Why We Need to Stop Using the Phrase ‘Walk of Shame’

Elizabeth Banks stars as a woman who has to traverse a city after losing her wallet post-one-night stand. The movie is probably entertaining fluff. The phrase is far more damaging.

Jaimie Trueblood/Focus World, via AP

You know that a bit of street slang has become universally understood when it makes the leap into the title of a throwaway rom-com starring a strikingly beautiful woman we know is “quirky” because she stumbles a lot. So it is with the phrase “walk of shame,” which is now Walk of Shame, a movie starring Elizabeth Banks as a woman who has a comic adventure trying to traverse a city after losing her wallet and ID after a one-night stand.

The movie no doubt sets out to be a bit of entertaining fluff that no one should take too seriously, but the phrase that produced its title, in three short words, manages to speak volumes about our culture’s impossible and contradictory demands put on young women when it comes to sex and dating. The “walk of shame” is a slang term that usually describes a person, usually a woman, who is making her way home from spending the night at someone else’s house for a sexual encounter.

The iconic image of a woman doing the walk of shame is disheveled hair and party-ready clothes that look sadly comical in the cold light of day. But it’s not her appearance that makes her trot home one of “shame.” No, as far as most people who use the phrase, her “shame” is that her appearance lets everyone know that she probably had sex, and for some reason, she is supposed to be ashamed of that.

“Walk of shame” is a phrase that’s widely understood to have originated on college campuses, since people who spent the night at a lover’s place often do have to walk on foot home to their own place, and usually in front of other people who recognize them and might recognize that their clubbing clothes don’t exactly match the casual wear that’s more common for mornings on campus. It’s expanded since then to encompass urban dwellers who often travel on foot or by public transportation and, in fact, has become so ubiquitous that you’ll often hear people who get to drive home say they were taking the walk of shame. (Drive of shame?)

But while the “walk” part of the phrase is understood flexibly, in many ways the “shame” part isn’t. Most references to it online speak of having sex in terms of shame and regret, from Urban Dictionary to Wikipedia to College Crush, where the words “skanky,” “questionable,” and even “prostitute” leave no doubt that a woman who others see as sexually active should feel ashamed of her behavior. There’s even a Walk of Shame Kit for sale that promises to have all the ingredients to cover up your behavior with clean clothes and flip-flops so no one suspects what you were doing. In case the need to hide your sexuality wasn’t completely clear, the front page has a picture of a woman making the “shush” gesture.

Beyond just the obvious gross sex negativity of the phrase “walk of shame,” the problem here is that young women are being subject to a bunch of unfair mixed messages. After all, from the time they hit puberty, we’re hitting girls with the message that being attractive, dating, and getting a boyfriend are paramount to their existence. The only thing girls hear is more shameful than being seen as sexual is being seen as someone who is forever alone, without male companionship. (Yes, this is all very heterocentric, but that’s the nature of these kind of mixed, gender-policing, woman-shaming messages.) Then they go out and do exactly as they’re told to do—get pretty, go out, and attract boys—and then when nature takes its course, we fling the word “shame” at them.

Some conservatives might argue that there’s a middle ground, that girls should date boys but should refrain from having sex with them. But that’s not particularly realistic in our day and age, and not just because most people, men and women, expect sex to be a part of a premarital dating life these days. As they should, since sex is, no matter how many on the right live in denial, a normal and healthy part of life.

And so there’s this hypocritical compromise: Women expect and are expected to be sexual, but they are also expected to put on a charade of shame, either by cringing as they do the walk of shame or by actively hiding that they’re leaving a man’s house in the morning. Even though sex is fun and, if done safely, harmless behavior. Even though people have every right to figure out if they’re sexually compatible with people they’re considering dating, our culture isn’t quite ready to let go of the idea that sex is somehow naughty. So we expect women to do an elaborate song and dance of feeling ashamed of it. Just not ashamed of it enough to stop doing it.

The problem with this is that attaching all this shame to sex does end up hurting people. If women feel that being known as sexually active is shameful, odds are high that they’re going to have trouble speaking frankly with their partners and their medical professionals about their sexual health needs. If our reaction to public acknowledgement of sex is to stare at our feet and blush, the conversation about having to use a condom is going to be that much harder to have. If we encourage women to think they should be embarrassed to encounter someone they had a one-night stand with—or worse, to run away in shame—then what’s going to happen if they need to notify that person if they come down with STI symptoms? The “walk of shame” may sound like just a cutesy phrase, but it points to larger attitudes that feed actual public health problems.

A better solution is to stop treating sex like it’s shameful, and instead speak openly about how it’s a normal part of life. Yes, even one-night stands. Instead of acting like they’re regrettable mistakes, why not start thinking of one-night stands as one-off adventures, or, at worst, important learning experiences?

Some people have tried to do this, reclaiming the term “walk of shame” as “stride of pride.” I appreciate the effort, but frankly, it’s one of those phrases that sounds a little too defensive, like it’s trying just a bit too hard. Why does the walk home after a sexual encounter need a name at all? We don’t have special names for the walk home from a party or the walk home from brunch or the walk home from a shopping trip.

The best way to reclaim the “walk of shame” is to simply drop the concept of shame from it. You had a good night. Now you’re taking a walk. There doesn’t really need to be any more to it, does there?