OPINION: A few weeks ago four words appeared overnight on a garage door in Manly in thick red paint, on a hill overlooking the ocean, dotted with frangipani trees and bandicoot holes: Anna is a SLUT. It was painted in large letters throughout the neighbourhood, on low-lying fences, fresh white house walls, and doors. Poor Anna: most likely a boy liked her, or she wore a new dress or kissed someone. All day, painters and house owners stood on footpaths in the sun, scrubbing with bleach and repainting, erasing what was meant to be this girl's shame.
It was a familiar sight. Scarlet letters have been painted on white walls and pasted on clothes, usually decrying women's sexuality, for centuries. But it is only now, thanks to the ferocity of the internet, that this phenomenon has become widespread and powerfully illustrated, with explicit images flashed to millions in seconds.
It has also been given a name: slut shaming, which usually means trying to humiliate women for having sex, enjoying sex, looking like they might enjoy sex, being drunk or unconscious - and, especially, for being photographed doing any of the above.
Shaming usually involves mass circulation of shots taken by girls of themselves, sent to boys and passed on without their consent, or photos taken by others of women - usually university age - passed out, semi-nude or stumbling around drunk. Captions call them "sluts", asking for it, deserving anything. Sometimes girls criticise other girls just for showing cleavage, or wearing make-up, evidence of a curious prudishness that can often emerge among young girls.
There are also "rootrater" sites, one-night stand sites and a host of "slut" sites that erupt, are shut down then appear again - all featuring women supposedly snapped after sex, then judged severely for performance, availability and appearance.
But a profound shift has emerged from the mud of this "slut" labelling epidemic online: a realisation that we're over it. As more come to recognise this behaviour springs from cultures that fail to prosecute rape, there has been a forceful, angry global reprisal by those who have wrested the spotlight onto the aggressors themselves. We have shifted from slut shaming to pig shaming (or sexist or criminal shaming). The public humiliation of men who once did the humiliating has been an astonishing sight.
What can happen when slut shaming angers people?
First, mass protests. Thousands marched in SlutWalks in Canada, America, Europe, the Middle East and here, protesting against the idea that women who are harassed, abused or raped are to blame because of what they wear.
Second, riots. Last month, high school students went on the rampage in the Swedish town of Gothenburg after a local Instagram account asked for tips on who were the "sluts" in the area; hundreds of photos were posted, with alleged sexual activities of teenagers of ages 13 and 14. Lamps were smashed, and 27 people were arrested.
Third, criminal charges. A Bendigo man responsible for a local "rootraters'' site that posted critiques of girls as young as 13 received a jail sentence last August (since changed to community corrections orders). The judge said he had shown a "complete lack of respect" for women.
And now, crucially, material intended for shaming can be used against those who record or post it. In Steubenville, Ohio, the parents of a 16-year-old girl alleging rape late last year went to the police armed with an entire file of evidence meant to shame their daughter which instead incriminated others: screenshots of tweets that had been deleted, videos of the events, and eerie photographs of the girl swinging semi-clad and unconscious, held by the arms and feet like a deer caught in the day's hunt. A vigilante blogger also posted a sickening video of a former baseball player laughing about the alleged rape. Two of the men are now facing charges.
There has been much talk of a town cover-up, but the Steubenville case has been heralded as a watershed, where raping college girls will no longer be seen as a mark of glory but instead guilt, disgrace and jail.
So who is to blame for this shaming? The usual suspects are immature or idiotic teenage boys.
Last year, a British study found three-quarters of girls who sent explicit photos to boys later discovered they were shown to others. Earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl fell to her death in Battersea while begging a boy to delete from his phone a video of her performing a sex act.
Slut shaming is also frequently blamed on nastiness and stupidity of some girls, who are protagonists on sites such as Ask.fm, where you can post anonymous comments. Recently, girls flooded a Tumblr site called "Hey Girl, did you know" to criticise other girls: "Hey Girl, did you know - your boobs go inside your shirt?" (The site quickly flooded with pushback: "Girls, did you know, that uhm, your boobs are something to be proud of?")
But we can't blame slut shaming on teenagers: it is simply propagated by them.
Dodgy, dangerous opinions about women's sexuality are too often heard from people in positions of power: an Indonesian judge says women who are raped enjoy it; in the US, the broadcaster Rush Limbaugh calls a woman who wanted contraception a "prostitute" and a "slut"; the Missouri Republican Todd Akin says there is such a thing as legitimate rape, the Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock suggests rape could be "something God intended to happen", and the Wisconsin politician Roger Rivard says "some girls rape easy". Grown men.
It is so obvious, it should not need to be said: a culture that blames women who are victims of violence or harassment for having breasts, baring legs, or drinking, is a culture that condones rape.
I suspect the Anna in Manly was a teenager. What of the person or persons wielding the paintbrush on a quiet summer night in Sydney? Her peers soaked up ideas, somehow, in this brash, fleshy city, that girls should be prim, contained, clothed - and afraid. This fear can be lethal, depressing and very familiar.
Whoever Anna is, she has company. You can only hope she realises this.
- Sydney Morning Herald