Shaming anyone for engaging in any kind of non-exploitative, consensual sex—even if it makes you queasy—is a slippery slope. Lynn Beisner explains why tolerance is best.
I think that we can safely dispense with the fiction that John Edwards was prosecuted for campaign finance crimes and admit the obvious: He was really on trial for adultery. So for those who prosecuted him, I doubt it mattered much that he was acquitted. The trial itself was the punishment; it was a public shaming—the stocks reinvented for the Information Age. Edwards was held in our virtual town square, unable to cover his face while most of America hurled rotten produce at him.
I am not surprised that the Right was involved in this. It was just another salvo in the war to prop up a sexual ethic based in shame that privileges preservation of the patriarchal family over even the ethic of consent. What concerns me is that some feminists got in on public shaming, deriding him as an “eternally gross” douche-bag. When did it become our role to defend the institution of heterosexual marriage by publicly shaming adulterers?
Edward’s adultery hurt a lot of people and according to his own admission, it was “wrong.” But it was also legal, consensual, and non-exploitative. So when we join in shaming him, we agree with the Right that some forms of consensual, non-exploitative sex are worthy of public shaming. The only remaining questions are who gets shamed and for what behavior.
Arguing with the Right over what makes a person a legitimate target for a public sex-shaming is a dangerous game. We should know by now that women cannot win, at least not in a society where patriarchy is alive and fighting mightily. But even if the deck wasn’t stacked against us, we would have a hard time making the case that women who engage in pre-marital sex like Sandra Fluke do not deserve to be publicly shamed as sluts, but men who engage in extra-marital sex like Edwards deserve to be labeled disgusting man-whores. We would be, in essence, saying that sex which offends us is shame-worthy, but sex which offends the Right is not. The argument we should be making is that no one deserves to be publicly shamed for any sexual act that is consensual and non-exploitative.
It is important to see Edward’s public shaming in the context of our current culture wars. The Right was using Edwards as proof of their central thesis: People cannot be trusted to manage their own sexuality. It isn’t just women’s sluttiness that is the problem; thanks to the myth of male sexual weakness, they view men’s sexuality as equally if not more dangerous. The Right seems convinced that without religious and legislative intervention, men will devolve into porn-addicted pedophiles who regularly defile the family dog.
The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to challenge one of the ways that the Right enforces its morality, slut-shaming, but not the moral code itself. Denouncing slut-shaming while supporting the shaming of adulterers is like decrying witch-burning but gathering the kindling to barbeque a heretic. The way we ended witch-burnings was not by having witch-acceptance rallies; it was by granting religious freedom to everyone. And the way we end slut-shaming is by creating a culture that holds in high regard the right of all adults, even married ones, to engage in whatever consensual, non-exploitative sexual activities they choose without fear of legal punishment or public shame.
We end slut-shaming when we make it culturally unacceptable to shame any form of consensual, non-exploitative sex. Such an ethic would require us to let go of our normative notions about marriage, that we stop assuming all marriages are closed and between only two people of the opposite gender. It would mean that if we find out that someone is having sex with a person outside of his or her marriage we would not gasp or gossip. We would assume that in a marriage of equals, both parties are capable of negotiating for the relationship boundaries of their choice and for responding to whatever boundary violations may occur.
If we created a culture in which all consensual non-exploitative sex was respected, it would make it unacceptable to shame women who dress provocatively, but it would also make it unacceptable to shame the serial “womanizers.” We couldn’t shame hookers or ministers who snort coke off prostitute’s bodies. We would not publicly out people who are into fetishes or senators who put themselves on Craigslist looking for hook-ups. We would not tolerate the shaming of people who have alternate lifestyles such as BDSM, polyamorous relationships, or the partners in “Sister Wives” based on their sexuality. It would require us to stop using subtly shaming terms like promiscuity and paraphilia. We would have to honor the choices of people who enjoy getting a “dirty sanchez,” and those who enjoy giving them, those have anonymous sex with hundreds of different people, and those whose stay home and masturbate using fruit.
That’s right: We would all have to accept some things that make us slightly queasy and other things that make us deeply uncomfortable. We would have to believe that people can keep the agreements they make about sexual fidelity without the help of public shame. And we would have to do it all while the Right clutched its pearls, and declared us wanton whores bound for hell.
Here is where it would get really hard, at least for me: We would have to stop pointing out the hypocrisy every time someone on the Right has his or her sex-life exposed. I am completely convinced that the day after we adopted this ethic, pictures would emerge of Rick Santorum in a daisy chain at a gay sex party wearing a dog collar and a tutu. I would have to lock myself in my room without an Internet connection for at least a week to keep from making shaming comments and it might take me a bit longer to say the right thing which is: “I am happy that Mr. Santorum seems to be exploring his sexuality and enjoying himself, but I am sad that his privacy has been violated. I wish him and his family the best.”
I should end by saying that I could be wrong. It could be better to shame men like John Edwards and gamble that it will not boomerang on women. But as a woman who has been both cheated on and sex-shamed, I can tell you this: I found a new and faithful husband, but I can never completely erase the stain of shame. So, I’ll err on the side of tolerance.
Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi.