Query a Queer: April/May 2012

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Question: The concept of "slut-shaming" is confusing to me. On one hand, being called a "slut" is certainly used as a weapon against people to disempower them; however, it's also said that promiscuity can be an expression of deeper self-loathing or even a social problem if it spreads suffering and disease. Does pointing this out count as "slut-shaming?"


Though you are asking specifically about sexual “promiscuity,†the framing of your question speaks to the oft-questioned line between passing judgment and expressing concern that marks debates about fat-positivity and even homosexuality (in which people are often criticized for being “too much†under the guise of health concerns). Ponder that one for a moment. At the core of “slut-shaming†is the insinuation — or out-right assertion — that a person’s sexuality is excessive or inappropriate and ought to make the individual in question feel ashamed. Now, that last part may not always be intentional, but it doesn’t have to be; shame and judgment are inextricably linked. Let’s say a friend has recently begun having casual sex with multiple partners. This fact alone does not justify an intervention or a lecture on the possible roots and consequences of such a lifestyle. Despite society’s messages to the contrary, it is possible to have a healthy and active sex life outside of a monogamous relationship. Does that mean that sexual promiscuity is without potential risks? No — but what is? Plenty of other activities can be hypothetically tied to emotional distress and poor health. For example: I really like to eat cookies. Can feelings of self-loathing lead a person to eat a whole box of cookies? Sure. Can eating a lot of cookies lead to suffering and disease? Potentially. Does my fondness for sweet treats necessarily imply that I hate myself and am destined to develop diabetes? No. And you probably don’t feel compelled to point out that possibility. Now, let’s say you know for a fact that your friend recently went through a difficult break-up and is having drunken, unprotected sex with strangers. Both their emotional state and their risky behavior may be cause for concern. Even so, “pointing out†that their sexual promiscuity may be symptomatic or predictive of emotional or sexual health problems is probably the least direct route to take in expressing your concern. ‘Cause let’s be real. All that sex your friend’s having isn’t the problem. It’s how and why your friend is doing it. Instead of lecturing them about the frequency with which they get laid, establish yourself as a safe (read: non-judgmental) person to talk to about emotional and sexual issues. The more open we are about our sexual lives, the less likely we are to engage in behaviors we know to be unhealthy. That said, it does seem reasonable (and non-shaming) to ask about their feelings as well as their approach to safer sex (both in terms of protection and disclosure). I’m not an advocate for beating around the bush, but I think it’s important to be honest and kind when expressing concern. It should go without saying at this point that calling out sexual promiscuity generally as a “social problem†is slut-shaming because it places blame for issues such as infidelity and the spread of disease on the frequency with which a person has sex. These need not go hand-in-hand, particularly if one is an “ethical slut.†While this may seem a contradiction in terms due to the stigma associated with the word “slut,†it ought not be such a radical notion. You may be familiar with the book “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures†by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt. While not perfect, the book provides a framework for maintaining multiple sexual (and/or romantic) relationships with honesty and integrity. The authors define “slut†as “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.†This is not to say that all “sluts†are ethical or all sex is good and healthy. But rather that it is possible to be sexually promiscuous in a way that serves one’s emotional needs and protects their physical health. Having multiple sexual partners isn’t for everyone. Some folks try it and decide they don’t like it. Still, it is better (in my opinion) to support our friends in finding a healthy expression of their sluttiness than to discourage an active sex life out of a fear it might get messy. -Erin Rook, PQ Monthly staff writer  
Are you a lesbian puzzled by gay men? A transgender person pondering bisexuality? A straight person perplexed by queers of all stripes? PQ is here to help you through your “questioning†period. Send your questions to info@pqmonthly.com and put Query a Queer in the subject line.