It all started at Trinity’s reunion weekend. I was at a reception chatting with a student I had not seen in more than decade. Somehow, in the course of the conversation, Kim Kardashian came up. While I try to avoid reading anything about her and her family, I do not live under a rock and I had some vague knowledge about who she is. I response, I made a snide remark, referring to her as a “slut.” This provoked a fairly sharp response from the alum I was talking to: an arched eyebrow and a pointed question as to whether the fact that Kim Kardashian “is comfortable with her own sexuality” makes her a slut.
Since I am generally not quick on my feet, and had no real desire to argue (or even engage in a serious intellectual conversation), I punted and changed the subject. The rest of the evening passed (I had a great time) but the underlying question remained: on what grounds, if any, could I criticize Kim Kardashian?
Thinking about it for the past several days, I realized that while the term “slut” was convenient shorthand, on a fundamental level it is problematic in two ways. A slut is a woman who has sex with multiple people, usually without any other relationship or emotional attachment. The first problem with the term is that it highly gendered: it almost always refers to women and never to men who engage in the same behavior. It encapsulates an ideology that his highly sexist: women who engage in this behavior are bad and to be scorned, men who do so are good and are to be admired. The only comparable term I could think of for men is “stud” and that is generally taken to be a compliment. Thus, while Kim Kardashian is criticized for her now infamous sex tape, her partner, the hiphop artist Ray-J, was not.
The second problem with the term is that it misses the mark. I was not—at least in retrospect—simply criticizing her sexual behavior. (Though it is worthy of criticism: she may be comfortable with her own sexuality, but that does not necessarily make her expression of it valorous. And I think her sexual expression distorts the meanings of human sexuality.) Rather, I am more interested in criticizing the way in which she has identified herself with her sexuality. She has commodified herself in terms of her sex life: this is what she sells, and it would seem that this is what she has reduced herself to. The market value of her sexuality has replaced any other social worth that she had. (And, to be clear: as a person with intrinsic dignity, she has a great deal of social worth.)
There is no good word for this in English. The closest I can come is an expression coined by Ursula LeGuin in her novel The Dispossessed. The main character, a visitor from an anarchist society, is interacting with a wealthy woman from a capitalist society (obviously intended to represent 20th century America). He describes the woman, Vea, as a body profiteer:
“A body profiteer,” Takver [his partner] called women who used their sexuality as a weapon in a power struggle with men. To look at her, Vea was the body profiteer to end them all….She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being.
There are some strains of feminist thought, notably “girl power”, that find Kim Kardashian’s actions expressive of her identity as a woman: she is ambitious, assertive and comfortable expressing her individual identity. The problem with this reading is that it abstracts her from the broader cultural setting: what she is doing must be read through the lens of the underlying sexism that permeates our culture. She may be standing up for herself, but in so doing she is simply reinforcing the cultural mores that work against women in general.
Stepping back, it seems to me that Kim Kardashian exemplifies the whole notion of a structure of sin. She is responsible for the choices she has made, but her decisions were made in a society in which there are ample economic and social rewards for making bad choices. So we need to be more judgmental about a society which makes evil so much easier (and attractive) than good. As Dorothy Day said, we need to work on building a world in which it is easier to be good.