The “walk of shame”--we’ve all heard of it, whether it was when your roommate in college sheepishly snuck out of her boyfriend’s apartment headed home on a Saturday morning wearing her clothes from the night before, or when you saw the entrepreneurial University of Michigan  woman who started a taxi service providing early morning pick-ups to students who wanted to avoid the walk completely. Urban Aid even markets a “Shame on You” kit  complete with a toothbrush, thong, condom, and leave-behind note for your partner for “when you just can’t make it home.”
The walk of shame isn’t only a colloquial phrase used between friends on university campuses, it’s something scholars have used for years to illustrate how language reinforces cultural norms of what is and is not acceptable sexually and how those norms are policed, often to the advantage of men and disadvantage of others, particularly women.
Despite huge changes over the last 40 years, U.S. culture continues to link sex, for women, with a committed long-term partnership, if not marriage. And the notion that a woman would willingly have a random and anonymous sexual encounter simply doesn’t fit with these deeply rooted social expectations. And, while sex in a committed relationship is completely acceptable--especially if a couple is trying to have a baby--Americans still have a hard time digesting the idea that women seek out sex “just” for pleasure (although perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering how uncomfortable our culture is discussing female masturbation). Ultimately, when we use language like “walk of shame,” what we’re really doing is participating in a form of social policing that serves to punish women who’ve deviated from the set social norms of female sexuality and gone against the grain. You could even call it adult bullying.
This isn’t only potentially deeply hurtful to someone’s self-esteem, especially to teenagers who are still developing an understanding of their sexuality, but it also promotes the ideal that men should be hyper-sexual aggressors on the hunt for a one-night sexual encounter and women should be sexually appealing enough to attract a man yet remain chaste, lest they suffer social scrutiny.
In a world littered with complexities like these, it’s no wonder young people are jumping at the chance to figure out where they fit in. As health educators we see hundreds of questions not related to biology, but to society. “If men have sex they’re a player, if women do, they’re a slut. Why?” and “Why, when a girl is raped, do they always try to say ‘well look at what she is wearing.’?” and “Why are there so many more teen pregnancies in my city than in other communities?” are common questions in our classes. Yet, historically sex-ed has solely focused on anatomy--leaving teens ill-equipped to make fully educated decisions in the world around them.
Health educators, clinicians, and adults need to move beyond science. Without addressing the multiple and intersecting social and biological issues impacting teens, health interventions can’t be as effective as we’d like. You can teach students about birth control options, but if you don’t also address concerns about anonymity at clinics or in getting excused from school, contraception use won’t increase. We can encourage STI testing, but teens will be less likely to go if perceived costs are too high, clinics are inaccessible, or there is a fear of adult judgment. And, a sexual assault survivor may choose not to report this crime if they fear judgment from an unsupportive university community.
Providing students the tools to orient themselves within their community helps them to understand not only what is happening--whether it’s rape, crime, or media portrayals of gender--but to also understand why. When sex-ed includes conversations about power, gender, sexuality, and even religion, ethnicity and socioeconomics, it allows students to see the importance of birth control, consent, and their legal pregnancy options, in a new light.
When educators underscore the importance of social factors, the more practical aspects of sex-ed (read: how to use a condom and common STI symptoms) become more effective, too, and youth benefit on a mental, emotional, and physical level. For some, this may mean waiting to have sex, for others increased confidence in communicating boundaries, while for others greater self-acceptance and self-love.
And, while all students should still know where the uterus and testes are, when parents, clinicians, and educators recognize that social competence goes hand-in-hand with biological knowledge, we can provide our children with a critical understanding of their world, including implications of the “walk of shame,” so they can truly make informed decisions about their mental and physical health.
1. Freed, B. (2014, May 20). University of Michigan graduate’s ‘Walk of Shame Shuttle’ to be featured on new VH1 show. Michigan Live. Retrieved from