Monday, June 17Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

A Litany of Insults

Why women never seem to win in the world of casual sex.

Modern society has undeniably done a lot for the rights of the ‘fairer sex’. The right to vote, first and foremost. The right to own property. The right to open a bank account, to work outside the home, to enter any career we may choose. And of course, the sexual revolution went some way to reducing stigma around premarital sex, decentring the myth of virginal purity. With that came the right to choose – in the form of access to birth control, as well as freedom to terminate unwanted (or unviable) pregnancies.

Despite all of this, it is clear to many that in contemporary sexual culture, the odds are still strictly not in our favour.

There is a litany of insults directed at women, and the way they choose to navigate the world of casual sex. Of course, at one end of the scale, there’s the age-old “prude” and “frigid”, for those who make the decision not to partake. The dreaded “cock-tease”, because how dare a woman be friendly towards a man whom she doesn’t intend to sleep with! A woman with agency, any woman with agency, is always one step away from being branded a “bitch”, with any number of colourful adjectives inserted before it. One step further, you enter the realms of the word beginning with “c”, which I refuse to type on principle. And then, at the other end, there’s a fine line before a woman becomes a “whore”, “slut”, “slag”; because women must enjoy and have sex… but not too much. Never too much. There is a continued stigma against abortion, and it remains a topic that is whispered about among young people – and yet, there is not the same derision towards young men who brag about wanting to “hit it raw”. Unprotected sex is dangerous for everyone, but it is undeniable that those with uteruses bear a very different consequence.

It’s a little bit like walking through a maze… blindfolded, with flames and sharp drops and no map. Because there’s no way to win, no way to please everyone and stay on the tightrope of acceptability. Any choice is scrutinised and judged.

Sex for women is a guilty pleasure. Sex for men is allowed to be a conquest. Last year, Durham University made headlines after messages in a group chat were leaked. The messages were horrific, discussing methods for using date rape drugs, as well as initiating a competition to “shag the poorest girl”. Like a trophy, a collectible, an object for ridicule.

There are any number of factors to blame. The commodification of bodies, women’s bodies in particular, in media and advertising. Social media and the growing culture of toxic comparison, the need to rank oneself and others in a never-ending competition. The rise of easy access to pornography, with much of this involving women’s bodies as vessels for a man’s pleasure rather than people of their own, and the impact this has had on young boys (it is estimated that 51% of boys watch porn before they turn 13, and there is endless documentation to prove that excessive viewing of pornography leads to impotence issues and chemical changes in desire). 

Pornography offers expectations that women can never match. This quote from Naomi Wolf, American feminist author and journalist, offers a haunting perspective on the effect of pornography on the sexual experiences of young women:

“The young women who talk to me on campuses […] speak of feeling that they can never measure up, that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.”

Competing against each other. Competing against society’s sketch of the “perfect woman”. Competing against expectations set by widespread pornography.

Things may be changing, but they are not changing fast enough, and not necessarily in the correct direction. We need a cultural shift, not cultural flip-flopping.

-Madelaine Gray

Photo by Oleg Laptev via Unsplash