Commentary Media

No, Asking for Corporate Accountability or Subway Courtesy Is Not ‘Slut-Shaming’

Amanda Marcotte

Twice this week, conservatives have tried to draw false equivalences between slut-shaming and discouraging behavior that causes actual harm. Here's why slut-shaming is wrong, but asking for corporate transparency or public transit etiquette is not.

Of all the various bad faith arguments and bouts of intellectual dishonesty rife on the right, playing “gotcha” with false equivalence is amongst the most popular. After all, defending sexism or racism outright makes you sound like a terrible person; instead, you see gambits suggesting that if a liberal was ever sexist to Sarah Palin, that means feminists need to shut up forever about misogyny for all time. Or that because a small group of men calling themselves the “New Black Panthers” are hanging out at voting booths, that somehow means that we should all ignore the much more serious problem of racist voter ID laws. These are all forms of false equivalence, which the Rational Wiki defines as treating two sides of an argument as “equal value regardless of their respective merits.” It’s like saying a grizzly bear is the same thing as a hamster because both have claws and fur.

Unsurprising, then, that conservatives made two attempts this week to play this game with the concept of “slut-shaming,” a now-mainstream feminist term that describes the act of trying to judge someone—usually a woman—for having consensual sex on her own terms.

It’s hard to defend slut-shaming as a practice. You not only have to try to explain why you’re holding women’s sexual behavior to a different standard than men’s; you also have to argue that someone else’s private choices are your business. So it’s not surprising to see conservatives instead trying to argue that liberals are somehow committing the equivalent of slut-shaming in other arenas, in an effort to confuse people about what the term means and why it’s wrong to slut-shame. And all in the service, no less, of trying to equate people who actually cause real harm in the worldgreedy CEOs and inconsiderate men, as you’ll see—with innocent women who are being shamed for harmless, private sexual choices.

Well, I’m not going to just let people trot out these false equivalences without calling them out for it.

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Exhibit #1: Corporate accountability is the same thing as trying to control someone’s private sex life. 

This one is courtesy of Kennedy Montgomery and Andrea Tantaros of Fox News. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed implementing a law that would require publicly held companies to disclose the ratio of CEO pay to median employee pay. The ladies at Fox News, deeply protective of the “right” of CEOs to get as rich as possible without being accountable to their workers or investors, threw a fit, equating this request for corporate transparency to shaming women for private, consensual sex.

“They are essentially trying to slut-shame companies into paying their highest workers less,” Montgomery complained.

“And slut-shaming companies is not the job of the U.S. government,” Tantaros agreed. 

Classic false equivalence. In reality, there’s a huge difference between the personal choices of a private individual and the decisions of a publicly held company. At its heart, the argument against shaming women for having sex is that it’s none of your business. Their actions don’t hurt you. They don’t even affect you. It is victimless behavior. 

The same cannot be said when it comes to corporate secrecy, which hurts shareholders and workers. Since those are the people who actually contribute to the company, and who make or break its chances at success, they deserve information about whether the company is making good choices with the time and money they give it. And overpaying the CEO relative to the employees causes problems, both for the companies themselves and for the economy at large. It doesn’t just escalate income inequality; some economists consider it to be a waste of resources—and therefore bad for business as a whole—to invest so much into one person instead of into the larger workforce. 

None of that is true about the sex lives of strangers, which are not about you, as much as you might wish otherwise.

Exhibit #2: Asking men to treat others with courtesy is the same thing as criticizing someone’s sexual choices. 

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is starting a campaign asking passengers to be mindful of their manners and share the space on subways and buses. One of the cited rude behaviors, in which someone spreads their legs out as far as possible in order to keep people from sitting next to them, has been nicknamed “manspreading” because the culprits are mostly men. Judging by the social media and blog posts documenting the phenomenon, most of the men who do it are healthy and young, making their unwillingness to share with others, who might be disabled or elderly (or hell, just standing in high heels), even more repulsive. It’s also a problem that has been noticed in the past, as the New York Times pointed out, and subject to “please remember your courtesies”-type campaigns then too.

No matter. Conservative writer Helen Smith thought this entire campaign was clearly evidence for the argument, often espoused by “men’s rights” activists, that our country is a hellish matriarchy swarming with misandrists:

So, if it’s okay to subway shame men, is it okay to slut-shame women? Slut-shaming is “defined by many as a process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct.” So now men are attacked. Why is one form of sexism okay and the other not? And don’t give me the crap about the patriarchy. If you shame men in this way, you are a nasty sexist who deserves contempt.

Ah, false equivalence. You can see the intellectual dishonesty bursting at the seams: as if all “codes” of conduct—in this case, arbitrary sexuality standards reinforced by the patriarchy and basic transit etiquette—are all the same and equally valid. But for those who are sincerely confused about the difference, I refer you back to the idea of victimless behavior and minding your own business. If I choose to have consensual sex on my own time in private, this has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t change your life in any way. But if you choose to sprawl out over a seat on the subway so an elderly lady carrying shopping bags can’t sit down, that choice does affect others. It hurts other people. And therefore, it has become our business.

There is also the basic concept of fairness to consider. Space is limited on a subway, so we have to all be mindful to divide it up as fairly as we can. But sex is not a limited resource. If some woman has a lot of it, she’s not taking it away from the sex bank and keeping you from having it yourself.

Of course, two instances of these logical fallacies falls just short of a trend. The fact that they both happened within a week of each other, though, suggests that the concept of “slut-shaming” has really started to bug some people on the right, and they are itching to find ways to undermine the concept or confuse the issue. But we expect 5-year-olds to distinguish between these ideas of privacy, fairness, and harm, so it’s ridiculous to see grown adults try to pretend they can’t. This level of intellectual dishonesty suggests a bit of desperation. They want to keep trying to control female sexuality, but the excuses are running out. Instead, the grasping at straws has begun.

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