Entry from March 5, 2012

In this morning’s Daily Telegraph there’s a report about an Oxford undergraduate named Madeline Grant, age 19, who is campaigning for election as librarian of the Oxford Union. Her campaign slogan is: “I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.” She also says she is “committed to helping members pull” — that is, find partners to sleep with. “But,” says the Telegraph’s reporter, “her campaign has been condemned by students who have accused her of ‘damaging the perception of women’” at the university — for example, by a member of the Union who was quoted in the student newspaper, Cherwell, as saying that,

whilst this manifesto is clearly meant to be humorous, it shows a distinct lack of judgement. It is disappointing to see female members of committee campaigning on the back of gender at all, let alone in a way which promotes the use of sexuality. The suggestion that anyone should be voted in on such a basis is deeply offensive to both male and female voters and is also very damaging to the perception of the women associated with the Union. This year’s three successive female presidents are testimony to the fact that the Union has moved far beyond outdated sexual stereotypes and it is deeply saddening to see women objectifying themselves in manifestos.

All true, no doubt — apart from the bit about “outdated sexual stereotypes.” For the “stereotype” being referred to here, the one involving the “objectifying” of women, is a male stereotype of women as objects of their sexual desire. When evoked by a woman, it becomes not itself a stereotype but an attack on the complementary female stereotype of modesty and a demure sexual continence. Miss Grant, who is also said to have “posted numerous pictures of herself posing half-naked on her Facebook page,” describes her manifesto as “a light-hearted satire on an organisation which is often seen very seriously.” Clearly, she recognized that, to appeal to kids of her own age, she was more likely to be successful with an anti-stereotypical than a stereotypical self-portrayal.

Yet part of that success must be owed to what the kids these days call the “outrageousness” of that portrait — which must include the fact that a national newspaper thinks it something worthy of its attention. Such outrage, in case you haven’t noticed, is usually considered to be a good thing by the young. It would not, however, be outrageous if there were not still some potency in the stereotypes being violated. Just how much potency is suggested by the cries of outrage — the bad and not the good kind of outrage — which have greeted Rush Limbaugh’s on-air suggestion that the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was behaving like a “slut” or a “prostitute” in expecting a government mandate to insurance companies — and, therefore, to those they insure — to supply her with contraceptives for the more convenient conduct of her (implied) sexual adventures.

Dan Foster of National Review Online called this “ungentlemanly” on Rush’s part — as, indeed, it would have been if Miss Fluke were behaving in a ladylike fashion and being discreet about her sex life, according to the “stereotype.” But when someone advertises to the world that she is behaving in a promiscuous or sluttish manner — and, moreover, demanding for such behavior a public subsidy — it does seem a tiny bit odd that she should then complain when the word traditionally used to describe such behavior is applied to her.

I remember decades ago, in the wake of William F. Buckley’s calling Gore Vidal a “pink queer” on national television in 1968, the former’s discovery of a peculiar anomaly of our public discourse when he himself was called a “faggot” by some nameless leftie in the pages of The New York Review of Books. On that occasion, having turned to the personal ads in the back of that paper and finding among them numerous ads for homosexuals seeking partners, Buckley announced his discovery as follows: that homosexuality is now OK, but the imputation of it remains discreditable — and on that ground he proceeded to apologize to Vidal.

Well, the NYRB would no longer countenance such “hate speech” from its contributors, even the otherwise politically correct ones, but the lesson still applies — and in spades to the word “slut.” Jamila Bey of the Washington Post blogs — who herself shows a certain talent for hatred — called it “slut-shaming” and (therefore) “hate speech,” and, as several of his advertisers made a dash for the exits, Mr Limbaugh was also forced to apologize. But the rest of us may just be permitted to notice the shame inversion here. Where once being known as a slut would have been a thing for a woman to be ashamed of, now it is not. Instead, the shame accrues to the man who dares to apply the now-talismanic word to her behavior. I suppose that one advantage of sowing the language with such taboos is that it helps keep alive a capacity for outrage that can then be courted and exploited by youthful outrage-lovers such as Madeline Grant, but the rest of us must be very careful to remember that, under the new rules, shame is the result of linguistic rather than moral recklessness.

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