I stood in front of the bathroom mirror running my hands over the marks he’d left on me. Little nibbles and scratches, like sexual graffiti on my skin. Flashes of his flesh surged through my mind and I smiled as I fantasized about what we could do the next time.
And then it hit me.
A knot of post-sex shame tangled inside of me. I’d violated the most primary tenet of female sexuality: casual sex on the first meeting. Not even the first date. We’d met at a friend’s birthday party and gone home together.
My stomach sank down, weighted with girl guilt and the prospect that I had lost respect for engaging in a consensual hook up. I tried to fight culture with common sense. Why does it matter? There were two people involved and we both enjoyed it… But I should have made him wait. Now he might not respect me, might think that was too easy and be over it…How the hell could he be that hypocritical? He’s just as much of a slattern as me… Too bad no one wants an easy woman.
The most disturbing thing is this isn’t a scene from high school. It happened this week. If I, as an empowered, adult, female sex educator still have these thoughts, I can only wince at how the rest of the population fares.
Culture runs deeper than we realize. The lessons we learn in youth are the foundations upon which our reality grows, roots that inform every lesson thereafter. I wonder if we ever really dismantle the social constructions we inherit or if we simply cover them up with new messages and paradigms.
I sometimes fear the intrinsic nature of slut shaming and girl guilt is too deep to dislodge, that no amount of writing or lecturing or challenging social norms will shift that pendulum in my lifetime. Just when I think we might be getting somewhere, I speak to young women terrified of having sex for the first time. And they’re less afraid of the sensation than they are about how their first (male) partner will treat them: will he like their body? Will he respect them after?
And just when I try to tell myself these are just a few experiences, research emerges demonstrating a link between first sex and improved body image for males but degraded body image for females. Despite decades of public discourse about the validity of female desire, despite Our Bodies Ourselves, despite Betty Dodson, despite Susie Bright, the sinister double standard remains.
Truer words could not be spoken. In examining my reaction, I remembered my first run-in with the slut-shaming machine at the tender age of nine. The conversation centered around a girl in our grade, whom I’ll call Kelly, and the “naughty area” on the other side of the playground fence where the older kids allegedly went to hook up.
For reasons unknown, our grade designated Kelley as “the slut.” No one had any evidence she had so much as kissed a boy. But she did have tiny breast buds forming and I suppose that was enough to condemn her. Kids would spread rumors about Kelley having sex with any boy who wanted it. They’d claim they saw her hop over the fence or swear their friend had totally done her.
We were nine. This was the same year a ten year old girl in our class started hysterically crying because she started her period. We knew next to nothing about sex and sexuality except it meant doom for the females.
Children do not exist in a separate world of innocence. They live in the same world as everyone else, hearing our comments and conversations. At their youngest, their views are dependent on public discourse and private conversations. When a newscaster reports sexual assault and remarks about the victim’s attire, they remember. When we deride a person’s sexual choices, they hear. When our conversations about sex revolve around danger and forget to mention pleasure, they recognize.
And what favors do we do to younger generations with our shame? Sex, a simple physical act that can be so fulfilling and beautiful, becomes warped. We knot their future desires in a thorny fence of anxiety. By passing on our shame we prevent them from having sexual fulfillment later in life.
Because they will probably have sex one day. Hell, we expect people to have sex at some point in their lives. Virgins are simultaneously revered and suspect in our culture, depending on one’s age. Trying to scare youth away from sex is the worst possible tactic and only results in scared adults trying to work out their sexuality in the increasingly complex and uncharted modern romantic interactions.
I wish I could tell you that womanhood displaces girl guilt. But in a culture that legitimizes disrespect to females having sex outside of a committed relationship, how can it? I wish I could say the blatant hypocrisy of a male passing judgment on a female he slept with was enough to erase some sense of girl guilt, but when the larger culture agrees how can those actions not still sting?
So I propose this: call out slut shaming wherever you see it. Don’t be angry or riled up. Just note the double standard. Ask the person why they think a double standard is fair. Ask if they’d like to be treated like that.
Remind them of another pervasive childhood lesson: the Golden Rule.