In all of the discussion and debate about Rush Limbaugh’s recent attack on and pseudo-apology to Sandra Fluke, there’s a piece that I want to call out: if you don’t respect sluts, you don’t respect women.
There have been other articles, like Yasmin Nair’s In Defense of Sluts, that touch on this. As she said,
The widespread support for Fluke is built entirely on the idea that she is not a slut and that she has been, as Andrea Mitchell put it, “victimised.” Fluke, we are constantly being assured, does not have promiscuous sex and Limbaugh is entirely wrong because his “slur” is based on a misrepresentation not only of her position but of her very character. Recently, Fluke has been reported to be toying with the idea of suing Limbaugh. But what would she sue him for? Being an asshole? That’s protected, rightly so, under all kinds of amendments. Slander is the only charge she could bring against him, something to the effect that Limbaugh’s calling her a slut caused some sort of great harm and, more importantly, that she is not a slut. I imagine that testimony will be collected from friends, family, and perhaps a long-standing significant other of some sort with whom she has monogamous sex with an aim to building a family in the future. She will never, of course, be proven to have sex for the sake of having sex.
Can we please remember that it’s also perfectly fine that women need access to birth control because they really do like having lots of sex and being, generally, you know, sluts? For fuck’s sake, we fought for the Pill and access to contraception because we once thought that boundless sex without consequences—whether with one person or with many, at the same time or sequentially, either way—is a pretty good thing.
I think there’s an important element here that’s worth unpacking. If you assess a person’s worth by how many people they have/have had sex with, you’re requiring them to purchase your respect. And in my view, that isn’t respect at all.
Anytime we equate fewer sex partners or monogamy or any “vanilla” sexual practice with being more respectable, we reinforce the idea that the people whose sexual desires are outside those boundaries have to trade their sexual authenticity in order to be accepted. I would much rather choose who to respect based on how they treat themselves and other people, which certainly doesn’t have to correlate with the kinds of sex or how many partners they have.
Fundamentally, slut-shaming is concerned with the form of sexuality (i.e. the outward expression), rather than on its content (i.e. the underlying motivations and intentions). In my experience, that focus is often in direct contradiction with the ability to respect others. Unless we know what it was that prompted the other person, how their experiences affected them, and how they respond to that, all of which is the content of their sexuality, any judgment we have about them is an expression of our own arrogance and/or projections rather than an accurate assessment about them.
When we approach sexual ethics by looking at the content, we can engage in a dialogue with the other person in order to ask them what their desires are. We can talk with them about how they navigate any misalignments between their intentions and their actions. We can connect with them, recognize their humanity, and create room for them to engage with us. Rather than shaming them for their actions, we can build a relationship with them as a multifaceted human being and sometimes, invite them to grow. All of that requires trust, respect, and a willingness to shut up and listen.
Slut-shaming collapses the complexity of another person onto a single dimension. But even more so, given how slut-shaming is used to control and shame all women regardless of their sexual practices or desires, it conflicts directly with respecting them. If you say that you respect women, then you need to respect all women, no matter how many sexual partners she has, her relationship choices, or how she enjoys sex. Otherwise, you’re saying that that your respect is something that someone has to buy. I don’t think that that’s really respect at all.
Although it appears to be quite different at first, when people jump to the “Sandra Fluke isn’t a slut” defense, they’re falling into the same trap. She deserves our respect, no matter what her sexual history or current practices are. And unless we hold onto that firmly, we’re letting the slut-shamers shape the discourse, which I refuse to do.
I don’t care how much sex anyone has, how often they do it, or who they do it with. I’m much more interested in the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants and the people affected by it. I respect women who are asexual, celibate, monogamous, multi-partnered, or have had more partners than they can recall. I respect women who only have sex after a commitment to monogamy and those who have sex with someone within minutes of meeting them. I respect women who have transactional sex, women who have sex for love, or for any other reason. I know that all of these categories are permeable and that many women move from one to another. And I know that any of these decisions can be made from a place of personal power, choice, and authenticity, as well as from a place of coercion, shame, and disempowerment.
What I care about is how someone treats the people around her and how she treats herself. To my mind, that’s what respect is all about.