My freshman year of high school, a couple of friends and I were discussing how to define “slut.” One friend settled on “a girl who gives a lot of head.” I said, “I don’t know, it’s just someone who dresses slutty and acts slutty.”
What We Teach Women When We Tell Them Not to Be Easy
At the time, this was how I thought of female peers who engaged in casual hookups. Since I’d been taught that sex was a favor women performed for men, it didn’t occur to me that my classmates could be engaging in sexual activity for their own sake (or that, when they weren’t, they may have actually been pressured or manipulated into it).
And Then I Was Called Slutty
I didn’t realize how messed up this kind of thinking was until it was directed toward me. During my freshman year of college, I became excited to explore my own sexuality, and the casual hookups I engaged in really were for my own pleasure. Then, a friend said I was being “slutty,” and my parents warned me that guys wouldn’t be interested in serious relationships with me.
“There’s something about male psychology,” my dad told me. “When you have a reputation for being easy, they have no motivation to work for it.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this advice. I'd read "He’s Just Not That Into You," which advises women to give men the thrill of the chase. An older friend I looked up to told me there’s a reason men have traditionally been the initiators in heterosexual relationships. (This advice is typically given to women who sleep with men due to gender dynamics I’ll get into, so this piece will mostly deal with those relationships.)
Altogether, I got the impression that by pursuing sex myself, I wasn't only going against convention, I was going against human nature. The thing is, passively waiting around for what I want goes against my nature ... as does behaving as if I don’t want it.
Thankfully, eight years after being criticized for becoming sexual with people I didn’t know well, I found a relationship by doing exactly that. I met someone in a club and told him not to go home without me. Contrary to my dad’s warnings, he’s stuck with me for two years.
Instead of catering to men with sexist attitudes, I waited for one who understands that women can be “easy” and have standards; they can be open to a variety of relationships and respect themselves; they can pursue sex and deserve love.
We need to stop teaching women not to be easy, because when we do, we also teach them these destructive ideas:
Men Are Predators and Women Are Prey
Calling a woman “easy” for engaging in sexual activity with a man assumes that he’s the one who wanted it and she merely gave in. As a culture, we tend to believe that men are more sexual. Any sexual activity on a woman’s part is somehow a compromise, or at best, an exchange for something else, like love or financial stability.
This belief system doesn’t give women much agency over their sex lives. It also devalues female pleasure. Why should women get much out of the sex itself, the thinking goes, if what they really want is love or approval?
This thinking also veers dangerously into normalizing sexual assault. It operates off a model of sex that assumes men push and women acquiesce, which leaves little room for enthusiastic consent.
When we try to dissuade women from having sex, we may believe we’re protecting them from being objectified. However, the assumption that sex is inherently objectifying to women is objectifying in and of itself. Women have their own sexual needs. They can be subjects, not objects, in their sexual encounters.
Sex Centers on Male Pleasure
“Easy” is typically used toward women who sleep with men. It’s rarely used toward the men who are participating in the same encounters. Why is it that when a woman goes home with a man, it’s assumed that he’s getting what he wants while she’s giving it to him? This assumption only works if we’re also assuming that the sex is focused on his pleasure.
Unfortunately, the sex that people have really is disproportionately focused on male pleasure. For example, a 2016 study in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality found that 63% of college men and only 44% of women received oral sex during their last hookups. Another 2015 study of American adults in PLOS One found that 60.9% of men and only 49.2% of women received oral sex over the past year.
The “don’t be easy” notion doesn’t challenge this convention. It just validates the status quo of sex geared primarily toward pleasing men and tells women not to participate in it. Instead, we should give women a more nuanced message: that they should only enter into sexual encounters where both partners’ enjoyment is valued.
Women Must Choose Between Being Sexual and Being Relationship Material
Often, the advice not to be “easy” is accompanied by the claim that men don’t consider women who are easy to be relationship material. This comes from a Madonna/whore dichotomy that says women are either sexual, dirty and worthless or pure, innocent and respectable.
Men aren’t defined by their sexual behavior in this way. Their fitness for a long-term partnership isn’t evaluated based on the number of people they’ve had sex with before or how revealing their clothes are.
Why can’t a woman have a high sex drive and be a romantic? Why can’t she want to settle down and have lots of sex with the partner she settles down with?
It’s true that some people judge women’s suitability as partners by their sexual behavior. Rather than cater to these people’s prejudices, we should empower women to find partners who accept them for who they are.
Women’s Sexuality Is a Commodity
Overall, the idea that women are giving themselves away for too cheap a price implies that they have a price tag. This belief is right there in the saying, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”
Women aren’t items to be bought and sold. A sexual relationship should be mutual. Both parties should be interested in the sex itself (except, perhaps, in the case of sex work). Women can’t have that if their sexually is viewed as something to trade for a relationship.
Women are often taught that their power lies in their sexuality, that they can get whatever they want from men by offering or withholding sex. Yet the whole idea of women offering or withholding sex still implies that sex is a one-sided act women perform for men.
This is not real power. It discounts any way that women themselves could enjoy their sexuality. It makes the female body out to be an object to be watched, heard, and felt rather than something that sees, hears, and feels.
Rather than teach young women to make decisions based on what they believe men do or don’t want, we should teach them to figure out what they want. Sexual self-respect doesn’t mean refraining from having sex too soon. It means having sex if, and only if, you truly want it.
So, I’ll leave you with this quote from "The Ethical Slut" about “easy” as a pejorative term: “Is there, we wonder, some virtue in being difficult?”
Suzannah Weiss is a feminist writer, certified sex educator, and sex/love coach. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more.