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Female sexuality in times of social media

Milou Deelen (24) rapidly rose to prominence as the Dutch advocate of frank talk about women’s sexuality. It has cost her dear, but she has received so much assent, praise and support that she won’t be giving up anytime soon. In the Annie Romein Verschoor Lecture on 5 March, Leiden University’s celebration of International Women’s Day, she explained what drives her.

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
Vice-Rector Hester Bijl welcomed everyone.

Professor Judi Mesman, chair of the Leiden University Annie Romein Verschoor Committee, had to laugh: ‘Many a word has issued from this lectern this evening that has never been uttered here before!’ And she was right. 

Shitstorm

Whore / Slut / Stick a dick in it / I’m going to rape you / Stupid tart / Slapper. This is just some of the ‘shitstorm’ that Milou Deelen was subjected to when she posted a film on Facebook in 2015 denouncing slut-shaming and claiming her sexuality as her own. It has had almost a million views.

It all began when Deelen started studying European languages and cultures in Groningen and joined the Vindicat student association. During the initiation ceremonies, the cry went out to the men that ‘all women are whores’ and that they should ‘screw as many as you can.’ The women were told to ‘behave yourselves.’

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
'Why aren't girls allowed to do what boys are?'

Reverse effect

Deelen did what many students do when they leave home: she began to explore her sexuality to the full. What made her different from others was how open she was about this. Although her female friends warned her that she would get ‘a name,’ she continued nonetheless. ‘I honestly didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to talk openly about sex when lads were.’ But her openness began to count against her and she became the target of people’s ire. In the first year, a male debating society wrote about ‘the lowest girl of the year,’ or in other words: the biggest slut. That was a tradition. And Deelen was the lucky victim: ‘Dozens of lads sang over and again about what a whore I was. And in an association book it said you could do me for a pack of ciggies or a Smirnoff ICE.’

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
Milou Deelen: open about her sexuality.

Shame

Deelen held her head up high but felt deeply humiliated. The same was true when a committee of older students got her year group of 16 girls to arrange themselves in order of ‘high’ to ‘low.’ Her year group members manoeuvred her to the ‘lowest’ place, ‘cos you can cope with that.’ It didn’t help that she had also started to explore sex with women. But she did realise something important: it wasn’t her sexual desire and open attitude to sex that she was ashamed of but people’s reactions to it, the way they portrayed her.

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
‘Feeling shame about people's reactions’

‘Testosterone bombs’

‘Slut-shaming is everywhere,’ said Deelen, ‘but I don’t know anywhere where it is as bad as at the student associations. I think it’s because old-fashioned values reign, strong ideas about how you should behave as a man or woman. Men are walking testosterone bombs, ladykillers; otherwise they’re pussies or gay. Nobody is openly gay – obviously. Women are allowed to down pints of beer but they should be chaste and proper and shouldn’t sound too eager about sex. I’m convinced these roles are forced on us. It’s not an integral part of my fundamental female nature, it’s not in my body or hormones that I should be passive. It’s a social construct.’

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
L-R Judi Mesman and Milou Deelen. R-L Hester Bijl and former chair of the Annie Romein Verschoor Committee Greta Noordenbos.

Abuse and support

In protest, Deelen produced a simple film three years ago about slut-shaming. ‘I then had guys I didn’t know calling me a whore and saying I was a slut who was getting my just desserts. Dick pics appeared on my phone, I got calls from boys and was added to app groups. You want attention? Now you’ve got it! Geen Stijl website posted a photo of me asking who would ‘do’ me. Fake accounts were created with personal information about me and my family. Cowardly all those anonymous reactions. People often think that online abuse isn’t half as bad but I found it intimidating that it was all happening online and anonymously. But there were also moving messages, like the ones from fathers thanking me for making the world that bit better for their daughters.’

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
As usual, women were in the majority.

Urgency

What drives her is an urgent need to tell the world how all that bullying feels for women. She constantly receives the backing of social media communities and has plenty of supporters behind her, men too, to whom she holds up a mirror. She calls herself an intersectional feminist. This is the belief that repressive structures are interconnected, and that alongside gender, race, ethnicity and religion play a role. She is pleased with the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s conviction was cause for celebration.

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
Mieke Verloo, Professor of Comparative Politics and Inequality Issues at Radboud University in Nijmegen, said that she greatly appreciated Deelen’s frankness..

Unsafe in Groningen

Deelen had felt unsafe in Groningen for some time, so she returned to Amsterdam, where she was born and bred, and continued her fight there. She learned more about feminism (she is proud to call herself a feminist) and started working as a journalist, for magazines such as LINDA.meiden, Glamour, VIVA and Grazia and millennial platform VICE. She will soon write her first article for De Volkskrant newspaper. And the stories keep on coming: she tells about how when she was working part time as a waitress someone took an upskirt photo of her and shared the photo on social media, where it was mercilessly criticised. And how the same thing happened when she danced topless on a boat at Gay Pride – because men are allowed to show their nipples whereas women aren’t. But she wouldn’t dream of stopping.

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
Deelen and Verloo shared the lectern to answer questions.

Look at the sea

Mieke Verloo, Professor of Comparative Politics and Inequality Issues at Radboud University Nijmegen and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, also spoke. She researches gender in political life. Verloo said she was touched by ‘the story of the birth of a present-day feminist’ and that she very much appreciated Deelen’s frankness.

Verloo compared the different feminist waves. One difference between the second feminist wave in the 1970s and today’s virtual communities was how the feminists in the 1970s formed their own groups, which sometimes engaged in in-fighting. These groups also wanted to change existing laws and have new ones enacted. And they achieved that. She said she understood from Deelen that her main preoccupation is generating awareness, and that she doesn’t want to call it a wave because a wave ends. ‘But all things come to an end,’ said Verloo. ‘But then with a wave, it is always followed by a new one. Go and look at the sea.’

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
A member of the audience asks a question.

Beyond shame

Verloo also addressed the subject of ‘shame.’ This was in reference to the book Shame is Over: a Political Life Story (in Dutch), a Dutch feminist classic from 1976 by Anja Meulenbelt that ruffled a lot of feathers at the time. ‘If you want bring about change, Meulenbelt shows, you have to go beyond shame,’ said Verloo, ‘and I can see that Milou dares to do that too.’ Verloo showed how women’s history continually repeats itself but then in different forms, with different perpetrators, different victims and different circumstances. What is eternal are the elements of double standards, repression, inequality, intimidation and social control.

Deelen finished by saying that she is often asked if she would do it all again if she knew what was awaiting her. ‘My answer would always be a resounding YES.’ This won her an enormous round of applause.

ARV 2020 Milou Deelen
Judi Mesman introduced the speakers and rounded off afterwards.

Mieke Verloo’s tips

  • Emma Goldman podcasts. Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was an American anarchist and feminist. Read an article about her (in Dutch)..
  • The Dutch version of Shame is Over (De schaamte voorbij) by Anja Meulenbelt (1976) can be found on dbnl
  • Work by emeritus Professor of Utrecht University, intersectional feminist Gloria Wekker, who has also been the subject of criticism.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photography: Monique Shaw
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