woman and sunset

Making Love Sustainable was fortunate to have been able to sit down and chat recently with Emily Lindin, founder of the UnSlut Project, author of UnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir, and director of a recently released documentary, UnSlut. We’d been eager to talk with Emily because of the important work she has been doing to help women and girls speak up about sexual bullying and shaming. We believe this work goes a long way toward creating a culture in which female sexuality is no longer feared, punished, ostracized, shamed, or criticized (all of which it currently is). Through Emily’s project, hundreds of women and girls, including Emily, have been able to speak out about their experiences with slut shaming and, importantly, be not only heard, but also supported and loved.

Emily graciously answered our questions by phone. We talked about why women in our culture are shamed much more than men for their sexuality, why Obama’s recent move to defund abstinence-only sex ed is so important, why she’s hopeful about the future of gender politics, why she’s grateful to her husband’s past lovers, and more.

The following is part two of our conversation; part one is here.

MLS: Until one of my coworkers told me about the UnSlut Project, I hadn’t heard about it, but it all sounded really familiar from my experience as an adolescent and teenage girl. In middle and high school we had this idea that there were the class sluts and we thought we knew who they were, and I didn’t at the time question my assumptions about any of that (though I didn’t get involved in any kind of bullying). I’m wondering how someone like me, who’s in her mid-thirties and encountering the UnSlut Project for the first time, could engage with it in the most helpful way to further its mission — and to educate herself?

E: First of all, one thing to point out is that I knew everyone thought I was a slut, and I thought other girls were sluts, and I thought that I had a handle on it, like you said. It’s funny — as I talk to people who recognize themselves in my diary despite the name change, they’ll say, Oh I didn’t realize that you were suffering from that too! This is my friend whose name I changed to Jenna. She knew that she had been labeled a slut, and she was suffering because of it, and she hadn’t realized how bad it was for me. I felt as if everyone was very concerned with my sluttiness, whatever that is, but other girls were feeling the same thing, and we were all quite self-absorbed, and maybe nobody really cared as much as I thought they did. So that’s been something that’s revelatory and interesting to think about.

If you haven’t had any bullying or slut-shaming experiences that you want to share through the project, you can still join the movement, and a lot of people do. The way to do that is to start conversations when you witness slut shaming. It sounds simple and obvious, but so few people, myself included until recently, have taken a step back and thought about the assumptions we carry about sex. Even if it’s not something that we consciously ascribe to, we carry it with us and it informs our knee jerk reactions. I still have a lot of slut shaming thoughts that I now know enough to step back and be mindful of, and rather than saying it aloud and hurting someone, realizing it reflects on me and my insecurities and my hangups. And that’s a step that so many adults just never get the chance to take. From there, bringing it up in conversation where we’re comfortable. If we’re watching a TV show with someone or we’re chatting about a news story with our friends and someone in the group casually slut shames, or casually makes an implication related to that, it can be our job to speak up and not let our silence allow everyone to think that we agree. Asking, What do you mean by that, why is that your reaction?, and starting a conversation. That’s a simple step that everyone can take.

MLS: I just remembered a tweet the comedian Barbara Gray made a few days ago. She tweeted, “Saw a lady jogging w headphones at night and it’s like damn girl you are just ASKING to get better cardio-vascular health.” I thought it was so great because it really showed me so quickly my own assumption as I was making it.

E: Because it’s such a common trope, right.

MLS: The focus here on Making Love Sustainable is on relationships and building long-term relationships. So, I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how slut shaming is toxic for long-term relationships or relationship building.

E: When we think about everything we bring to a relationship, it’s not just our romantic history — it’s our sexual history, our traumatic history, our family history, and we need to be able, for a healthy relationship, to feel safe, to feel like we can trust our partner. That’s essential. It’s not that we need to not be judged by our partner, because obviously we all judge — everything that happens to us we make judgments about, and we judge people in our lives — but it’s that we need to know that it’s not going to be a negative and a bigoted judgement, it’s not going to be something that fills us with shame. Especially if we’re in a monogamous relationship where we’re only having sex with one person, it’s so important for that sex to feel healthy emotionally as well as physically.

You know, I’ve heard many many stories submitted through the website where women will feel that they can’t be honest with their boyfriend or husband — I’m speaking now about heterosexual relationships, but it happens in gay relationships as well. They feel they can’t be completely honest about their sexual past because they fear a negative judgement and fear that it will create some kind of jealousy perhaps, or disgust. In fact very recently a straight guy reached out to me on Twitter, and said, I don’t want to slut-shame my girlfriend, but I know that she has a sexual history with lots of different casual partners. And he wanted to know about it, and he wanted to talk to her about it and he wanted to bring it up in a way that wouldn’t make her feel ashamed. I would say it’s important to really focus on the language that we use and make sure that we’re asking questions that allow for honesty and don’t have negative assumptions built in. So, not assuming that casual sex is necessarily negative, not assuming that having many sexual partners in the past is necessarily negative at all.

If I can be honest, both my husband and I had a lot of casual sex before we met each other (we’re monogamous now). I honestly made a conscious effort to feel grateful to his past sexual partners, because I thought, Well, he’s really good at sex now, and I benefit from that. Someone spoke up and taught him what to do; someone gave him this comfort with female sexuality and a respect for female bodies. That can’t just happen overnight, it’s the result of all the partners he had in the past. So, putting that positive spin on it, and feeling grateful that he came to me already educated in many different ways and already comfortable with many different things, let us then just start enjoying each other. That was the positive way that I framed it rather than feeling any kind of hangups about comparing myself to his past partners or anything like that. We’re conditioned as women to do that in a lot of different ways, so it is something that we have to make conscious decisions about.