Atheling aka wickedday is a white, middle-sized, currently able-bodied, cis- and heterosexual British woman about to start studying for an MA in medieval literature. This piece was originally posted at her personal blog, This Wicked Day, where she also blogs about language, geeky things, random crap on the Internet and University Challenge in addition to feminism.
One of the historic and ongoing aims of feminism and feminist movements has been the attempt to eradicate what’s known in the feminist blogosphere as slut-shaming. Even if you’ve never seen the term before, you’ve almost certainly observed it in action: somebody or somebodies abusing someone else on the basis of their (real or imagined) sex life, where ‘acceptable’ levels and types of sexuality are a) wildly inconsistent and b) liable to change without notice (assuming anyone states them in the first place).
Take Sam. Sam is not any of the Sams I know; Sam is a purely imaginary person, who has had sex 20 times in the last year. That’s a number: a neutral statement. But twenty sexual encounters in a year will be read very differently depending on whether they were all with a long-term partner or with twenty one-night stands. Both those situations are also likely to be perceived differently depending on Hypothetical Sam’s sex, sexuality and gender. And race. And dis/ability status. And age.* And what exactly they were doing. And how many people were involved. And their sex/race/age/etc. And fuck knows what else.
Slut-shaming is the shame directed at the many, many Sams who fall down, or who are alleged to have fallen down, on one of the myriad unstated Rules About Sex and are therefore designated as sluts. It happens less than it used to, but there’s still plenty of it, as is readily imaginable from the range of differing reactions to the cast of Sams posited above.
The practical argument against slut-shaming is simple: it doesn’t work. It’s telling that throughout the entirety of human history, including in plenty of cultures that nominally punished some kinds of sexual activity very severely, people did not actually stop doing these things. Shame humiliates people, but it can also lose its effectiveness, if brought out too often: if you’re already outcast/damned/both already, what do you have to lose?
Changing people’s behaviour generally requires convincing them that a) change is possible and b) change is beneficial. The first is difficult when you’ve shamed them into thinking that they’re unredeemable sinners; the latter requires that you actually be able to point to an unequivocal benefit gained from making the change. Which, given that people tend to be happiest when able to pursue** the kind of sex that they want and that makes them feel good, and are unhappy when arbitrarily deprived of opportunities to pursue same, tends to be difficult if not impossible.
The difficulty of persuading people to give up something that they want, that they enjoy, and that in itself is harming nobody means that pundits in the business of persuading people to do so – whether they represent a religion, a political party, or any other organisation – have a tendency to fall back on faux-altruistic yammering about your physical and/or mental health. Here on the internet, we call them concern trolls. Theirs is the argument that goes “But if you do X you’ll get mocked/pregnant/ill/injured/killed/sent to hell/never find true love!! I only want the best for you!!”
It’s amazing how much traction this has.
People tend to respond to the concern trolls’ concerns with facts – contrary to popular belief, it’s not so hard to avoid disease and pregnancy if you know what’s what, and also merely having sex in X fashion does not guarantee that you will die alone and be eaten by your cats. The sheer numbers of sex-positive, anti-oppression people who are also happily getting on with their sex lives is a pretty good counterargument, really.
But to engage the concern-trolling approach (“It’s for your own good!”) with real facts is still conceding ground – it accepts a certain amount of their framing. It accepts before you even start that they have a case to answer; it accepts that their opinions on your sex life are something you have to listen to.
They are not.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the best answer to the concern-trolling “But we’re shaming you because we care!” line is “What the fuck is it to do with you? Did I ask for opinions on my sex life? Why are you even here? In fact, who the hell are you and why are you so freakishly interested in what I do in bed?”
Because, as is (achingly slowly, but with occasional moments of glory) coming to be accepted in a wider sphere, Hypothetical Sam’s sex life is completely, utterly, gloriously irrelevant to everyone in the world except Sam and Sam’s partner/s. The only focus of outside interest should be on ensuring that nobody gets harmed: if it’s satisfactorily established that no nonconsenting parties are getting harmed, then everything else is A-OK.
I say ‘nonconsenting’ there, surplus though it may seem, because you can consent to harm. People do it willingly and even eagerly every day. I’m not talking about it just in the sexual sense here (though BDSM is certainly a subcategory) but as the broader concept of trading off harm (or the risk of harm) against some other form of enjoyment. Smokers abuse their lungs, drinkers abuse their livers, athletes their joints, motorcyclists and cliff divers put themselves voluntarily and joyously at risk. Hell, for a very mundane example, I have wonky front teeth because as a kid, sucking my thumb was altogether too good to give up.
Things cause risk. People consent to risk. So it goes. Sometimes this gets through: it’s slowly filtering through to the general consciousness that (for instance), it is wrong to medicate or sterilise someone against their will, even if unmedicated-ness or pregnancy carries a risk. I think it’s telling that these were the examples I came up with: a lot of the flailing about “It’s for your own good!” seems to be rooted in ableist reactions to imperfect bodies – a horror at the idea that anyone could think it worthwhile to damage, or risk damaging, their body for the sake of some other experience they want.
The principle of bodily autonomy – that it’s my damn body and I will do what I like with it, have sex how I want, and do not have to keep any growths in it that I do not wish to have there, and that it is none of your business whatsoever – is (in theory, at least) a central tenet of modern feminism. It’s the principle behind the drive for sexual liberation and reproductive rights. It’s a repudiation of centuries upon centuries where whole classes of bodies were literally or effectively the property of others. And not just feminism: pretty much every social justice movement has at its centre the idea that it’s wrong to police a particular class of people for having different bodies, or doing different things with said bodies, or both. And that weird, prurient interest – veiled as ‘concern’ – in the bodies of people who are Not You is just that: weird and prurient.***
So how about that fat acceptance movement then, eh?
This post has been brewing for a while; a lot of it gained substance talking to [my friend] Rhiannon, and a lot more of it has been crystallising for months. It’s appearing today because yet another shitstorm has gone down on the subject, this time at Feministe, and that was enough to nudge my brain into gear.
I haven’t read all of the Feministe post – just the bit on the front page, above the jump. I do not wish to finish it, and I sure as hell am not going to brave the comments – I did read Amanda Marcotte’s response at Pandagon, and the comments there, and several people note in that thread that the Feministe one got really ugly really quickly. Anyway. Like I say, this is not specifically an addition to that particular blogdrama. This is something that’s been on my mind for a while.
Food and sex share certain characteristics. Notably, they are both strong instinctual drives – eat or die; fuck or die out – that (most) humans find pleasure in, as well as simple satiety. Both have innumerable variations. People’s tastes vary wildly: in both kitchen and bedroom, what makes X swoon will make Y vomit.
Perhaps because of those similarities, modern society is weird about food in the same way as it’s weird about sex. The rhetoric of health directed at fat people bears striking resemblances to the equally hollow rhetoric directed at people having sex: it’s all about how you’re putting yourself at tremendous risk of disease and death and ruining your life prospects – oh, and probably never being able to find love. (With an option on “You’re ruining it for the rest of us!” Because it is agonising to look at someone ignoring the rules that you punish yourself with, and still being happy.)
Fat-shaming concern-trolling is almost always couched in the language of health. Fat is unhealthy! You’ll die of heart disease! Or diabetes! Or both! And once again, as with the slut-shamers, I have to answer with a resounding “. . . And?”
No, seriously, why are you concerned? What’s it to you? Why the hell does it matter to you so much? You don’t know me. You have no personal emotional stake in my wellbeing. My health is, in fact, of no possible consequence to you. My body: not your business.
(Image made by genderbitch, originally for this post. Read it; it’s an excellent and more in-depth exploration of body-prurience as it affects trans people, and why it’s not only offensive but oppressive.)
The usual response to the hard-to-argue-with point that my body != your business this is the argument from government, as it were. The argument that, because we live under the same healthcare system, this somehow makes it your business – your tax money is being spent repairing my fragile arteries, or whatever, and this is apparently grossly unjust and I’m depriving cancer patients of their drugs or something. And if the wobbling hordes weren’t all so damn fat all the time you would have like an extra sixpence in your kitty come Christmas. Or something. Well, and? If all these people didn’t go round having sex and having babies and getting sick and having accidents all the time that’d probably save the NHS millions. (Also! Fat people pay tax as well. This never seems to be factored in.)
Being aware of where your tax is going is a good thing. But wanting my tax to cover your health needs, whilst simultaneously fulminating against your tax helping to cover mine, is stupid, and arrogant – and, when combined with hand-wringing over Britain Getting Fatter or how the French are skinnier or whatever, tends to lead into jingoism. Who actually cares what nation tops the average-weight list? Why is it so damn important to people that the country they happen to be a citizen of has to be the best at everything?
From certain bits of the right wing, the similarity of fat-shaming tactics to slut-shaming tactics doesn’t really surprise me any more, because large segments of the right are more than happy to do both. But from people who are down with the idea that slut-shaming is bad, and that policing people’s basic bodily autonomy is bad, and that denying people the right to (informedly and consensually) trade a bit of risk for a known pleasure is also bad, it’s sad to see the same shaming, policing and puritanical attitudes coming out.
Fat-shaming is precisely as ridiculous, precisely as vile, as slut-shaming. It betrays exactly the same kind of weird, voyeuristic, judgemental concern with the details of what other people are putting in their bodies, with the same cavalier disregard for other people’s right to decide to prioritise one good (pleasure) over another (health).
When people argue in good faith with the slut-shamers, there’s a long list of things they suggest that might actually help with the concern trolls’ stated goal of keeping people safe and happy. Things like free contraceptives, free care, good sex ed including the emotional side of things, good and accurate information on all kinds of sex and how to have them safely. Friendly environments. An end to public sex-hostility. An end to judging people based on their sex lives, maybe, even.
A similar list of things applies to health. If we eliminated food deserts, made cities more walkable, reduced pollution, enforced better food standards, cut a working week so that people actually had time to cook, taught decent cooking in school, tightened up the regulations surrounding advertising re: body image and diets, and maybe stopped viewing food-as-pleasure as some sort of mortal sin, probably you’d have a lot more healthy people . . . of all sizes, natch.
But no. So often there’s no discussion of fixing the system. It’s so much easier just to fixate on people and blame them for everything. And then blame them some more when the shaming, as always, as forever, fails to work.
*Obviously there is one age-related factor that’s genuinely relevant, which is the age of consent. But even if both/all participants are overage, people are still going to react very differently to a 16-year-old Hypothetical Sam fucking up a storm than they are to Sam at 26. Or 46. Or 96.
**Actually getting it is a bit more hit-and-miss.
***Prying, uninvited interest in the minutiae of someone’s sex life is just one facet of this. See also: Touching someone’s hair, or a pregnant woman’s bump, or in fact any bit of anyone, without permission; quizzing a disabled/ill person about their disability/illness; asking a lesbian how she has sex; randomly asking a trans person about their genitals. That last one gets me especially because it’s so far outside the bounds of normal politeness, and yet the questioners don’t seem to twig that they wouldn’t ask anyone else this kind of question. If someone got introduced to some random cis dude and went “Oh, so you’re a guy, are you? How big is your penis? What do you mean, that’s none of my business? I just wanted to know! God, you male people are so ANGRY!”, they would be instantly categorised as a tactless genital-obsessed creep, and merciless mockery would be the order of the day. When the penis belongs to a woman, though, suddenly it’s apparently a perfectly valid question.
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