Why it's different for girls: slut-shaming in the digital age

In the world of popular sexual mores, public oral sex is apparently seen as pretty much neutral for men. It's the woman who gets to be the repository for everything deemed "shameful" or "disgraceful". A culture that hates women for having sex is one that

Welcome to today's reminder that it's different for girls. A picture has been circulating on Twitter and Facebook since last night, reportedly taken at Eminem's Slane Castle gig yesterday. It shows a cluster of men looking at a young man and a young woman. Him: shirt off, shorts down, cock out, arms held high, beaming with triumph. Her: fully clothed, kneeling, sucking.

It's a grotty scene, and so are the reactions to it, because while there are two people at it in the picture, only one of them has been the focus for the attendant flack. She was given a nickname that's been trending since (we're not reproducing it here, because although this is an issue we need to talk about generally, the girl in this specific case has suffered enough publicity). She was also labelled with epithets like "dirty", "slut", "rank" and "this is why men fear having daughters". The guy? He's as much of a bystander as the ones watching, apparently.

In the world of popular sexual mores, public oral sex is apparently seen as pretty much neutral for men. It's the woman who gets to be the repository for everything deemed shameful or disgraceful about sex. If a man gets caught in some non-socially-sanctioned screwing, he's just being a man, and his reputation is unharmed.

The woman, though? She's disgusting, and deserves all the humiliation people can find to fling at her.

The main way people have chosen to enact this humiliation is by sharing the picture – which means a lot of people either have great confidence in their ability to judge a girl's age from the back of her head, or are very happy to distribute what could well be an obscene image of someone under the age of consent. He looks willing enough, but you can't tell if she was coerced or even competent, and if you can't tell that, you shouldn't be gawping.

Still, whatever the participants' date of birth, you wouldn't say that either of them look old enough to know better. A smuggled bottle of mixed spirits, the thrum of a crowd full of strangers listening to music, being horny and dumb and young: all of these things combined mean that embarrassing yourself at a festival is a fairly universal experience. That's what gigs are for, partly.

Festivals are a temporary suspension of the rules, a window of carnival. There's a grim side to this convention of lawlessness, too: in the Sleater-Kinney song #1 Must Have, Corin Tucker asks urgently, "And will there always be concerts where women are raped". The more macho festivals have always had a reputation for crime, including sexual violence, and there's something of the same viciousness in the way this picture was taken and shared: sex being used as a weapon to attack the girl in the photo.

In a smartphone and social media world, there's not much room for making mistakes, even in the kind of place where you're supposed to run wild. Young people grow up knowing they're in public (my children make a point of asking if I'm uploading an embarrassing picture or story to Facebook, and the answer is usually yes), but that doesn't mean they've got a perfect grasp on the difference between public and private.The Festival-You might think it's pretty rock-and-roll to be photographed in your own impromptu porn scene, but Normal-Life-You can still be mortified.

Still, assuming it was consensual and both participants were over the age of consent, all that happened was a bit of oral in the wrong place. Someone got sucked off and somebody did the sucking: no one got hurt, however much they'd have rather not seen it.

Or rather, no one got hurt until afterwards, when some people tried to use the pictures to shame, trash and demolish a young woman. The lesson from misogynists is this: "We will come for you."

And not just for being a woman and having sex, but for being a woman and not joining in the condemnation: women who asked why the boy didn't get the same judgement have called man haters, told they need to raped or threatened with a "kick in the flaps". A culture that hates women for having sex is one that simply hates women, and that is the grotty truth photographed at Slane.

Festivals are a temporary suspension of the rules, a window of carnival. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland