How Slut-Shaming and Prude-Shaming Taught Me Emotional Intelligence
In the small, southern town I grew up in, everything started young. It must’ve been something in the water, or the sunlight, or the way everybody talked about sex in a buzz. Sex was both common knowledge and hot gossip, everybody knew what and who anybody did, down to the smallest details. And everything seemed to be labeled under one of two shameful category: prudish or slutty.
“Kay’s boyfriend told me she doesn’t know how to shave...down there,” a girl announced at a sleepover my freshman year. “And she apparently gives terrible head - all teeth.”
The other girls laughed, while I stood there quietly, thinking about my untouched pubic hair and the logistics of blow-jobs. I had never entertained the idea that anyone might expect anything sexual from me, until I was there, listening to all the things someone else’s boyfriend felt entitled to and was displeased with. I watched as my female peers joined in to mock her and validate his complaints, and quickly made one of the most important decisions of my love life: I would never sleep with anyone who talked about me or treated me like that.
It was a decision that expanded in terms, as time went on and the pressure to be sexually involved mounted. I knew I wasn’t ready for sex in high school, and that I wasn’t really interested in dating at all. At the time it all seemed very adult and emotional, and I had enough adult-esque problems to deal with concerning my mental health, and no emotions to spare while doing so.
Thus, I quickly became labeled a prude. Common beliefs like, “If you’re fifteen and haven’t seen a dick, you’re doing it wrong,” and “Abstinence is a waste of time on girls” quickly signed my verdict. Sentencing me to four years of virgin jokes and unnecessary comments about how “innocent” I was. While at the same time, I still got slut-shamed for wearing short skirts, dancing at parties, and not dating entitled “nice” boys.
All I heard around me was that I was supposed to be a straight, submissive girl, who would give boys what they wanted, while also being good and pure. It was an impossible game to play and win, because the rules weren’t just constantly changing, they were specifically rigged against the female sex.
As writer Leora Tanenbaum wrote in an article for the Huffington Post, “Only girls and women are called to task for their sexuality, whether real or imagined; boys and men are congratulated for the exact same behavior…[As a woman] you are damned if you don’t and damned if you do. If you refrain from any expression of sexiness, you may be written off as irrelevant and unfeminine. But if you follow the guidelines, you run the risk of being judged, shamed and policed.”
It’s the age old trap, one used to control female sexuality and treat women as commodities to men. We must remain shiny and new, but also prove to be useful and available when wanted, like glorified kitchen appliances. We aren’t allowed to be too sexy, or not too sexy, we have to be wantable and unattainable and easy and on call.
It became very apparent to me that these outrageous expectations were wrong, and that people who expected anyone to fit into them were wrong too. It was a realization that sparked the birth of my own self-awareness, and emotional understanding. I stopped caring about what people said about me or anyone else. Their opinions were fickle, they changed based on who they were, what I was doing, and who I was with. I could go from slut to prude in three seconds, indifferent to desperate, easy to unattainable. It was all a matter of perspectives, and how different people chose to see me based on their experiences. The only thing that didn’t change were my feelings.
At the end of the day and all the punchlines, sex still seemed like something I needed time to be ready for, and so I listened to those feelings.
It wasn’t easy; there were definitely times and days where I thought about putting myself out there, dating more people, even doing things I wasn’t comfortable with because that’s what everyone else was doing. There were long periods when I thought maybe they were right, maybe I should just have sex, or date the pushy asshole. But then again, if they were always wrong about me, how could they know what was right for me?
In the end, I left high school with no regrets. To this day, I am very happy I waited to do my exploring until college. However, going away and growing up did not banish the shaming like I had hoped. If anything, that’s when it really sank its teeth in.
As Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of the Feminist Current once wrote, “Patriarchy doesn’t want women to feel good about themselves. Feeling bad means trying to please men above all else. It means you’ll keep reaching for this thing you can never have.”
What I could never have was approval, which I didn’t realize I wanted until I knew I wouldn’t find it. I was a prude in high school, and yet when I got to college and explored my options, my sexuality, my preferences, I became the slut. I went looking for liberation, and what I found was whole new set of restrictions trying to be forced on me. I have been slut-shamed by people who previously prude-shamed me, people who dated me or wanted to date me, and even family and good friends I grew up with. I have watched others get uncomfortable when I tell them that I am polyamorous and fluid, even though they were so keen to have me “be with people” when they thought I was totally straight and monogamous. I have strayed from the ever-changing rules, and because of that I am not supposed to be happy.
And yet, I am happy. I am not ashamed of who I am, I was only ever ashamed of who people told me I was, and that has taught me to stay true to myself. It has taught me that the right people to have in your life will accept you, and you must settle for nothing less. You cannot take on the negative emotions of others and how they feel about you and your love life, decisions about intimacy are not “one size fits all”. You have to decide for yourself what makes you happy, because if you rely on the world to tell you, someone, somewhere will always say you are wrong.
No matter your decisions, may you always dare to be shameless.
Photography by: Nick Chambers and Laura Kanihan