Girl Fight: Sluts vs. Prudes


Are these slutty animals disempowered or liberated? (via Bobilina's Flickr)

One of the most difficult pitfalls of giving sex advice is dictating your own preferences and experiences to others. At one point or another, every educator doles their own biases when it comes to sex. I often struggle with making sure I don’t twist research data or cherry pick evidence to support my perspective.

When I saw the internet catfight over Susan Walsh’s critique of Jaclyn Friedman’s piece on reclaiming sluthood I saw the red flags of this classic advice-giving mistake.

A quick synopsis: Friedman writes about finding empowerment through casual sex and argues that women should support each other. Walsh, a business woman turned untrained, self appointed sex educator and staunch opponent of casual sex, writes rebuttal asserting that casual sex has awful emotional ramifications for women because of oxytocin and that these “sluts” are ruining “regular” women’s chances to have monogamous relationships.

I kind of agree with Walsh’s stance about hookup culture, but for very different reasons. Hookup culture is bad not because people have sex outside of monogamous relationships, but because people treat their sexual partners with disrespect. You can have sex with someone, respect them, adore them and not be in a committed relationship.

Everything else in that piece is gender reductionist girl-on-girl hate backed by pseudoscience.

Let’s start with the oxytocin claims, deconstruct the sexist dating claims, and make an argument for destroying the madonna-whore complex.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is one of hundreds of known neurotransmitters and possibly more remain undiscovered by science. These chemicals are how our bodies function and how all our little cells communicate with each other. They interact with one another, act as catalysts and create a very complex messaging system.

In pop science, people refer to this as the bonding chemical. Why? Because of research on prairie voles, little monogamous rodents. Vasopressin and oxytocin are essential in their monogamous mating.

But, as a website about oxytocin states, “the role of these hormones in the human brain is not yet well understood.” Walsh argues that because testosterone can suppress oxytocin that women fall in love after sex more than men. Thus, hooking up will mess up your head young lady.

But she’s wrong. For one, testosterone is in everyone’s body. Estrodiols (feminizing hormones) are synthesized from testosterone. And the chemistry of love involves more than just oxytocin. Our bodies are not so simple as “x neurotransmitter invariably leads to y behavior.” We only have a handful of studies done on a small amount of the population that merely suggest that oxytocin is one of several neurotransmitters that may be somehow involved in lust and love.

Furthermore, when it comes to oxytocin and sex, the key term here is ORGASM. I agree that you can get addicted to good sex with someone. My friends and I call it being “dicknotized”. Don’t worry, it only lasts for a little bit. You can get over it.

Horny Men and Emotional Women

I am weary of gender reductionist dating explanations. We all experience emotions. We all have sex drives. The only difference is how we are taught to interpret these. When you chastise women for their sexual desire while castigating men over their emotions, what happens? Females suppress their desires and males suppress their emotions. There is no biological impetus, only social.

And this is what Friedman was hinting at in her piece. Eschewing the relational and stepping into the casual as a possible means to empower yourself. This doesn’t mean that everyone should go fuck every stranger they see. It means that many women  can find breaking out of the mold to be personally liberating.

I think men could benefit from recognizing their emotions and dealing with feelings of love in a more responsible way. I’ve always had an even gender mix of friends that like to confide in me about their sex lives. Men tend to be the worst dealing with their own hurt emotions because they don’t have outlets. Who is more likely to kill their partner over a breakup? Males ascribing to traditional gender roles.

The Madonna and The Whore

Q: “How do you define a slut?”

A: “Anyone having more sex than you.”

Females can be awful to each other. We are faster to call each other sluts, make fun of each other’s clothes, and make nasty comments about appearance and behaviors.

We are our own worst enemies.

Do you ever hear conversations critiquing men’s sexual choices? No. Nobody exclaims, “I can’t believe Bob has a girlfriend! What a dork! He should just go hook up with some sluts!”

Yet we love criticizing women’s choices. The worst I hear is women shrieking about females having casual sex ruining their chances to get into a relationship. (I’ve written about this before). If you are really an interesting, worthwhile and overall attractive person, you’ll probably get into a relationship if you want. Did you ever stop and think you are a reason you have no dates? Maybe your tendency to blame other people for your problems is unattractive?

Or maybe a relationship just isn’t for you. This is fine. You can have sex and not become involved in a committed relationship. You’re not a slut if you do that or a prude if you don’t.

I propose this: support your sisters. If one friend wants to wait until marriage, another doesn’t care about sex and a third gets a rise out of cruising on Craigslist, support them all. Help each other think through personal actions and try to be happy.

At the end of the day, dating in the modern world is difficult for everyone. We have the freedom to have sex without pregnancy or STIs and the rules of dating have changed drastically. Everyone is a little confused.

In the process of growing as a person, finding yourself, and connecting with the world, you will be disappointed, depressed and heartbroken at one time or another. Buck up, dust yourself off and move on. You will likely suffer as many broken hearts as you break. All genders become romantically obsessed with hookups. Get over it.

We should all support choice. This is what feminism is about. CHOICE. The choice to hookup, the choice to get married, the choice to live a life of solitude. Friedman was getting at this in her piece when she said:

“Sluthood isn’t just a choice we should let women make because women should be free to make even “bad” choices. It’s a choice we should all have access to because it has the potential to be liberating.”

See? Choice. Don’t base your sexual decisions on what the Friedmans and Walshs of the world do. Decide for yourself. Listen to your gut.

And stop slut shaming and playing the victim with misinterpreted scientific data. It drives me crazy.

25 thoughts on “Girl Fight: Sluts vs. Prudes”

  1. Hi Jessi.

    I absolutely loved your blog post! In particular, I loved the idea that people really should be free to pursue their sexual interactions as they choose, and be supported by their circles of friends, whether they want to wait until marriage, don’t care about sex, or rather have flings with people they met online.

    I think big take away message here was summed in the sentence: “You can have sex and not become involved in a committed relationship. You’re not a slut if you do that or a prude if you don’t.”

    I think if individuals internalized that phrase above, making sexual choices might be a tad bit easier.

    Just my two cents!

  2. Enjoyed the post. I’d say I have felt empowered by the casual fling on more than one occasion so perhaps that’s why I’d rather do that than deal with the messiness of a relationship. I would also rather “go for a test drive” before “buying the merchandise” (in this context, “buying the merchandise” means go on a date). With that said, if I like having sex with you, that’s one thing I know I like so then I’m open and happy to explore other options. Just because you have casual sex doesn’t mean it always has to be casual.

    On the flip side, when you have great sex with someone and you get “dicknotized” (great word!), life can kinda suck. I’m trying to get over one of those right now. Boo.

    1. Thanks!

      Remember: if you got dicknotized, it means you had great sex! And with a little bit of practice, you can find a way to get over the pangs quickly. I suggest having drinks with friends and talking smack or imagining your ex-fling doing something that disgusts you. A friend of mine likes to imagine her exes taking a painful dump. Choose whatever you like!

      1. Yes, it was the best sex ever! And maybe for him, too, because he kept telling me he was going to come visit. We met in Vegas; he’s from Australia and I’m from Texas. We kept in touch for a long time, but there have been some issues lately that have kind of turned me off. That’s helping to ease the pain of not having easier access to the best freaking sex ever. At least it was a good story. :-)

  3. “Hookup culture is bad not because people have sex outside of monogamous relationships, but because people treat their sexual partners with disrespect. You can have sex with someone, respect them, adore them and not be in a committed relationship.”

    Sadly, few people are capable of mustering the amount of respect that is commensurate with intimacy during a random hookup. The fact that one has experienced intense physical intimacy without a corresponding amount of personal knowldge and emotional intimacy actually engenders disrepect in some people, generally in men for the women they hookup with.When a woman sleeps with a stranger odds are good that ,rightly or wrongly, she will also experience his intense disrespect. That Jaclyn Friedman’s piece does not acknowledge that possibility is a major flaw in her logic. How many of us feel empowered by having been disrespected?

  4. “When a woman sleeps with a stranger odds are good that ,rightly or wrongly, she will also experience his intense disrespect.”

    Why? What odds? Says who?

    We parrot this line too much. People who know better don’t think ill of their sex partners. Example: I slept with a complete stranger on a trip because a) I was horny and b) he was funny and a sweetheart. Did he disrespect me? Fuck no. His last words to me were “You are amazing”and we parted ways. We didn’t exchange numbers, it was a permanent goodbye and we both felt happy about it afterward.

    Maybe if we (as a culture) shook off our shame about sex, fewer people would act like asses when it came to sex. Just sayin’.

  5. Another fantastically sensible and level headed post, I really enjoy reading your take on things.

    Hooray for shooting down psuedoscience too, abuse of vague science related or ‘sounding’ concepts to promote people’s own unsubstantiated opinion is a big issue.

  6. Your writing is a delight as always and I love your larger point about the empowerment of choice and your debunking of bad science.

    But this line really threw me: “Females suppress their desires and males suppress their emotions. There is no biological impetus, only social.”

    Especially coming right after the paragraphs where you’d just written about how complicated and poorly understood our psychobiology really is, how can you be so flatly sure that differences in patterns of behavior between males and females are only social?

    Personally, I’d be shocked if that’s true. Just from looking at how much our differing evolutionary pressures have shaped differences in male and female bodies, it seems highly unlikely that our minds were left exactly alike. But I’ll admit that more research will have to happen before that’s much more than a hunch.

    S’pose my point is that any kind of certainty about a biological basis of sex-based behavior differences, or a lack thereof, is premature.

    1. Clarification: females and males adhering to traditional gender norms suppress in those areas. And it’s not so much patterns of behavior that I’m referencing to, but what is influencing those patterns of behavior.

      I hope that makes more sense!

      1. I agree that the patterns of behavior are influenced by social factors. We’ve been raised with an old set of values according to which increased sexual activity makes women ‘sluts’ (a strong insult coveying negative value) but makes men ‘studs’ (usually a compliment conferring positive value). It’s a value system that we should try and get rif of.

        But can we? What if this ‘double-standard’ value system, with its resulting behavioral patterns, was hard-wired into us during evolution? I’d like to think we’re still free to change our thinking and values even if they were conditioned by natural selection, but after reading an interview in Salon I’m not so sure that we have this freedom. The interview is at http://www.salon.com/life/broadsheet/2010/08/05/booty_call/index.html . In it, a psychologist argues that until recently (when better birth control became available), sexual activity could be very costly for women since it would result in her having lots of kids without any assurance of a supporting male to help look after them. So it made more sense for women to withhold sex so they could use it as a bargaining chip via which to extract a commitment from men (so that the men would help support any resulting children).

        While that strategy might not make as much sense now (since sex is much less likely to result in children if birth control’s used), it might be part of a set of attitudes towards sex that most people will always hold simply as a result of evolution. As the psychologist put it, it might turn out that we just don’t have the power/freedom to escape our biology (including our evolutionary history) and that, as a result, men and women will continue to have conflicting interests when it comes to sex. Men will aim at being studs (thereby spreading their genes around as much as possible) while women will aim at not being ‘sluts’ (since in the past that would result in having too many kids and not enough male support for them). The pessimistic upshot is that while it would now make more sense for us to do away with the old double standards (as you recommend), human nature makes it very unlikely that most people will make that change.

        1. Yeah, no.

          If sex was primarily about reproduction, as it is for many other mammals, why is ovulation hidden, even from women? The scenario you describe would make more sense if we had distinct ‘heat’ periods, but we don’t.

          Which leads me to believe, from a strictly biological standpoint, that sex is primarily about social bonding in humans, and the incredible range of sexual behavior and gender fluidity that we see across cultures kind of bears this out. Why? Well, evolution doesn’t really work on a small, individual personal, or even cultural level. It’s about the species. I think we tend to forget that, in all of these nature vs. nurture conversations.

          And western values around sex are not universal. Patriarchy is near universal, but not completely so, and if there are exceptions, then it’s not biological.

          So on a species wide scale, sex for social bonding may be more important than anything else in the survival of our actual offspring. And that is fitness, which is the essence of evolution.

          So my point is that many mammals have a very very narrow range of sexual behaviors, but humans don’t. Most mammals have distinct and apparent periods of ovulation. Humans don’t. Sex doesn’t always result in pregnancy for us, and pregnancy doesn’t always result in offspring. That is a really profound statement about our biology that is often just swept aside when we want to get all defensive about preserving our sexual behavior and gender norms on the basis of the fallacy that its natural, and that whatever is natural is better.

        2. Asking whether we can escape our biology is a misleading question, I think. On the one level it’s almost certainly true: we *are* our biology, so “escaping our biology” would mean escaping ourselves. Which doesn’t even make sense.

          But! Just by looking around it’s easy to see that people have a vast range of behaviors and attitudes and and values. For example, many people have in actual fact rejected the slut/stud double standard that you describe. So it’s obviously not impossible.

          Maybe the answer is that our biology and our “hard-wiring” is actually pretty darn flexible and too complex to be captured by simple theories. Maybe there really is an evolutionary pressure for females to be more selective about sex than males–it stands to reason. But there are also a million other evolutionary pressures that have, in total, resulted in fantastically sophisticated organisms that are capable of adapting their behavior within broad parameters to suit the demands of their environment.

  7. This is a great post!
    I’m not what I would consider a slut.. but I’m not nearly a prude either!
    The funny thing is that the more sexual encounters a male has it seems he becomes more
    “expierenced” if women have a lot of sexual encounters we become “sluts” and “whores”.
    I think that as long as you are choosing your people wisely because lord knows no one wants an std it doesn’t matter if you have sex with 1 person or 100 people. I have friends of all kinds and I respect all of them.

  8. “Do you ever hear conversations critiquing men’s sexual choices?”

    Actually, yeah. You do. At least, you do if you’re male. So-and-so is whipped/being tied down by their female SO. This friend hooked up with some nasty, unattractive girl that’s below his expected standards.

    You misrepresent Susan Walsh’s stance when you sprinkle in dichotomous terms like “sluts vs. prudes” and “the madonna and the whore.” Walsh has a problem specifically when someone equates casual sex with female empowerment. She gets emails from college women who feel pressured to “hook up” because of the prevailing campus culture but who really would prefer a relationship. Her blog started as an attempt to impart advice rather than to appoint herself an untrained sex educator. Dan Savage is an advice columnist. What are his qualifications? Jack shit, but people still read/listen to what he has to say.

    1. I mean cultural conversations and public discourse, not side private conversations among individuals. I have never seen blogs or news shows dedicated to proscriptive sexual and relationship behavior for males. As a culture, we don’t focus on this. These aren’t the public debates surrounding sexuality. A woman in my graduating cohort conducted a content analysis of news media headlines about teen sexuality. Somewhere around 80% of the headlines were about females. We problematize female sexuality.

      By saying “sluts vs. prudes” and “whores vs. madonnas” I’m pointing out the base level conception many people have about female sexuality. The reality is far more complex, which is why I started the final section with a joke about sluts. Walsh absolutely subscribes to that paradigm when she talks about “casual sex” women and “regular/monogamous” women. I understand women feel pressured over their sexuality; Walsh is part of that pressure.

      If you want to gain a better understanding of the issues surround developing female sexuality, please read my piece on female sexual identity development, which I have linked to here: https://sexademic.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/from-bachelor-to-master-writing-samples/ She oversimplifies highly complicated social dynamics surrounding modern gender, dating and sexuality.

      As far as Dan Savage, he has several things going for him as an advice columnist that Walsh does not. First, he’s a funny motherfucker. Second, he writes well. His column has been running for nearly 20 years and began as a response to the shitty advice straight columnists were giving to the non-heteros of the world. I am willing to bet that man has had far more exposure to the expansive diversity of human sexual expression than Walsh. That alone gives him more qualifications.

      And he deals with way more pissed off people disagreeing with his opinions.

      1. Well, we used to tell boys to avoid “fast” girls. I wonder what happened to that. I think the big thing about teen sex discussions is the pregnancy issue and media outlets need to put out the “shocking” trend stories to keep those numbers up. Also, I imagine that getting pregnant as a minor puts a damper on things. Also, I didn’t bring up Dan Savage to disparage him, since he’s said about as much concerning his qualifications on his podcast. We are talking about people blogging on the internet. Why not actually understand what your opponent is saying instead of relying on credentialism?

        You yourself admit that sex is not a harmless exchange where both parties always benefit equally. On the other side, a relationship is not a guarantee of anything either. Do we try to impart advice so that adolescents and young adults can avoid painful experiences? Or do we let them make mistakes and hope they learn from them? Dan Savage says that casual sex can lead to meaningful, long-term relationships. Susan Walsh says that you should be careful and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t lead to an LTR. Except in her case, it did: http://tinyurl.com/29g8mc5

        She also linked to this nerve story http://tinyurl.com/23mv88w at http://tinyurl.com/2byvmof
        She gives other reasons to avoid casual sex besides pseudoscience about oxytocin: http://tinyurl.com/5utbwc

  9. “When a woman sleeps with a stranger odds are good that ,rightly or wrongly, she will also experience his intense disrespect.”

    No, the odds are NOT good. I slept around plenty in my way-younger years, and occasionally as I’ve gotten older, and I have simply never experienced this phenomenon that is supposedly so common. I’ve had men ask me if they could see me again; I’ve had men want to hang around and chat and have coffee with me; I’ve had men care deeply about whether I enjoyed the experience. I don’t know what they were actually thinking of me, but their actions were nothing but kind and/or respectful.

  10. And, I’d like to add, my most fulfilling long-term relationships began as nothing but a little strange fun in the sack. My current boyfriend was nothing but a booty call for the longest time. The night we met, we made out like mad and would have had sex but couldn’t because of where we were. He couldn’t wait to see me again, and after a long period of non-committal (and thoroughly fun and respectful) sex, we got together and are now talking marriage.

  11. There’s encouraging news about those prairie voles and oxytocin. The voles are into open marriages. Apparently, they’re monogamous in the sense that they have only one long-term partner, but they do sleep around (according to http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201007/prairie-vole-companion ). It looks like they’ve made the distinction between love and sex quite nicely. This kind of sleeping around seems to meet the demands of evolutionary conditioning, since the male helps with the nest and is ‘an active parent’.

  12. “There is no biological impetus, only social.”

    In totally unrelated news, penises and vaginas have been discovered to be social constructs. Maybe you would care to demonstrate why childcare is overwhelmingly the duty of women and not of men, if there is no homogenization of cultures by biology. Or am I putting up a massive strawman? Please enligthen me (there is straw enough to burn, if need be).

    “For one, testosterone is in everyone’s body.”

    To rebut the contention that testosterone suppresses oxytocin, you have to demonstrate that the levels are about the same in men and women, and that they come in play in the same manner (e.g. if most testosterone in women stays sequestered to be metabolized to those estrodiols they won’t have much opportunity to do the same as they do in men). And anyway, you’re attacking a detail, at worst a oversimplification of what is really going on. It doesn’t matter if oxytocin is the only hormone in play, or if it is part of a larger complex, or even if it is just a correlation with the relevant hormone / complex of hormones. The essential argument is that women bond easier by having sex, and that hooking up substantially hightens the risk that this bond will be shattered with resultant pain and shame.

    “See? Choice. Don’t base your sexual decisions on what the Friedmans and Walshs of the world do. Decide for yourself. Listen to your gut.”

    But don’t forget to calculate the consequences. Men don’t like promiscuity in women they are considering for LTR’s, because it indicates that they may be cuckolded. (However, a healthy sex drive is very much appreciated – yes, we are as strange as women.)

  13. Thank you for another great post!

    This is actually something my girlfriends and I are struggling with. We believe that we are sexually empowered women who LOVE sex. It’s not that we’re interested in random sex and not a long-term relationship. It’s more that we typically know very early on (with most people) that we want to have sex with them. After making that decision, we want to be able to have sex when we want it (as long as the other person is into it too, which they typically are) – whether that is after three dates, or three hours. We feel like, as two consenting adults, this shouldn’t be a problem. This shouldn’t result in disrespect (as once commenter put it) and this shouldn’t mean we can’t continue to date someone and get to know them – i.e. pursue a relationship.

    One night stands are also fine. Whatever. It’s about wanting to have our sex when we want it, and not waiting because of societal views we don’t believe in. Or evolutionary behavior that surely we’ve outgrown (we have rational brains – although I also love the discussion in the comments here on that subject).

    The unfortunate thing we’ve come up against is that boys (I use the term on purpose) aren’t very good at understanding this. They tend to be very into us and we’re into them so… sex happens. If they think it’s too soon, they pull the disappearing act. I sweat it’s not us, it’s them.

    I don’t care if it’s a societal value that these DBs are buying into. I don’t care if there is a evolutionary basis for this behavior (I get it). The bottom line is… haven’t we moved past this? Why can’t we be strong, confident, sexual beings… and fuck like men?

    I guess the bottom line is… I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with a man who isn’t fucking me because he likes me, or wants to hide behind either a societal standard or an evolutionary explanation that leaves him off the hook for rational thought. I can still want to fuck him… and if he bails, just another indicator of who he is.

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