Walking the Tightrope

By Indiana Seresin

100 years ago, Sigmund Freud observed a dichotomy in the way some of his male patients viewed women. According to Freud, these men were unable to escape seeing women either as virgins or whores (it went without saying that these were inherently oppositional), and never as anything else. Try as they might, they could not find themselves sexually attracted to the women they constructed as pure, saintly Madonnas, no matter how suitable these women were as love-objects and (potential) wives; they needed the women they slept with to seem degraded, dirty, in order to be sexually aroused. Freud termed this the Madonna/whore complex. Today, a century later, the virgin/whore dichotomy—a variation of Freud’s original idea—is well known almost to the point of being a feminist cliché. We have shifted from seeing it as a psychological affliction peculiar to certain men, and instead recognize the existence of this dichotomy as another way in which women’s sexuality is policed and restricted by the patriarchal forces of society as a whole.

Perhaps because we are on the brink of adulthood, perhaps because our class and educational privilege allow us to inhabit multiple identities, Harvard women (and women living on residential college campuses in general) seem especially susceptible to being forced—and forcing ourselves—to live out the virgin/whore dichotomy. But it is not simply a question of each college woman being glued to a single, static identity of either virgin or whore. Rather, we are pressured to bounce between the two poles that, according to the mainstream, define female sexuality. To put it reductively: by day we are supposed to be virgins, and by night, whores. It is as simple and as complicated as that. And if there is a single phenomenon occurring on college campuses across the country that proves this to be true, it is the event known popularly as the “walk of shame.”


Here is what Urban Dictionary offers in the way of a definition of the walk of shame:

n. the course walked home after a night of boozing and fucking. one usually wears either the clothes they went out in (eg. short skirt and heels) or the clothing of the person they slept with (eg. a large white t-shirt) the morning after and everyone notices they have the “I was fucked up last night” look and am now walking home from the guy-I-fucked’s house.

Despite the use of the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” the roles that men and women are expected to play in this scenario are pretty clear. They may have gone out in a short skirt and heels and must therefore resort to wearing their large white t-shirt, but by the end, the author of the definition gives up altogether on trying to conceal the gendered nature of this interaction with “guy-I-fucked.” (The active use of “to fuck” is interestingly anomalous here; in any case, while the woman may have been doing the fucking, she was at least still—passively—“fucked up”). It is true that men are sometimes accused of the walk of shame, though I have often heard male peers respond to such accusations with a boastfully defiant “More like stride of pride, bro!” They know the idea of the walk of shame isn’t meant for them. In reality, it is principally used to describe the actions of straight women and is a particularly gendered concept, betraying deeply ingrained, deeply fucked up ideas about female (hetero)sexuality.


Patriarchal society constructs female sexuality as an impossible paradox. In the West, hypersexual images of women dominate visual culture, yet attitudes toward the depiction of female sexual pleasure are repressive to the point of hysteria. Exposure to porn is almost ubiquitous among preteens and teenagers, yet very few young people receive comprehensive sex education. It is no wonder, then, that the concept of the walk of shame is defined by the blurring of ideas of emancipation and degradation, pleasure and regret, pride and humiliation.

The blog Her Campus describes the walk of shame like this: “those girls who stumble in at ten, eleven, and sadly sometimes one in the afternoon, with their heels in hand, makeup astray, looking down to avoid the judging stares of their respective peers.  We all look on, hiding the smirk playing upon our lips.” It is significant that most accounts of the walk of shame do not explicitly mention sex. Journalists, bloggers, and even academics use euphemistic and non-specific language when it comes to the events of the night preceding the walk. The real focus is on the walk itself, and the disheveled appearance of the woman doing the walking.

The reason for this is that sex itself is not the truly scandalous part of the walk of shame. If that were the case, there would be a plethora of articles to match those on the walk of shame describing the moment during a drunken night out when a woman leaves a club or party with a man. That moment would also be described in a neat catchphrase; it would be something like the “Regrettable Exit.” But there is no such thing as the “regrettable exit,” because when a college-aged woman leaves a party for a one night stand with a man, her actions are coherent with the identity she is supposed to inhabit for the night: the “whore” side of the virgin/whore binary.

The walk of shame is a transgression of this binary. At “ten, eleven, and sadly sometimes one in the afternoon,” college women are supposed to have returned, seamlessly, to Madonna mode. They are supposed to be modestly clad and fresh-faced (hence the numerous articles advising women to wash their faces before embarking on a walk of shame). It is not only that the woman making the walk of shame has failed to adequately transition to the other side of the virgin/whore binary; the transition itself is visible to her peers and the general public. This is, in fact, the true transgression, and is the reason why the first point of stress in every “5 Tips to Survive the Walk of Shame” article is how important it is to leave the room of the man you’ve slept with immediately after you wake up. “Girl, it’s time to get your butt back to your dorm room,” an article on The College Crush instructs. The essential thing here is that the woman must leave before the guy wakes up; only then can he remain blissfully unaware of her period of transition back into her virtuous, undefiled daily self. “Spending the night at a guy’s place doesn’t mean he’s obligated to study with you at the library, take you out for frozen yogurt, call you or even acknowledge you in public,” the same article tells us. In other words: after you have sex, you no longer exist to him, and that’s ok. Presumably there is another girl, one he knows as a Madonna and not a whore, who exists for him instead and who he takes out for frozen yogurt.

At night, though, he fucks you, and that’s ok. Just so long as you leave at dawn.

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