To Smash Sexism, Don't Shame Sexists


People love public shaming. "BRA-BUSTERS" is (or was, until recently) a Facebook page containing pornographic images of women and a healthy dose of sexist commentary contributed by some 4,000 fans. The owner of the page, seeking to look for more content, happened to choose a woman to help admin the page. Unbeknownst to him, her first act as a site administrator was to remove his privileges, strip the page of the porn, and turn it into a radical feminist outlet (did someone say “smash the patriarchy”?!) replete with anti-porn propaganda. She and her friends, who she also invited to admin the page, then proceeded to publicly shame the men who complained about the new content by downloading their profile pictures, copying and pasting their comments as captions, and posting them to Facebook and Tumblr. What better way to exact revenge upon these men while also getting a few laughs at their expense?

As fun and empowering as this story may seem, one wonders what it means for self-identified feminists to employ the very tactics that are so often used to victimize the women they claim to represent. Are the women in this case helping to eradicate sexism by laughing at at its proponents — a kind of wonderful act of subversion? Or are they simply perpetuating the very kind of injustice that feminists fight against — namely, public shaming?

Much of feminism is founded upon the belief that women can only begin to use their voices and tell their stories once the oppressive power of shame is removed. Feminists have long fought battles to challenge the shame that women are taught to internalize in connection with their periods, their weight, and their sexuality. Slutwalk, an international movement organized in opposition to slut-shaming and victim-blaming, defines public shaming as an entirely detrimental force. Experts on the prevention of sexual violence have also recognized the detrimental effects of shame, with child advocates increasingly calling for the need to teach sexuality to young children in order to prevent shame from silencing them if they experience abuse.  

Yet in today’s increasingly viral, visual, and voyeuristic world it is easy — and for many, it is entertaining — to take “justice” into their own hands and spread messages about the perceived personal failings of those around us. As scholar Kate Miltner notes, the only difference between today and the shame-ridden colonial times is that instead of embarrassing outsiders by sending them to the stocks or branding them with bright red “A’s,” we dig up their Facebook and Twitter pics and memeify them to notoriety. This is a business in which the website Buzzfeed has excelled. After Election Day, Buzzfeed published the racist tweets of those who were unhappy to see the return of a black president, otherwise known as the “31 Worst People on the Planet.” And then there were the tweets from women who sexualized Chris Brown’s domestic violence record, the spoiled teens who whined about their Christmas presents, the football fans angry at Obama for interrupting the game to address Newtown, the “asshole” gun owners in New York, and of course the vile, not-so Nice Guys of OK Cupid.

But we should also keep in mind the darker side of shaming. While the activists behind BRA-BUSTERS assume that online public shaming is a positive tool for reform, the tactic has a deep history of helping to breed sexism. After all, their use of doxxing is not all that different from that of the folks behind the Facebook Page “12 Year Old Slut Memes.” The page, which boasted some 200,000 likes before it was shut down, shared vulgar memes and sexualized photos of young girls, ostensibly taken without consent from the girls' Facebook pages. Not too dissimilar is the notorious “make her famous” shaming practice used in the military, in which military men who have been cheated on make their ex-girlfriends “famous” by publicly sharing private, often nude photos. Similarly, Hunter Moore became (in)famous last spring for his “revenge-porn” website that shared naked photos of strangers, mostly women, republished without their permission and linked to their personal Facebook and Twitter profiles.

So when is public shaming OK? Only when it fits the shamer’s personal politics, it seems. "Would Jezebel writers, for example, be comfortable knowing that the tactics it employed against racist teenagers are the same ones used against abortion doctors?” asks Cole Stryker. Unlikely. It’s also unlikely that the women behind BRA-BUSTERS would be comfortable knowing that the rhetoric behind their use of shame — “It's their own fault, they totally should have known better” — is strikingly similar to that of victim blaming. Even the effectiveness of the tactic is highly questionable, since shaming places the blame on the individual rather than the behavior, thereby acting as a tool to ostracize individuals rather than as a means to remedy systemic oppressions.

Instead of jumping on the shame bandwagon, activists should question whether shaming individuals really deters them from behaving badly. This question is an especially salient one for feminist activists given that the goals of feminism are founded not only upon systemic approaches to oppression but also fostering dialogue and promoting inclusivity. “...Publicly shaming everyone and anyone who makes any misstep ... would set a dangerous precedent,” warns Stacey Goguen — one that could not only lead to the suppression of ideas but also result in the mere “trade-off” of one kind of hostile community for another.

As Whitney Phillips puts it, “Just because [public shaming] is an option, doesn't mean it's a good option.” After all, there’s a reason that shaming methods like the stocks and the pillory have fallen to the wayside (at least for the most part...) and are now largely understood as barbaric. Ultimately, the activism behind BRA-BUSTERS reminds me of Audre Lorde’s powerful quote: “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Public shaming might win us some cheap laughs, but it won’t end sexism, or any other oppression for that matter. It will, however, welcome us into a dark game of fighting fire with fire — a game in which we’re all likely to lose.