He's a stud, she's a slut?

Men get angry; women get PMS. Single men are bachelors; single women are spinsters. Jess McCabe wonders how Jessica Valenti limited herself to 49 examples of the double standard

Jess McCabe, 7 May 2008

When sceptics claim that feminism has done its job and it's time to pack away the banners and go home, one of the easiest comebacks is to list some of the ways that the rules are applied differently to men and women. So it is no wonder that Jessica Valenti took the double standard as the backbone of her second book.

He's a Stud, She's a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know is an accomplished and witty guide through some of the many ways that women and girls lose out in Western society. Of course, it focuses on the experience of living in the US, but many of the examples transfer over with relative ease to the UK.

Valenti uses her experience as a blogger (she founded Feministing.com) to craft short, sharp and digestible chapters. It is an undemanding read - you can flick through and choose a double standard at random - say, "he's angry, she's PMSing". You are presented with a few pages at most of wry and sarcastic analysis of the issue at hand, often served with a dish of personal experience. In this case:

"I had a boyfriend not so long ago who, whenever we got into an argument, would accuse me of 'going soap opera'. 'Here comes Telemundo!' he'd shout. His (clearly gendered and vaguely racist) insult was supposed to make me feel my anger wasn't valid - that I was frivolous and silly; that I was being overly-dramatic."

Then when you're good and indignant, Valenti swoops in with tips for action in a section titled "What to do?". In this case, she volunteers the advice that we should use our anger to make change in our lives.

Valenti's suggestions for how to combat the double standards she describes sometimes fall a bit flat

If He's a Stud, She's a Slut has a major failing, it is that these suggestion for further action often fall a bit flat. Using your anger is all very well, but not very specific, and not much help for, say, the reader who needs to deal with this kind of undermining behaviour in her significant other.

In the chapter "he's a man, she's a mom", Valenti targets successfully the tendency to reduce mothers to little more than their parenthood, while fathers continue to be considered fully functional members of society. But her idea for action is: "Just don't let anyone ever tell you that who you are as a person has anything to do with the personal family choices you make." In a chapter detailing the restrictions on access to abortion, sex toys and rights for same-sex couples in some states, the suggestion is simply to "move".

I am sure these will be reassuring and empowering words to some readers, but it leaves me wondering: Really? Is that all we can do? And does all this place too much emphasis on the reader - generally the woman on the wrong side of these double standards, rather that the perpetrator - to make change happen?

Of course, Valenti has set herself a hard task here. The book does valuable work just in highlighting the double standards that exist. To take the titular double standard alone, an awful lot of people see the "virgin or whore", "good girl or bad girl" paradigm as a relic of the past (ignoring how it still works against all women and girls today).

But the book does a good job as well of moving beyond cultural double standards, to look at issues of more 'measurable' inequality, such as access to healthcare, legislation that discriminates against women, sexual violence, sexual harassment and so on.

I imagine that reading this book could provide one of those famous "click" moments for some readers: especially given the conversational, accessible tone of righteous anger that Valenti takes.

This is an anger that I can easily imagine would validate that felt by many, many women reading this book, who I don't hesitate to affirm will have experienced at least a few, if not many, of the double standards listed here (after filtering for the inevitable US-centric bias). Those they haven't experienced themselves, will probably apply to the women they know.

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