Thursday, June 20, 2013

Women sit around and discuss the sluttiness of other women

They do! Everybody knows this but it doesn't fit the feminist narrative in any way shape or form. Why not? Because any feminist narrative at all has to be based on an assumption of solidarity among women or, at least, the possibility of solidarity among women. That cannot be the case if women have a propensity to undermine other women for not living up to complicated social norms regarding sexual behaviour and sexual presentation.

And that is why the study I discussed yesterday is so dangerous to the feminist cause; for it shows us a deep-seated psychological tendency in women. Thus the rather desperate tu quoque response from Amanda Hess in Slate's XX blog.
Slutty Joan is just another statistic tossed onto the mounting pile of evidence of girl on girl crime, in which sexism is inflicted on women by other women. But lately, the public fascination with female infighting has threatened to let men—and really, the society we all live in—off the hook for hating on ladies who get around.
Only if we keep the focus on men as the source of the problem can there be feminist solidarity and, thus, any evidence that women do this as much or, in this case, more than men do will cause panic.

"Joan", by the way, was the name assigned to the woman whom women participating in the study were asked to evaluate. They were given near identical profiles of "Joan", the significant difference is that in one profile she'd had more than twenty sex partners while she'd had only two in the other. The details of the different responses are interesting but I am saving that for a little later. The key thing to note here is how determined Amanda Hess is to keep the blame on men and not women.

The American Association of University Women is equally determined:
But lost in the overwhelming amount of discussion surrounding these incidents is the fact that this is not a women-hating-on-women problem; the problem is that our entire culture hates on women. It is not that women are catty and men are not. It’s that culture teaches us women should be a certain way, and any woman who dares fall outside those guidelines is fair game. 
The problem here, as I suggest at the very top is  that everyone knows that these issues play out differently among men and women. Don't believe me that everyone already knows this? Well, take a close look at how Amanda Hess parses the issue:
That finding could be interpreted as evidence that men engage in social policing of sexual behavior less than women do. But it’s really just that they’re saving their judgment for women like Joan instead of for each other.
Hess grasps the problem fully and gives it a name: social policing. Then she tries to diffuse it with a tu quoque about men. The problem is that she is describing two different behaviours. For "social policing" means collectively judging people and that is not the same as individually judging "Joan"; sitting around talking about people, which is what women tend to do, and individually judging them, which is what Hess describes men as doing, are very different activities. I'm not saying that one is better than the other but there is no denying that social policing will have broader social implications, that being the whole point of social policing in the first place.

Men are, of course, aware, often painfully so, of the fact that others judge them and of how they judge the women they are with. I knew a guy back in university who could never introduce the women he had relationships with to his friends because of the way he imagined they might judge her This, not incidentally, gave all the rest of us a powerful hint about how he judged our girlfriends but, and this is the important thing, it was a hint because we didn't sit around discussing these things. The importance difference is that men don't spend nearly as much time sitting around evaluating men or women as women do. Look up a typical male site on celebrity women and you will find something like Esquire's Women We Love, a site that singles out exceptionally attractive women. Do the same with women's sites and you will land on something like Go Fug Yourself, a site that spends most of its time mocking women for making bad clothing choices.

Of course, as I have been claiming all along, this is no surprise to anyone.  This is what women do, which is not to say that all women do it or that no men do but that this is a much more common trait amongst women than amongst men. Because it is.

Why? Any answer is going to be circular. The simple answer is that women and girls sit around socially establishing norms of behaviour because they have a deep need to know what the social norms of behaviour are. That's circular because it is the discussions that create the social norms in the first place.

You can see this most obviously with clothing. Right now we are just reaching what I suspect is the end of the fashion for skin-tight leggings. A woman can wear these right now and receive no criticism for doing so. If, however, a woman had appeared wearing such leggings in 2004, she would have been dismissed as a total exhibitionist slut for doing so. On the other hand, having your thong show above the waist of your low-waited pants was perfectly acceptable in 2004 and would be regarded as cheap and slutty now.

And you can see the next stage coming in that the most fashionable women are leaving leggings behind and moving to a softer, more-romantic look. The woman who still wears leggings a couple of years from now will be seen as desperate for attention. That is how "social policing" works. It requires a constantly shifting set of criteria because the social clique needs this to maintain its power. If, as the case with men, styles of fashion remained roughly the same year after year (despite a lot of effort on the part of the fashion industry to change this), then the cliques of women who do the social policing would lose all power.

It's interesting in this regard that the people doing the study chose to give promiscuous "Joan" twenty notches on her bedpost. To me, that suggests that standards of promiscuity have changed over the years because the researchers obviously felt they needed to go quite high*.

I'll end with a teaser for tomorrow. You might think that the problem with promiscuous "Joan" in the eyes of other women was that she was cheap or easy. You'd be wrong. Women saw her as lacking in "virtue" in the Aristotelian sense,
The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant than the Joan who’d only boasted two.
Those are competencies of various sorts rather that what you might guess the case against "sluttiness", however defined, might be. And that is interesting because it might just line up with mens' attitudes. For men don't hate sluts, however much Amanda Hess wants to insist they do. They just don't want to be ion love with one.
The Cornell study itself didn’t rate male attitudes about promiscuous women (or vice versa), but as lead author Zhana Vrangalova told Science, that’s partly because “study after study has found that sexually permissive women are discriminated against by potential romantic partners.”
I started off talking about different standards of rationality and how behaviours that can seem irrational can, if we do a little detective work, turn out to be supremely rational. That is what I am going to suggest is the case with women's harsh assessment of promiscuous Joan in tomorrow's post.

The rest of this series:
Wednesday: The truth about slut-shaming.
Friday: Why women judge "sluts" negatively.

* To a point that is getting a little ridiculous.  If someone becomes sexually active between the ages of 16 and 20, to get to more than twenty partners by your early twenties is quite a pace. Most reliable statistics indicate that the vast majority of people will have fewer than ten sex partners in their entire lifetimes.


  1. This is very good. And you're right, in the feminist narrative men have to remain the focus of the problem. But not all men, only the Straight, White Male. I remember taking a course in grad school where a book with the exact same name was required reading. You can see this also in the gay narrative and the unholy alliance between gay men and feminists--their common "enemy" is the straight white male. This is so screwed up that trying to take it apart would take volumes, especially in the case of gay men. The only deviation from this that I remember in grad school was Belle Hooks, which is a pseudonym. She took issue with the insular view of Betty Friedan and the other feminists particularly in their demonization of men. She correctly pointed out that unconnected white men have been victims of other men and connected women, not of sexism but classism, which she saw as a much greater problem than sexism.
    Your footnote about 20 sex partners by the time a girl reaches her early 20s struck me also. In my day a person became a sex partner only in the context of a committed relationship, and early arguments in favor of pre-marital sex were grounded in the notion of committment. How far the bar has been lowered in merely a generation.

  2. I would actually be really interested to hear more from you guys on the subject of gay men. Jules, you talk about men a lot, usually in relation to women. But what is a man when he's not romantically / sexually into women?

    1. Interesting question to which I do not have an interesting answer. I have known a number of same sex couples going back more than thirty years now and I have to say they remain opaque to me. Both gay and lesbian couples seem more like roommates than lovers (that is when they don't simply break up or never come together at all except sexually). It may be that I am just unable to see it but it doesn't seem that anything like the same dynamic is at work with same-sex couples to me.

      I'd add that it's not just me. I've read lots of convincing accounts of gay eroticism but I've never seen any account of the more complex sort of soul-bonding relationship around sex you see many heterosexual couples form. It's not that I haven't seen it done well, I haven't seen it done at all.

      And even though the current media is extremely much in advocacy mode for equal recognition of same-sex love, I've never seen a portrayal of such a couple in print that felt convincing. When, for example, Dan Savage or Andrew Sullivan, write about their relationships there doesn't seem to be any there there.

      Perhaps same-sex love is still waiting for it's great poets of love and we will see such portrayals in the near future. I don't know. We'll see.

  3. "It may be that I am just unable to see it but it doesn't seem that anything like the same dynamic is at work with same-sex couples to me."

    This has been my experience also. I guess it makes sense, men and women are different, so when a man and a woman come together the dynamic has to be different than when two men or two women come together. Some great poets have extolled the virtue and beauty of same sex love, some of it leaning in a sexual direction some of it not. But it hasn't been compared to marital love, its something that is taken as it is, and valued not diminished, but on a different plan than the love between a man and a woman.