Double Standard

How I’m Exposing Shirtless Slut-Shamers

Men seem to think they can dress or undress any way they like in public but don’t hesitate to shame a woman for her choice of attire. If only it stopped there.

02.23.16 5:01 AM ET

I wanted to start this reflection piece with a breezy personal bio, but the Internet has taught me better.

See, I woke up last week to a guy threatening to find my address and rape me if I didn’t tell him whether I have had anal sex or like being teabagged. I’m sorry to bombard you with such a blunt introduction, dear readers, but now you know how my inbox feels. I used my lunch break to walk to a nearby police precinct and patiently listened as the police officer explained there would be no investigation. Later, on the bus ride home, I took my mind off things by doing what I do an awful lot of these days: looking at half-naked pictures of men and hoping my fellow passengers don’t look over my shoulder and think I am a pervert.

Some context: this January I started #ShirtlessShamers2016, a Twitter hashtag in which I juxtapose men’s sexist, slut-shaming social media posts about women’s bodily respectability with their own bare-chested pictures. This isn’t my first adventure in challenging misogyny through social media; you may also remember me from such other controversial positions as, “Street Harassment: Please Stop Doing It.” In other words, I am one of those “Twitter Feminists” your scumbag boyfriend secretly complains about through an anonymous account. (Dump him.)

When I started using the #ShirtlessShamers2016 hashtag, I expected things to stay funny. Light. Playful. Sexism and gender-based double standards aren’t really funny, of course, but lampooning shirtless broskies who are heavy on ego and light on self-awareness has a certain silliness to it. They flex their pecs and regurgitate some casual misogyny, and we marvel, bemused, that they aren’t in on the joke.

But, as is often the case, we laugh to keep from crying. 

I am about five weeks into the hashtag, with more than 100 posts (conveniently gathered here for your viewing pleasure) and the recurring themes are far from funny. Most of the featured guys declare as unassailable fact that if a woman wears anything less than a full coverage outfit, either out in the world or in a picture online, she lacks self-respect. Period. They frequently use the term “half-naked” as if it’s objectively pejorative, but the definition of half-naked is not based on the actual ratio of skin to clothing and seems instead to be held to Justice Stewart’s famous standard: “I’ll know it when I see it.” The definition of “self-respect” is even more tenuous. Never mind that these featured guys post their own half-naked pictures. Never mind that these still-same guys “like” and retweet pictures of undressed women with gusto. The clear message is: what’s good for the gander is not good for the goose, because the goose is a total slut. (See Volume IX, Issue 2 of Evolutionary Psychology for Assholes Monthly.) 

Many of the featured guys frame their disapproval in the most punitive way they can imagine for young women in 2016: she will never be “wifed” (as if being legally bound to a misogynist is better than staying single.) Many extrapolate further: because a girl or woman who is half-naked lacks self-respect, she’s not entitled to respect from men. Some take it to its worst logical conclusion: if she is not deemed respectable, or if she disrespects me as the man in her life with a vested interest in her purity and respectability, she will be beaten; she will be raped; she will be killed.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem of young men being doofuses. The double standard is pervasive, and touches on the fundamental right for girls and women to be in their own bodies without being deemed provocative and inappropriate and at risk. That right matters. It matters for all women but especially for black women and girls, whose bodies are hypersexualized from very young ages. It matters for people like my sister, who has had strangers chastise her for breastfeeding her infant even as men jog half-naked nearby. It matters in how we continue to talk about street harassment as a problem related to clothing choices or other respectability proxies, no matter how many marketable white women go viral for reminding us street harassment happens to women in t-shirts and jeans.

This issue also matters for people like me who have survived sexual violence and routinely run into uninformed rape apologists and enablers who desperately want to prop up a myth that sexual violence is a problem contributed to by clothing or other victim choices. (It’s not.) It matters for people who have been bullied and shamed by their classmates and schools for the crime of developing parts unilaterally declared to be inappropriate or distracting. (They’re not.) It matters for people in the sex industry who are treated as if they shed their humanity when they shed their clothing. (They don’t.) The list goes on. Holding men and women’s bodies to a different standard as far as nudity and sexuality is concerned matters for everyone who has come to accept that no amount of fabric can fix an underlying culture problem.

The core theme expressed by the men featured in #ShirtlessShamers2016—that women and girls must walk a subjective respectability tightrope to “earn” the basic respect that a shirtless or sexually active man can expect as a default—is a favorite among those who would rather excuse violence against women than advocate for women too much. This puts all women at risk but particularly black women and trans women and low-income women who disproportionately suffer the kind of violence routinely blamed on women’s choices rather than on toxic male entitlement and masculinity. Last month, 29-year-old Janese Talton-Jackson was killed by a strange man hitting on her at a bar. The first comment on that news story read, “She deserves some of the blame … she is a bar hopping single mother.” Several weeks later on my own Twitter feed, a woman tweeted about being punched by a strange man when she rejected his advances. Out of the peanut gallery sprang forth a guy who confidently diagnosed the issue thusly: “Maybe if you didn’t post pictures in your underwear, this wouldn’t be happening.”

So yes, the terrain is still fraught for people living in women-identified bodies. The #ShirtlessShamers2016 outlet may be playful, but the underlying issues at stake are not. I plan to continue #ShirtlessShamers2016 with at least one post a day as long into the year as I can keep finding source material. I’m beginning to worry I won’t run out.