Rihanna versus TLC

On the evolutionary roots of so-called slut shaming

Posted Jun 08, 2014

A few days ago, two of the surviving members of TLC openly took jabs at Rihanna for her penchant for scantily clad attire. Here are some choice quotes from T-Boz as covered by Rolling Stone:

“Every time I see you, you don’t have to be naked,” and then continued: “We sold and became the biggest girl selling group of all time, with our clothes on. [...] That says a lot. It’s easy to sell sex. We can go around with boobie cakes out all day long.”

Rihanna, in her typical sassy way, retorted by changing the background of her Twitter account to a photo of TLC in their younger days when they engaged in similar antics.

Several recent academic papers have explored various facets of so-called slut shaming (cf. Vrangalova, Bukberg, & Rieger, 2013; Armstrong et al., 2014), an example of which is what TLC did to Rihanna. Generally speaking, feminists have adopted this term in part to demonstrate the supposed patriarchal sexism inherent to the sexual double standard.

The reality is that this has nothing to do with the patriarchy and everything to do with biology. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes adaptive sense that men and women would use sex-specific tactics in derogating intra-sexual rivals (cf. Schmitt & Buss, 1996). On a related note, men and women are likely to gossip about same-sex rivals in ways that are in line with the sex-specific preferences of the opposite sex (see McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002 for an evolutionary analysis of gossip). Few men will derogate male competitors by saying, “That Johnny. He’s such a player with the ladies. What a disgusting guy. Where does he get off wearing those skin tight jeans that show off his pouty buttocks?” They are much more likely to say, “That Johnny. He is a lazy loser. He can never hold down a well-paying job. He never finished high school.” Bottom line: Men and women use sex-specific strategies to make same-sex competitors appear less attractive to members of the opposite sex.  

This evolutionary logic explains why TLC and countless other female singers point to the undesirability of low-status men in their songs (as per their song “Scrub”) but one never finds male singers complaining about such issues in their female love interests (see my TEDx talk titled The Consuming Instinct around the 15 minutes and 30 seconds mark in which I discuss this exact point). The evolutionary calculus of shaming individuals about their overt sexuality is rooted in sex-specific realities. Women use it to shame other women precisely because the costs and benefits of unrestrained sexuality are different for the two sexes, as enunciated in parental investment theory (Trivers, 1972).

Returning to the Rihanna versus TLC saga, these ladies might not be direct competitors in that they do not navigate within the same social circles or within the same age groups. Yet, the ladies of TLC recognize that Rihanna is young and beautiful, and endless men desire her. If they were going to derogate her, they are unlikely to criticize her academic transcripts or her political positions. The same sexual strategies that the ladies of TLC used when they were younger are now viewed with scorn. Hypocrisy is part of our evolved repertoire of social strategies! The topic of hypocrisy just reminded me of Robert Kurzban’s funny book title Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, a worthwhile book to read.

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