Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of an iconic moment in American hypocrisy: Vanessa Williams, who had been crowned Miss America in September 1983, resigned amid threats from Penthouse to publish nude photos she had taken in 1982. Williams swore that she had been told the photos would obscure her identity when she posed for them and they were sold to Penthouse without her permission.
But while it’s troubling to consider that Williams was a victim of coercion, the resignation under fire would have been nearly as troubling even if she had been a more willing participant. That’s because the incident perfectly crystallized the unfair and impossible expectation that starts getting applied to girls from the moment you hit puberty: You have to be sexy, but not sexual.
In the three decades since the scandal erupted, some things have changed and some haven’t. You still have plenty of people who want to shame young women for failing to meet the paradoxical demand to be sexy and not sexual, but there’s a growing chorus of people who see through that hypocrisy and have stopped punishing women for being, well, human beings who enjoy sex.
Beauty pageants, of course, are ground zero for the hypocritical demands on women to flaunt their bodies without actually acknowledging the existence of sex. The whole point of being a pageant queen is to trot around in your bikini to be ogled at while feigning sexual naiveté. But, of course, women—even young women—are actually sexual beings, as much as society denies that. Williams is hardly the only beauty queen who has been the subject of a scandal because she was caught dropping the “what is this sex you speak of?” act and found to be—gasp!—interested in actually enjoying her youth.
In 2006, Miss Nevada Katie Rees, got a bunch of exploitative attention for “sexy” pictures of her showing off her breasts and underwear and kissing other women, an offense for which she lost her crown. A few years later, Miss California Carrie Prejean endured having a few semi-nude photos leaked. She was able to keep her crown, but only after Donald Trump did a big, pompous show of how magnanimous he was being by saying, “We have determined that the pictures taken were fine.” That it’s a subject that needs to be “determined” at all is ridiculous, suggesting that being in pageants still comes at the price of having outsiders—outsiders like Donald Trump—feel entitled to sit in judgment of your sexual behavior.
Women who want to go into politics find themselves under similar pressure to conceal that they have bodies under their clothes or that they know what sex is all about. Witness what happened to Krystal Ball, a young Democrat who wanted to run for Congress in 2010. A pair of conservative bloggers decided to shame her by running pictures they obtained from a party she attended many years prior, where she was seen posing for prank photos with a dildo. The photos are almost laughably tame. Everyone is clothed and basically just laughing at this silly sex toy someone brought out as a conversation piece. Presumably the bloggers thought it was shameful for a woman to do anything in the presence of a dildo besides faint in outrage.
But Ball recovered and went on to create a successful career as a pundit. The key was going on the offense and not allowing the entire “scandal” to bring her down, instead decrying her attackers for their sexism and prudery. Her success at recovery shows that one thing has changed in the past few decades for women who are subject to public attacks for being sexual, which is that there’s a growing chorus of people who are sick of this hypocrisy and eager to support women who are being mistreated this way. If you are able to tap into that support system, surviving and even thriving is possible.
In fact, we owe a lot to Vanessa Williams for being a pioneer when it comes to showing the world how to recover when you’ve been unjustly shamed for being sexual. Williams could have slunk off into the shadows in shame, which no doubt many people at the time expected her to do. Williams picked herself up and kept fighting for a career as an entertainer, first by becoming a successful singer and then becoming a well-known comic actress. Now when you hear her name, you’re far more likely to think of her star turns on Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty than to think of some random nude photos that showed up in Penthouse back in the day. Meanwhile, the hypocritical pageants that rejected her continue to see their cultural relevance—and TV ratings—decline.
Kim Kardashian learned this lesson well. She not only recovered from a sex scandal, but honestly used it to turn herself from a non-celebrity to one of the most famous women on the planet. Kardashian was a relatively unknown socialite until 2007, when a sex tape of her with singer Ray J was released. The video went viral and Kardashian sued, but that was just the beginning. The entire thing awakened the savvy businesswoman within and Kardashian went to work turning herself into a reality TV star and unstoppable tabloid hit. Now she’s married to Kanye West and appeared on the cover of Vogue. Some people were angry about the Vogue cover. Those people should be properly understood as haters, stuck in the old world where being a Known Sexual Woman is somehow incompatible with being a fashion icon and businesswoman. Kardashian should be commended for throwing people’s uptightness in their face and making a fortune while doing so.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier for already-public figures that have access to TV cameras to take control of a situation when someone tries to shame them with nude or sexual imagery. For ordinary women, being victimized by a vindictive stalker who releases nude images of you online as “revenge porn” doesn’t come with reality TV show contracts or ubiquitous video rotation at VH1. The idea that there’s nothing more humiliating to a woman than being known as a sexual being in public is still a favorite weapon of misogynist ex-boyfriends or sleazy computer hackers. The problem of “revenge porn,” where nude photos of women are put online, often with their names and addresses or other identifying details, has grown so serious that many states are passing laws creating criminal penalties for people who post these pictures. It sadly hasn’t slowed the rate of them, though. Over the weekend, many more women were victimized on the hashtag #twitterpurge, where angry and entitled men tried to shame women by posting nude pictures of them.
Laws help, but the only thing that will fix the problem in the long run is getting over this notion that a woman has anything to be ashamed about when it comes to having a naked body or using it for sexual purposes. It’s ludicrous that we live in an era where we can put people into space stations or send a photo around the world in seconds, but we still seem to think women should feel bad because they, like nearly every person that has ever lived before them, have sexual desires.
Sleazy people tried to drag Vanessa Williams down with accusations of being sexual 30 years ago, but she moved on, showing she had nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s give that respect to all the young women out there who are struggling against sexual shaming today.