Books

Book review

‘I Am not a Slut’ by Leora Tanenbaum; ‘Is Shame Necessary?’ by Jennifer Jacquet

Cristiana Couceiro for the boston globe

Not so long after homo sapiens started really getting to know each other, the trash talking started. With the emergence of spoken language, drawing lines in the sand no longer meant drawing lines in sand: Behavior could be policed, norms enforced, and reputations created and destroyed, all from a safe distance.

This might be why shaming, as popular as it now may be (see: Kanye vs. Beck; the Internet vs. Kanye), seems functionally old-fashioned — the notion of the town square seeming quaint or downright primitive in the me-being-me context of contemporary American society. As Jennifer Jacquet writes in the opening chapter of “Is Shame Necessary?” — a sharp dissection of shame that concerns itself more with the verb than the noun — “A hyper-individualist and privacy loving society is left,” Jacquet writes, “at least allegorically, with guilt as its primary hope for social control.”

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Still, even as shamelessness seems to be an ascendant guiding principle for our behavior online and (increasingly) off, Jacquet sees shame as a potent potential tool for social change, both “dangerous” and “delicate.” Shame is a scalable, nonviolent form of influence that can change the way entire groups conduct themselves (whereas guilt operates privately, in one’s gut). Where its close cousin embarrassment typically centers on a single stumble or foible, shame is more concerned with broader norms — the ones we preserve, trash, or forge anew.

Jacquet’s study charts the strength of shame in relation to the society it serves, as a kind of mortar that began to chip and crumble with the rise of individualism. She follows its function as a tool of mutual coercion in the marketplace, as organic certification and other consumer-stroking assurances of ethical production are rolled out at a significant markup by ostensibly shamed corporations to “sedate our guilt without providing the larger, serious outcomes we really desire.” And through a series of studies and experiments, she exposes the ways shame plays into collective ideas of punishment and reward, and the social mechanisms that dictate the ways we dictate our behavior.

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Shame may not be our primary regulator, but it’s still a force to be reckoned with. Jacquet dedicates an entire chapter to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shaming,’’ and she examines tactics through which the weaponry of shame can function as a critical (in both senses) tool – from the corporate impersonations of the activist Yes Men to the inflatable rats frequently stationed outside of nonunion construction sites.

As Jacquet observes, the Internet has exploded the dimensions of shame into a “global panopticon,” promoting shaming into something of a new American pasttime. While the Internet has united its ire to target celebrities, politicians, and a cavalcade of villanous extras coughed up through local news outlets and viral videos, the distribution of shame online is predictably disproportionate toward young girls and women. (The recent conviction of Kevin Bollaert, a San Diego man who ran a notorious “revenge porn” site, is but one indicator of the industrialization of misogynist shaming.)

This is of special interest to Leora Tanenbaum, whose latest book, “I Am Not A Slut,” examines the rise of “slut-shaming” online and serves to update many of the observations and definitions put forth in her 1999 book, “Slut!: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.”

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Similar to the approach she took for that (notably pre-social-media) study of a phenomenon she then coined “slut-bashing,” Tanenbaum interviewed a racially and socio-economically diverse group of 55 girls and women between the ages of 14 and 22 who had either wielded or fielded the word “slut” themselves.

In doing so, Tanenbaum found her previous nomenclature unfit for the fluid nature of the problem facing young women. The “bashing” of “sluts” had spread, soaked in, and soured into something more like shaming — though really, it’s more like plain harassment than actual “shame,” since a pervasive sexual double standard renders a true norm impossible to discern. Moreover, the individualist nature of the Internet makes shame relative to the user, not to mention hopelessly reflexive — “slut-shaming” itself is often identified as a way of shaming the shamer.

Even the word “slut” is something of a signifier for hire in the context of online abuse. One student revealed that “slut” could be attached to an attack on just about anything, from one’s diet (“if you ate too much and didn’t gain a pound”), one’s physical attributes (“your boobs are too big”), and, most harmfully, one’s fundamental agency as a woman. Often, the sexuality of the girl on the receiving end of slut-shaming is irrelevant to the abuse, and “slut” survives as a remarkably adhesive, all-purpose epithet used to degrade and devalue, not describe.

(Tanenbaum even stands firmly against the positive intentions of co-opting the term for casual, affirmative use — a la “queer” — fearing that “mass reclamation will trigger a terrible backlash against women.”)

Throughout, Tanenbaum notes that mere exposure to this economy of insults negatively affects how girls develop and understand themselves. And in case after case in this often harrowing book, we can see the dauntingly various sources from whence shame springs — from fashion and pop culture, from stubborn norms and expectations of femininity (Tanenbaum traces these into the competing but equally detrimental notions of “good” and “bad” sluts), and most often, from the cruelties we inflict upon each other.

Citing the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Jacquet wonders whether our need to “monitor one another” through the mechanisms of shame and guilt was “why we learned to speak.” Thousands of years later, the hazards of shaming make a compelling case for why we must learn to listen.

IS SHAME NECESSARY?:

New Uses for an Old Tool

By Jennifer Jacquet

Pantheon, 224 pg., $24

I AM NOT A SLUT:

Slut Shaming in the Age of the Internet

By Leora Tanenbaum

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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