It’s one of the first observations emphasised when one first begins to think with a feminist perspective, isn’t it? Promiscuous men are popular, promiscuous women are damned. That’s just how the horribly patriarchal and judgemental cookie crumbles.
Condemnation of women’s sexuality is one of the foremost symptoms of patriarchy, and yet it’s so insidious and enduring that one can observe it within our own social circles, often regardless of political leanings.
Misogyny regarding sexual-romantic behaviour is not a thing of the past, and it is not only men passing judgement; other women are perfectly capable of holding the most misogynistic, awful opinions, and it is not impossible for women to thoroughly condemn themselves.
It’s a weird world where women’s sexuality is both the subject of obsessive scrutiny and automatic suspicion. The idea that girls can like sex as much as boys is both a concept that is peddled as a required part of being a woman – because you gotta be a sexually available being! – and yet also the focus of puritanical fascination because you shouldn’t be too sexually available and deserve to be judged if you are. It’s a Catch-22, where women are meant to be available for sex but not allowed to actually want it too much or enjoy it when it occurs. It means a world where promiscuous men have what is delicately referred to as “a reputation” but women are openly referred to as sluts and hoes.
I’ve heard men being commented on for their sexual habits, but it’s always had a lack of real venom to it. When it’s a woman being judged, there are several angles people want to attack her from aside from the good ol’ “WHAT A SLUT” one. Is she lonely? A sex addict? She must have low self-esteem, right? Kind of sad she needs that much attention from guys, really. When was the last time you heard a guy being judged as sad for wanting female attention?
And when it comes to cheating in heterosexual relationships the judgement gets fired up to eleven.
Homewrecker is commonly taken to mean a person of any gender who ruins a romantic relationship between two other people, usually by encouraging one of the partners to cheat with them.
However, the Urban Dictionary definition lists several words related to the “Homewrecker” entry – and the first ones listed are “slut, whore, bitch, skank, hoe” When was the last time you heard a man referred to by any of these terms? Condemnation of character on behalf of sexual behaviour is reserved for women and women alone. Of course men can be vilified for cheating in a relationship, and I’ve certainly never heard any guy being congratulated for it, but the judgement is different. With women who cheat, or the women whom the cheating men do the dirty deed with, there is a distinct form of contempt from society that far exceeds the disapproval passed on the men who cheat. It’s the idea that the women whom men cheat on their female partners with are evil, scheming femme fatales with a lascivious premeditated desire to ruin healthy relationships. I have no doubt that there are truly awful women out there who do set out to hurt relationships, and deserve to be judged for it, but I would argue that they deserve to be judged for being horrible people, not for fulfilling the role that women are always considered to be on the verge of slipping into – the evil floozy whose sexuality is something wrong and harmful.
Women’s sexual desires and behaviour have always been treated as something shameful, potentially even dangerous, and this utter disgust for the women who hurt other people with their sexual behaviour is definitely part of this mindset. Think of the response to actor Kristen Stewart’s affair with a married man in 2012. Slated by both the tabloid media and social media, she was called everything from a whore to a “trampire.” Other cheating partners in the public eye who have the luck to be men have experienced comparatively little of the same venom. The man who did the cheating with Kristen Stewart certainly didn’t receive a ridiculous portmanteau word created entirely to insult him with.
The message is clear – even if you’re rich and famous, if you’re a woman involved in infidelity, you’re just as much the evil homewrecker as any other woman.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no time for cheating. And I think that people who deliberately try to ruin other people’s relationships ought to be given the strongest condemnation, and frankly, should be dropped into a bin and covered with old potato peelings and empty sweet wrappers, because they are trash. But I wish this judgement wasn’t so often heavily gendered in its application.
Women who cheat and women who damage other people’s relationships are people – flawed people, potentially nasty people – but not symbols of how toxic and dangerous female sexuality is. And women who have a lot of sex, whether it’s with one partner or multiple, are also people. The days of gleeful finger-wagging at the actions of women who choose to exercise sexual agency should remain well in the past, along with cholera and covering up furniture legs. As long as sex is consensual, it has no moral aspect, and it certainly isn’t up for public inspection. The weight of judgement upon infidelity should not be balanced upon the gender of the participant in the affair.
[Morgaine Das Varma]