chris Saunders

    retired

    Brave Megan,
    I think you make a pretty good point about slut shaming really being just a manifestation of woman demeaning. That women did this to each other to start with I suppose could be accepted on the basis that women are allowed to say this to each other in a satirical manner or in the heat of anger, but this concept really only worked elsewhere when it was accepted that no-one else could/would/should do this. I remember how disconcerting it was to hear Australian Aborigines referring to…

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  8. Kim Darcy

    Analyst

    Lord save us, Mrs Davis. On one thread, academic man outraged at kids using the 'f' bomb, on another academic lady outraged at kids saying 'slut'. 'Slut' has been said on commercial prime TV comedies for 20 years. However, no mention that "slut shaming' is overwhelming a sport played by young "ladies". But 'slut' is such an old-fashioned word. Get with it, sista, 'skanky ho' is the new 'slut'.

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  9. Adam Richards

    Teacher

    Four removed comments, wow! If I ask nicely could you give us a look at them? I am simply curious at how far you need to go before having a comment removed by the 'moderator'. Not that I intend on pushing those boundaries.

    I thought you were going quite well until this point "When women are wolf whistled, or propositioned, or called sluts by (usually male) passers by, they’re targeted because they are women."

    Maybe I just have great male friends, maybe the women I know are just lucky and simply…

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Adam Richards

      Just more academic heteropobia:
      "sounds like a lot more fun than trying to end systemic sexism and inequality in heterosexual relationships."

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    2. In reply to Kim Darcy

      Comment removed by moderator.

    3. Adam Richards

      Teacher

      In reply to Bill Butterworth

      "I can state with some authority that all you have to do is mention that "slut shaming" is not an exclusively male pursuit and that girls are often happy to engage in ridicule and other forms of "shaming" behaviour toward young men who approach them."

      If that is indeed the case, it is worrying, though I imagine there might be more to it than that, as I believe that the comments are usually fairly well moderated, with people being able to express their views.

      I think in this case it might be important for 'The Conversation' to replace the comments for the community to make their own judgements, unless there were threats etc.

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    4. Chris Saunders

      retired

      In reply to Bill Butterworth

      I don’t think it could be just a matter of saying girls do it too, although my own post was referred to in passing as suggesting that it was just young girls that do it, and in light of this particular discussion about missing posts I think I understand the author’s confusion about that now.
      However, that information came from the guardian article that Meagan herself referred us to: "It was only a matter of time before the "slut-shaming" of some teenage girls by others became a meme; after all, it's been going on in schools for years."
      Still, I obviously haven't been following proceedings too well. I certainly was not intending offense and was puzzled why my post had been interpreted the way it had.
      Also, I don't think anyone would argue against the point that some girls humiliate boys, or some women humiliate men but I don't think this is a very good argument on which to dismiss what the author is saying anyway, nor really what the article was about.

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    5. Bill Butterworth

      Student

      In reply to Chris Saunders

      The thing is that arguments such as those presented in the article are univectorial, they're not balanced or nuanced. Essentially they are circular: "girls are picked on terribly, see how girls are picked on terribly, boys hate girls, we need to stop girls being picked on terribly, because they are and that means boys hate them".

      It's juvenile at best and the obvious silencing of any attempt to inject some nuance reflects a deep recognition of that, I suspect.

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  10. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    If you don't like what people represent or what they say, or you're jealous, angry, or vindictive, then there's a range of simple options: trash them, label them, call them names, ridicule them, or 'slut-shame' them. One of the comments said the new 'slut' is a skanky ho' - oh dear! And what's the male-equivalent term? Is is publishable, or will it be moderated.

    Racial vilification is illegal in this country, but it's okay to hang all sorts of verbal-labels on our Prime Minister, and no-body…

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