From derogatory labels such as ‘slay queen’ to physical harassment and stripping, society has used a myriad of weapons to bring women into line using the art of ‘slut-shaming. Rachel Wambui explores the reason for the existence of this control mechanism.
[slt - sheimin] noun
1. the action or fact of stigmatising a woman for engaging in behaviour judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative.
A month ago, blogger Phillip Etemesi conducted a dating social experiment. He created a fake profile on the mobile phone dating site Tinder where he pretended to be a white man, “to determine just how much Kenyan women are into white men,” he explained in his article. “I got extremely naughty and composed explicit flirt messages,” he continued. He then posted screenshots of his chats with the women who responded to him and didn’t conceal their names or faces.
“Nearly all of the (girls I chatted with) were ready to part thighs for me within the first few minutes of chatting. I put no effort at all,” he continued. And then he launched a series of slut-shaming comments attached to each picture:
“My first message is a request for a date and she says yes. … I think she is more into looks; she can bang any guy so long as he is hot.” …
“She is in for sex, ladies and gentlemen!” …
“Jesus, she asked me for money! You have a chance to ask a white guy for money and you ask him for 50 dollars. This is what I call lack of ambition.
“Kenyan girls,” concluded the 2017 Kenya Bloggers Awards nominee, “have an insatiable appetite for (white men).
They want the money, the vacations and the cute babies. They are ready to do anything. They offer no resistance. No playing hard to get. All they say is yes, yes, yes.”
This is what slut-shaming looks like – where women and girls who violate traditional expectations of sexual behaviour are vilified for it. It often presents as attempts to bring a woman’s sexual ‘misconduct’ to light in order to ‘set her on the right path.’
Slut-shaming may include extreme acts of legally sanctioned violence; in countries such as Saudi Arabia, sexual impropriety attracts a capital punishment through stoning, hanging or lashing.
In most democracies, however, slut-shaming is restricted to social spheres, and may include subliminal deeds or labels meant as a mark of dishonour.
Kenya’s most severe form of slut-shaming in recent times took place in 2014 when matatu touts from the Embassava line took it upon themselves to strip women they accused of being indecently dressed. Women responded with the My Dress My Choice protest, which saw the perpetrators arrested, charged and jailed.
Rita Mutheu, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the My Dress My Choice movement, says that in the aftermath, “people stopped seeing grabbing and groping as a normal thing and began seeing it as a crime that could land you in jail.”
DEFINING THE CRIME
“How can someone accuse a girl of being interested only in looks and forget that a few sentences before, he had admitted to ‘swiping right on every hot chick?” asks 27-year-old Christine Aoko while scrolling through Etemesi’s slut-shaming treatise.
“What is so alarming about saying yes to a date? How does he know these girls were only chatting with white men?
And, for God’s sake, I should think majority of people on a hook-up site would say yes to sex, no?” Christine, a content creator herself, wonders whether the men of Tinder are considered sluts as well, “ama the term only applies to women?”
The creator of the YouTube channel ‘Whatever’ conducted a similar experiment. He crudely asked 1,000 girls on Tinder for sex. Of his 1, 000 matches, 65 unmatched him, and 169 responded.
25 said yes, 95 said no and 69 are classified as ‘other’.
Those in the ‘other’ category were the women who would ask him question like, ‘how often do you get a yes?’, ‘is this a social experiment?’, ‘I’d consider it after coffee’ etc. “That’s how you conduct an experiment.”
The opponents of slut-shaming, such as 38-year-old Grace Nabuso, a lawyer and gender activist at an international organisation based in Nairobi, argue that our culture is critical of women who convey any kind of sexual agency. “In fact,” she adds, “the criticism is so much that even when a woman is forced into a sexual situation through assault, she is still punished for it.”
29-year-old Jennifer thinks that one doesn’t have to be caught in the act in order to be slut-shamed. “It’s one of those weapons that are a quick way to put shut someone down.
Once you’re called a slut, it’s enough said. Judgment is passed. (Men who) have no other weapon to use against (a woman), (will) resort to bringing her vagina into the argument.” She adds that this is the reason a male politician can call a female counterpart a bimbo on live TV as happened to Esther Passaris on Jeff Koinange Live. “It’s the male equivalent of hitting below the belt.”
Jennifer cites another example from this week when socialite Huddah Monroe commented on the current political demonstrations, telling her audience not to mourn for protestors killed by police officers.
“What she said may not have been politically correct,” Jen says, “but I noticed that the backlash had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with her sexuality. I cringed when a woman told her she shouldn’t talk because ‘her p***y has been demonstrating in every continent’.”
Writer Philip Etemesi again, on why he doesn’t think the modern day Kenyan woman deserves dowry:
“In the age of our mothers, 95 per cent of women would get married when they were virgins,” he argues, “but nowadays, by the time you marry a woman, her vagina has already snapped past the elastic limit.”
He goes on to say that today’s woman chooses fornication over procreation and values career over building good homes and raising a disciplined family. “Our mothers persevered men who used to say ‘Come here woman!’ A man exchanged his money and physical protection for a female’s chastity and guaranteed paternity for his children. (But) the feminist court of public opinion has conspired to deprive men of all power.”
Chris Mutinda is a 43 year old banker and, he adds with a grin, an emerging feminist. He admits that slut-shaming is about power – or the lack thereof, “When a woman has power or control over something, it scares people somehow. Men are the dominators, the aggressors, the instigators, the ones with the high sex drive. Thus a woman who expresses her sexuality freely or wants to have sex for fun is not understood.”
He however insists that the problem cuts both ways. “The stereotype on men is that they are archaic creatures who only care about sex. The expectation on women is that they are pure princesses who don’t want or enjoy sex. When that façade is broken, we don’t know what to do but to call them sluts.” It is, he says, a skewed system where a man is either a literal sexual beast or not man enough, and where a woman is either a whore or a Madonna.
Speaking at a forum convened to discuss sexuality and consent, one of the male panellists, a young artist named Moses said, “If you reject him in public, he will seek to salvage his ego by either hurling insults or physically asserting his power over you.”
Reiterating this point, Caroline Mwakio, a counselling psychologist who specialises in gender violence and psycho trauma says slut-shaming is about conflict over who owns a woman’s body.
“I’ve dealt with cases of women being beaten if found to be taking contraceptives because birth control is deemed to be for promiscuous women. If a woman can’t decide (for herself) whether and when to give birth, (then who owns her body)?”
“To be honest,’ says Jennifer, “when someone calls me a slut because I prefer to date white men, it seems like it’s jealousy because I have chosen the other man over them or, if it’s a woman, because he is with me and not them. Otherwise, why are you so concerned with my sex life?” British author and feminist Jessica Ringrose argues that women slut-shame other women to sublimate sexual jealousy, which is a self-defence mechanism.
“I agree that men might be driven to slut-shame because of jealousy especially when pitted against what they perceive to be a superior (richer) competitor,” Grace Nabuso says, “but I think women do it to each other because whenever I criticise something, I subconsciously place myself in a more superior moral standing. It’s ‘Oh, at least I am not a slut like her!’” Chris Mutinda agrees with defence mechanism argument.
“Shaming says more about the perpetrator and their insecurities than the accused and their morality.”
‘CRIMES’ FOR WHICH WOMEN ARE SLUT-SHAMED
1. violating dress codes and/or wearing too much make-up
2. being sexually suggestive in any way
3. wanting to and having sex
4. requesting and using to birth control, especially if not married
5. having premarital and/or casual sex
6. being sexually assaulted and/or raped
7. being pregnant and/or having a STD
8. not being a ‘lady’
9. being a single mother
10. being smart and opinionated – and/or for being stupid and submissive
11. having a different moral code