It starts when they’re young…too young. Sometimes before they even know what sex is. So young that they cannot possibly understand the complexities of slut-shaming and gender inequalities when it comes to sexual behavior. Often, it even starts within the safety of their own home.

Think about it. A 10-year-old boy comes home from school and tells his parents he has had his first kiss. His parents ask him about it and maybe even check to make sure that the girl agreed to the kiss. Does he have a girlfriend now? they wonder. Dad perhaps pats him on the back and gives him a high-five. The girl, also goes home and tells her parents the same thing. But the reactions of her parents may be quite different. Who is this boy? She should not be kissing boys. She’s too young. Maybe dad is thinking, No! not my little girl. This is happening too soon for her parents and she needs to be protected. Maybe they’re not angry but decide that this warrants a conversation about how kissing is special, and she should not be going around kissing boys. The intent here is not to be harmful, or make her feel bad for her actions, but alas here we are. Slut shaming our little girls for kissing boys at the age of 10. This may not be a direct real-life example but does that make it nonexistent? Hardly. This scenario is far more common than we may think. The little boy is encouraged in finding a girlfriend while the little girl is restrained. On even a lesser note, the boy is met with a lack of concern (boys will be boys after all), while the girl’s parents meet her with a lecture about how she should not behave this way. Here’s the kicker: It’s only going to get worse. This girl has no idea, but her entire sexual debut and development into a sexually active human being will be met with looks and comments that differ drastically in comparison to what her male counterparts will receive.

“What’s your number bro?” A college sophomore then gives his number of sexual partners to friend. “Nice! Good going!” A female college sophomore asks her friend the same question. When she gets an answer, her response is unlike her male peer’s. She is full of judgement and poorly veiled disgust, and her friend ends up feeling ashamed for her sexual behaviors. After all, if she is being judged this way be her best friend, then she must be doing something wrong. This very realistic scenario has nothing to do with an individual’s number of sexual partners, and everything to do with unfair and unwarranted differences in societal expectations of males and females. Just like the scenario with the children, women are shamed, and men are high-fived for their sexual exploits. Not only does this increase the gender equality gap, but also leads to a decreased sense of self-worth among the female population, who are already being told constantly by the media that they are not good enough.

Women’s healthcare providers can play an important role in encouraging healthy and shameless sexual behavior with patients. This can come in the form of talking about sexual habits with the focus being on safety and empowerment. Providers can also talk to parents who are patients about how they handle topics of sexuality with their children of differing genders. Additionally, it is the job of the women’s healthcare provider to assess a patient’s risk factors for STIs. This often involves asking about the number of sex partners that a patient has had. During this process it is important to tell the patient why this question is being asked. Letting her know that she is in no way being judged for her sexual behavior is important in patient empowerment.

Slut shaming is prevalent and deeply rooted in history. Often people do it without even realizing it. They do it to their friends, family members, as well as strangers. When hearing people slut shame others, it is important that they be called out. Simply not being aware that you are slut shaming is not justification for the action. It’s an excuse that enables people in not taking responsibility for contributing to the gap in gender equality. So here we are in 2018, and there is undoubtedly a single woman in the world whose chest has not been branded with that scarlet letter at least once.

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