Erin is twenty seven years old. Erin works as a teacher at the local national school, has a few close friends and goes to the local pub at the weekends. Like many other locals Erin uses dating apps. Every now and then Erin gets into conversation with someone they’re attracted to. And like many local app users Erin enjoys sending photos to this person. Some of these photos are of Erin with clothes , and some with fewer clothes. Erin receives some in return. The following week Erin’s photos are being shared on social media – not the ones with their clothes on. Parents and students have seen them, and Erin’s reputation is in pieces. Erin is made feel guilty and ashamed. The person who shared them receives little or no negative consequences. They continue as normal.
Is Erin a man or a woman?
This is a hypothetical story. But it could easily have been plucked form a daily news website. A local person struck by a wave of normalised slut-shaming. It could have been anyone.
Slut-shaming is not a new phenomenon. It is most often directed at women, who engage in behaviour or have desires that are more sexual than society deems appropriate.
In more recent years slut-shaming has grown to include the ridicule of people involved in sexual acts on camera (a celebrity, but still relevant), including videos released without consent. Again, the targets are mostly women, but men’s experiences are on the rise (although this example is heavily laced with comic relief and statutory approval).
Why push back at these boundaries to sexual freedom?
The psychological effects of what may seem like harmless pokes and jabs at a persons character can be devastating. In 2015 a video of Italian woman Tiziana Cantone carrying out a sex act on a man was shared on the internet without her consent. Abuse and shame fell heavily on Tiziana, with viewers making parodies of the video on Facebook, Whatsapp and other media platforms. The whole thing snowballed – smartphone covers were made about it. It went so far that Tiziana moved from her home town of Tuscany to Naples, and attempted to legally change her name. In the middle of a legal case against the video, Tiziana committed suicide, September 13th 2016. Unfortunately Tiziana is one of many women whose lives have been taken away in some form or another by online sex-shaming.
This is the twenty-first century – teens are mocked for being virgins, 61% of Irish people believe that sex is very important (an indicative survey by the Irish Times, 2015), and 83% of people believe that sex is a vital part of health and well being (Durex Global Sex Survey of 29,000 people). It would seem we are a nation that feels sexual exploration is an important part of living.
But unfortunately, once the curtains are drawn and sex comes to the fore on our smartphones or laptops, we become salivating voyeurs, hungry to humiliate others through self-gratifying abuse. We don’t have the vocabulary to discuss sex outside the acceptable lines of discourse. In the age of technology, to live as a sexual being is to be an outsider; ‘the other’ – especially if you are a woman.
When the sex tape starring Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee was the news of the year, did the thought “it’s great that a woman can feel the confidence to express their own sexual identity ” cross your mind? Probably not. Video stores and testosterone genes put on their party hats, while the stereotype of women as dependent sexual objects overshadowed the independence she was asserting – more power to you Ms. Anderson. Ray D’Arcy articulates this in splendid fashion in a 2015 interview with the actress (you could almost see misogyny and chauvinism giving each other a high-five off camera).
The view that we must control the image of, or shame those who film themselves for pleasure or empowerment has found its way into politics. On a late September night Donald Trump pointed a vulgar finger at Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado, and the sex tape she made (which doesn’t exist – but that’s beside the point). In 2016 in the Philippines, Liberal Senator De Lima faced threats from the dominant party to show an alleged sex tape of her in the House of Representatives, in the interest of truth and justice.
The idea that a woman taking control of her sexuality without the need for a man’s gratification, can keep a President up at night and irk a House of Representatives is beyond ridiculous.
A lot of this has to do with controlling how we use language, and the meaning we attribute to words . ‘Slut’. This word is used in a negative sense, and to be labelled as such is to place you on the other side of society. What makes it so powerful is the fact that there are social consequences to being known as a ‘slut’.
The transnational Slutwalk movement is trying to reclaim the word, in order to empower women through the words ownership. Despite facing some criticism on a number of grounds, this movement has garnered publicity for the need to challenge the ideology surrounding female sexual identity. Combating rape culture, and the “asking for it” argument that has been attached to slut-shaming has everything to do with changing the narrow perception of women’s sexual autonomy. How often does pornography present women as more animal than human, compared to women as complex agents of their own pleasure and sexual fulfillment? Let’s put this one under ‘independent research’.
We need better sex education
When you research sex education in Ireland, a huge number of articles, surveys, websites and research essays point to failures in our schools sex education curriculum, and its implementation. Formal sex education is usually given to teenagers after the Junior Cert and sex-ed up to this point has addressed puberty, unwanted touching and hygiene. We all remember that old classic 1980s Irish Catholic sex education video, despite having tried (in vein) to bury it in the recesses of our minds. Over 20 years old, it was visibly out of date and out of touch with our lives, and ignored sexuality completely.
I know. I apologise for bringing it up.
Sex education, in theory makes discussion about sexuality and desire mandatory. However, depending on the school you attend, the classes are tailored to suit the ethos of the school. You are taught about the dangers of sex, the negative effects of sex before marriage and the moral implications of sexual acts. Questions about sexuality, consent, pleasure and sexual responsibility don’t fit.
Even in diagrams in secondary school Biology books, the clitoris is left out. But the lovely people at The Huffington Post have put together a nice tribute here. Basically, at this stage sex is discussed in terms of reproduction, not in the realities of pleasure and desire which teenagers have become familiar with by this stage in school.
What we need is a healthy, open, and honest discussion about sex in a digital age if we are ever going to dispel this taboo culture that surrounds asserting individual sexual identity, and gratification and pleasure for one’s self. Can we please take a step outside the lines of acceptable conversation, and try to understand people’s individual sexual motivation a bit better?
Sex tapes are not font page news, and they are certainly not guilt propaganda – let’s film ourselves with no shame.