Is Slut Shaming Ruining Your Relationships?

Are you unaware of the ways you're shaming others? 

Are you unaware of the ways you're shaming others? 

             I’ve been surprised by how much slut shaming is happing in my office recently.  This year I’ve seen several couples in my therapy practice where one partner is disgusted or angry about the other’s sexual behaviors or desires; and attempts to make his partner feel guilty about them.  This experience has been recently coined “Slut Shaming”, and it’s a conflict that can end up majorly damaging a romantic relationship. 

            The word slut and the act of slut shaming has long been used with women in our society.  More recently it has ben directed towards queer men by queer men.  Slut can be defined as a sexually promiscuous person, someone who engages sexually with a large number of persons or someone who participates in sexual activities outside of a long-term or monogamous relationship.

            Let’s look at a recent example in pop culture.  When Miley Cyrus performed “We Can’t Stop” as a duet with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, Cyrus’ performance was critiqued as being “lewd, grotesque and shameful.”  This judgment was aimed at Cyrus for being a young woman wearing a revealing outfit and using highly sexual moves. Interestingly, there was a lack of criticism towards Robin Thicke, who often performs while objectifying women’s bodies. 

            Slut shaming occurs when sexual behaviors or desires deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations.  For gay men, this can include desires or behaviors that differ from heterosexual, gay or queer “norms”.  This at first may seem ironic, since we are already seen as outside the “norm” of heterosexual society, but unfortunately this happens in many queer relationships.

Common experiences of behaviors that are shamed:

  • Open relationships or polyamory

  • Disclosing an HIV positive status resulting from sexual activities

  • Contacting guys on sex sites for chat, phone sex or meet ups

  • Going to the sex clubs regularly

  • Cybersex for pleasure or pay

  • Being raped especially if drugs are involved

  • Interest in BDSM or the kink community

  • Experimentation with one's gender presentation or transgender experiences

  • Role-play characters or scenes that are taboo

  • Desire to include unusual body parts or fluids into sex acts

  • Participating in erotic dancing or a Erotic modeling

            There are several reasons why slut shaming occurs with some of the experiences or behaviors above.  In the queer community, some of the main ones are internalized oppression, fear and jealously, as well as conservative values. 

Internalized Oppression: Growing up in a homophobic and heteronormative society, we couldn’t help but learn and adopt some of the cultural values that say being queer isn’t normal, isn’t natural and isn’t healthy.  Many who come out consciously reject these beliefs, but unconsciously we retain them.  The beliefs get translated into discomfort, disgust or anxiety that we direct towards ourselves and others in the LGBTQI Community.  This is internalized shame and hatred is toxic. 

Fear and Jealousy: These emotions have a lot of negative connotations in relationships.  However, let me reframe them for a minute. Fear and jealousy have to do with a longing to stay connected with someone you love and have a close bond with.  Love and connection are basic and important needs, but when they get channeled and communicated through these challenging emotions, it leaves couples feeling distressed and frustrated.

Conservative Values:  Lets review history.  America was colonized by puritans a few hundred years ago, and with them came conservative, biblically based values.  Puritans believed humankind sinned and was vile, God had chosen who was good or evil and puritans were the saving remnant.  The United States still carries some of these root values through our families, institutions, and systems.  Many people don’t realize these morals have been passed down and that they hold conservative viewpoints. Conservative attitudes and ethics are traditional and cautious about change and innovation.  These can be hard to hold within a relationship.  

A classic example, that includes all three roots of slut shaming, is when someone discloses their positive HIV or STD status.  Gay, bi or queer men are often regarded as sluts in these cases, deserving their status because of sexual behaviors that produced their health consequences.  This lack of empathy and compassion is detrimental to relationships, cohesion in our community and our humanity.  

             These three origins of slut shamming leave us conflicted.  When we’re conflicted, we develop strategies to deal with the internal turmoil.  It’s difficult when someone we know or care about is expression their sexuality that is different from the way we have.  Internal conflicts usually result in mixed up emotions and psychological defenses that protect us from feeling the discomfort and intensity of these feelings.  Defenses can look like emotional walls, avoidance and acting out.

             I've had several men write me through my advice column, Ask The Love Therapist, on my website asking questions connected to this topic. One of the common distressing topics is when the writer’s partner is asking or forcibly opening a previously monogamous relationship.  The writers present a reasonable argument: “I understand that my boyfriend was sleeping around a lot and having fine when he was single, but isn't it fair for me to ask him to stop now that we are together?” I’d like to take a minute to respond.

             Yes, it is fair. I think it's perfectly okay to want monogamy… or an open or polyamorous relationship - with rules and agreements. These help couples feel safe and keep the trust between them. However, slut shaming is not the way to go if you want to keep your man.

             First of all, many of these behaviors are fulfilling important desires.  They can also be long-standing habits or even addictions.  Instead of being cruel or close-minded, first ask yourself “where is my discomfort or distress coming from?”  It's important to be aware of your emotions, your needs, your core beliefs and where these come from. This way, you're not projecting your stuff onto your partner, especially in a way that is hurtful.

             I would also invite you to have a stance of curiosity.  What could be happening for your partner that they're continuing or starting to engage in these sexual practices? An open discussion from a place that's non-judgmental is important.  This will bring you two closer because true intimacy comes from vulnerability (which happens within security).

            An accepting and open stance can lead to education and understanding of others.  This can grow closeness and connection as well.  Openness also provides space to share concerns, opinions or emotions that may be running through you.  Again, there's no right or wrong when it comes to expressing sexuality, as long as there is consent and safety. Concerns are valid and thoughtfulness in how you share them is the key to having them heard.

           Lets not create more shame for ourselves or those in our community – we have enough be people doing that.  Who knows, you may learn something from your friend or partner and might even enjoy some of the desires or behaviors that fulfill them.    

Posted on March 1, 2014 and filed under Gay Men, Sex.