How To Deal With Casual Slut-Shaming

Photographed by Ashley Armitage
A few months ago, I realized that there was something off about a lot of the conversations I was having with my coupled-up friends and family about my dating life. Nearly every time I'd mention that I'd stopped hearing from a guy, the person I'd be taking to would suggest that maybe it was because I'd slept with him too early. And if someone asked me to ballpark how many sex partners I've had, and I refused to answer, their eyebrows would raise. Even though I wasn't being called a name in any of these situations, it was pretty clear what was going on: I was being casually slut-shamed.
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Overt slut-shaming is easy to recognize: any time a school attempts to dictate young girls' dress codes; when a Bachelorette is criticized for sleeping with a male contestant while he doesn't get any criticism himself; or when students are faced with abstinence-only sex education. But casual slut-shaming is something stealthier, and it's something that happens in a lot of the conversations we have around sex and dating. And, sure, people of all genders can be slut-shamed, but this type of criticism is overwhelmingly directed at women.
First things first: Recognize that it's not in your head.
While a lot of people think that we as a society have become totally accepting of women's sexuality, anecdotally, that isn't really the case. "Women's erotic power is so important, and it's becoming more advocated for and appreciated by so many people," says Lindsay Chrisler, a love and relationship coach in NYC. "But that comes with a lot of fear because of the way we've been socialized to think about women's sexuality." Traditionally, women are supposed to act less sexually than men — and society tends to view women who do embrace their sexuality as being, well, "slutty." "When a woman says, 'I'm entitled to a good sex life, and I want it, and I like it,' it's seen as being risqué," Kristin Zeising, PsyD, a sex therapist in San Diego says. "But when men project sexuality, they're given a high-five." This is likely why studies have found that women tend to understate the number of sexual partners they've had, while men tend to over-exaggerate their number.
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And not everybody that does it understands what they're doing.
Dr. Zeising says this ingrained behavior is a product of media messaging around sexuality and the ideas passed down to us by our family members, friends, and religious communities. It's problematic because it stunts the dialogue that women (and people of all genders) should be having around what it means to have a healthy sexuality. "So there winds up being a lot of shame tied up in women's sexuality," she says. "And that could lead to [women] projecting that shame onto others."
In my case, this casual slut-shaming tended to come in the form of "advice" or "concern" from those people in my life who were already in relationships, many of whom are women. And the snide comments and lectures started long before I started writing about my sex life. "There's a self-righteousness born of the idea of, 'I know what's best, so I'm going to tell you what it is,'" Dr. Zeising says. And the behavior is so ingrained that people may not even realize that they're doing it — and they may not even understand why it's a highly-gendered put-down.
Fortunately, there are strategies to dealing with it.
So, if you're faced with casual slut-shaming, how should you handle it? Instead of making a joke at your own expense, Chrisler says it's better to be upfront and vulnerable with the person. "Vulnerability is the only way out of that moment," she says. "A simple, 'Ouch, that didn't make me feel good,' can be really effective, and most friends will be totally up for cleaning up their behavior." There are, however, some people who may not be open to being called out, and those situations can be tricky. "A lot of people won't want to take responsibility if it's said in jest, or they'll try to justify their comments because of the deep-seated beliefs they have," Dr. Zeising says. "But don't be afraid to hold your ground if they push back. Say, 'I was just giving you some feedback,' and end the conversation that way." It's also a good idea to consider what you share with certain people — a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
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The most valuable lesson I learned, though? If you're comfortable doing so, it's important to point out these instances so that people can wake up to what they're really saying. "People need to be more conscious that putting people down based on their sexual choices or identities is inappropriate and can be hurtful," Dr. Zeising says. "It's important to have an open dialogue about healthy sexuality in our culture."
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