Ending bad girl stigma once and for all

In mid-June, Brayden Busby of Thunder Bay was sentenced to eight years in prison for the manslaughter death of Barbara Kentner, a 34-year-old Indigenous woman from the Wabigoon Lake First Nation. In January of 2017, after getting drunk with friends, Busby threw a trailer hitch out of a car window hitting Kentner in the stomach. She died five months later and Busby eventually pled guilty to aggravated assault.

Much of the media attention has, quite rightly, been on the racism against Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay and many have argued that this act was just part and parcel of ongoing racism and the casual disregard for Indigenous lives. What has not received as much attention, however, is the sexism and whorephobia that is also central to this case. The judge said as much in the sentencing – that Busby’s actions could not be said to be rooted in hatred of Indigenous people beyond a reasonable doubt, but there was no doubt his actions were rooted in hatred of women.

Busby’s stated goal in the early morning of that January day was to drive around town and “go yell at hookers.” After hitting Kentner, who was not a sex worker, evidence at his trial reported that he then exclaimed that he “got one.”

There is a lot wrong with all of this, other than the obvious violence. Where did he get the idea that it would be a great night’s entertainment to make fun of, yell and/or throw things at sex workers? Indigenous people report many such abusive incidents, as do sex workers – his reported target. Where does this disrespect come from? Sex workers are dehumanized in our society because of what they do. They are deemed to be less deserving of respect than other women because sex workers are seen as bad girls who deserve no respect. The stigma against sex workers means that we give license to treat “bad girls” badly and have less sympathy for the crimes against them; they are bad after all. Accepting this good girl/bad girl stigma, Busby made assumptions about someone who was simply walking down the street.

Stigma leads to dehumanization whether the stigma is against drug users, homeless or the mentally ill and there are many examples of sex workers facing violence because of what they do – not just from clients but from police and members of the public, like Busby.

Stigma reinforces the good girl/bad girl binary. Think of yet another young Indigenous woman, Joyce Echaquan, who died in the hospital with the staff making crude remarks about her being only good for sex. Being associated with sex is to be dismissed and have your humanity questioned. Bad girl stigma reinforces the deep-seated stigma about sexually active women generally and allows men and women to police women’s sexuality with impunity.  It means accepting patriarchal messaging that certain women deserve respect and others don’t based on their behaviour, dress and/or sexuality.

Stigma reinforces the sexual double standard between men and women and the sexual double standard leads to the slut-shaming of women who are not actual sex workers. If we judge women by their sexual or virginal status, we contribute to rape culture. The sexual double standard means that women are sexual gatekeepers, keeping men at bay. This leads to women being blamed for the violence against them. Why did you go to his house, into the cab, wear that dress, get drunk? Slut-shaming affects all women.

The sexual double standard and good girl/bad girl stigma have created many sexual problems for women and 50 years after the so-called sexual revolution, it is about time we end them both.

 

Originally published on McGill-Queen’s University Press blog site, 17 June 2021. Used with permission of MQUP.

 

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