WHEN, earlier this year, Taylor Swift was asked by Vogue what advice she might give her younger self, she replied: "You're gonna date just like a normal 20-something should be allowed to, but you're going to be a national lightning rod for slut-shaming."
The warning would have been well-founded. A month after splitting up from Scottish DJ Calvin Harris, the American singer-songwriter has been pictured canoodling on a Rhode Island rock with actor, and possible next James Bond, Tom Hiddleston.
All last week, the web buzzed with listings of Swift’s previous boyfriends, speculation over whether she had cheated on Harris, and general finger-wagging about the supposed looseness of her behaviour, simply for being a young, single woman who's been seen on a date with a man. This of course, is nothing new. It’s hard to think of a female celebrity that hasn’t been slut-shamed for just doing what most young women do. Rihanna was criticised last year for moving on from Chris Brown and dating Travis Scott.
Earlier this year, model Amber Rose described such shaming in an interview: “After my ex-husband Wiz Khalifa and I got a divorce, I’d go out for a date at a restaurant like any normal single human and people would say, 'Man, she’s such a ho. She’s out at restaurants with guys'.”
Some seem to think that Swift is a just target for such treatment since, earlier in her career, some of her songs included lyrics such as: “She's an actress/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”
Others point out that her pop career, at least initially, was based around a wholesome image, as if this was just retribution for supposed hypocrisy. But the truth is if you’re a young woman in your 20s and have had sex with more than a couple of guys then it doesn’t matter too much what your image is. You can be raunchy Rihanna or squeaky-clean Swift, and you’ll draw a similar level of criticism.
With Swift, the shaming follows a familiar pattern. Former boyfriends are listed – John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joe Jonas, Harry Styles, Calvin Harris – as if to suggest that she has a stunning number of either “conquests” or “failed romances”. Yet, the list isn't even all that long. It’s not like Tiger Woods, who confessed to sleeping with 120 women during his five-year marriage to Elin Nordegren, or Rod Stewart who is said to have bedded 1,000 women before settling down, or even Bill Wyman who once claimed his peak rate was “three or four a night sometimes”.
The gossip writers' list of six or seven former Swiftian romances is actually quite short. According to research published last year, millennials are expected to have, on average, around eight sexual partners over their lifetime.
“My girlfriends and I talk a lot about feminism and the inequality between the way men and women," Swift once said. "The kind of things we say are: ‘Why is it mischievous, fun and sexy if a guy has a string of lovers that he’s cast aside, loved and left? Yet if a woman dates three or four people in an eight-year period she is a serial dater and it gives some 12-year-old the idea to call her a slut on the internet?'”
Depressingly little, in other words, has changed in the last 50 years. Women remain the gatekeepers, the defenders of monogamy; men the opportunists. And it’s not just men that are holding us to these standards. Research repeatedly shows that women are just as disapproving of female promiscuity. A 2013 Cornell study found that "women reject promiscuous peers as friends".
It’s almost shocking how little evolution there has been in this attitude. And that’s despite the growing body of research that suggests that women have a strong sex drive, much of it presented by journalist Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want? There, he observes, "One of our most comforting assumptions … clung to by both sexes, that female eros is much better made for monogamy than the male libido, is scarcely more than a fairy tale."
Let us not demand women conform to this “fairy tale”. Far better if we could all chill out when it comes to women's behaviour. When caught by paparazzi last week and asked how he felt about Swift’s new relationship, Calvin Harris had this response: "It's all good, she's doing her thing, she's doing her thing dude."
Of course, some might read that as a criticism of “her thing”. But it also seems an appropriate response. She’s doing her thing. That's what we all do.
And Harris is right: so long as that "thing" involves consenting adults, it’s all good.