By Nian Hu
The double standard of male and female sexuality
If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve been called a slut.
Women who have slept with 10 men have been called sluts. Women who have slept with one man have been called sluts. Women who have never had sex have been called sluts. Eleven-year-old girls have been called sluts. Laura Ingraham was called a slut by Ed Schultz, simply because she was politically conservative. Sandra Fluke was called a slut by Rush Limbaugh, simply because she supported access to birth control.
I’ve been called a slut, too.
In the first op-ed I wrote for The Crimson, I briefly mentioned that feminism is important to me because it gives me freedom, including the “freedom to have as many sexual partners as I want without being looked down on.” I thought it was clear from this statement, given the context, that I was pointing out the double standard when it comes to male and female sexuality, and the fact that men are not subject to the same judgment and disapproval that women receive for having multiple sexual partners.
Unfortunately, that meaning was lost on some readers—in particular, a journalist and conservative commentator named Robert Stacy McCain. He incorrectly interpreted my statement to mean that I wanted to engage in promiscuous activity, and that other people were not allowed to have their own opinions about my behavior.
McCain responded to my article by writing a blog post titled “Harvard Sluts and the Thought Police.” In his blog post, he accused me of being sexually promiscuous and he derided me and other Ivy League girls for being unclean and immoral.
He railed against “those tramps at Princeton” and the “floozies at Cornell” and the “vile hussies” at Harvard who “put out for every random guy in Cambridge” and are a “public health menace.” He ended his piece by saying that nothing is as “dangerous as having sex with a nasty Harvard slut,” and I can only assume he was referring to me.
However, in the comments section below, it appears that Robert Stacy McCain would actually risk that danger. In his comment, McCain said that he saw a picture of me online, and he conceded: “I’d hit it, after wrapping myself head-to-toe in latex and spraying her with Lysol.”
I cannot deny that I am disgusted by his spiteful comments. However, I am also grateful. It is people like McCain who give me the motivation, the drive, and the passion to continue writing about gender inequality. It is people like him who make me realize just how real the gender double standards are, even at this day and age, and just how important the feminist movement is.
It is ironic that McCain, in writing this blog post, presented such an excellent real-world example of exactly the type of double-standard phenomenon I wrote about in my op-ed.
In response to my innocuous statement about the societal double standard regarding male and female sexuality, McCain attacked me for being sexually promiscuous. It seems that accusing me of excessive sexual activity was the easiest way for McCain to smear my reputation and discredit my opinion.
This is, sadly, true for all women in our society. The fastest way to bring down a woman—any woman, of any age, for any reason—is by calling her a slut. Men of different political stripes such as Ed Schultz and Rush Limbaugh employed this method in dealing with women they disagreed with. Even women use this term against other women, as a way to tear down someone they envy or dislike.
The same, however, does not hold true for men. Herein lies the double standard. One commenter on McCain’s blog unwittingly provided an excellent example of the double standard, saying of me: “I also have to wonder what her parents make of her demands. She seems to put more emphasis on her sex life than on her education and career. Sounds a little skewed to me.”
You know what sounds a little skewed to me? I mean, besides the fact that you think I don’t put emphasis on my education and career when I am studying at Harvard and have seven internships under my belt. No, it’s the fact that you’re worried about what my parents think of their adult daughter for writing about sexual inequality, but you’re not worried about what McCain’s six children think of their 56-year old father for saying he’d like to have sex with an 18-year old college freshman.
Somehow, male sexuality seems less dangerous, less taboo, and less inappropriate than female sexuality. McCain’s desire to “hit it, after wrapping myself head-to-toe in latex and spraying her with Lysol” seems more acceptable than my desire to have the “freedom to have as many sexual partners as I want without being looked down on.”
While I am glad that McCain has embraced his sexuality, I wish that he and the rest of our society would extend the same courtesy to me. If he is allowed to be a sexual being, then why am I not allowed to be one? Why do women get shamed for their sexuality when men do not? Sex, after all, requires two people. And in heterosexual relationships, one person is a man and the other is a woman. Yet, women are derided for having sex while men are often lauded for it.
This double standard is exemplified in the words we use to describe people who have multiple sexual partners. For women, descriptors like “whore” and “tramp” have decidedly negative undertones, suggesting contamination and lowliness. For men, however, descriptors like “womanizer” or “player” are much more positive, evoking conquest and domination.
Slut-shaming, as a phenomenon, is uniquely directed towards women. It is defined as the idea of shaming women for being sexual, having multiple sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, or acting upon those sexual feelings. In other words, we shame women for acting as sexual subjects, rather than the sexual objects they are expected to be.
Sexual objects are the sexy female models whose breasts, butts, and legs are used to sell things like milk, deodorant, and cars. They are meant to turn other people on; they are not meant to be turned on themselves. In our society, we expect women to be sexual objects. Women are meant to be sexy to other people, but they are not meant to enjoy sex themselves. I’m meant to be seen as sexy by Robert Stacy McCain, but I sure as hell am not meant to enjoy sex myself.
Sexual subjects, on the other hand, have sexual desires, pursue sex, and enjoy sex. Sound familiar? That’s right. Women who choose to act as sexual subjects are the very same ones we call sluts. And in desiring the “freedom to have as many sexual partners as I want without being looked down on,” I made myself a sexual subject. I became a slut.
If enjoying sex makes me a slut, then I’m glad to be one. But I want to live in a world where enjoying sex isn’t just a privilege reserved for men. I want to live in a world where female masturbation is just as accepted as male masturbation is, a world where women watching porn isn’t considered unusual, a world where depictions of female pleasure in movies get the same PG-13 rating that depictions of male pleasure do, a world where it’s acceptable for women to have casual sex the same way men can. I want to live in a world where women can simply admit that yes, they want sex just as much as anyone else.
Unfortunately, that just isn’t the world we live in right now. And historically, that hasn’t been what the world looked like. For centuries, female sexuality has been repressed and controlled. Under the patriarchy, where women were nothing more than property her father intended to pass down to a male heir, a woman’s virginity was paramount. What husband would want a wife who has already slept with another man? What husband would want “damaged goods?”
Therefore, the control of female sexuality was central in the patriarchy. Fathers were expected to safeguard their daughter’s virginity and ensure her sexual purity by secluding her from the rest of society, closing her off from educational and career opportunities. Should the daughter somehow find a way to have sex before marriage, the father, along with his sons, might even murder her in an “honor killing.”
In describing the patriarchy, I use the past tense because, though it still exists, it no longer manifests itself so overtly in places like the United States. However, for many girls and women in other parts of the world, this is still very much so their reality.
Though time has passed and things have largely improved for women in places like the United States, vestiges of the patriarchy still remain in our customs and habits—and while some are harmless, others are considerably less so. We continue to wear white at weddings, we continue to have fathers escort the brides down the aisle, we continue to hold purity balls—but most importantly, we continue to slut-shame.
We, as a society, can do better. And we, as people, can definitely do better. As long as people like Robert Stacy McCain continue to uphold outmoded sexist values and reinforce double standards, you can bet there will be people like me (and, hopefully, you) challenging those beliefs and working towards a world of greater gender equality—a world where sexuality is embraced as a natural and wonderful thing, not targeted as a source of shame, for men and women alike.