The Scarlet D: The Accusation of Deviance
Interviewer Chris Cuomo basically says he’s about to be a creep, and then does it anyway, knowing it’s creepy. This isn’t just because he’s a nasty guy. If it were, I probably wouldn’t write a post about it. It’s a larger social phenomenon. Actually, like so many things, it’s several, and they intersect.
The Scarlet A
If we’re looking for stories about women whose sexual behavior violated social strictures and who paid a terrible price for it, we could probably go back forever. Certainly, there’s no shortage of cultural tentpoles. Think about the “great books” of the 19th century — Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter. (Hawthorne particularly pushed back, making Prynne essentially a paragon, but that’s a longer conversation …)
Since these are fictional, the label is always at least factually accurate. In reality, people tend to have incomplete and misleading information about each other’s sexual behavior. As such, we don’t really sanction violation of sexual norms.
There’s sort of two ways a culture can go when it has sanctions for a thing that it has only an indirect ability to observe. One is to try to find a way to investigate, estimate, screen – to figure it out. When working as they should, which never seems to be the case for whole sections of their populations, that’s what criminal justice systems are supposed to do. The other thing, though, is to turn the causation around: to decide when to apply the label, and then simply presume that the underlying facts are true. Like an old Stalinist show-trial, the accusations are not based on fact, the tail wags the dog, the function of the accusation is social instruction and reaffirmation of a community condemnation. (I’m cribbing Tony Judt’s Postwar here, which I recommend.)
There are a few books out there that examine the social construct of slut as it exists in US adolescent life. Among the better known are Leora Tenenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation, and Emily White’s Fast Girls. I have read reviews and discussions of a lot of this stuff, though both of those books are still on my to-read list. This review of Fast Girls gives a sense of the point I need it for here. As I understand it, the anthropological and sociological work that has been done, though mostly qualitative, shows that the label “slut” isn’t really related to actual sexual behavior, i.e. it isn’t applied to the most sexually active girl or the one with the most partners, but rather is based on a lot of other things: came into a school system late and therefore lacked an existing base of support, physically matured early, spoke up often, refused to recognize the primacy of a popular clique, etc.
So basically, it’s what gender theorist Judith Butler and others would call an “abject identity.” I’ve written about sluthood as an abject identity , along with the male adolescent abject identity “fag”, before:
C.J. Pascoe explained this dynamic with respect to “fag” in her ethnography of high school masculinity, Dude, You’re A Fag, which I raved about here. I quoted her as follows:
“Examining masculinity using Butler’s theory of interactional accomplishment of gender indicates that the ‘fag’ position is an ‘abject’ position and, as such, is a ‘threatening specter’ constituting contemporary American adolescent masculinity at River High.”
[Dude You're A Fag p. 14.]
In Dude, You’re A Fag, the boys police each other’s masculinity by the ever-present weapon of “fag” — it gets assigned to any boy who steps out of rigid, approved gender performance. Likewise, “slut” is an abject identity constantly held over women’s heads and assigned if they express sexuality or engage in sexual behavior outside a narrow, approved norm. (Patriarchy being what it is, there’s no “right” way for women to behave, because in avoiding the “slut” label, women are always threatened with the “prude” abject identity; there is not safe middle ground between the two, and that’s not accidental.)
The threatening specters of abject identities are a form of blackmail.
(Bold italics above are new emphasis for this post.)
Since “slut” is an abject identity, it is immune from factual refutation. It is not meant to label actual behavior. It is meant to make an example, pour encourager les autres.
Some of this theory is dense, and I’m neither really a scholar of Foucault nor Butler. However, Butler, consciously applying Foucault, talks in Gender Trouble about the “abject” as a process by which a whole is divided, tenuously so and in need of constant policing; that by a process of first “expulsion” and then “repulsion,” some are made the “other.” This idea is typically called the “constitutive other” – that the identity of what is inside is constituted by what isn’t, by the “other.” What Butler means by an “abject” identity is one that is part of the “constitutive other,” not just outside the mainstream but rather a failed identity, one the avoidance of which is definitional to the hegemonic norm. See generally Gender Trouble at pp. 77-78, 133-34.
In reading Pascoe’s take on this and in thinking about how these identities work in talking about abject identities and applying them, I keep coming back to this idea of abject identity as threatening specter; that its boundaries are not inherently stable, but are just a bunch of social conventions that have stability only through constant policing that involves pinning labels to people to send a terrifying message. That’s how I think we should understand the allegation, apparently supported thinly or not at all, that Amanda Knox was in some sense promiscuous or slutty: not even as untrue (in the sense that mathematicians will sometimes call something “so bad it’s not even wrong”), but as having no bearing on the underlying facts, an allegation leveled at a woman because there is a desire to take her down for some reason, and having no connection to actual sexual behavior. The imagined construct of the sexual promiscuity is applied because of the label, by the label, rather than the label applying to the behavior.
D is for Deviant
There’s another aspect of this, and it’s easiest viewed through the lens of “abject identity.” That’s the construct of the “sexual deviant.” Deviance itself is a perfectly useful term. In math and engineering it has technical meaning and generally describes measures of distribution. In sociology the meaning is inherently more political, but it’s a broad concept and not an epithet. “Sexual deviance” however, doesn’t really exist as a means to describe the distribution of human sexual behavior, more and less common. It exists to proscribe and to discipline.
Let’s start with this: sexual normality and sexual deviancy are not assertions about what people do. They are political claims about what people “should” do. Homosexuality was characterized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual until 1973, at which point the governing body that issues it, the American Psychiatric Association, decided they were wrong about that, but hung onto an escape clause, “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” which meant it was still a mental illness if you were not happy about it. Let’s contrast this with diagnoses in physical illness. “Normal” in the physical body isn’t completely objective and apolitical either as anyone who deals with disability or trans or aging issues will usually concede. But there isn’t this kind of blank slate. We knew in the 1940s that a lot of people had same sex partners, but people — learned professionals! — continued to be guided by their preferences rather than the facts on the ground in determining what was “normal” for decades, until after Stonewall when this became untenable within the political environment of the profession. Physical normality is not completely, but is much more, moored to objectively determinable physical standards. Whether someone has an infection is a hypothesis testable by, for example, temperature and white blood cell count. In turn, while there may be some variation in “normal”, these baselines are real baselines, and not simply “what we think they should be.” Doctors are pretty unlikely to just agree that people with Type AB blood don’t exist because it becomes politically desirable to hold that view.
So “normal” is what the people with the power to define “normal” say it is. This boundary is maintained only by constant policing.
In the clip, Chris Cuomo accuses Amanda Knox of being a “sexual deviant.” He doesn’t say he’s accusing her. But she says she’s not, and he says, basically, that it must come from somewhere. And she clarifies that it doesn’t come from witnesses or evidence in the record, just the prosecution’s unsupported theory. And he keeps asking if she really is a sexual deviant who just can’t admit it. That’s accusing.
And that’s what you’d expect from an abject identity: it gets attached to someone who the accusers are out to get for some other reason, not derived inductively from the available information. Once it’s said, the labeling conveys a kind of “truth” such that those who want the label to attach view it as applying even when no support is available. It cannot be refuted, in their minds, by evidence. That’s how “slut” works, too.
This idea of the “sexual deviant” interacts extensively with but isn’t coextensive with gender and the construct of the “slut”. “Sexual deviant” as an abject identity for “sexual minorities”, to the extent the latter term has utility as an umbrella, which I think it does. I think that one of the principal ways that “sexual deviant” interacts with social position in gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race and class is that being on the disempowered end of any of these axes makes the label much more likely to apply. An educated, affluent het married white middle-aged male who also does BDSM (I know this for sure) is in a position to make statements about his sexual practice and sexual identity, and still enforce boundaries, and he faces risks of labeling, but only so far. The queerer, the less gender-conforming, the less educated and less affluent, the less white one is, the more likely labels and social sanctions are to follow, or even anticipate, any disclosure.
The Injunction To Speak
And for those of us who are kinky, we live with a Foucaultian injunction not to remain silent but to speak. There is a sense of mainstream entitlement that sexuality is not private but public: but unequally so; for the mainstream, the demand is only to declare one’s self conforming, as religious dissenters have been required to do in some times and places, whatever the underlying facts. However, for the nonconforming, sexuality is a matter of public concern, the be brought into discussion so that it may then be scrutinized and subject to discipline.
Once they learn of our status, whether voluntarily or not — and whether true or not — the mere specter of it gives them the right to examine all the details. The way Cuomo doubles and triples down on the demand for details is precisely the product of the demand that the alleged deviants offer themselves up for examination and public judgment. It reminds me not long ago of a poll where CNN actually asked a mock jury if now-convicted murdered Jody Arias was a “sexual deviant.” In fact, the mock jury was pretty emphatic that she was not — a good thing, since the “evidence” for that proposition amounted to things as banal as the purchase of lubricant. But this only underscores how divorced from any objective understanding of “deviant” the abject identity of the “sexual deviant” is. CNN asks, in all seriousness, if a person — a woman, not to put too fine a point on it — can be labelled a sexual deviant for purchasing a product so widely used that it can be found in just about every pharmacy in America. The label does not derive its meaning from evidence of conduct. The label is attached for reasons having to do with the exercise of social power, and then looks for or invents justification, whether in facts, or “facts.”
In a way, this isn’t Chris Cuomo’s fault – though it god damned sure isn’t Knox’s either. Cuomo knows the questions are creepy, he knows he’s being a jerk, and that is his fault. I don’t know whether he thought he had to ask because the viewers demand answers, or if he thought it would draw eyeballs and sell ads, or if he even distinguishes between those two things. But I do believe he at least thought he was asking a question. He was even wrong about that, and that isn’t his fault. The way “sexual deviant” works, there is no question. Merely to apply the term to someone, however qualified, is to apply a label; either to point the finger, or to brandish it as a threat.
Gabba gabba We accept you We accept you One Of Us
They say sticks and stones can break your bones but words can break your spirit. Abject identities have power, and they are hard to deal with because they have power in more than one way. They have power in the way that they get inside their target’s head and, even when consciously rejected, graft themselves onto self-definition. In that sense, they are a “free your mind …” problem. But they have the other kind of power, too — the kind where a high school full or jerks, or a hiring committee full of jerks, or a break room full of jerks, or a holiday gathering full of jerks, can take action based on them. Freeing your mind won’t keep you from getting fired or beaten up.
And this crossfire of power makes any way to deal with the labeling highly imperfect. To reduce the power of the labels to damage the self, adopting it is a valid and sometimes a brilliant strategy. Take Slutwalk. Many have said, but I’ll attribute it to Jaclyn Friedman because I think she was first, that Slutwalk is “I Am Spartacus,” that by volunteering to take on the label, the participants are dividing it and conquering it, refusing to let it be focused on anyone who gets singled out. But the powerful critique of Slutwalk is the one mounted by women of color. The best expression of it I’ve seen is from the letter to the Toronto Slutwalk from a lengthy and impressive list of folks, which I’ll quote briefly but which I recommend reading in full:
As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. … It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens. The perception and wholesale acceptance of speculations about what the Black woman wants, what she needs and what she deserves has truly, long crossed the boundaries of her mode of dress. … Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later. Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize. Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.
That’s not the only critique in that letter, and I can’t say it’s a representative example of all critiques, but one point that it powerfully illustrates is that pushing back at an abject identity by reclaiming it isn’t a cost-free tactic — and often, it isn’t a tactic where the costs are shared equally. Often, it looks like a good idea to those with the most space for resistance, and a terribly risky one to people with less. In my generation, some het guys pushed back against the abject identity “fag” by more or less openly inviting questions about our sexual orientation. And as callow teenagers, we probably thought we were all so witty and fucking brave. And as a middle-aged man, it looks a lot messier. Did I really make space for other guys who were easier targets? Or did the bigots I deliberately pissed off just make life that much harder for some other kid who had fewer tools to fight back? I’m not trying to answer that question, just noting how different things can look from different positions. When Kathleen Hanna performed with “slut” written on her body, did she make things better or worse? Probably both, by turns.
I don’t know how to wrap this up neatly. The abject identity of the “sexual deviant” hurts a lot of people, and because of my social position on a lot of axes, me just about least. There are times when I use the position I’m in to push back in ways that I think will make room for others who can’t easily do so. And there are ways of pushing back that I think may feel good for me but won’t work out well for others. Amanda Knox, who isn’t even one of us, may be one of those people who has to live in the crossfire of a fight over terms. So when I talk about who I am, regular readers may have noticed that unlike some kinky people I tend not to use “pervert” and “deviant”. That’s why.