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A gendered, sexualized bullying

  • Published at 04:50 pm March 8th, 2020
Slut shaming
The label can be difficult to shake off / BIGSTOCK

The abuse makes it difficult for women to make decisions about their own bodies

Walls of toilets in schools and interviews of female celebrities indicate a commonality -- an unwanted interest in the sexual history of women, and a hint that they are not pure. 

They link back to an age-old practice of shaming women for the most private parts of their lives. 

Slut-shaming is the practice of punishing or making character judgments about girls and women based on their perceived or actual sexual activities. Those assumptions can be based on what they wear, what they look like, or rumours about them.

Perceptions of slut-shaming are influenced by aspects such as class, culture, media, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. These elements shape our world view and deepest values -- what we consider moral or evil. 

One bright, early morning my friend and I headed out to attend a picnic. I had just started using makeup then, and wore a bold red lipstick. As we got on a rickshaw, an old man smilingly passed a comment, “Tomra kon ghorer meye?” He didn’t stop for the answer.  

His intention was not to hear our answer, but to make us aware of his acknowledgement about our position in society, based on the lipstick’s colour and the time at which he found us stepping out. 

This interaction taught me a harsh lesson -- being attractive is a part of the recipe of femininity. However, with one false step, it’s easy to cross the invisible and ever-shifting boundary between that and “slutty.” 

Slut-shaming is sexist. Ask yourself -- why is it that when a boy engages in sex with a lot of girls, everyone thinks he’s a player or a “badshah” and looks up to him; but if a girl does so with boys, everyone thinks she’s a slut or “beshshah” and looks down on her? 

This is the essence of the double standard: Boys will be boys, and girls will be, well, sluts.

Boys do not encounter slut-shaming. They face sexual harassment and bullying in schools, but most often for things that undermine traditional notions of masculinity, such as being overweight or not athletic.

For girls, slut-shaming includes being the subject of rumours, and having pictures and sexually explicit comments about their bodies posted. Many times, photos and videos are taken without the target’s knowledge.

It’s gendered, sexualized bullying

We live in a country where anyone, starting from a street urchin to the most powerful man, can say and do to women as they wish. Girls may be called sluts for any number of reasons, including rejecting romantic advances or being successful. The term can operate as a sexualized slur against any woman -- from 3rd graders to world leaders -- regardless of how they look, dress, or act.

Female celebrities may look “supposedly” younger for their age or date someone after their divorce. Visit their Instagram pages and you will find men consuming their bodies through comments, yet never forgetting to slut-shame them.

It is the very nature of these men: Embedded in their upbringing, not necessarily entirely by their families, but mostly by this society. Politics and power merely act as the enablers.

Women also slut-shame other women

When young girls mature and their bodies develop, there is an increased attention on their body parts rather than the person as a whole. Girls are taught that their bodies are shameful and that they are responsible for the sex drives of boys. Popularity is often awarded to girls with the “right” types of body.

Standing up against such crossings would mean rocking the boat and risking being labeled “bitch,” or “unable to take a joke.” So many women, in order to maintain their social privilege, relax into a culture that treats their bodies like toys.

Publicly criticizing another woman can help a bully distance herself from the stigma of sexuality while also lowering the status of the girl she’s bullying. It serves as a sexual liberator. By defining the behaviour of other women as immoral, they’ve declared their own behaviour to be right.

The rampant prevalence of slut-shaming supports the pillars that sustain sexual harassment.

After a woman is sexually assaulted, people often ask what she was wearing or about her sexual history -- a suggestion that she attracted the assault.

On the other hand, once a girl or woman is regarded as a “slut,” she becomes a target for further sexual assault. This happens because once we rob them of their dignity, they become people who can be touched and violated without their consent.

Once she has been labeled a slut, it can be quite hard to get rid of it. Victims attain a poor reputation, and experience social isolation and painful emotions like humiliation or regret.

You might think, given these circumstances, isn’t it preferable for them to abstain from sexual expression? Putting aside the sexist perspective, since boys and men never have to face this decision, it actually makes no difference if a girl or woman is sexually active: She can be called to task simply because she is female.

In a society that constantly sends confusing and contradictory messages about women’s sexuality, we provide a shaky foundation for women to make decisions about their own bodies, to say “no” to unwanted advances, or even identify situations as sexual assault.

Only when we accept that girls have sexual agency, can we ask why it is so often stripped from them by structures of shame and abuse. Why are those desires stolen, exploited, and sold back to them by a culture that bombards them with images of perky, passive women whose defining characteristic is their erotic availability to men?

As I pen down my thoughts, I want you to ask yourself why we don’t even have a word to describe a happy, sexually active female. 

Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in indigenous and gender politics.

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