Rosea Lake's Anti Slut-Shaming Photograph is Missing The Point

The point isn't whether we make assumptions about a woman's sexual habits based on how she dresses, the point is that it's none of our business what her sexual habits are.

Jan 21, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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What a beautifully turned-out ankle...

The old “how short is too short?” skirt debate has, according to the Daily Mail, been ignited again (had it ever gone away?) over a photograph produced by artist Rosea Lake.

The photo, which she took aged 17 as part of her college art course, shows the back of a woman’s legs with words written across them at different intervals, indicating a skirt length and then what this says about the wearer.

“Whore” is the shortest, riding high on the thigh; and “prudish” a modest mid-calf length. Rosea said in an interview with The Province "I realized that when I looked at a woman in a short skirt I automatically thought ‘slut’ - I felt bad about that…. and I thought all women who wore hijabs were being oppressed. I thought about slut shaming and thought we need to get to a place where we are not judgmental."

The piece has gone viral online, amassing hundreds of thousands of comments and sparking a debate around the world, around the issue of slut-shaming.

First off, I want to say that I am whole-heartedly on board with debates around the objectification, degradation of and violence towards women, especially in relation to how they present themselves and their sexual choices.

I am completely behind any push to get away from tired old stereotypes about skirt lengths, and I am in complete agreement also that this is a vital fight, and one we should all be behind.

But I’m not going to lie to you darling readers; at the wizened old age of 28 I’m finding myself with “slut-shaming” fatigue. Not because I don’t think it’s vital that we continue to engage with this issue, but because I feel like the importance of us shaking off these women-hating slurs is being exploited for easy column inches.

It isn't my intention to lash into Rosea at all, because she was only 17 when she created the artwork, (endearingly misspelling the word “Prudish” in the image). She is also very clearly a feminist and engaged with the issue. But I do have several issues with the picture and its popularity.

It seems to me that a big reason for the image getting so much press coverage (especially from the tabloid press), is because it’s a provocative image of a young woman’s bare legs with “racy” words written on them, right up to the arse.

So let’s just hypothesise, for the sake of argument, that tabloids haven’t printed this photo to spark a debate about slut-shaming; they’ve printed it because they know this sort of image sells.

The thing that I take the most umbrage with is an apparent misunderstanding of what slut-shaming is. The implication of what Rosea said is in her interview is that to be considered a “slut” is a negative.

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Rosea Lake

Calling someone a slut is making a moral judgment on their sexual behaviour. Rosea feels bad because she associates a woman in a short skirt with the idea of her being promiscuous, she doesn’t feel bad because she thinks that the negative connotations of the word slut and of female promiscuity are old-fashioned and archaic.

The image doesn't challenge the judgments we make on how people dress; the association of wearing a short skirt with promiscuity simply wouldn’t matter if being a “slut” didn’t hold such negative connotations. If we could just all stop feeling like we have a moral right to feel a certain way about another woman’s sex life, it would stop being an issue altogether.

Of course, we shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s morality by how they dress at all, and as Rosea points out, as a society we still do this, all the time (the rise of Slutwalk last year highlighted this brilliantly).

The point isn't whether we make assumptions about a woman's sexual habits based on how she dresses - it's that it's none of our business what her sexual habits are.

This leads into a further issue: the perpetuating of a belief that women’s bodies are public property. What a woman wears says something to other people about who she is in relation to them, and about what that means to their claims on her body, in purely sexual terms.

If she’s a prude, then you won’t get any action out of her, if she’s a whore then you’re guaranteed some action and, most worryingly she's "asking for it".

I honestly feel like Rosea is trying to engage with this point, but I personally feel like the image misses the mark. She is asking us not to make certain assumptions based on what women wear, but really, we shouldn’t make these assumptions regardless of anything - a woman's body is her own.

What I wear has literally nothing to do with members of the general public. If I choose to wear a short skirt and I also want to sleep around, that is my business and the business of my chosen partners; it’s nothing to do with a randomer I happen to pass on the tube.

The best way to put what I'm saying into context is to apply it to men – as Caitlin Moran points out in her brilliant book How to be a woman. I would love this image so much more if it was a pair of beefy men's legs, covered in the same words. Because wouldn't we find that ridiculous?

Wouldn't it be comical, ludicrous, and wouldn't it underline how dreadful it is to feel we have public ownership of a woman's body? Because a man is never treated in this way. Do men wear slightly shorter shorts and get berated for being “easy”? No, and it would be laughable to think so.

They might be mocked for having tiny teeny shorts on the beach, or be disgustingly objectified (I watch rugby, I see those tiny thigh-chafing shorts…) but they don’t get held up to scrutiny about their personal lives as a result of what they wear, and they aren't in danger of violence because of it either.

As long as we place moral judgments on a woman's sexuality, we will not be able to get away from the slut-shaming culture. "Slut" or "prude" - it should be about what (and who) you want to do, and how you want to do it - it's no-one else business.

Kirsty is tweeting @Kirkycheep