When we tell a young woman to cover her shoulders, ensure her bra straps are not showing, or send her home from school because the hem on her skirt is too high, we're "slut-shaming" her and reinforcing a rape culture that places blame on victims for "asking for it".

This is the message high schoolers across the US have been trying to get across to their teachers and principals this year, in response to school dress codes that decree some girls' wardrobe choices to be "distracting" to male pupils.

We don't hear a lot about school dress code "violations" here in New Zealand, save for the odd teenage boy who refuses to shave his face. Though when I think back to my school days, girls were often sent home if their kilt hems rose above their knees (uniform regulations specified girls' hems must fall between their knees and ankles).

School administrators argued this was for "modesty" reasons, but as the examples singled out in the US this year explain, by enforcing a dress code onto a young girl, we're telling her that hiding her body is more important than her education.


Slut-shaming is the act of making a female feel guilty and inferior for behaving in a way others deem to be sexually inappropriate. It could be for violating a dress code by dressing "provocatively", as the above example explains. It could be for making a woman feel "wrong" about casual sex, frequent sexual partners, or even just for vocalising the fact she enjoys sex. Or, it could be what the entire world did to Miley Cyrus in 2013 when she performed We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines with Robin Thicke at the VMAs.

While Cyrus was slut shamed for her twerking and grinding up against Thicke, little criticism was directed towards Thicke himself for his role on that stage. For some reason, see, we don't slut-shame men.

We don't tell men (or boys) that when their trousers are riding low and their underwear is visible, it's "distracting". We don't tell them casual sexual encounters are something to feel guilty about.

We have an inane double standard that allows for anything males to do be caveated by the cliché "boys will be boys". Females, however, are relegated with "women will be whores" for the same behaviour.

The hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction has attempted to empower females to present themselves however they want to the world, with no thought placed on "how it makes them look" to males and society-at-large. But hashtags are just hashtags. They can only go so far in changing the way we direct criticism onto females, especially those in their influential younger years.

The essence of slut-shaming is not really about female sexuality. It's about the fact that men are able to assert themselves in the world, while women are taught to first ponder, "What will other people think?" with the ways in which they conduct themselves.

While we might assume men are to blame for this double standard, there's more depth to slut-shaming than simple reinforcement by males. Females are taught to ask themselves, "What will other people think?" by their mothers, their sisters, and their female friends. Girls and women judge each other and perpetuate the cycle of slut shaming by not questioning conventional ways of thinking about the female body.

Slut shaming is thus the product of both externalised and internalised sexism, and to be stopped, it must be tackled from both sides. This goes beyond refraining from using the word "slut". It's a change that needs to start with teaching children in their pre-teen years to think differently.


Parents and teachers need to explain, when talking about sexuality with young people, that both genders have sexual feelings. Both genders have wants, needs, and desires. Sex-ed isn't just about pregnancy and STI prevention.

Those in the positions of power - the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, teachers, and friends of young people - need to stop supporting and enforcing traditions around how women should and should not conduct themselves. They should challenge dress codes. They can fight the hypocrisy of double standards and not let boys get away with the things they criticise girls for.

In teaching each other that women are not public property, society will realise they are just other individual people with individual lives and individual ways of conducting themselves. Sexual behaviour isn't something to be ashamed of - nor something to be praised. It's just part of the human condition.

The end of slut-shaming begins with the realisation that we can make a new status quo by saying to old statuses: "no".

If you have, or work with, kids, you're in the ultimate position of power to eradicate this omnipresent form of female hatred. It's time to make slut-shaming a thing of the past.

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When we tell a young woman to cover her shoulders or ensure her bra straps are not showing we're "slut-shaming" her and...

Posted by Herald Life on Tuesday, June 16, 2015