News Analysis

Friday 19 September 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Reaction to 'Slane Girl' is more complex than merely exposing evils of misogyny

It's a cliche to see the fallout from Slane as an example of the shaming of female sexual desire

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 25/08/2013 | 05:00

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SAME ACT, DIFFERENT OUTCOME: Tulisa received public sympathy, not condemnation, when a former lover posted a sex tape on the internet

OPINION on Slane Girl seems to be divided into two opposing camps. One is that she was no better than she should be and therefore deserved everything she got. This thoroughly nasty point of view was confined mainly to the uglier recesses of the internet. The second is that she was a victim of a societal double standard which considers men or boys to be 'legends' for getting their ends away, but condemns girls and women as morally corrupt for doing exactly the same thing. I have some sympathy for the second argument; something is clearly awry when a stark naked boy can engage in sexual activity in a field but it's only the girl who gets the blame. Rather than using that as a springboard into a deeper examination of what was going on here, however, many of those commenting on the story seemed content to simply stop thinking at that point, sit back smugly, satisfied to have exposed the evils of misogyny. It's not that simple.

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Had Slane Girl and the boys in question retreated to a tent to make out, where they were then photographed without their consent, there may have been a few tut tuts at the moral decline of modern youth, but the focus of the story would have been entirely different. Slane Girl would have been the object of almost universal sympathy as the victim of a cruel invasion of privacy. Look at Tulisa. Private pictures from a man she thought she could trust appeared on the internet. The result was overwhelming sympathy for the X Factor star and wall-to-wall condemnation of him. Same act. Different outcome. The internet is filled, likewise, with images of women having sex with men, or other women, or combinations of the same. Far from considering these women worthless sluts, many men consider these women to be 'legends' too.

It's patently not the fact of having oral sex which brings shame on anyone, it is the context in which the act take place, and it's a ridiculous cliche to see the fallout from Slane then as an example of the shaming of female sexual desire. It's also incredibly shallow to assert that men do not face similar shame when found engaging in similar public acts. Tell that to Neil Prendeville, the Cork DJ who was accused of masturbating on a plane. A quick search on Google will return scores of stories of men whose lives have been destroyed after such exposure.

So here's a question: why do the defenders of Slane Girl not also defend men who are caught publicly masturbating? Doesn't it work both ways? Is this not an expression of these men's sexuality too? The truth is that society judges these men harshly – and feminists as a rule not only do not leap to their defence, they actively participate in the mockery. Society as a whole still seems to see male masturbation as a bit sad and pathetic, while female masturbation is celebrated. There's a double standard to explore, if feminists are interested.

The problem with talking about Slane Girl in any intelligent way is that we keep starting from a false premise. Rather than exploring their genuine feelings about it, many commentators issued instead what amounted to political statements full of right-on slogans. Showing solidarity with this young girl was the right thing to do on a human level, but sympathy has to start from the basis that the reason we all felt desperately sorry for her was because she had been caught in a situation that was sordid and degrading and indefensible, and no amount of girl-power cliches could disguise it.

The acid test was attitudes to the boy himself in the most widely seen picture. If she was merely expressing her sexuality and should be respected accordingly, then surely so was he? Yet there was a palpable undertone of hostility to that boy. To be honest, I didn't like him much either. It was all there in his stance, arms aloft, a victor's pose. He thinks he's won. The widespread hostility to him from many women suggests that we tend to agree that he has and that the girl was diminished and defeated in that moment.

Not because she was engaging in a perfectly normal sex act which, under any other circumstances, would simply be a healthy expression of sexual desire; but because it happened outside a public urinal in a field during a rap concert.

This was not the only story in the news recently of a shaming arising from an act of oral sex between two people, after all. Chris Martin (not the rock star) is a winery director from Oregon. On a flight to Las Vegas, he and a female companion engaged in repeated acts of oral sex in front of fellow passengers, many with young families. They were charged by police with committing lewd acts in a public place, and Martin was fired from his job – by his own father. The crucial point here is that it is not possible to find in the media coverage of this story any sense whatsoever that the woman was being blamed or shamed any more than him. The two were held equally responsible. Again, that simply does not fit with the much-parroted assertion that men are lauded and women vilified for engaging in the same act. Instead it suggests that couples who engage in consensual sexual activity in public places will be shamed equally for their violation of a shared social space.

That response changes when the context changes. In Slane, the situation was entirely different. The girl's part in proceedings was merely as the conferrer of a sexual benefit. That this was the stock role then assigned to her in the subsequent bullying on social media was inhumane and primitive and cruel – but it's illogical to, on the one hand, accept that she was caught in an unacceptable and unpleasant situation and deserved our every support (a feeling which was reinforced by the appearance briefly of a video allegedly showing the girl being jostled and manhandled during the concert), whilst, on the other hand, trying to say that what happened was merely a young girl being sexually active and then being hounded for it. Sex should be celebrated when it's joyous and life-affirming and healthy and intimate. It's irresponsible to do so when it's the opposite of intimate and loving, especially in a culture where privacy is harder than ever to protect.

You can ask the world to change – or you can change your own behaviour. Only one of those things is within your own power. That's not "slut shaming". It's realism.

Sunday Independent

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