Fat Sluts, Hungry Virgins
I spent the weekend at the first-ever OpenSF Conference – for polyamorous, open and ethically non-monogamous folks – held in San Francisco. I’d been asked to participate on a panel on the intersections of racism, classism, homophobia, fatphobia and non-monogamy. I hadn’t heard about the conference before the invitation, and wondered whether I even identified as non-monogamous. This question has been the inspiration for half-hearted musings and confusion for a very long time. I mean, non-monogamy is kind of built into the culture because compulsory monogamy (1) doesn’t work because it leaves no room for variations in human sexual interaction within the framework of relationships and (2) is kind of ridiculous. I already spend too much time thinking about the effects of neo-liberalism. And, honestly, I just couldn’t take on another matter of great political import.
Though the non-monogamy thing was still a question I do know that I am (1) a slut and (2) a sex worker. So, I decided to lead a workshop called Fat Sluts, Hungry Virgins. And as I prepared for the workshop I began to wonder about the history of sluthood.
In a Chicago Tribune article, Carolyn Bronstein, who wrote Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986, was interviewed and parts of her book quoted:
“’During the Victorian period the idea of female passionlessness came to identify ideal womanhood.’ An ideal woman had no sexual feeling, no biological urges, didn’t have orgasms. She was above sex. ‘A truly pure and fine woman only engaged in sex in the most sparing ways when conception was desired,’ Bronstein says. ‘There was no passion and no enjoyment.’
‘The only contrast that existed was a fallen woman — a slut… You were bawdy and loved sex and you had no credibility. You were the lowest sort of citizen.’ Victorian women largely shaped these ‘idealized’ roles for themselves, Bronstein says, in an attempt to elevate their status in a culture that afforded them no legal rights and only second-class citizenry.
‘They created this ideal that was supposed to place women even above men,’ Bronstein says. ‘Men didn’t have the four strands of piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness.’”
So, as you can read, sluthood has always been about subversion, and from its earliest days has been political. Matters of class, power, and status can be heard in Bronstein’s analysis. By creating sainthood, these upper class women created sluthood as a container for what they were not. These upper class women are the same women, by the way, who were later all going completely fucking crazy from their saintly lack of orgams and were also largely responsible for the birth of the vibrator. It is my personal belief that we are still on a societal level living out the legacy of the ideals of the Victorian era in the US and in Britain.
A striking number of attitudes and practices that were born during this era are still part of our lives. For example, male circumcision was advocated for by early anti-pleasure/anti-sex activists, all of whom were WASPs, some of whom were eugenicists. These men saw a deep connection between food and sex. Sylvester Graham, the inventor of graham crackers, and John Kellogg, brother of the inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, both believed that food with spice and flavor incited genital desires. They insisted that – for the sake of piety – delicious food should be avoided to control urges to masturbate or engage in sexual relations. Circumcision advocates of Kellogg’s and Graham’s day advocated for male circumcision as a way to curb masturbation and also to curb sexual desire. They advocated trimming the foreskin so brutally that erections, masturbation and sex would be painful for life.
This linkage between food and sexuality is what I see as the birth place of modern-day fatphobia and disordered relationships to food. Women control their bodies as a way to control their status in society. The social stratum of women who created ideals of sainthood and sluthood in the Victorian era is the same social stratum of women that creates ideals of desirability today. The discourse of desirability is influenced again by class, race, ability, age, size and sexual orientation. What’s interesting about the “discourse of desirability” is that while there are socially mandated ideals that have been culturally constructed (again, largely by the upper class) as “desirable,” human sexuality is not really prescribed by these rules. And surely someone desires sluts because someone’s got to be fucking sluts for them to be sluts.
People like me – who exist in subversion of the slut-shaming, fatphobic status quo – act as resistors to the way things are. We have decided that we want it all. I don’t know about you but I still grapple with my identity as a fat slut. I like having lots of partners. I love sex. But my education in shame and the resulting internalized sense of shame – about my body, about my lusty sexuality – make this subversion a pricey choice.
The idea of sluthood is in deep conversation with femininity, a sociohistorical construct that fetishizes thinness, whiteness, ability, heterosexuality and reproduction. Sluthood and fatness are deeply gendered constructs in that they are specifically concerned with women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are literal and figurative CONTAINERS of morality – for the family, for the nation. And both fatness and sluthood are constructed as moral failures, not actually corporeal failures. This is where the desire disgust binary enters. We are deeply drawn to the renegade nature of these outlaw women but we know we are not supposed to be. We as fat sluts know intimately the delight of amazing sex and the delight of gustatory pleasure – or at least that is how our bodies are being read socially.
So, sluthood was born out of resistance, but it was a resistance that was heirarchized. Kind of like how polyamory can be an act of radical resistance, but many of the people who practice this form of resistance are still participating in forms of hegemony, like archaic gender relations, fatphobia, beauty hierarchies, etc. I find it important to stress that we cannot only engage in the kinds of radicalism that are fun for us. We cannot push ourselves only to the point at the edge of our discomfort and stop. Radicalism and liberation are about decolonizing our minds and our erotic selves.
The radical potential of sluthood, the transgressive nature of fatness hold the secret to my liberation.