How Slut Shaming Undermines Liberty

Recently there has been something of a kerfuffle among libertarians surrounding a video by Julie Borowski on why there are so few women in the libertarian movement. Some libertarian feminists, notably Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz, have criticized Borowski for promoting stereotypical views of women and denigrating women’s choices.  But Thomas Woods is not pleased with Skwire and Horwitz, and contends in a recent blog that they are “Libertarian Thought Police.”

Among other objections, Skwire and Horwitz contend that Borowski “slut shames women who engage in casual sex.”  Woods seems confused by this and writes, “Shows how sheltered I am: evidently there are people in the world who use the phrase ‘slut shames.'”  He then sarcastically dismisses the idea that casual sex is a legitimate choice made by women.

Now, I’m one of the “people in the world who use the phrase ‘slut shames.'”  And since the concept is apparently totally foreign to Dr. Woods, I hope I can explain to him why I think libertarians ought to oppose slut shaming. Slut shaming is the denigration of women as unacceptably sexual, often perpetuated using epithets like “slut” and “whore.”  While it is typically associated with shaming women for activities like casual sex, women can be slut shamed for practically anything. Dressing a particular way, having large breasts, flirting, rebuking sexual advances, being bisexual, and more can all be used as the impetus for slut shaming. Any woman can be slut shamed and there is no concrete definition of a “slut,” leading some feminists to argue that it is more accurate to simply refer to slut shaming as “woman hating.

But whatever we call it, slut shaming can have dire consequences.  It certainly did for Hope Witsell. After this 13-year-old girl sent a topless photo to a boy she had a crush on, she faced persistent slut-shaming and harassment from her peers. While school administrators did little to stop this harassment, they did see fit to suspend her for sending the photo. Hope eventually committed suicide. And she’s not alone. Felicia Garcia, Jessica Laney, and Amanda Todd are a few other teenage girls who have committed suicide in response to persistent slut shaming.

The tragic impacts of slut shaming can also be seen in many rape cases. Women who are deemed “sluts” are treated as no longer credible witnesses, because if they want sex or have lots of it, it is apparently inconceivable that they might ever not consent to it.  This form of slut shaming was seen in a 2010 gang rape case that was dismissed when it was revealed that the victim had fantasized about group sex. The judge said of the victim, “her credibility was shot to pieces.”  In a 2008 sexual battery case in Georgia, the judge made the victim reveal a litany of intimate details about her sex and dating history. This was used to slut shame and humiliate the victim.

Slut shaming is even wielded against the youngest rape victims. When the New York Times covered of a case in which an 11 year old was gang raped, the paper of record saw fit to focus on the girl’s makeup and clothing. Later in the same case, defense attorney Steve Taylor blamed this 11 year old girl for being gang raped, comparing her to a spider luring men into her web.

And these are just the stories we can read about in the news. But there are likely plenty more instances of rape survivors being slut shamed that we will never read news stories about. After all, 54% of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey. This under-reporting can be understood as partially a response to a culture that slut shames and degrades rape survivors who come forward. YouTube user chescaleigh recently posted a video about her experiences with slut shaming after her rape. She provides a powerful look at how rape survivors are slut shamed in the cases that never make it into news media.

And this is why slut shaming ought to be opposed by libertarians. Woods writes that, “The core libertarian value is nonaggression.” I hope we can all agree that rape and sexual assault are clear acts of aggression. Slut shaming and victim blaming are cultural practices that make the victims of this aggression suffer more, all while helping the perpetrators of aggression escape accountability. We should vigorously oppose slut shaming and victim blaming in the same way we should oppose any excuses offered for state violence.

That reminds me: Slut shaming also functions as an excuse for state violence. In particular, it relates closely to the state’s persistent use of violence against sex workers. A recent Human Rights Watch report examined four major US cities where cops will use a woman’s possession of condoms as evidence that she is a sex worker. Because apparently, in the slut shaming minds of police, being prepared to practice safe sex means you’re a prostitute. And apparently being a prostitute means you can be “legitimately” targeted for state aggression. In addition to the usual statist practices of kidnapping people at gun point and locking them in cages, the report also found that police sexually assaulted suspected sex workers. Transgender women were regularly profiled as sex workers, showing how gender stereotypes structure state violence.

Now, none of this necessarily proves that Borowski was in the wrong, as her video did not contain the kind of overtly destructive slut shaming discussed here. Indeed, all she said was that media promotes casual sex and that casual sex is not empowering. It could be argued that Borowski was just making a point that many feminist media critics have also made. However, Borowski made her point in a way that easily could also be seen as denigrating women who choose casual sex and makeup, thus furthering a cultural climate of slut shaming.

But this is not an issue that can simply be dismissed as irrelevant, minor, or “just a joke.” Studies have shown a relationship between sexist humor and sexist attitudes or actions. Casual slut shaming preserves the social environment that makes more severe forms of slut shaming powerful.

Think what you will about Julie Borowski’s video. Whether she promoted slut shaming in it is debatable. But I believe libertarians should conclude that slut shaming, and the social environment it creates, are worth opposing. Because we care deeply about aggression, we should seek a world where aggressors are held accountable and the victims of aggression are not shamed and degraded. Slut shaming stands directly in the way of such a world.

Moreover, as a libertarian I favor human dignity. Slut shaming is a real threat to human dignity. For many teen girls, it means relentless and vicious harassment in public school halls, largely unimpeded by school administrators, who are more likely to punish the victims for their sexuality. As we have seen, this can end in suicide. For rape victims, slut shaming means a shifting of blame. It means their sexual history, their fantasies, and their appearance are all turned into weapons to degrade them when they are already wounded by sexual violence. And for those targeted by police, slut shaming can mean that they will be kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and locked in a cage all under the cover of law. It can even mean that their attempts to practice safe sex become used as evidence to legally justify caging and abusing them. This is what a slut shaming culture looks like. Libertarians must join with feminists to stop it.

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