Feminism 101: Why are women only seen as “prudes” or “sluts”?

From being called a prude to being labeled a slut, women can't seem to catch a break when it comes to sex
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 12/23/2016 at 12:30 PM EDT

When it comes to sex, women have always gotten the shaft… so to speak. In a society set up upon a base of Puritanical ideals, it’s no surprise that when we talk about women and sex, it all boils down to a tired and stereotyped binary system. To many, women are seen either as prudes or sluts, there is no in-between.

Just the thought of that binary sets up a “good vs. bad” way of thinking, despite the fact that women are stigmatized and shamed for being either a “prude” or a “slut.” There is no winning!

So we turned to our favorite feminists to get their take:

Why do we tend to think of women as either prudes or sluts? What’s up with the binary thinking about women’s sexuality?

Claire Linic:I sort women how they should be sorted. By which Hogwarts house I feel would suit their strengths.”

Dakota Kim:The major iconography of women throughout history seems to have followed two distinct paths: the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. One was a sexless madonna and mother; the other was a disciple and possibly Jesus’ sexual companion. The latter was popularized in media as a sex worker (see: Jesus Christ Superstar‘s portrayal of Mary Magdalene). History has illustrated women as the angel on one shoulder and the demon upon the other, regardless of the realities of women. From Lilith (whose demonic origins go back to Mesopotamia) to Delilah (a Biblical manifestation of the tired “gold digger” trope), when written by the male gaze, women were not allowed to contain multitudes, but were single-faceted. Unable to accept his free agency and indeed near total power, historically-speaking, in the realm of sexuality, man throughout the ages has blamed the temptress (see: Odysseus blaming the sirens) for societal and psychological shame. It may take centuries to counter what history and art as created by the male gaze have steeped into our collective consciousness.”

Sa’iyda Shabazz:Let’s take it back all the way to the Bible. Two of the earliest images of women have been either the virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, a prostitute who sought redemption from Jesus. When two options were the only ones given from essential the beginning of time, how are we ever supposed to move past this? These themes have had a trickle down effect into modern day society. We still prefer to hold women to the standard of virgin mother because it is safer than seeing women as fully formed people who can enjoy something like sex without the express reason of procreation. Women who are open with their sexuality have literally always been condemned for doing so.”

Allison Smartt:It probably goes without saying on Feminism 101, that creating and maintaining this dichotomy is another method of upholding the patriarchy. This is an interesting language and critical thinking exercise. Putting aside the impossible standard this dichotomy sets of just the ‘right amount of sex’ (there is no such thing!), let’s put this idea another way…and talk about the idea of sexual conquests…

If women are easily conquered (sexually, usually by men), they are sluts. If they are unconquerable (sexually), they are prudes. Defining women by their sexual frequency isn’t defining women by their own sexual desire. The prude/slut idea requires that a woman’s sexuality be defined in relation to a man — more specifically whether she has too little or too much sex with him.

Let me put it another way… this way of describing women’s sexuality does not pass the Bechdel test.”

Carrie Nelson:Our culture thinks about sex from the perspective of the average straight white man. That’s the standard point-of-view. Which means that women who are sexually active are judged according to the type of sex men think women should be having. But there’s a big problem with that — no human can ever measure up to a hypothetical ideal. Women are constantly being judged on their sexual behavior against a standard that, by definition, is a fantasy, because it was invented in the imaginations of men. So if you’re a virgin, you’re a prude. If you’re having casual sex, you’re a slut. If you waited until marriage to have sex, you are definitely a prude, but if you and your partner have an open or non-monogamous relationship, you are totally slutty. Are you kinky? Are you lesbian or bisexual? Do you watch porn? It doesn’t even really matter what your ‘number’ is — all that matters is that, in the diversity of human sexuality, you do not fit the fantasy that men have created, and you will be shamed accordingly. We’d be better off if we started seeing women as human, not as illusions.”


Do YOU have a question for our cabal of fierce feminists? Email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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