In Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975), her historical analysis on women in Australia, Anne Summers describes the trap patriarchal society sets for young girls:
"The female child has (her) sex role and an awareness of its low status impressed upon her…she is threatened with insecurity and feeling of worthlessness unless she submits to it. But she is immediately caught within a contradiction…conformity to it means accepting a low status which (itself) engenders feelings of worthlessness."
Summers was referring to the predicament female children face when they first become of aware of parental expectations regarding gender roles. But fast forward forty odd years, and, whilst things have undoubtedly improved for western women, when it comes to female sexuality at least, this fundamental contradiction that both demands and punishes conformity remains entrenched.
The latest woman-hating page to take Facebook by storm, 12-year-old slut memes, demonstrates how women and girls are still expected to exhibit certain sex-role behaviours, only to be excoriated for conforming to them.
"As long as there are sluts, we will put them in their place" the page, which has over 215,000 ‘likes’, proudly boasts. Other writers have already discussed how Facebook’s refusal to remove the page demonstrates its cavalier attitude towards misogyny. Whereas blogging website Tumblr deleted a blog by the same name (the blog has since reappeared and at the time of writing has yet to be removed), the best Facebook was willing to do was add the caveat ‘[Controversial Humor]’ to the page’s title.
Not surprising for a site that removes images of women breastfeeding but thinks Wiping makeup off your shoe after a long day of kicking sluts in the face (87k likes) is merely‘[Humor]’ , and, Kicking a slut in the vagina and losing your shoe (11k likes) is acceptable as long as it is labelled ‘[Satire]’.
But this isn’t just about Facebook. It’s about society’s willingness to make excuses for hatred of women as long as we can pretend it’s just a [Harmless Joke].
Moreover, it shows just how our supposedly ‘enlightened’ younger generations are absorbing society’s dim views on female sexuality.
12 year old sluts memes is run by two Australian university students, James Silverwood and Dominic Terry, who claim to have created the page because they ‘hate to see young girls embarrass themselves.’ So aghast are they at the ‘sexualisation of minors’, that they feel the best course of action is to humiliate girls by reproducing images posted on private profiles to a wider audience, complete with captions such as ‘Your boobs stay in your f***ing shirts, you whores!’
At 19 years of age, Silverwood and Terry must be aware of the extent to which girls are influenced by pop culture. Everywhere they look, girls see women’s bodies objectified and sexualised with, as Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs, the emphasis not on female sexual pleasure but on making women’s bodies attractive to men.
Even as a girl’s virginity is hailed as a ‘precious gift’, young women learn that being ‘hot’ is pretty much how women’s existence is justified. Female bodies are commodified to sell everything from beer to animal rights to men’s deodorant. Porn stars are mainstream celebrities, every reality star worth her salt has a sex tape on her CV, and mainstream magazines reward their ‘Woman of the Year’ with a naked cover shoot even as her male counterparts remain fully clothed.
As Melbourne University cultural studies professor Michelle Smith said last week in a talk at the Wheeler Centre, "there is not a sphere of life where being sexy is not the ultimate achievement of a woman."
It is unsurprising that young girls will act on these signals. However, unlike celebrities, ordinary women are not insulated by fame and money from the double standard that simultaneously fetishises female sexuality and condemns women for playing along.
Girls who succumb to the expectation that they make themselves conventionally sexually attractive to the male gaze face the inevitable ‘slut’ backlash. Meanwhile, other girls who don’t conform to the sexual ideal can only gain status by distancing themselves from the ‘sluts’. Divide and conquer.
While (almost) no-one seriously still expects women to stay virgins until their wedding day, women nonetheless tread a fine line between how much sexual activity is acceptable and how much is just plain slovenly.
Slut-shamers try to justify their actions by claiming they don’t hate all women, just the slutty ones. But what exactly makes a woman a ‘slut’? Five sexual partners? Two? Twenty? Can a 12-year-old girl be a slut if she’s never even had sex? There is no real definition because, in reality, there is no such thing as a ‘slut.’ It is simply an arbitrary insult aimed not only at ‘sluts’ themselves, but all women, who are meant to quiver in fear that it may be used against them if they fail to navigate conflicting expectations of how women should dress and behave.
And that’s the whole point. By masking all-out misogyny as [Humorous Disapproval] of just some women, patriarchy gets to perpetuate itself into infinity. 12-year-old slut memes reflects society's attitudes to women because rather than criticise the culture that encourages girls to objectify themselves, it attacks the girls themselves. "We continue", warns Michelle Smith, "to insist on girls remaining sexually innocent, through criticism of girls who wear revealing clothing and the shaming of teen mothers and sexually active girls".
Young women are routinely humiliated for the unforgivable sin of submitting to the sex role behaviour that is imposed on them at a young age. But here’s the contradiction; girls who buy into the sexual-objectification-equals-empowerment trope are duly ridiculed, but those who aren’t ‘hot’ enough to be objectified are treated with utter contempt also.
In a culture that glorifies both virginity and ‘hotness’ young women simply cannot win. And that’s [No Joke].