Recently, the Women's Campaign at my university funded a production of 'The Vagina Monologues', which opened on Valentine's Day to mark V Day, the campaign to end violence against women and girls. The production was fantastic, and was greeted with a standing ovation, but what really struck me was how relevant the issues it raised were, despite the seventeen years that have elapsed since Eve Ensler (who is also the founder of V Day) first wrote it.
It still felt liberating to sit in that audience and see women stand up and talk about sexual pleasure with an honesty that is wholly absent from most of our discussions of female sexuality, which tend to either sit on the coy, bizarrely infantilised end of the scale (take a bow, Zooey Deschanel) or the caricatured shrieking of much of Sex and the City and Loose Women, the latter a viewing experience that feels a little like being trapped in the most mundane circle of hell. In 2013, this shouldn't still be the case.
Obviously, talking about something as intimate as (forgive me) intimacy is not something that we should feel the need to engage in with everyone we meet, just as it isn't necessary to celebrate sexual freedom by propositioning everybody you see, unless that's what floats your proverbial boat. We should, however, be comfortable with engaging in as much or as little sexual activity as we wish to, and with saying as much or as little about those experiences as we wish, without fearing reproach, mockery or- and this is crucial- being negatively judged and labelled accordingly.
'Slut-shaming' is the term for it, the charming practice that is so ingrained in our cultural make-up: the nasty way that any women openly discussing sex is liable to attract unfavourable attention. The notion that female desire is something that is still not appropriate to discuss in the same way as its heterosexual masculine counterpart is subtle but pervasive, and here the heterosexual aspect is important: it really is only heterosexual male desire that is truly socially acceptable to discuss openly; although the portrayal of an aggressively normalised masculine sexuality, the kind that Lynx advertising campaigns are based around, is still a reductive stereotype, representing a tiny fraction of a broad and complex spectrum.
Slut-shaming is a phenomenon that fits in with the ancient division of women into three broad categories: mother, maiden and whore. Perhaps the best example of the way that this is still cultural shorthand is the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift. Swift, a woman who seems incapable of understanding that the mere act of ending a relationship is not tantamount to an actual crime (imagine what would happen if she got divorced! One in three, Taylor. One in three) appears to subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion that the only acceptable form of female sexual expression is to listlessly writhe around in a field in a decidedly white dress, singing wistfully about Georgian stars.
She also happens to have sold in excess of 26 million albums and 75 million song downloads, and is one of the most popular artists on the planet, with a devoted following that consists mainly, although by no means exclusively, of impressionable teenage girls. Regardless of how lovely I am sure she is in person, and of her admirable business nous and philanthropic contributions, the message her song lyrics project is a pernicious one.
Swift's lyrics are saturated with imagery of waiting for a marriage proposal to legitimise a relationship ('Marry me, Juliet, you'll never have to be alone', Lovestory) and the men she sings about are often described as radiant beings, emanating light like the offspring of a guardian angel and a 500 watt bulb. When she isn't sitting by the phone sobbing into her inexplicably formal domestic attire waiting for this lava lamp in human form to sweep her off her feet, she's labelling any other woman who dares to exist around the object of her affections as a promiscuous whore of Babylon figure, tempting these poor hapless men astray: it is almost always seen to be the woman's fault, removing any agency or blame from the man in equation. For Swift, who has openly declared herself not a feminist, female sexual emancipation is a synonym for promiscuity: she speaks of this universal other woman variously as being 'known for the things that she does on the mattress' (Better than Revenge), and as the kind of girl who wears 'short skirts' (You Belong With Me), the hardly subtle implications of the latter really hammered home in the video in which the virginal Swift's man is messed around by a wanton brunette in a red dress.
Taylor Swift is, in many ways, far from a negative role model for young women, but the near fanatical devotion she inspires in many of her legions of supporters illustrates that the message she is giving out is one that is likely to hit home, and it isn't a healthy one. Yes, it's pop culture; yes, it could be dismissed as trivial, but it's the everyday occurrences that maintain a status quo and perpetuate a mode of behaviour long past its sell-by date. Slut-shaming is incredibly negative and incredibly common, and, seventeen years on from the first Vagina Monologue, we really should be able to accept and discuss female sexuality without it.