In case you missed it, Jennifer Lawrence did something rather important last week:
She refused to apologize.
In her interview with Vanity Fair regarding her nude photos stolen and leaked to the web for all to see, she was admirably candid about how the 'sex crime,' as she aptly put it, affected her:
It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change... I started to write an apology, but I don't have anything to say I'm sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he's going to look at you.
This has been a decade of great strides for sex positive culture. But even amongst these strides, her declaration strikes me as a staggeringly brave articulation of what we should all, by now, know to be true. When she indicts her hackers as sex offenders, she is doing so much more than merely defending herself and her celebrity franchise--she is changing our idea of what it means to be bullied by victim-blaming culture. She is refusing to take any blame, and refusing to let anyone else off the hook--a problem with cultural attitudes toward sex is everyone's problem. With this, she has proven that she isn't the world's darling for no reason--she clearly deserves the megaphone her celebrity has provided. I hope she uses it more often, for my sister and mother's sake, and for the sake of all the women in my life who have struggled with this sort of thing.
There is an insidious implication here--one she may not have meant.
There is one bit of language in her quote that courts a perception that is still, I believe, a problem worth pointing out. It is a problem I've seen in my own personal life, and a problem I've seen in culture at large:
It is the assumption that if Jennifer Lawrence hadn't been in a "healthy, great relationship for four years," sending those nude photos would be unacceptable, or at least slightly more worthy of contempt. There are undoubtedly people out there who would not be on her side, if not for that sentence.
Let me state this clearly, for the record--I don't speak for her, and I don't actually think that's what she meant to imply. She was talking about the reality of her own, personal circumstances. The fact that she was in a relationship is only relevant in that it was true of her situation--it does not necessarily mean that she thought the crime was conditional. She may very well know that it would be just as much of a crime if those nude photos had been meant for someone else, or for no one at all. I don't know her, and I don't know how she feels about that.
The following criticism is my attempt to accuse the culture around her, not her. I am on her side--to the marrow. Every word she said is true, and important.
(There. Hopefully that persuades her horde of rightfully adoring fans that I am among them, not against them.)
Yet, I wonder--for all her courage, did she feel free to make that further point explicitly: that this was a crime regardless of her monogamy?
Would she have felt comfortable enough to make this same sort of righteously indignant stand, if her pictures had not been the product of a long-term, traditional relationship? Furthermore, how many people read her interview and only agreed with her on the basis of her monogamy--how many would have shunned her, had those pictures come from a time when her love life was a little less traditional?
The answers to these questions, I believe, reveals a double standard as durable as a virus--the fact that women are still, still, still criticized for having casual sex, or really any kind of sex that doesn't fit a narrative with which everyone else is comfortable. Everyone seems to have an opinion about when, why, and how often women should have sex--not to mention how many different partners is acceptable. Worse still, these opinions are often delivered with an air of moral authority, alongside other, better ideas. I've heard people actually say things like, "I'm a feminist, but, y'know, there's a line--if she's had sex with all her guy friends and still hangs out with them, that's not ok." Or, "see, she's an important role model for girls because she shows you don't have to be a slut and sleep around to take naked pictures." These are people who believe they are being progressive--and this is almost more harmful than those stubborn few that simply bite the bullet and disapprove on more archaic, easily dismissible grounds. These people think they've found the sweet spot of ethical intuition--when, really, they are giving rise to a subtler form of slut-shaming. Amazingly, when pressed on these issues, these people will often admit they weren't being "serious," but that, too, is even worse than conscious, outright disapproval--it creeps into casual language, masquerading as an enlightened worldview based on "common sense."
I'm a young, straight male. I enjoy a kind of sexual freedom that is almost aggressively unrestrained by cultural attitudes around me--not only am I allowed to have casual sex, but it is passively (and sometimes vehemently) encouraged. My parents were quite liberal and understanding in the way they chose to bring me up--sex was never an issue. As long as I was safe, responsible, and respectful of other human beings, I had a right to my sexual freedom.
But even my own father has trouble giving my sister this same encouragement--because she's a girl. When he jokes that I should "go forth and multiply," and I ask him if my sister Sophie should do the same, I'm met with uncomfortable silence, a joke, or a quick change of subject. Of course, you may say, this is to be expected coming from a man of his generation.
But more than once in my life, I've heard young, modern, progressive parents exhibit the same double standard. It is common to hear young parents, especially fathers, express a sentiment that goes, in its most basic paraphrased form, something like this:
When my son grows up, I hope that he has sex with as many women as he can. Look at him--he's gonna be a lady killer.
Obviously the wording here is overly stilted, but that's the idea. The circles in which I run are about as liberal as you can get--but even those young parents have a bit of trouble with this sentiment once the tables are turned: "what if you had a daughter?" The response is often a good-natured laugh, and something like, "well, no, of course not." Even the people who accept the premise of gender equality intellectually have trouble with it emotionally--somehow, the fact that a woman might just go out and have sex like we straight men do strikes them as icky, and somehow ethically problematic. And, if I were to assert that I do hope my hypothetical daughter, or my actual sister, has as much sex as she likes with whomever she chooses, I get strange looks--even, occasionally, cries of disgust or accusations of perversion. "That's messed up, dude," they say. But what's wrong with it, really? What changes when we flip the genders?
In my view: nothing at all--nothing except a strange scaffolding of outmoded social regulations that dictate which gender does what, at the very baseline of human decency. But we didn't build this scaffolding, or agree on this definition of decency. It was built by (mostly) long dead men who had ideas of traditional masculinity, femininity, social hierarchies and lots and lots of religion running on their brains.
One of those problematic ideas is the myth of purity--with or without religion, this is a concept to which we seem hugely attached. We are still re-reading this out-moded bedtime story--the "purity" of virginity, the "impurity" of female promiscuity--in our heads, to our daughters, and our sisters, in a society in which the concept itself should no longer have any meaning. Women who sleep with a lot of men are not as desirable, we are told, as a woman who picks and chooses who she dates more selectively. The latter is said to be more dignified, more worthy of respect. Furthermore, adjacent to the concept of purity is the concept that a woman's sexuality is to be maintained by people other than herself. Men, other women, the community--they've bought shares in every woman's sex life, and seem invested in how it performs, or fails to perform, to their expectations. This can manifest in job interviews, social circles... practically everywhere in a person's life. In the age of the eternal record-keeping of social media, if a woman exhibits her desire to go to bars and pick up men, in anywhere near the same way I hear men talking about going to bars and picking up women--it could literally cost her a friend, or a job.
It is as Jennifer Lawrence said, like so many others before her--so simple an idea as to have already become a cliché--"it's my body, it should be my choice." Somehow, my sister might be considered "pure" if she never has sex, or somehow "more pure" in comparison to another girl who has had significantly more sex. Meanwhile, I'm lauded the more notches I acquire on my belt. (And, incidentally, this sexism goes both ways--on its flip side, the less women I sleep with, the less manly I am). These judgments come from abroad, and (due to the tyranny of cultural brainwashing) now come from within, as well. Young girls reprimand, punish, and regulate themselves and their friends to make sure their choices are based not on what they want, but on what they "should" want--who they "should" have sex with. In my experience, this is often one of the last cultural "should's" in which otherwise freethinking, progressive women participate. Purity is not a medical or scientific term--there is no apparatus to detect purity, and the more specific you get when you try to pinpoint what, exactly, constitutes sexual purity, the more it dissipates, like a mirage.
Another bit of anecdotal evidence, and something I've experienced time and time again, encapsulates how much work this idea of purity does to reinforce this illusion. The situation goes like this: a male friend sees a girl he likes across the room. Male #2 says he knows her, and Male #1 asks to be introduced. Male #2 agrees reluctantly, but not without a warning: she's slept with that guy, over there, and him over there, too. In fact, she's slept with a lot of different men. Too many, by Male #2's count. Male #1, immediately, changes his mind--"nevermind, then. She's a slut."
This is no strawman argument, or hypothetical--I've heard this said, recently, by men with which I am close. I only refrain from mentioning names for fear of the inevitable angry texts. But let's analyze this reaction rationally--sure, it's possible that Male #1 is concerned about safe sex, and the spread of sexually transmitted disease. But this is clearly not the whole story. To Male #1, something fundamental changed about this girl's identity once it was revealed that she has had "too much sex." Notice that nothing changed (in his mind) about the identities of the other males in the room--the ones the girl slept with. It is only the girl that is morphed by sex in this way. Men remain, as they always have been, the "rightful heirs" of "manly" promiscuity--if it does change them, it is for the better. It gives them permission to be men. But with the girl, it is as if Male #1's conquest of her is rendered "not as special," because she's been with more men than he's comfortable with allowing.
Note that even before they've said a single word to each other, Male #1 has a preference with how the girl conducts her sex life. I've raised this concern in conversation myself, when I've been in this situation. More than once, the response was a shrug. "Well, yeah," they say. This is not a subconscious motivator--it is right on the surface. He wants her, and he wants as few other men to have her as possible, so that the fact that she relented to him says something about how special he is--and adversely, women consider themselves more special the less they "say yes". Male #1 freely admits both of these things, verbally, puzzled as to what my problem is. Indeed--the wording here is significant--he wants her. He wants to own her.
Nothing I've said above is new, or novel, and none of these ideas belong to me, of course. This is just another small article in a larger discussion that seems to be heading in the right direction. But, change in this kind of public prejudice, which is still considered by so many frustratingly smart people as "common sense," is sloth-paced and hard-won, and being relentless with these things seems to be the only reliable way to inoculate people against these diseases of language.
So let's follow Jennifer Lawrence's example and make this claim explicit. Let's copy and paste this into our brains and the brains of others, so we don't forget it:
No matter how many or how few partners, no matter her means of going about choosing them, no matter her fetishes, no matter the abundance or absence of feelings of love, no matter what sort of pictures or videos she takes, a woman should be allowed to have consensual sex with whomever she wishes, whenever she wishes, in whatever way she wishes, for whatever reason she wishes, and it's nobody else's business. It is time to acknowledge what should be obvious to all of us now:
There is nothing wrong--morally, ethically, or rationally--with sex. Nothing at all.
There is no such thing as sexual purity, or impurity.
There is no such thing as a slut.
There's a little Thought Catalog list from 2013 that sums it all up better than I ever could:
No one is a slut. 'Slut' is a made-up word to keep women from having as much fun as men. A person who enjoys sex is just a person and a person who is a virgin is also just a person and everyone should just lay off each other's sex lives.
Lay off, indeed.