If you’ve ever been on that little known thing called the internet, you’ve probably heard the term “slut-shaming” once or twice. For those unfamiliar with the term, slut-shaming is the act of making someone feel guilty for having sexual desires, engaging in sexual behaviors or dressing in a way that’s deemed inappropriate based on traditional standards of society.
The usage of the term has exploded in recent years, earning itself its own Wikipedia page and thousands of posts on various social media sites. However, slut-shaming isn’t exactly a new concept; in fact, society has been making people feel bad about having sex for centuries.
Here are a few noteworthy slut-shaming events throughout history. While these three events focus mainly on female slut-shaming, I would like to note that slut-shaming happens to men as well.
The use of contraceptives has always been a hotly debated issue, and that holds true even today. Several opponents considered the use of birth control unnatural, thus leading to restrictions like the Comstock laws (1873) which, among other things, prevented contraceptive information and devices from being sent in the mail.
Many women felt shame surrounding sex and unwanted pregnancies, but had nowhere to turn. Enter Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger—two women who advocated for birth control and sexual education.
Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and helped legalize contraception, hoping to prevent unsafe abortions and give women the opportunity to choose when to have children.
An anarchist and advocate for women’s rights, Goldman illegally gave out birth control and openly spoke on free love.
Both women devoted their lives to breaking down unjust laws created by the fear of female sexuality.
Sure, picking out a bathing suit can be nerve-wracking, but can you imagine being arrested for wearing the wrong one?
This was a problem for both men and women in the 1920s and ‘30s, when the rules of fashion were strict but modesty laws were even stricter.
Women were prohibited from wearing swimsuits that were more than six inches above the knee and were banned from showing their navel to the point where any navel present in magazine photographs was airbrushed out.
Men also had laws restricting their attire in public. Men were forbidden from being shirtless in public, even on the beach.
Anyone violating these laws was promptly arrested for indecent exposure.
However, as the decades went on, style evolved, as did laws regarding modesty, and eventually the bans were lifted.
Looking at more recent examples of slut-shaming, Miley Cyrus’ performance at the Video Music Awards in 2013 spun people into a flurry across America. It should come as no surprise that a woman’s display of sexuality while twerking on stage gained more criticism than other celebrities who were doing things like getting into fights at a nightclub (I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber).
People across the country were quick to brand the actress and recording artist with names like “slut” and “whore.” Many even made comments like “What happened to Hannah Montana?” The thing that’s so wrong with that question is that Cyrus is no longer a 14-year-old acting on the Disney channel—she’s a fully grown woman capable of making her own choices, which includes how she embraces her sexuality.
However, one good thing that did come from this firestorm was that talking about slut-shaming became less of a taboo; people began to contribute to a larger conversation regarding the shaming of sexuality.
In particular, many people came to Cyrus’ defense, like feminist blogger Kate Dries who wrote in an article on Jezebel that “It was jarring because, as opposed to the random, half-nude models we’re used to seeing prance around Robin Thicke, we were watching a 20-year-old woman—a household name, someone we ‘know’—play the object in Thicke’s sexy sex dream…the focus has been on Miley’s performance choices and not Thicke’s compliance in them.”
While things have changed for women over the last century, there is still a long way to go. Maybe instead of trying to change the performer, we should be changing the audience.