Liberal Slut Shame as Much as Rush

A column about life, culture, and politics.
March 14 2012 10:49 AM

It’s Not Just Rush

Liberals slut-shame just as much.

Girls gossiping.
It's not just Rush who makes women feel bad about their sex lives

Omgimages/iStockphoto

These are heady days for liberal self-congratulation. With Rush Limbaugh calling a law student a “slut,” and the general Republican fuss over contraception, there is a comforting sense of us and them, with us being tolerant, sexy, fun-loving, and them being puritanical, straight-laced, chauvinistic. Except that’s not quite how it is. In fact the trope of “sluts” is perpetuated in liberal circles as well as conservative ones, and there is a much more widespread tendency to judge women for their sex lives than we like to admit. There is a great deal of unacknowledged, uninterrogated contempt for women who are perceived as promiscuous, floating around even in right-thinking, fashionable, urban, blue-state pockets of the world.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

I remember when my friend Deborah Copaken Kogan wrote a memoir about her years as a war photojournalist, in which she also recounted her many affairs on the road. A reporter from Talk wrote, “I asked her if she is worried that her frankness will get her labeled a slut.” And in fact many, mostly female, reviewers did end up taking her to task for being promiscuous, or writing about her promiscuity, or admitting her promiscuity. There seemed to be some sense that if she was going to sleep with so many men, she should just be quiet about it.

This kind of slut-shaming has been going on for a long time, of course. Think of Elizabeth Hardwick’s pointed critique of Mary McCarthy’s colorful personal life or “high degree of romantic singularity” in her essay on McCarthy’s work . Or Virginia Woolf commenting  that the wild, moral-flouting Rebecca West looked like a “gypsy.”  But the strange thing is that it is still going on.  

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The word slut may not always be explicitly uttered but an amateur anthropologist will note the exact same pitch of contempt for a woman perceived as sexually adventurous or prolific. We often hunt down women we think are sexually unacceptable, and very articulately and persuasively express our extreme disapproval of everything about her without resorting to the word. If you think of the elaborate contempt and fury aimed at John Edwards’ mistress,  Rielle Hunter, the endless, exuberant anatomizing of her trashiness, in the course of which one of Slate’s nice liberal ladies called her, for instance,  “an amoral sex kitten” it was not, in spirit, all that different from just outright calling her a slut.

And then as exhibit B take the peculiar and smoldering outrage aimed at Mimi Alford for writing about her now very long ago and surely no longer extremely surprising or incendiary affair with John F. Kennedy. The television interviewers who went after her for not thinking about the family, or for just writing about her life, or for not slinking into a corner in silence or somehow being invisible, were again not directly using the word slut, but they were implying very forcefully that the shame in the story was hers. And again the animus directed at her, the sexually voracious girl, as opposed to say, the adulterous president, is fierce and unambiguous. (It’s reminiscent of the joyful schadenfreude-ish nastiness aimed at Monica Lewinsky, whom the New York Post memorably nicknamed “the portly pepperpot.”)

If one is under the impression that this puritanical mode of thought is nearing extinction, that it might, say, be out of style with an emergent, more tolerant generation, one would be wrong. In her book Hooking Up, Kathleen Bogle does extensive interviews with undergraduates and the landscape she describes is not wildly different from the 1950s in terms of disheartening and destructive double standards. Over and over again, she hears that girls who sleep around, or hook up with too many people or just dress seductively or drink too much are sluts and have bad reputations—one girl mentions a girl at her school called “Blow Job Jen”—and boys can do whatever they want. The slut is not a mythical creature on college campuses, a unicorn or dodo bird, vanished from the vernacular, in other words. The girls talk about being sluts or feeling like sluts or other girls being sluts, and if this seems exotic or surprising to us, we can think back to our own college lives, or to yesterday, when we heard someone expressing something very much like that over coffee about someone else for a sexual encounter, or sexual style or sexual existence they don’t approve of for one reason or another.

These judgments, about women who sleep around or sleep with the wrong people or fail to settle down, these vicious or catty bursts of rage, or calm-holier-than-thou reflections on other people’s sluttiness or condescending screeds about how pathetic or sad or distasteful or lonely or sleazy it is to live so outside of conventional life, persist through all age groups and social strata, in big cities and small towns, on television news programs watched by millions, and on liberal blogs. 

Rush Limbaugh, in other words, is the least of our worries. It’s time the mattress companies started boycotting the rest of us.

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