Sluts, Shame and Social Media
26 Wednesday Sep 2012
Online misogyny is nothing new. When I first ventured onto the internet in the mid-90s I learnt very, very quickly to always use a male name in IRC, and never identify as female unless I wanted a whole load of creeps hitting on me. Girl gamers report the same thing when playing online. This week the misogyny on facebook however seems to have hit a whole new level of hatred with “12 Year Old Slut Memes“.
Set up by a couple of Australian nineteen year old blokes, it would appear that nearly quarter of a million people “like” twelve year old “sluts”. Whatever the original intentions of setting up the page, which they claim was to “warn” young girls about the dangers of putting embarrassing photos of themselves on social networking sites, it is not difficult to see that a site that encourages people to “like” twelve year old “sluts”, collecting together prurient voyeuristic pictures of young teen and pre-teen girls on one page, would attract those whose “liking” of twelve year old girls was less than wholesome.
Twelve is the age when girls first enter high school and approach puberty. The protection that has been afforded to them as children is now on the wane and they are constantly presented in the media and online with images of the sexualised creatures that they are to become, while still little girls at heart. Many of the pictures posted are of such girls trying out poses, practising and playing with their emergent sexuality, while others are innocent snaps of young teens sunbathing or playing around unaware of the flesh that they are exposing and how salaciously others might view them.
The comments left on such photos describing how such pictures give creepy men “a boner” or alternatively mocking their appearance are considered all good clean fun. A news report of a victim of statutory rape who gave birth on a school field trip is posted for amusement, while girls who object to have their pictures stolen and posted on the page are bullied, harassed and encouraged to kill themselves. There have now been at least two suicide attempts related to this page and others like it.
The sexual abuse, both online and in the real world, of teenage girls is well documented, but social media and the opportunities it gives for insight into social values allows us to take a look at how this abuse is normalised, excused and justified. It is unsurprising to find the page crawling with sexual predators, but equally worrying is the number of women both young and old who speak in defense of the page describing it as a positive initiative to warn to young girls about behaviour which could lead them to be victimised. And why is this?
The Good Girls
A major theme running through the comments, particularly coming from young women, is that they themselves would not consider wearing or behaving in the manner of the girls featured on the page. The implication is that they are “good girls”, and the patriarchy tells you that if you are a good girl and play by the rules, you will not get victimised. Pick on them, not me, is the refrain. Only it doesn’t actually work that way. Every justification used for the sexual exploitation of young women and that is acquiesced to only leads to greater demands. Modesty is all encompassing – perfectly normal teenwear: shorts, a crop top, a vest are all presented as evidence of “sluttiness”, and used to justify sexual abuse.
Like in the Atwood novel these, generally older, women have broken the “good girl code” at some point in their lives. Targeted and abused, they have internalised the justification presented to them for it. They support pages like this because the know the damage that men can wreak on those that transgress and fear the same happening to others. They shame younger transgressors out of a genuine belief that if you play by the rules you won’t get hurt. For that is what they have been told – that their hurt is their own fault, and they believed it. But in doing so, they perpetuate the victim-blaming that they have been subject to, while letting abusers off the hook.
A cousin of the “good girls”, the traders slut shame because the have internalised a commodification theory of sex. Under this theory, sex is a commodity owned by women and purchased by men. Taught that their sexuality is their most valuable asset, women seek to gain the maximum amount of power from it. By dressing or behaving in ways that men find sexually attractive, so the theory goes, women cheapen the value of this commodity. Those who wish to set a high price and maintain sexual power by restricting male access to the desired commodity find their efforts undermined by those don’t seek to use their sexuality to exploit.
But sex is not a commodity to be traded, it is a performance. In thieving the images of these girls under the pretense of protection and warning, men steal their activities and demand that they are available for their own sexual gratification. They deny the self-determination of a girl who want to do nothing more than sunbathe on a beach unhindered, and turn it into an object for their own amusement. Under patriarchy, a girl who is not subject to the male gaze is the sound of one hand clapping, far better in their eyes to have it presented for them in a manner which facilitates one handed typing.
There have been innumerable reports to facebook over this page and others like them. The standard response is that it does not breach their terms of service. This is quite unacceptable, however this is a matter well beyond the jurisdiction of a social networking site.
The Australian Police allow the reporting of child sexual exploitation via an online form.
Edit: It has been suggested that given the facebook terms of service, it may be more appropriate to report to the FBI