Horrifying NPR piece on slut-shaming falls short of inspiring – and may do more harm than good

I heard a well-orchestrated piece this week, written-produced-and-performed by high school journalists – all about the slut-shaming that goes on in their schools. You can listen to it (and read a slimmed-down transcript) here. Here how NPR captioned the story:

Sixteen-year-old Rookie Reporter Temitayo Fagbenle says at her school girls are often the victims of “slut shaming,” having explicit photos and videos of themselves posted online and shared with their peers.

It was a riveting story, and I was fascinated (horrified) by it, but… it had some concerning points.

For example, that’s not what slut shaming is. Or, rather, that’s not all slut-shaming is. That’s an extreme, extra-horrible, better-be-illegal form of it, but slut-shaming is something that can be much more subtle as it pervades society:

Slut-shaming, also known as slut-bashing, is the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. Furthermore, it’s “about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior” (Alon Levy, Slut Shaming). It is damaging not only to the girls and women targeted, but to women in general an society as a whole. It should be noted that slut-shaming can occur even if the term “slut” itself is not used.   (from Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog)

(You can also check out our posts with the tag “slut-shaming” for a reference)

So, maybe Ms. Fagbenle didn’t realize that the word could mean a lot more. (She is in high school, and it’s not a subject that’s on most curricula). And, when you’re witnessing the literal, extreme examples of something every day, the subtler examples probably mean a lot less to you and seem less important.

The thing is, the subtler forms are what leads to the more virulent examples.

When people are taught (by their peers’ laughter, or at least the absence of their rebukes) that it’s ok to call girls “trashy” or think women who are (even allegedly) willing to have sex are less worthwhile, they then move on to posting pictures of naked girls online and saying it’s the girls’ own fault for getting herself into such a slutty situation in the first place.

Or, they might even “carr[y] her around with them all night as their own personal rape toy” after finding her passed out at a party and call her “so dead” and a slut on video tape… like at least two high school football players did in Steubenville, OH.

One of the author’s friends experienced her boyfriend posting “an intimate video” of them online, and the next day the whole school knew about it – even the principal, who called her mom. She says,

“I couldn’t even look at my mother because I felt hurt and I also felt that I disrespected her,” she says. “I didn’t want kids in the school to look at my mother and be like, ‘Wow, she raised nothing.’ “

Not just the other students, but even the girl herself, think that she is “nothing” – worth nothing, should be treated like nothing, deserves nothing – simply because she had sex.

Something that was initially (I hope) a confident choice and pleasurable experience instantly became something that effaced her entire value as a person when other people knew about it.

Not that I believe that a statistically significant number of sexual assault reports are fictitious, but when the social punishment for willingly engaging in sexual activity is this harsh, it certainly doesn’t help people own their non-coerced sexual experiences.

Other girls are often the harshest critics, but after some group reflection the author’s peers try to change their tack and challenge the blame in these situations:

“There’s people that they don’t know they’re taking a picture, there’s people that don’t know they’re getting recorded, that’s not fair that a guy can actually hide his phone, have sex with you and record you, and then show it to his friends…”

But they also say this, and reveal their cards (which their upbringings dealt to them):

“Yesterday there was some girl, she was in a picture, with like, like a penis in her mouth [and] smiling….. Girls do it to themselves. Half the time we can’t even blame guys. Like, she was looking into the camera, smiling.”

So, if it looks like she’s actually enjoying or being enthusiastic about the sexual act, it’s her own fault. If she trusts her partner (with whom she trusts her body) with not sharing these photos or videos, it’s her own fault that he made the choice to share it with the world – “we can’t even blame [him]” – it was her fault for being in a position where he could do that in the first place.

Maybe it’s just unfair to put a man in such a tempting situation? Maybe we can’t expect any more of them?

Just like how it would be her fault if a guy sexually assaulted her while she was drunk, because she put herself in that position in front of him, right? How can we expect a fellow partier to resist the temptation she laid out (perhaps literally) before him?

I think, (I hope) we don’t actually believe that, right? That man’s natural state is a porno-paparazzo or a rapist?

No, it’s not.

Men and boys (even high school boys) are amazing people, just like women and girls are. Let’s not pretend that they aren’t capable of the same humanity and rational decision-making as the other sex. Thinking that way is an insult to them.

Though I applaud the authors’ and her peers’ efforts to tackle this subject and try to change the dialogue around it, I’m worried by how far short they fall. The points I’ve discussed here aren’t made in the story (or perhaps one or two is hinted at), and the male students aren’t really portrayed as capable of changing their behavior – but they aren’t given much of a chance to show it, either. The mentality of the guys quoted as engaging in slut shaming is barely challenged, so listeners have no opportunity to hear them reevaluate their ideas and their actions.

In this way, the story does both the men and women of their school – and their society – a disservice. What use does it serve other than to horrify adults (especially those easily-panicking parents the media can always rely on for buzz) by simply exposing an ugly mentality? The piece doesn’t propose solutions or even fully probe this mentality.

Maybe terrified parents will sit their daughters down for a lecture on staying out of this kind of trouble, or schools might enact harsher punishments for students found responsible for posting these kinds of images, words & videos, but none of that will actually change what’s going on or why it’s happening – leaving us all in the same place we started.

Listen to the story for yourself – what are your thoughts?

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s