Slut-Shaming and the Attractiveness Factor

For the majority of my grown up life, I’ve been deeply skeptical of feminism. Mind you, I don’t want women to be barefoot and pregnant, despite my blog title. I believe that women and men are equal in value, even if they are fundamentally different in nature. In fact, one of my earliest college memories was a moment in Lit Trad IV, when I nearly jumped over the tables in a fit of rage after a boy insisted that “Sonia is a filthy whore.”

When he said that, my cheeks went red like I had just been slapped, and I kind of felt like I had. “She’s selling her body to provide food for her siblings,” I said in a low, dangerous tone. My professor looked at me in alarm. I probably looked a little frightening, with my hands planted on either side of my open book, palms pressed into the table, fingers splayed, my whole body tilting slightly forward. All I remember is watching the kid watch me, seeing his lip curl in disgust, and mentally thinking, don’t say what I know you’re going to say. Just don’t do it. Don’t be that person.

But he did say it. “She’s still a dirty whore. Doesn’t matter why she’s a slut. A slut’s a slut.” I fired back, “so if you were her brother, would you refuse to eat the food she buys with that money, then? Would you help her find other work? Would you work yourself so she didn’t have to sell her body?” He smiled then, and said slowly, “No. I’d eat the food, then I’d slap her across the face and tell her that her sin is disgusting in the eyes of God and man.”

It was at that point that my professor bodily removed me from the class, since I was halfway over the table with my hands balled into fists. Outside the class, she hugged me and told me that she completely understood and was also upset, but there were some people who only want to provoke and condemn, and words were wasted on them.

He was the exception, though, not the rule. I was sure of it. I was sure of then and I’ve been sure of it ever since. And seeing my husband do battle with the feminists in the years between that moment and this have left me without one iota of sympathy for anything that reeked of feminism. He’s been accused of misogyny more times than I can count because he’s a straight white Catholic male. I’ve been sure, just sure, that feminists see sexism wherever they want to, that it’s not really there, not really, not anymore. And women who talk about sexism in language, well, they should hang out with this girl:

(start it at :50 to avoid the “B” word)

YouTube Preview Image

Lately I’ve had that assurance rattled. Mostly because my online BFF, Kass-tacular, has been having some feminist angst. I sort of brushed it off at first, like, oh, she’s just moved to NYC and is swinging the pendulum in reaction to her ORU days, just like I’m swinging left now in reaction to my uber-right days. It happens to us all, it’ll correct itself, it’s an Aristotelian phase.

So when the Patrick Madrid Twitter-swear-gate happened, and the focus was immediately on the perceived sexism behind his tweets, I brushed it off too. I really didn’t think there was anything sexist behind him calling out women for swearing. After all, as I told Kassie, he was born in a different era, when men didn’t curse in front of women because chivalry, that’s why. And that’s dead and gone and makes me sad because I hate trying to wrestle doors open on my own with a baby on my hip and two toddlers in a double stroller.

Then two things happened. Clare Coffey pointed out, on Twitter, that “the idea that it’s somehow okay to specifically call out women for swearing is close to the definition of sexism.” Cari Donaldson, in a separate forum, pointed out that the language he used was specifically based on appearance. Jess has a good run-down of the conversation on CathoFeminism if you want to see all the tweets about the topic of women swearing. Some of the descriptions used about swearing female Catholic bloggers were “disgusting,” “major turn-off,” and “(they) have really let themselves go.”

This has been making me uneasy. Ever since this happened, I’ve started noticing the same trend…everywhere. Men judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Women judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Me judging myself for what I do or write based on “attractiveness.”

Last night it all kind of blew up for me when the tweets and status updates about Beyonce’s halftime performance started pouring in. Here’s what I wrote on facebook:

I did not watch the halftime show or the game, thank God. But I’m appalled by these status updates and tweets. Everyone commenting on how “disgusting” or “not sexy” or “unappealing” Beyonce was is part of the problem. The problem of judging a woman based on her appearance. What happened to objective morality? What happened to virtue? Why is no one appealing to right or wrong, but only their own sense of what’s “hot?” Shaming someone into behaving a certain way by telling her she isn’t attractive is what got us here in the first place, where women feel they have to cavort half-naked on a stage in order to be deemed worthy of praise.

Some of my friends seemed to think that I was defending Beyonce’s apparently obscene show. I wasn’t. What I was trying to point out is that turning off the TV or using this as a moment to teach your children about virtue, modesty, our culture’s objectification of women (which women are in some ways responsible for, y’all) is one thing. I’d argue that it’s a good thing. This:

is something quite different, and something very bad.

And it’s pretty much the same thing that happened on Twitter.

It is wrong to call out a woman for doing something because it’s unattractive. This type of behavior has nothing to do with the objective ideal of beauty. It’s all about trying to get a woman to change her behavior because you (or someone else) doesn’t find it attractive.

It’s wrong because that is the same attitude that got us here. Men and women have been changing the expectations for women’s behavior for years, maybe even decades, maybe even centuries based on what’s attractive. Men are not held to the same standard. No one says to a boy, “don’t cuss, it’s not attractive.” They say, “don’t cuss, it’s wrong.” (Personally, I say, “don’t cuss, because you don’t understand what you’re saying or how and when to use those words.” But then, I’m raising heathens.) But it’s so common to hear someone say to a little girl, “don’t cuss, it’s ugly” that I didn’t even blink twice at it on Twitter.

This is a problem for a lot of reasons. It’s a problem because we’re holding our boys and girls to two different standards of morality based on a subjective standard instead of an objective truth. If you’re thinking, “oh Calah, stop overreacting. It’s just a figure of speech, it doesn’t effect real life,” think again. A Catholic school in New Jersey just implemented a no swearing rule for girls only.

It’s a problem because by carelessly using this kind of language, we are still teaching our girls that their worth is measured by how they appear. The criticism of women swearing was not concerned with an objective sense of right or wrong. It was a criticism that relied entirely on the premise that swearing negatively affects a man’s attraction to women. Patrick Madrid literally said, “when women swear, I find them less attractive.” And that was echoed by men and women all over Twitter. “Yes, yes, it’s so disgusting for a woman to have a potty mouth! Yuck!”

This is disturbing. Now that I’m really seeing it, I’m really disturbed by it. Why is this okay? Why is it permissible for anyone to judge a woman’s actions based on how it affects her level of appeal? It’s just like the “pants are for sinners” post, where it’s ostensibly about the relative morality of women’s fashions, but if you scratch the surface you see that what’s really being said is, “I like to see a woman in a skirt, and since I’m a good, God-fearing man, you women owe me that visual pleasure. So put a skirt on and I’ll find you more attractive!”

For many years, I tortured myself over my appearance. I still do. Whether we want to admit it or not, our culture shapes women to believe that their value is measured by how they look. And it’s not just the secular culture. Religious cultures do it too. Pat Robertson thinks that women whose husbands drink are at fault because they’ve let themselves go. There it is again, “let themselves go.” Like I’ve let myself go with my cursing? Somehow, I’m unable to torture myself over that one. It’s jarringly liberating, in a way. After 28 years, I’m finally at a place where the fact that a man I’ve never met finds me unattractive because I swear fails to shame me into a bout of mental self-laceration. Two years ago, it would have been a different story.

 I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where the boys and men around her constantly judge her morality in terms of physical attraction. I don’t want her to hear things like, “waiting till marriage is sexy” or “it’s a turn-off when girls smoke”. I want her to hear things like, “your virtue is worth too much to throw away on someone who is not going to commit his life to you.” I want her to hear someone say, “smoking damages your body, and you’re too precious to damage for recreation.” I want her to grow up in a world where men and women talk about issues of virtue and modesty in terms of objective truth, not in terms of sex appeal. I don’t want my daughter to be shamed into acting virtuously because if she doesn’t, some anonymous internet guy is going to tweet about what a turn-off she is. I don’t want my daughter to spend the better part of three decades torturing herself over her appeal to men before she can finally get enough distance to see things objectively. She deserves better than that. And if I ignore these things because I’m tired of feminism, or I think it’d be swell if there were more chivalry around, I’m failing her.

  • http://www.kickstartmedia.org John Flynn

    Here’s the deal though…Beyonce was hired to perform at the Superbowl. She elected to dress a certain way and act a certain way because she was trying to be attractive and sexual. Therefore it is completely correct to judge her on whether or not she met her goal. Personally I think the thing was garbage. However, if she wanted to stand there and sing I would have judged her signing ability. If she wanted to have an intelligent dialogue about modesty then we could judge her virtues. She didn’t. She strapped on a leather catsuit and gyrated.., there is only one purpose in doing this and that is to be attractive and sexual. So of course everybody judged her on that…

    • Jo Flemings

      I appreciate John’s comment here, but I think Beyonce’s display was more than an attempt at being attractive and sexual- if you watch her face- you see a power play going on- this was actually, and it is very common- in this culture of the oversexualization of women, I think, to see these women whose sexual appeal is a key part of their fame- use this very blatant sexual behavior as a type of manipulation of the audience. We are being played, all of us. And if we keep forking over money and attention hand over fist to ‘enjoy’ this spectacle we are creating our own version of a Frankenstein femme fatale. I wish men would be men and just say no, and turn this nonsense off because it is degraded. It degrades the exhibitionists putting on the show and it degrades the viewer And I wish that good normal virtuous women could find the silver bullet to counter this “LOOK, don’t you wish you could have sex with me NOW?!” tactic. As a woman, I think it is really hard to beat the ‘slut’ at her game, in general, at large, with men. Seems like the virtuous girl is for one rare noble mood; but the unholy whirling dervish in leather lingerie is always holding the captivating trump (or is it tramp?) card. And sadly, if you look at marriage or any kind of fidelity stats in our country- lust is winning out big time.

    • calahalexander

      I have no problem with people judging her on whether or not her performance was aesthetically pleasing, or even whether or not it was sexy. (I still haven’t seen it cause the kids won’t go to bed.) The issue I have is people making moral judgements in terms of “that’s unattractive to me.” So either say, “she’s being immoral and shaking her naughty bits in all kinds of naughty ways” or say, “damn she’s not sexy even though she’s trying to be.” Either make a moral judgement or an aesthetic judgement. Don’t conflate the two.

  • http://www.johnjanaro.com John Janaro

    I know you’ve got various themes in this post. I just want applaud your defense of Sonya’s dignity! Brava!

  • http://www.messywife.com Mandi @ Messy Wife, Blessed Life

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a man saying what Beyonce was unattractive. She dressed and acted the way she did in an attempt to be attractive to men and he was simply stating that it had the opposite reaction to him. I don’t think he wrote anything that could be portrayed as sexist or as meaning unattractiveness = immorality. To be honest, I think you went a bit for to make that stretch. Are men not allowed to ever say that something immoral is also unattractive?

    • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

      “She dressed and acted the way she did in an attempt to be attractive to men”

      Really? There are all kinds of complicated reasons why women in the media dress provocatively. Men, especially Catholic men, need to stop assuming that everything about a woman’s appearance is directed at them.

      • http://www.kickstartmedia.org John Flynn

        Oh seriously? Like what complicated reasons? Yeah women put on leather catsuits and strut around on stage because they want us to think how smart they are. Give me a break….

        • calahalexander

          This made me LOL

        • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

          No. Like they do it because it attracts a lot of attention from everyone which brings in viewers and makes money for the people putting on the show.

          It’s not THAT hard to think of other reasons besides “I’m a man so this must be for me.” But thanks for making fun of my point without bothering to put any thought into your response.

          And yes, I would say that the reasons why women’s bodies are exploited for profit are pretty complicated.

          • http://www.kickstartmedia.org John Flynn

            1. Yes and they chose Beyonce for the very reason that she puts herself out there sexually and it provides lots of money. Beyonce is not some innocent virtuous person who had no clue she was being sexual.

            2. Nice straw man. I didn’t say, “I’m a man so this must be for me.” What I said (very clearly) was that Beyonce clearly put herself out there sexually and so of course that’s what people judged and remarked on. It ain’t rocket science…

            3. You’re assuming that I didn’t put any thought into my response. That would make you wrong again.

            4. Now you say, “the reasons why women’s bodies are exploited” are complicated but that is NOT what you originally said, nor what I replied to. What you said was, “all kinds of complicated reasons why women in the media dress provocatively.” But this is not true. Women dress provocatively for one reason only and you have given not even one reason otherwise even though you state that you know “plenty.” Certainly we can agree that women’s bodies are exploited but it’s not men doing the exploiting any more than it is women…

          • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

            “Now you say, “the reasons why women’s bodies are exploited” are complicated but that is NOT what you originally said, nor what I replied to.”

            Actually, this is what I said, although I used slightly different words. If you were replying to something else, it was something you imagined.

            You seem really defensive, by the way. Surely the claim that the reasons why women in media dress overly sexy is more complicated than just to provoke lust in men can’t be all that controversial. I’m only asking for a more nuanced response than “She was asking for it.”

          • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

            “Beyonce clearly put herself out there sexually and so of course that’s what people judged and remarked on.”

            I can think of a woman in the Bible who was judged by the men around her for being guilty of sexual sins. I seem to remember Our Lord coming down pretty hard on the men who judged her. He didn’t say she wasn’t guilty, but he did make it clear that her sin wasn’t an excuse for the men to condemn her. You keep trying to justify this same thing. Why?

          • http://www.kickstartmedia.org John Flynn

            YOU SAY: “Actually, this is what I said, although I used slightly different words.:

            ANSWER: What you clearly said, and this is an exact quote, is: “all kinds of complicated reasons why women in the media dress provocatively.” Yet you have not given 1 other reason and certainly haven’t given “all kinds of complicated reasons.” What you have instead done is backpedaled and attempted to pretend that I am now “replying to something else” or it is “something I imagined.” Here’s the problem. I am replying to your exact words which I have cited over and again. If you mean differen things by those words that is certainly fine. However, since we are on a com box and it is in English we ought to probably stick to what these words actually mean and not what you mean by those words. If you misspoke then simply say that instead of prattling on.

            YOU SAY: “You seem really defensive, by the way.”

            ANSWER: Actually I am antagonistic not defensive. You are the one being defensive. But maybe you mean different things by those words also…

            YOU SAY: “Surely the claim that the reasons why women in media dress overly sexy is more complicated than just to provoke lust in men can’t be all that controversial.”

            ANSWER: Golly I wouldn’t think so but you seem to be insisting that it is and have even claimed that there are “all sorts of reasons for it” (without citing any of those of course.) It seemse very clear cut to me. Don a leather dominatrix outfit and my educated guess is that you want people to look at you sexually. Did you think seriously get that she wanted people to check her out for her brains?

            YOU SAY: “I’m only asking for a more nuanced response than “She was asking for it.””

            ANSWER: Ah yes… it seems perhaps you are a bit scarred here… the old, “she was asking for it” argument. This isn’t about that and you know it. This is about a clear cut rational response. Beyonce wanted a certain kind of attention and she got it…end of story. Please if I am wrong in this then cite the myriad of other reasons she donned this outfit and gyrated on stage.

            YOU SAY: “I can think of a woman in the Bible who was judged by the men around her for being guilty of sexual sins. I seem to remember Our Lord coming down pretty hard on the men who judged her. He didn’t say she wasn’t guilty, but he did make it clear that her sin wasn’t an excuse for the men to condemn her. You keep trying to justify this same thing. Why?”

            ANSWER: This is a common response by those who don’t understand the Bible. The good book does not tell us not to judge, it tells us to judge correctly. In fact it tells us over and over again that we are mandated as Christians to judge. However, we are to judge actions, words and deeds and not the soul of another. I am not judging Beyonce’s soul in the least. I am judging her deeds and actions. I am clearly looking at her in this outfit and the way she danced seductively around the stage and logically thinking , “Hmm, guess she wants us to think she is sexually attractive.” Again…it’s not rocket science. I am not offended at her, in fact I fast forwarded through most of it. I think it’s a shame because she has a great voice and just singing would have been better for me, but it’s her choice. I am simply arguing that the men (and women) who judged her to be purposefully trying to be sexually provocative are right on the money.

            I’m not sure why you would argue this point or belabor it…it is so common sense that any kid could figure it out.

            With that, I’ll be done with this unfruitful conversation. Feel free to have the last insult.

          • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

            John Flynn, your tone is rude and bullying, which is an unacceptable way for a Catholic man to talk to any woman. The first step towards women everywhere being treated with respect and not as objects will happen when Catholic men set the example by being kind and at the very least polite towards all women. You’ve questioned my intelligence and sincerity, and tried to bully me in order to make yourself look “right.” That’s a shameful way to act. Please watch that kind of thing in the future.

          • http://www.kickstartmedia.org John Flynn

            How we I even know you’re a woman? You have no picture and you haven’t said whether you are a man, woman or child. I haven’t made any assumptions about your sex, your hair color, your weight or your hobbies. In fact what I have done is treated you no differently than anyone else. I have treated you as a “person” not as a woman and have responded to you with logic and clarity. You on the other hand have been illogical, emotional and in spite of multiple requests to do so, furnished not one iota of evidence to back up your initial statements. If calling you to accountability on this is “rude and bullying” then so be it.

            In addition, I haven’t “bullied you in order to make myself look right.” I have offered logical concrete reasons for why I am right and asked you to provide evidence for why you are right. You have called your own intelligence into question by failing to do so. Instead you have called my character into question. That’s a shameful way to act. Please watch that kind of thing in the future.

  • Steve

    But women use comments like these all the time towards men. Smoking is unattractive, gross, or unsexy. Half of the reason I smoke occasionally is probably in rebellion to girls saying shit like that every time someone pulled out a cigar or cigarette.

    Or should we not forget that women will often refer to entire religious ideologies or lifestyles as unattractive. Unemployed men are gross. Men with ambition are sexy. Etc. There’s never anything said about the value of a job, only the attractiveness of the job-holder.

    So yeah, I agree 100% that it’s strange and wrong to focus on the supposed ‘attractiveness’ of moral or immoral behavior, but I highly suspect that women are more likely to engage in that sort insult. Most men don’t really think about anything non-physical in terms of simple attraction, and so they’re also less vulnerable to these sorts of insults as well.

  • deltaflute

    There are a lot of social implications on this topic. With children girls are often complimented on physicality and boys on smarts. I try to compliment using both when appropriate for my boys. Its this gender discrepancy that I believe causes us to discribe a women’s bad habits sins in terms of beauty.

  • Anon.

    Seriously…? There was a request to redact comments? WTF. Even in your most lust filled moments any woman is too much woman for a pansy-ass like you, twitter boy.

  • Jessica

    Calah, I found your article very interesting. But isn’t it possible that the use of attractive language and moral language need not be mutually exclusive? Isn’t it possible that people find certain behaviors unattractive precisely because they are immoral? Aren’t we supposed to be attracted to the good because it is beautiful? Aren’t we supposed to be disgusted and repelled by the ugliness of sin? I tell my children all the time that their behavior is ugly – when they are unkind to each other, when they are snotty little punks, when they are dishonest, etc.

    • Liz S

      I think the part of the point Calah is trying to make is that there is a difference between saying a behavior is ugly and that the person performing the behavior is ugly. Yes, Beyonce’s performance may have been ugly and disgusting from the point of promoting sin and immorality, but the arguments against her performance are about how Beyonce herself looked ugly and unsexy. We can’t promote virtue and righteous behavior just by saying unless you behave correctly others will find you ugly/disgusting/unsexy/repulsive, especially when society provides conflicting messages as to what is attractive behavior. We are ultimately called to dress and behave virtuously because of love of God and our fellow man, not because of fear of our fellow man rejecting us for falling short.

  • Corita

    Downton Abbey this week had a whole lot of slut-obsession. Men were spluttering everywhere about the horrible horribleness of being in proximity with a former slut.

  • Karla

    I agree with your opinions about swearing and immodesty being based on morality or appropriateness, not gender. However, I do think the comments we make to girls about not being ladylike or attractive are similar to comments made to boys about “not being a sissy” or “act like a man.” Whether or not one agrees with these ideas of gender is the issue, but the thing about teaching girls it’s not attractive to curse and such is more of an old fashioned idea of ladylike-ness/femininity, not moral sexism.

  • Suzanna

    Well said, Calah. Darn right.


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