[This was an op-ed piece that was not accepted, which I wrote during the Presidential Primaries shortly after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly of Fox News had a well-publicized encounter during a primary debate. I was connecting the dots between the research I had done that appeared in Sexting: Gender and Teens (Sense Publications 2016) and the Donald Trump’s behavior towards women. My thanks to June Lemon of the Center for Women and Work at UMass Lowell for her editing and suggestions.]
At the first Republican debate, news reporter Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump about the names he had called women in the past, including “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” His response to Kelly’s question about negative labels was to shoot back hard at her, claiming the questions were inappropriate, blaming political correctness, and later referring to the blood coming out of her eyes and her wherever.”
I was not surprised by “the Donald’s” use of what I would term the “label and shame technique” for controlling women. In a recent study on teen sexting in which I took part, I discovered that “label and shame” is alive and well across the United States. If anything, when Donald Trump labels women with negative and hurtful names and then tries to shame them into the behavior he wants from them, he is behaving more, rather than less, like most Americans.
In Sexting: Gender and Teens (2014), I describe both how fear of negative labels and shaming are integral to the way girls navigate friends and intimates during high school and how other people — boys and adults — use these techniques to manipulate them.
In hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews with teens, caregivers, and educators and others who work with teens in three different regions of the United States, we found broad evidence of the application of negative and demeaning terms like whore, slut, easy, tramp, bus, and flip to describe a girl who would engage in sexting: the digital exchange of textual or visual material with sexual content.
On the other hand, there are no negative terms applied to boys who engage in sexting. Instead boys were considered hapless or victims of circumstance, perhaps even gaining stature and bragging rights through involvement in sexting. As Abraham, a young man, pointed out: “It’s like a competition with guys.”
Bethany, a high school age teen in Ohio explained the difference in this way: “I feel …it’s another one of those things where it’s a …double standard, like if girls have sex with a bunch of dudes, they’re a ho [whore], but if guys have sex with a bunch of girls, like oh, I got it in with this girl…then you’re cool, like oh, man, you’re a pimp.”
The shaming of a girl, according to youth, is done not only by those closest to her (parental anger and peer rejection and humiliation), but will also be perpetrated by adults, such as teachers at her school or the parents of friends who will look down on her and no longer allow her to continue friendship with their child. Carolyn (another teenager quoted in the study) stated, “They’re going to have like a reputation from all the adults that they’re not going to want their kids hanging out around them because of it.”
Youth attitudes about gender and sexting are contextualized by adult attitudes. Adults in our study, whether consciously or unconsciously, consistently pointed to or blamed girls for sexual changes in our society. Often the rush to blame girls for social changes are attached to a nostalgic notion of a golden age when girls knew how to behave. This quote from a parent sums it up:
It used to be that the boys were kind of potty mouths, and the girls always needed to appear prim and proper. Now, what I’ve seen on Facebook, the girls could make some of those guys blush.
It is galling to think that despite the many political, legal, and economic changes that have taken place in regard to women’s rights, women continue to be constrained by the shaping practices of labelling and shaming. These negative discourses apply labels such as whore, slut, dog, or fat pig to women who misbehave. These negative discourses surround young people with talk about the way girls or women bear considerable responsibility for the negative changes that have led toward a more sexual and less moral society.
So as troublesome as some may find “the Donald’s” label and shame tactics, we may need to look more closely at our own behavior and at the ways we discuss and discipline boys and girls in regard to gendered differences. We also need to show that labelling and shaming has consequences: the disinvitation of Mr. Trump from a conservative activist conference was a step in the right direction.
For more information on the book:
For more information on the book: