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Shameful behaviour

September 5, 2010

One of the historic and ongoing aims of feminism and feminist movements has been the attempt to eradicate what’s known in the feminist blogosphere as slut-shaming. Even if you’ve never seen the term before, you’ve almost certainly observed it in action: somebody or somebodies abusing someone else on the basis of their (real or imagined) sex life, where ‘acceptable’ levels and types of sexuality are a) wildly inconsistent and b) liable to change without notice (assuming anyone states them in the first place).

Take Sam. Sam is not any of the Sams I know; Sam is a purely imaginary person, who has had sex 20 times in the last year. That’s a number: a neutral statement. But twenty sexual encounters in a year will be read very differently depending on whether they were all with a long-term partner or with twenty one-night stands. Both those situations are also likely to be perceived differently depending on Hypothetical Sam’s sex, sexuality and gender. And race. And dis/ability status. And age.* And what exactly they were doing. And how many people were involved. And their sex/race/age/etc. And fuck knows what else.

Slut-shaming is the shame directed at the many, many Sams who fall down, or who are alleged to have fallen down, on one of the myriad unstated Rules About Sex and are therefore designated as sluts. It happens less than it used to, but there’s still plenty of it, as is readily imaginable from the range of differing reactions to the cast of Sams posited above.

The practical argument against slut-shaming is simple: it doesn’t work. It’s telling that throughout the entirety of human history, including in plenty of cultures that nominally punished some kinds of sexual activity very severely, people did not actually stop doing these things. Shame humiliates people, but it can also lose its effectiveness, if brought out too often: if you’re already outcast/damned/both already, what do you have to lose?

Changing people’s behaviour generally requires convincing them that a) change is possible and b) change is beneficial. The first is difficult when you’ve shamed them into thinking that they’re unredeemable sinners; the latter requires that you actually be able to point to an unequivocal benefit gained from making the change. Which, given that people tend to be happiest when able to pursue** the kind of sex that they want and that makes them feel good, and are unhappy when arbitrarily deprived of opportunities to pursue same, tends to be difficult if not impossible.

The difficulty of persuading people to give up something that they want, that they enjoy, and that in itself is harming nobody means that pundits in the business of persuading people to do so – whether they represent a religion, a political party, or any other organisation – have a tendency to fall back on faux-altruistic yammering about your physical and/or mental health. Here on the internet, we call them concern trolls. Theirs is the argument that goes “But if you do X you’ll get mocked/pregnant/ill/injured/killed/sent to hell/never find true love!! I only want the best for you!!”

It’s amazing how much traction this has.

People tend to respond to the concern trolls’ concerns with facts – contrary to popular belief, it’s not so hard to avoid disease and pregnancy if you know what’s what, and also merely having sex in X fashion does not guarantee that you will die alone and be eaten by your cats. The sheer numbers of sex-positive, anti-oppression people who are also happily getting on with their sex lives is a pretty good counterargument, really.

But to engage the concern-trolling approach (“It’s for your own good!”) with real facts is still conceding ground – it accepts a certain amount of their framing. It accepts before you even start that they have a case to answer; it accepts that their opinions on your sex life are something you have to listen to.

They are not.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the best answer to the concern-trolling “But we’re shaming you because we care!” line is “What the fuck is it to do with you? Did I ask for opinions on my sex life? Why are you even here? In fact, who the hell are you and why are you so freakishly interested in what I do in bed?”

Because, as is (achingly slowly, but with occasional moments of glory) coming to be accepted in a wider sphere, Hypothetical Sam’s sex life is completely, utterly, gloriously irrelevant to everyone in the world except Sam and Sam’s partner/s. The only focus of outside interest should be on ensuring that nobody gets harmed: if it’s satisfactorily established that no nonconsenting parties are getting harmed, then everything else is A-OK.

I say ‘nonconsenting’ there, surplus though it may seem, because you can consent to harm. People do it willingly and even eagerly every day. I’m not talking about it just in the sexual sense here (though BDSM is certainly a subcategory) but as the broader concept of trading off harm (or the risk of harm) against some other form of enjoyment. Smokers abuse their lungs, drinkers abuse their livers, athletes their joints, motorcyclists and cliff divers put themselves voluntarily and joyously at risk. Hell, for a very mundane example, I have wonky front teeth because as a kid, sucking my thumb was altogether too good to give up.

Things cause risk. People consent to risk. So it goes. Sometimes this gets through: it’s slowly filtering through to the general consciousness that (for instance), it is wrong to medicate or sterilise someone against their will, even if unmedicated-ness or pregnancy carries a risk. I think it’s telling that these were the examples I came up with: a lot of the flailing about “It’s for your own good!” seems to be rooted in ableist reactions to imperfect bodies – a horror at the idea that anyone could think it worthwhile to damage, or risk damaging, their body for the sake of some other experience they want.


The principle of bodily autonomy – that it’s my damn body and I will do what I like with it, have sex how I want, and do not have to keep any growths in it that I do not wish to have there, and that it is none of your business whatsoever – is (in theory, at least) a central tenet of modern feminism. It’s the principle behind the drive for sexual liberation and reproductive rights. It’s a repudiation of centuries upon centuries where whole classes of bodies were literally or effectively the property of others. And not just feminism: pretty much every social justice movement has at its centre the idea that it’s wrong to police a particular class of people for having different bodies, or doing different things with said bodies, or both. And that weird, prurient interest – veiled as ‘concern’ – in the bodies of people who are Not You is just that: weird and prurient.***

So how about that fat acceptance movement then, eh?

This post has been brewing for a while; a lot of it gained substance talking to Rhiannon, and a lot more of it has been crystallising for months. It’s appearing today because yet another shitstorm has gone down on the subject, this time at Feministe, and that was enough to nudge my brain into gear.

I haven’t read all of the Feministe post – just the bit on the front page, above the jump. I do not wish to finish it, and I sure as hell am not going to brave the comments – I did read Amanda Marcotte’s response at Pandagon, and the comments there, and several people note in that thread that the Feministe one got really ugly really quickly. Anyway. Like I say, this is not specifically an addition to that particular blogdrama. This is something that’s been on my mind for a while.

Food and sex share certain characteristics. Notably, they are both strong instinctual drives – eat or die; fuck or die out – that (most) humans find pleasure in, as well as simple satiety. Both have innumerable variations. People’s tastes vary wildly: in both kitchen and bedroom, what makes X swoon will make Y vomit.

Perhaps because of those similarities, modern society is weird about food in the same way as it’s weird about sex. The rhetoric of health directed at fat people bears striking resemblances to the equally hollow rhetoric directed at people having sex: it’s all about how you’re putting yourself at tremendous risk of disease and death and ruining your life prospects – oh, and probably never being able to find love. (With an option on “You’re ruining it for the rest of us!” Because it is agonising to look at someone ignoring the rules that you punish yourself with, and still being happy.)

Fat-shaming concern-trolling is almost always couched in the language of health. Fat is unhealthy! You’ll die of heart disease! Or diabetes! Or both! And once again, as with the slut-shamers, I have to answer with a resounding “. . . And?”

No, seriously, why are you concerned? What’s it to you? Why the hell does it matter to you so much? You don’t know me. You have no personal emotional stake in my wellbeing. My health is, in fact, of no possible consequence to you. My body: not your business.

A Venn diagram of two circles, one marked "My Body", one marked "Your Business". They do not overlap, and there are red arrows pointing out their non-intersection.

(Image made by genderbitch, originally for this post. Read it; it’s an excellent and more in-depth exploration of body-prurience as it affects trans people, and why it’s not only offensive but oppressive.)

The usual response to the hard-to-argue-with point that my body != your business this is the argument from government, as it were. The argument that, because we live under the same healthcare system, this somehow makes it your business –  your tax money is being spent repairing my fragile arteries, or whatever, and this is apparently grossly unjust and I’m depriving cancer patients of their drugs or something. And if the wobbling hordes weren’t all so damn fat all the time you would have like an extra sixpence in your kitty come Christmas. Or something. Well, and? If all these people didn’t go round having sex and having babies and getting sick and having accidents all the time that’d probably save the NHS millions. (Also! Fat people pay tax as well. This never seems to be factored in.)

Being aware of where your tax is going is a good thing. But wanting my tax to cover your health needs, whilst simultaneously fulminating against your tax helping to cover mine, is stupid, and arrogant – and, when combined with hand-wringing over Britain Getting Fatter or how the French are skinnier or whatever, tends to lead into jingoism. Who actually cares what nation tops the average-weight list? Why is it so damn important to people that the country they happen to be a citizen of has to be the best at everything?

From certain bits of the right wing, the similarity of fat-shaming tactics to slut-shaming tactics doesn’t really surprise me any more, because large segments of the right are more than happy to do both. But from people who are down with the idea that slut-shaming is bad, and that policing people’s basic bodily autonomy is bad, and that denying people the right to (informedly and consensually) trade a bit of risk for a known pleasure is also bad, it’s sad to see the same shaming, policing and puritanical attitudes coming out.

Fat-shaming is precisely as ridiculous, precisely as vile, as slut-shaming. It betrays exactly the same kind of weird, voyeuristic, judgemental concern with the details of what other people are putting in their bodies, with the same cavalier disregard for other people’s right to decide to prioritise one good (pleasure) over another (health).

When people argue in good faith with the slut-shamers, there’s a long list of things they suggest that might actually help with the concern trolls’ stated goal of keeping people safe and happy. Things like free contraceptives, free care, good sex ed including the emotional side of things, good and accurate information on all kinds of sex and how to have them safely. Friendly environments. An end to public sex-hostility. An end to judging people based on their sex lives, maybe, even.

A similar list of things applies to health. If we eliminated food deserts, made cities more walkable, reduced pollution, enforced better food standards, cut a working week so that people actually had time to cook, taught decent cooking in school, tightened up the regulations surrounding advertising re: body image and diets, and maybe stopped viewing food-as-pleasure as some sort of mortal sin, probably you’d have a lot more healthy people . . . of all sizes, natch.

But no. So often there’s no discussion of fixing the system. It’s so much easier just to fixate on people and blame them for everything. And then blame them some more when the shaming, as always, as forever, fails to work.

It’s pitiful.


*Obviously there is one age-related factor that’s genuinely relevant, which is the age of consent. But even if both/all participants are overage, people are still going to react very differently to a 16-year-old Hypothetical Sam fucking up a storm than they are to Sam at 26. Or 46. Or 96.

**Actually getting it is a bit more hit-and-miss.

***Prying, uninvited interest in the minutiae of someone’s sex life is just one facet of this. See also: Touching someone’s hair, or a pregnant woman’s bump, or in fact any bit of anyone, without permission; quizzing a disabled/ill person about their disability/illness; asking a lesbian how she has sex; randomly asking a trans person about their genitals. That last one gets me especially because it’s so far outside the bounds of normal politeness, and yet the questioners don’t seem to twig that they wouldn’t ask anyone else this kind of question. If someone got introduced to some random cis dude and went “Oh, so you’re a guy, are you? How big is your penis? What do you mean, that’s none of my business? I just wanted to know! God, you male people are so ANGRY!”, they would be instantly categorised as a tactless genital-obsessed creep, and merciless mockery would be the order of the day. When the penis belongs to a woman, though, suddenly it’s apparently a perfectly valid question.


ADDED 6/9: Since I wrote this, I’ve run across a couple more takes on the blogdrama in question – this one at Alas, A Blog pointing out that things are much better now than a few years ago, and this one at Tiny Cat Pants which covers some of the same ground I did, but also looks at comparisons/intersections with classism. Go read!

AND AGAIN: Also this has been reposted at Feministe! I’d like to thank my parents, the Academy, etc.

ADDED 7/9: Another good response, taking on the Straw Fat-Acceptance Activist (and coining the wonderful phrase ‘food slut’) at Fat Fu.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Living the Questions permalink
    September 5, 2010 3:04 pm

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  2. Meraydia permalink
    September 5, 2010 3:43 pm

    THANK YOU x a million.
    I didn’t get a chance to read the Feministe thread, but I did read the Pandagon one and it shook me. However it didn’t really surprise me on the whole. Being fat is seen as the worse possible manisfestation of “excess” no matter the actual lifestyle of the individual. Even worse is the latest trend of treating fat acceptance like it some evil akin to climate change denialism. Feels like a bit of a backlash to me 😦

    Anyways great post!

  3. switchintoglide permalink
    September 5, 2010 7:46 pm

    I’m bookmarking this and also referring the following concern trolls (remember the massive hubbub over Jaclyn Friedman’s “My Sluthood, Myself”? These are the people who thought their commentary on her sex life was relevant) here:

    “Therapist” Stuart Schneiderman

    Susan Walsh of “Hooking up Smart”

  4. September 6, 2010 4:11 pm

    Hi there — I’m scanning for your email address and can’t find it. Email me back?

  5. September 6, 2010 5:14 pm

    @Living the Questions: Thank you, too.

    @Meraydia: I don’t think it’s necessarily a backlash – I’m still not sure that FA is well-established enough to get one yet – but just more of what’s always been happening. But the effect’s pretty much the same, either way.

    It is interesting (if disheartening) how people seem to read fatness as directly correlated to excess. As in, they seem to jump straight from “this person is physically large” to “this person is living large in every way”. Which feeds resentment of the kind that happens when X suspects that Y has more goodies than they do. Which is spectacularly contradictory, considering how classist a lot of popular discourse around fat is (including the less-overt but still wildly patronising “oh, those poor fat people, they just DON’T KNOW how to be healthy!”) . . . but then, arbitrary hatred never makes sense.

    @switchintoglide: Thank you. I doubt anything will get through to Schneiderman or Walsh, maybe a couple of their readers will pause for thought. Heh. Worth a try!

    @Lauren: I’ve emailed you at the address on your Feministe page. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. JustDucky permalink
    September 6, 2010 11:23 pm

    Good stuff – found you from Feministe, and you’ve been added to my daily bloggage. 🙂

    Thanks for the intelligent retort to the otherwise ridiculous garbage that somehow slipped through sanity filters.

  7. September 7, 2010 6:34 pm

    Massive, massive congrats on getting mirrored at Feministe.

    Not really a lot that I can comment on to add, other than there’s one more similarity between the two – the hypocrisy where if one person eats/has sex because it’s enjoyable then that’s fine, but if another person engages in what is essentially the same activity but with a twist, it suddenly becomes frowned upon. People objecting to gay relationships while being perfectly fine with straight ones come to mind, as does Jamie Oliver criticizing soft drinks and crisps for causing childhood obesity, only to advertise mince pies and expensive gingerbread.

  8. September 10, 2010 4:56 pm

    Great post, thank you.

  9. September 16, 2010 3:33 pm

    Next time you use something I’ve made in a post could you at least ask first? I wouldn’t have had a problem with you using it but I wasn’t even told about this.

  10. September 16, 2010 5:27 pm

    @GB: Argh, sorry. Shit. I’ve emailed you with a proper apology.

  11. edde permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:25 am

    I agree 100% on this: “But no. So often there’s no discussion of fixing the system. It’s so much easier just to fixate on people and blame them for everything. And then blame them some more when the shaming, as always, as forever, fails to work.”

    But when you say,

    “No, seriously, why are you concerned? What’s it to you? Why the hell does it matter to you so much? You don’t know me. You have no personal emotional stake in my wellbeing. My health is, in fact, of no possible consequence to you. My body: not your business.”

    in fact many people do have a personal emotional stake in others’ well-being including when we see, for example, a young person or any person smoking cigarettes. Many of us, including many who agree on point #1 above, do, in fact, care and have a similar reaction when seeing a person with true obesity (not “a few pounds over” some theoretical ideal, and definitely not those who don’t look like Barbie who herself is unhealthy). It’s true some will lie and pretend to care but don’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that many of us do care. You can tell us that you KNOW how we feel and you can deny these feelings, like defensive person who is addicted to nicotine might tell themselves, but 1+1!=3 just the same, and your statement (that we don’t care) is still !=true..Actually that fact that many of us agree with you on the above point, makes the emotional “stake” two fold, we see that it’s systemic, that all our lives are nuts, stressful, time famished, and so on, and for some that brings anorexia, for other alcoholism, for others, obesity, and others look fine and they emotionally or otherwise abuse their spouse or cut themselves or….etc etc

    The f’d up system DOES want it both ways, you’re right. It wants to make our brains crave impossible (and unhealthy) skinny bodies AND it wants to spam us with advertising and hectic lifestyles likely to make us overweight or obese; it similarly wants to make sex something we crave and want and are reminded of in advertising and films all the time AND at the same time to make it taboo and naughty and bad and dirty and to make us ashamed…it wants to make us all crave to be rich (even thought he rich aren’t so happy if you look closely!) AND at the same time to cut our wages and make it harder to keep our heads above the water…corporate power will gladly tell us we are sh*t and have us pay them fees every day to give us escapism, or pills to solve our problems which their own brainwashing and fast food, caused in the first place..

  12. December 22, 2010 1:40 pm

    @edde: The ’emotional stake’ is and was mainly aimed at, as always, the faceless masses of the internet; the hordes of concern-trolls who appear seemingly from the ether whenever any kind of size-acceptance post is put up – the “but we’re just so worried about you!” tactic. While they may indeed be worried, it’s usually a lot more “we are worried you are rejecting the dominant paradigm and yet, apparently, happy!” than “we are worried about your health!” I think the same goes for strangers on the street.

    Those who may legitimately be said to have an emotional stake in another’s wellbeing – close family and friends – may be genuinely worried about their friend’s/relative’s health, rather than using it as a decoy; but the last line of that second paragraph you quoted still holds. A person’s body is their business and theirs alone; it only becomes anyone else’s business when that person chooses to invite comment from them – for example, a doctor; and even then, the bottom line is that nobody has a right to decide what happens to their body but them.

    To break it down further, yes, it may be unpleasant to see someone you love getting sick; but firstly, weight itself doesn’t index to sickness in the neat way that smoking does. There are people well past the medical cutoff for ‘morbid obesity’ who are fine with the state of their body and fine with their state of health; and there are people within the ‘normal’ bracket who are not.

    Second, there’s a persistent tendency to deny agency to people who are sick, from both directions, as it were – firstly to assume that anyone indulging in an activity the assumer deems an unacceptable health risk must not know about that risk, rather than considering that an unacceptable risk to one person may be completely and totally worth it to another – or that they are taking on that risk because there may be no other option. And from the other end, there’s an equally persistent tendency to dismiss the experience of people who are sick, and know they are sick, on the grounds that they don’t fit the observer’s idea of what illness looks like – fat people with bulimia, depressives who can raise a smile in public, pretty much anyone with an invisible disability.

    Overwhelmingly, is someone is actually hurting, they’ll know. (The only exceptions I can think of are some mental conditions that impair your ability to judge how well you are.) If they want you to be aware that they’re hurting, they’ll tell you. Until someone invites you to comment on their health you have no right to do so, and if they never invite you, well . . . too bad.

    Emotional stake is by-the-by in the long run, I guess. One’s right to bodily autonomy isn’t affected by how many people you’re going to upset. (Upset. Not harm. Harm violates another’s autonomy. Smoking in front of someone can, if they can’t avoid breathing in a substance they don’t want; eating in front of someone can’t.) I think everyone’s cringed watching someone they care about do something that seems like it’s going to end badly, but other than cringe, there’s really not much you can reasonably do without putting yourself in the wrong.

    Also, on your final point, I absolutely agree – the system as constructed absolutely goes out of its way to condemn and shame the same things it’s selling. On the one hand, sex everywhere; on the other, slut-shaming. On the one hand, agricultural subsidies and lax regulation that put fructose and salt in everything; on the other, the assumption that if you can’t feed your family a perfectly healthy, balanced diet this is your fault and your children should be taken away.

    IN CONCLUSION! I disagree that there’s some level of ‘true obesity’ above which you automatically count as endangering your health: people are different, there’s no place you can draw a line that doesn’t leave someone on the wrong side. Second, I maintain that bodily autonomy includes the right to endanger your health if you so choose, and that we should recognise that one’s personal discomfort with another person’s choices doesn’t alter that. (My personal cringe-inducer is heavy-contact sport – oh God, why?)

    I think we’re actually mostly on the same page 🙂


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