A Freedom Letter: Slut-shaming and Our Collective Scarlet Letter

“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”

Chapter XVIII, ‘A Flood of Sunshine’ The Scarlet Letter


The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850, is a story that still resonates with the experiences of many women today.  Hester’s scarlet letter is the equivalent of the slut shaming that too many women experience every day.  While it may seem that slut shaming is about the inappropriate sexual behaviors of women, it is rather a representation of our scorn and disdain for women we seek to control.  It is a form of misogyny.  As women, many of us have been given our symbolic scarlet letter.  Mine was “earned” shortly after my husband died a few years ago.  My crime?  Dating again after his death.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a story about the public shaming of a young woman, Hester Prynne, who has a baby out of wedlock.  She is assumed to be a widow, as Hester has not seen or heard from her husband in years.  Everyone, including Hester, believes he died at sea, many years before.  Hester refuses to name her lover and is publically punished by being forced to stand at the town scaffold for several hours, jailed briefly and then required to wear a scarlet ‘A’ for adulteress, embroidered into her dress.  The story has a twist.  One man in town seems particularly bent on punishing Hester.  Roger Chillingsworth, an elderly doctor and scientist who suddenly appears in town at Hester’s public punishment becomes single-mindedly focused on persecuting Hester and discovering her secret lover.  He confronts Hester and she recognizes him as her former husband.  It turns out she was not so much widowed as she was abandoned.  He threatens her to keep it a secret so he can assume an alternate identity best able to discover her secret lover and exact revenge on them both.  While Chillingsworth devotes himself to this task, Hester moves to the outskirts of town and lives out her life in quiet solitude.

In the years following, a local minister named Dimmesdale, who quietly tries to help Hester and her daughter, becomes fraught with illness.  Chillingsworth deduces that Dimmesdale must be her secret lover and is experiencing illness in response to his shame and anguish over Hester’s situation.  Upon his discovery, Chillingsworth can now target Dimmesdale as well as Hester for revenge.  Without giving away too many details, Chillingsworth spends his years sabotaging the lives of Hester and Dimmesdale, but eventually dies as a result of his anger, pettiness and derision.  This book is as much about the effect revenge has on Chillingsworth as he slowly loses his heart and soul to his single minded quest to punish Hester and Dimmesdale, as it is about Hester, who rises above the scorn to live a long life devoted to the poor and others in need.  In short, this book is about what revenge and shaming are capable of doing to us all.

My story, although painfully personal, reflects what thousands of other women experience every day.  More than two years ago, my husband died in a car accident.  My four-year-old daughter and six-year-old son were in the car and were nearly killed.  During surgery, my daughter came within moments of dying from severe internal injuries.  Her heart went into tachycardia and she required epinephrine directly to the heart in combination with chest compressions to save her life.  She was unconscious for five days following the surgery.  It was during this time when I learned that my husband caused the accident.  He was driving more than 30 miles above the speed limit as he was passing cars on a two lane mountain road.

My children struggled through a long slow recovery, but they are both doing quite well now.  As for myself, in the months that followed I began my own emotional recovery, which was aided enormously by a long-term friend of mine, who, five months later I began dating. This individual, who was also a close friend of my late husband, stepped in to help me with the children.

Although my personal decision to begin dating again should have been a private decision, left to me and my children, friends of my husband, upset by our relationship, began to publically accuse us of adultery.  While Hester Prynne had Chillingsworth, I had my own attackers.  I was accused of cheating on my late husband and violating that relationship.  My accusers jumped to the conclusion that our relationship began earlier than it had and publically accused us of such.  The consequences of these accusations have impacted every aspect of my life.  My scarlet letter has threatened my career, cost me friendships, stripped me of my credibility, and saddened my family and children.  But the biggest cost has been to the memories of my marriage to my late husband.  I now find myself struggling to view him as the man who loved, supported, and trusted me.  Instead, he has become the man whose unfounded jealousy put me on the firing line the night before he nearly took from me the two people I love most in this world.

To understand this heartbreak, it is important to know that my husband was dealing with a terminal heart condition.  My life before the accident was devoted to keeping him alive.  I slept in hospitals, taught extra online classes to pay for his medical bills, drove back and forth to Denver continually (a four hour drive each way), sometimes three or four times a week to care for him – all while taking care of our young children.  I worked nonstop as wife, mother, nurse, and professor, but despite every sacrifice I made for him, in the end, his declining health resulted in insecurity and jealousy.  Sadly, this is not a problem that can be remedied.  He is gone.  I cannot go to him and tell him I would do anything for him.  I cannot reassure him that I loved him unconditionally.  With him gone, I can only move on. Unfortunately, however, thanks to those who gave me my scarlet letter, I have been forced to forge ahead without my husband’s trust and love.  In essence, they took from me all the loving memories of our marriage.  And so it is that I live out my life with a scarlet letter attached to my name for an affair I never had.

If my scarlet letter were an isolated event, this story would not need to be told.  Sadly, that is not the case.  Working as a college professor, I frequently see the impact slut-shaming has on our young female college students.  Many of them experience similar levels of systematic shame every day.  Leona Tanenbaum writes about this eloquently in her book Slut! Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation and her recently published I am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.  What are women doing to earn the title “Slut”?  Dating, going out, talking to boys, dressing attractively, going through puberty, and expressing what is often a healthy sense of sexuality.  Like me, rarely are women guilty of the actions for which they are accused.  Women are targeted if they deviate from the rigid boundaries defining women’s femininity. Their punishment spurs insecurity, depression, isolation, and in the worst of cases, tragic suicides.

Tanenbaum writes about the double standard for men and women, and the impossible expectations that women remain attractive, sexy, and friendly – without crossing any boundaries into sexuality that may earn them the title of Slut.  This tight-rope is an often impossible requirement for women.  On the one hand, they are chastised for being prudish, uptight or butch; while on the other they are admonished for being a slut and a “ho.”  In nearly fifteen years as a professor I have had to console numerous girls crying in my office.  I’ve even seen girls who felt forced to transfer to a new school in an attempt to escape their label.  Their “crimes” are no more fitting of punishment than mine.  But they are nonetheless forced to bear the weight of their scarlet letter.

Too many times we blame it on the small town atmosphere, but this problem follows women everywhere.   This problem has only been magnified in the age of the Internet, where idle gossip can spread from cellphone to cellphone in the blink of an eye.  Facebook posts spread like wildfire.  Applications like Yik Yak mean that people can post cruel and harmful gossip with complete anonymity.  And all too often, young women are the victims.

Sometimes, even feminists fall into the model of slut-shaming other women.  They have mistakenly fallen into the misconception that removing our sexuality from our identity is the path to equality.  For other women, shaped by male-driven media, their sexuality is nothing more than a form of self-objectification.  But we must remember that the control we exert over women’s sexuality is a form of objectification, not their sexuality itself.  After all, men are not objectified when we grant them freedom of sexual expression.  Make no mistake about it; attacking women by judging their personal sex lives is a form of sexism and misogyny.  It assumes their personal lives are our purview to control, rather than theirs to own.  It decreases their status and harms their credibility.  Men don’t suffer the same loss of status.   We do not slut shame men.  They do not receive a scarlet letter.  Shaming is not about sex, it is about power.  In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingsworth is more motivated by his loss of power over Hester than by his concern over her sexual relationship. So too has been my experience in the wake of my late husband’s death.

Ultimately, we must remember that slut-shaming is a mechanism of social control.  To control a woman’s sexuality is to control her power.  Some cultures physically maim the bodies of women through genital mutilation and we, the Western world, label such acts as barbaric. However, we habitually mutilate the self-esteem and character of women, and although we generally fail to recognize it, such acts are just as barbaric.  The outcome is the same.  Women fear expressing themselves, following their hearts, and making decisions that are best for themselves, their lives and their souls.  Unfortunately, the sad twist is that to control women’s sexuality often means the creation of a rape culture.  If women can be blamed for all of the problems of sexuality, men are given license to wield their self-proclaimed power.  This is why we often see that the same boys who pursue women, make passes at them, and whistle at them as objects are the same boys who throw the gauntlet when they have been refused.  Rape and slut-shaming go hand-in-hand.  They both diminish the power of women and strip them of their right to determine what happens to their own bodies.

I live in the same shoes as Hester Prynne. I wear my own symbolic scarlet letter. But I am not alone.  Too many other women are wearing their own scarlet letter.  If we truly want to achieve a position where women don’t fear rape, sexual control, and public condemnation, we have to start by dismantling the overreaching social control we have embedded into women’s sexuality. And our path begins by stepping out of the shadows, speaking out, and ultimately, removing the scarlet letters we assign to women.

So, write your own freedom letter. Thrust aside your scarlet letter and in doing so, know that you are not alone.