So! As you may very well know, by now, this Monday I participated in Harvard’s Rethinking Virginity conference. I talked! I listened! I ate mini-burritos! I Tweeted the whole darn thing, along with many of the other panelists! (Seriously: #rethinkingvirginity. It is a fun hash tag! Look it up.)
The particular panel on which I appeared, of course, was “Debunking the Virginity Ideal: The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming and Sexual Scare Tactics.” Or, as we were introduced by the REMARKABLY DELIGHTFUL Shelby Knox on the day of the conference, “The Slut Panel!” The ladies I got to be on this panel with: You would, for real, not believe them. Like, Chloe Angyal, who is maybe one of the funniest people I have ever met, and also the most capable of engaging in a spirited discussion of the robotic expressions of Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Or Therese Schecter, who can turn your whole virginity thinking upside down with a word. Or Lux Alptraum, who was our moderator, and can I tell you: Not only is Lux a lovely lady, and very funny, but she moderates panels like Jimi Hendrix played guitar. She knows exactly what to ask, and how to ask it, and when you need to shut up, and she makes the whole thing look effortless. This panel: I was so thrilled to be on it! (I was also, can I tell you, thrilled to have been described in the Boston Phoenix as “sharp” and to have been quoted in a way that made it sound as if I had points and was not just yelling about Taylor Swift and Tina Fey; I was furthermore thrilled NOT to have been quoted AT ALL in the Harvard Crimson, for lo, I did go off on an extensive tangent re: Brazilians and anal sex before the very eyes and notebook of Alice, the lovely reporter assigned to the story, and also I believe we discussed Penazzling and whether a jewel-encrusted phallus should, in fact, be referred to as “The Dark Crystal.” The reasons for my inclusion in the Slut Panel, I am telling you, QUICKLY BECAME SELF-EVIDENT in that discussion.)
So! On the Slut Panel, we discussed some ridiculous circumstances under which people might call you a slut, in manners overt or covert, or otherwise indicate that they are freaked the fuck out by your sexuality and want you to SHUT IT DOWN right away. They include!
- Having some sex!
- Having TOO MUCH of the sex!
- Having THE WRONG KINDS of sex!
- NOT having the sex, but being perceived as extremely sexy, due to
- Having breasts, or
- Wearing outfits that people think are hot, or
- Wearing makeup, or
- “Conforming to patriarchal beauty standards” (read: Having breasts, wearing outfits that people think are hot, wearing makeup, etc.), or
- Having tattoos? As per Tina Fey. OR,
- Being extremely comfortable with talking about sex (at least ONE of us on this panel thinks this is massively unfair, and also talked about buttsex in front of the Harvard Crimson reporter). OR,
- Being a sex worker. This one freaks out even the sex-positives, we learned. It is like: “Sure, I enjoy porn, and support the rights of others to enjoy porn. But YOU MADE PORN. FLEE FROM MY SIGHT, WHORECREATURE!”
- OR, you know, being sexually assaulted. Yep, some people will call you a slut if you’re sexually assaulted! Or let your rapist go free because they think you’re a slut! This one’s a fucking downer.
- Which is but one of the reasons you shouldn’t call ladies sluts.
Yes, truly, when people are more angry and disturbed by the fact that Bombshell McGee slept with another lady’s husband than they are by the fact that she might be a motherfucking Nazi, Something Is Wrong With Our Society. But there was at least one common occasion for slut-shaming (and virgin-shaming! Because THAT IS A DEAL TOO, we learned) that we did not discuss. It is:
- Being a beloved squeaky-clean tween pop sensation who decides it is time to Reinvent Her Image and Be An Adult Now and releases a sextacular music video as a statement to that effect, possibly involving a Goth-inflected bird costume incorporating a single thigh-high boot.
So: That Miley video! Did you see it? Did you hear the hoopla about it? Did you ever wonder what it means for How We At Once Fetishize and Fear and Seek to Control the Sexuality of the Young Women Today? Because Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I are here, and we are going to help you to figure this issue out! But first, a little light music.
ILLUSTRATION: Can’t be TAAAAAAAMED! Can’t be BLAAAAAAAAAMED! It’s in her DNAAAAAAAAAA! Can’t can’t can’t… Can’t get the fucking chorus out of your head, is what you can’t do. DAMN YOU AND YOUR NEWER, MORE ADULT IMAGE, MILEY CYRUS!
SADY: Why hello! I have worn my bird cage hat of Serious Analysis to this meeting. My Serious Analysis is: The children! Are they getting too sexy? Specifically the beloved starlet children who live as normal tweens by day, international pop stars by night?
AMANDA: Allow me to answer that question with a prediction: In about two years, Justin Bieber will announce his grownupedness by appearing in a video surrounded by women dressed as sexy aardvarks, or something.
SADY: PROBABLY. I think that’s the next big step for the Beebs. That or allowing leaked photos of his very first armpit hair to appear on TMZ. But dudes don’t have to, like, “grow up” by announcing how sexy they are now. Not the way ladies do.
AMANDA: Yeah, I mean, it seems that the sign of grownupedness is ladies without pants, and so if you’re a lady, take off your pants, and if you’re a man, get some ladies and take off their pants. Lady Gaga has of course complicated this equation by making sexiness also about dressing like bizarre animals. Which is hilarious, because now when you have parents clutching their pearls over this, they also necessarily have to be like “And what’s with the kids these days with the bird costumes?”
SADY: Right? Not only do they have to worry about the teens doing the sexy dances, they also have to worry that their wholesome sons and daughters are going to slaughter everybody in the IHOP and get sent to Bitch Prison. I mean, it’s interesting to me, though, like the whole transition from “innocent” (or “not that innocent” in one notable case) to “I am wearing a thigh-high boot, spinning around a pole, and letting backup dancers lick my face” that so many women who grow up in the public eye have to undergo. Like the ONLY OPTION is publicly performing “virgin” or publicly performing “SEX SEX LOOK AT ME IT’S POSSIBLE I MIGHT BE HAVING SEX.” For ladies. Dudes are just allowed to grow up gracefully, more often. And there’s nothing wrong with being licked! Or spinning around a pole, if you want to do that! It’s just like… she HAS to announce adulthood with these very public, very overt signifiers of sexuality.
AMANDA: I know, I was wracking my brain for young pop stars who have not gone through the Not Wearing Pants phase, and the only ones I can think of are a) Kelly Clarkson, who wrote a song about how she doesn’t hook up and how she can clean up the mess your ex-girlfriend made who probably does hook up because all the kids are doing it, and b) Taylor Swift, who, well WE KNOW. WE KNOW ABOUT THAT ONE. For the record, I’m not a pop star, and I’ve attended several parties where I haven’t worn pants the whole time at those parties. IT HAPPENS. But the dichotomy is really frustrating.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, me and pants have a troubled history. There was a time, Amanda! A time when I was convinced leggings were, in fact, pants! A time when I was TERRIBLY WRONG. And I enjoy taking my pants off in certain conducive contexts, of course, as we all do. Nobody wants to wear pants permanently! Except for Tobias Funke!
AMANDA: Haha Indeed. But so, I was thinking about Thinking of the Children the other day. And how Think of the Children is almost always used as a really transparent cover that adults use to condemn something they’re extremely uncomfortable with at all ages, and then claim that they’re only protecting The Children from it, instead of themselves.
SADY: Yeah. And Thinking Of The Children often seems to involve… not a lot of thinking about how The Children actually tend to behave? Like: My shameful secret is that I actually ENJOY THE HELL out of this video. Not because it’s “empowering,” or because I take ANY of its messages at face value, but because — like Miley herself — it’s so goofy and embarrassing in precisely the ways that 17-year-old-girl rebellion is goofy and embarrassing.
AMANDA: It’s pretty much the Twilight of videos. Except less virginy.
SADY: Haha, yeah. I mean, it’s so high school! Like: She is in a CAGE! A CAGE of your JUDGING HER! But she is a bird that Cannot, as the saying goes, be Tamed! or Blamed! She will do what she wants! GET OUT OF HER ROOM, MOMMMMMMM. SHE’LL WEAR WHATEVER SHE WANTS TO WEAR OH MY GOD STOP MAKING SUCH A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT I WANT TO DIE I HATE YOU I HATE YOU. And then the door slams. And the video’s over.
AMANDA: And then she gives this interview where she Explains, like, what the video is about. It’s about being an adult now, GOD.
SADY: Right! I mean: We talk about growing up in public. But Miley Cyrus, despite (DON’T READ THIS PART, MILEY CYRUS) having released some of my least favorite songs EVER, actually seems to be, like… growing up. In public. With all the associated awkwardness. But that’s the thing, about Thinking About the Children: We have this very idealized normative concept of how a “good” teen behaves and it’s just not in line with these realities. At all! And honestly it is, as you said, just about shoving aside what makes us uncomfortable.
AMANDA: Yeah, and why the fuck are we acting like all our insecurities can be resolved by Miley Cyrus not doing some weird shit in a music video? I’ll also add that Miley’s actually doing pretty fucking awesome at navigating all this stuff. In February, she said this: “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act because I’m still figuring that out for myself. To take that away from me is a bit selfish . . . Your kids are going to make mistakes whether I do or not. That’s just life.” Coming from someone who was EVISCERATED for appearing in a magazine with her back visible, that point is well-taken.
SADY: WHOA. Miley seems really together! In that quote! Sorry, Miley! I mean, yeah: I think the fact that our cultural insecurities CAN be raised by just such a video is pretty telling. Like that not-really-pole-dancing she did that one time, or the Liebowitz shot: A lot of it was just grown men (and women) being all, “I’m afraid this might turn me on! And I’m scared!” And, yeah, you ought notta be eroticizing the teenagers. But constantly monitoring this one specific female teenager to determine whether she’s inappropriately sexy is, like… Not that much less creepy? I think young women’s sexuality is often put in that place of overtly well-meaning, covertly creepy monitoring. Like, we’re SO OBSESSED with young women not being sexual (which they really usually are) that we constantly evaluate how sexual they are. And then there’s all the teen-eroticizing that takes place ANYWAY, because it’s so taboo. And the result is Britney, America’s #1 Virgin, dancing in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, and later sort of cracking under the weight of how VERY many contradictions she was expected to represent.
AMANDA: Right. I’ll take the bird costume. And the adult hand-ringing: It is extremely creepy, and it’s directly related to people being freaked out about their own interest in Miley Cyrus. But like, for 17 year old boys and ladies, a crush on Miley is extremely reasonable? And Miley is, as I read in a recent story, 17 AND A HALF. A half! She’s almost 18. Let her wear not-pants!
SADY: Yeah, exactly. Like: I think it’s totally fine for teens to be sexual, WITH EACH OTHER. Provided they’re educated enough to not take stupid risks and hurt themselves or others. Even if I was like, “it’s not okay! Stop doing that, teens! STOP IT RIGHT NOW BECAUSE I SAID SO,” they would do it anyway. But there’s no safe space in this culture for a young woman to sort of grow into her sexuality, because it’s fetishized and demonized and the fetishization and the demonization are directly connected. So people want you and they hate you and they hate you because they want you and they want you because they hate you and it is basically a wonder any of us gets through it even semi-intact.
AMANDA: Right. It’s just important to make the distinction between OH MY DISNEY GIRL SEXY AVIAN COSTUME WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO OUR CHILDREN! and saying, Hey, it must be hard to be a Girl, Not Yet A Woman in the spotlight and be criticized no matter how you want to grow into adulthood. I will say that the song kind of sucks, in a not-criticizing-her-burgeoning-sexuality kind of way.
SADY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I am not going to the “Miley, your expensive silver corset denotes your Brainwashing By The Patriarchy” place. Not in my lifetime! And I hope I’m not saying that I think she’s stupid or anything — just in a really awkward place, and I kind of find the very awkwardness of the place charming, because I have so been there. Also her Autotune makes her sound like a cartoon animal, though. Which is not a criticism of her sexuality or body, just of the fact that it like squeaks and she reminds me of a Forest Friend offering helpful advice. “You can’t be blamed either Sady! Come with me to my land of mystical enchantments! We’ll have a tea party with all the other bunny rabbits!” EEK.
AMANDA: I can’t wait until Autotune is recognized as a feminist issue
SADY: WHY MUST WE DEFORM OUR SISTERS’ NATURAL TUNELESSNESS TO APPEASE THE MEN?
AMANDA: Yes, but on the other hand, Autotune helps to equalize a patriarchal music industry standard which prefers women with naturally pleasant singing voices.
SADY: That’s so last-wave-of-Autotune politics! I prize the sound of ALL voices! Howsoever sucky!