I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in high school. It was probably the first book on slut-shaming I’d ever read. The protagonist Hester Prynne has sex outside the confines of marriage with the local preacher. Pregnancy while her husband is away reveals her secret to the village, and they shun her. She’s forced to wear a scarlet letter A for adultery on her chest for all the town to see and she is mistreated terribly. I’ve been thinking back on this story this week as I’ve seen the press and comments regarding the recent birth of Bristol Palin’s second child.
We expect Puritans and Evangelicals to slut-shame. We expect Bristol Palin to have heard her entire life that sex before marriage or outside marriage is wrong. We expect the people closest to her to reject her, to shun her, to rail against her for failing to meet the standard. We do not as readily expect it from people who don’t embrace abstinence outside marriage themselves. And yet, if I see one more atheist Democrat call her a slut or insinuate in any way that she is inappropriately promiscuous, I will surely scream.
Bristol has had two pregnancies over the past eight years in the public eye. She’s a young woman and clearly fertile. That’s all we can really say about her based on her pregnancies alone. It’s actually pretty darn normal for women who are mothers of two children to have them within eight years of each other. Two pregnancies in eight years doesn’t suggest excessive sexual behavior, promiscuous sexual behavior, behavior with a higher than average number of partners. Two pregnancies confirm only two sexual encounters, and don’t tell us anything about whether those encounters were consensual.
Bristol has worked as a paid abstinence spokesperson since the birth of her first child as a single teen mother. Obviously, promoting abstinence has not prevented Bristol from having another pregnancy and child since then. We can take from this two possibilities: One is that Bristol is a hypocrite. She said one thing and did another. The other possibility is that Bristol has been assaulted. Either way, she is being called a slut and a whore and a bad mother for having two pregnancies outside of marriage. Even if we assume the sex was consensual and Bristol’s pregnancy is proof of hypocrisy, I don’t think people are recognizing the double-bind of the conservative position on sex.
Having sex while promoting abstinence is hyprocisy. Having an abortion while promoting an anti-choice position is hypocrisy. Bristol Palin could have chosen that second type to hide the first. And it would have spared her all this sexist vitriol, from the right and the left. If she had been a bigger hypocrite, if she had said one thing and done another regarding pregnancy and not just sex, we would never know she’d had sex at all. Her actions in continuing her pregnancies, in being open about them not just with people in her life but with the broader world as the semi-celebrity daughter of a celebrity former politician. She “faced the music”, owned up to what she’d done and the consequences of it, and has been raising her children as a single mother. She did not abort those pregnancies. She did not have secret adoptions with them.
The conservative position on sex is punishing, sexist, and somewhat contradictory. While I do wish Bristol would stop promoting abstinence (and suspect at this point she will have to stop doing it professionally at the least), I wish her and her children nothing but the best. Bristol was caught in an impossible situation as an unwed pregnant conservative Christian (Wasilla Assembly of God, specifically, a Pentacostal sect). She could have done something she believed was a sin – abortion – and escaped all of our judgment and scorn. Instead she suffers the slings and arrows of sexism hurled by people who claim not to care about stuff like abstinence and virginity.
If you think she’s a hypocrite, call her a hypocrite. Don’t say “slut” instead. If you think she’s a hypocrite, recognize how she’s also not a hypocrite, and how she could have dodged all the name calling if only she’d been a bit more hypocritical. Recognize that the conservative double-bind is wrong, and don’t perpetuate it yourself in the name of party politics or scoring points on the other side. Don’t brand her with a scarlet letter you claim to think doesn’t matter.