Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shaming the Slut-Shamer: Anne Calhoun's UNFORGIVEN

Slut-shaming was in the news last month, after researchers from Cornell University published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggesting that women, even women who have had many sexual partners themselves, judge other "promiscuous" women more negatively than women who have had only two sexual partners. Ask to read two near-identical vignettes about women who differed only in the number of sexual partners they'd had, and then asked to rate said women, study participants judged the more sexually active women more negatively on nine out of ten friendship attributes, including competence, warmth, emotional stability, and morality. Disheartening news, to hear that so many women fear being associated with another girl who might be labeled a "slut" almost as much as they fear being smacked with the label themselves.

In contrast, men asked to read about and then rate other men expressed no such negative judgments on their more sexually wanton fellow males. Amanda Hess at slate.com warns against using the results of this study to jump to the conclusion that it's women, not men, who are the key policiers of other women's sexuality. Men may not judge other men for being sexually promiscuous, but study after study has demonstrated that the tables turn when its a question of a woman sleeping around.

Anne Calhoun's latest contemporary, Unforgiven, hits many of my personal and ideological sweet spots—a lovers-parted-then-reunited plot, a heroine comfortable with her own sexuality, a romance which doesn't mistake sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy, and the aesthetic pleasure of a darkly understated narrative voice. Yet even without any of the above, Calhoun's novel is worth a feminist's read, for the way in which, with subtlety and power, it allows us to see the male privilege at the heart slut-shaming.

Twelve years ago, guilt over his role in the death of a fellow schoolmate sent wild-boy Adam Collins fleeing into the Marines, leaving behind the girl with whom he'd shared everything except sexual intercourse. When he returns to the small South Dakota town to serve as the best man in a friend's wedding, he finds that little has changed—except for the reputation of his former girlfriend, Marissa Brooke. As Adam's soon-to-be-married friend Keith reports, "Her reputation's worse than in high school," right before he goes on to describe several of the men she's slept with since Adam left town. "And those were just the guys who lasted more than a night or two," Keith proclaims, then pronounces the final slut-shaming blow: "Marissa will make your bathroom or your kitchen or your sun porch look like something out of Architectural Digest, but she had a string of men teaching her what she needed to know, and she paid them the old-fashioned way" (117). Adam later hears similar talk in the local cafe, expressed in words so like his friend's that he realizes "Keith was the one to frame Marissa in that particularly unflattering light," the one to spread the malicious gossip about town (180).

Keith envisions women's sexuality as a bargaining chip, something they use in order to gain something else from a man—prestige, money, or, in Marissa's case, construction skills. As a lawyer, the son of the town's lawyer, and soon-to-be-husband of town banker's daughter, Keith knows that in the usual way of things, he would be the one in power, not Marissa, whose ne'er-do-well father could not afford the taxes to keep their family home.

But Marissa refuses to play the game the way Keith envisions it. She makes this clear after Adam, upset by the gossip, asks her "Why carry on like you did? You know how this town talks" (187). Marissa goes through several layers of explanation—from "I've liked every man I've had sex with. He's liked me" to "I got lonely. I wanted someone to touch me but I didn't want to have to promise undying love or link the rest of my life to his just to be touched"—until she gets to the heart of the slut-shaming impulse: "Good girls make the trade or keep their legs closed. I didn't do either. That makes me a slut."  (186, 187).

Keith takes for granted that as a man, he has the right to power, especially to power over female sexuality. But Marissa refuses to give credence to any such belief. "She turn you down?" Adam asks. "Twice.... Told me to go fuck myself the second time," Keith admits "without blinking an eye" (117). Disrupting patriarchal power structures by taking ownership of her own sexuality, Marissa presents a threat to Keith's self-image, a threat that he works to contain through slut-shaming discourse.

But not all men engage in the slut-shaming game. Adam proves this through his recognition of Keith's underlying ruthlessness while he slut-shames Marissa—"[Keith] laughed, the tone of the chuckle knowingly regretful, the way people did when they were about to say something cruel disguised as advice" (117)—as well as through his respect for Marissa and her decisions. And, most surprisingly, by his refusal to slut-shame another woman at the end of the novel, one whose sexual behavior was far more morally questionable than Marissa's ever was. An unexpected and gutsy move, both on Adam's part, and on Calhoun's, to refuse the "evil other woman" trope in favor of acceptance of other people's weaknesses—an acceptance that for Adam, leads to an acceptance of his own.

So major RNFF kudos to Anne Calhoun, not only for refusing to fall into the slut-shaming trap, but, through both Adam and Marissa, for showing us ways to work our way beyond it.



Photo credits:
Stop Slut Shaming: Motley News and Photos
Slut definition: Megan Ann Ward Poetry






Anne Calhoun, Unforgiven.
Berkeley Sensation, 2013.




2 comments:

  1. What a great post, and a great topic. I just started writing a character who, in my mind, is "town slut." I wrote that in my synopsis, and I was like WHOA! I DON'T THINK SO!
    So, pissed off at myself for thinking like that, I'm rewriting her into the heroine of the sequel, and revising her motivation for going with the guy she goes with. Nothing like making amends to imaginary people...But also, hopefully, re-training my own thought processes.

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  2. Amazing how often things we don't consciously believe manage to creep into our own belief systems, isn't it? Retraining our own thought processes is really key. A book like Calhoun's, and like your sequel, can really help.

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