There's a funny line in Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) which goes something like "She slept with men and pretended she didn't." You get a sense that Weldon doesn't mind the activity described by the first part of the sentence but deplores the pretense described in the second part.
I, of course, have a different perspective. I think that if you have slept with men (i.e. ones you weren't married to), you usually should keep your mouth shut about it, except to your confessor, and then try to live a chaste life hereafter. (As penance for your sins, it would be nice to stick up for girls whose own sex lives are being gossiped about.)
On the other hand, Weldon may have meant that her character pretended to herself that she didn't sleep with men, and I can indeed see how this would be a problem. Lying to yourself about yourself is always a bad idea.
There are women who seem to have a compulsion to tell their sins to all and sundry as a way to reassure themselves that they are still lovable. Their script seems to be, "Would you still like/love me if...?" This is imprudent.
Then there are women who try to dress up their sins as something noble. Their script seems to be "If you don't accept me for 'what I am', then you're basically a Nazi." This is perverse.
And then there are women who try not to know what they are doing when they sin, like freshmen who get drunk to lose their "inhibitions" or pregnant women who convince themselves that unborn babies are only "clumps of cells." This is delusional.
The human capacity and longing to separate oneself from reality never cease to amaze me.
However, at the same time there are women who beat themselves up for non-sins, like being overweight, or underweight, or flat-chested, or big-chested, or grey-haired, or shy, or loud, or dim, or opinionated.
There are also women who recite harsh litanies of self-blame for sins and non-sins, either to themselves (which suggests they are sincere in their corrosive self-disgust) or aloud to friends (which suggests they want their friends to say "No, no. We still love you.")
Given the female tendency to beat ourselves up rather badly, I can see why some women (including me) go absolutely mental when someone blames us for something that really is a personal failing. And this is most often when the action can be attached to a label. For example, if my husband comes home from work and notes that there are still dirty dishes by the sink, I feel resentful because dirty dishes by the sink = I am a Bad Housewife, and how dare he notice something painful about myself I'm trying to forget?!?!?!
Many people have a problem separating critique of their actions, work or ideas from critique of their own selves. When a writer has work rejected, she sometimes feels that it is she, not her work, who has been rejected. Women are supposed to have this problem more than men do. I don't know about that. Men are certainly not free from this tendency.
The trouble of female guilt may lie in a haunting sense that Men=Action, and Women=Being. In this climate of feeling, men do, women are. (I'm not saying this is true; I'm saying that this idea seems to permeate our culture.) It feels as though men can do or even just be accused of bad stuff without it affecting their being, whereas women are somehow ontologically changed.
I'm expressing myself badly, so I'll bring up the most obvious example, which is the fear of being called a slut.
In my mind's eye I am imagining a perfectly nice, inoffensive, mildly humorous, and mildly attractive young man who is active in Catholic Chaplaincy. It comes to his ears that for some crazy and mysterious reason, a rumour has sprung up that he is a male slut. As the farthest he has ever gone in his life was to make out with a Czech girl he met at World Youth Day, he is astonished at this rumour. He is even slightly amused. When asked about it, he says he cannot imagine how this rumour came about.*
Now I am imagining a perfectly nice, inoffensive, mildly humorous and mildly attractive young woman who is active in Catholic Chaplaincy. It has come to her ears that for some crazy and mysterious reason, a rumour has sprung up that she is a slut. As the farthest she has ever gone in her life was to make out with a Czech guy she met at World Youth Day, she is outraged. She is crushed. She feels violated, betrayed, and almost suicidal. It is simply the worst day of her entire life. When asked about it, she rages and cries.
In short, as far as he is concerned, the label slides off the guy like water off a duck's back, but as far as the she is concerned, the label is stuck to the girl's forehead.
(You'll have long ago noticed that the expression is "male slut" as if sluts, like nurses, are usually female.)
Because the penalties for being (heterosexual) sexual sinners have usually been relatively light for men and extremely heavy for women, it is easy to see why my hypothetical guy is calm and my hypothetical girl frantic.
I keep thinking about a couple at a wedding. The man wears dark colours and, heck, he may have rented his clothes. No biggie if he spills something on himself. The woman wears a costly white dress, and if she spills something on herself it will show and AAAAAAAH!
Anyway, my tentative suggestion is that men don't feel as threatened as women do that admitting to personal non-violent sins will somehow make them less in the eyes of the world. There are reasons for this. The sooner Hugh Grant said sorry for paying a prostitute, Divine Brown, for her "services", the sooner he could go back to being floppy-haired and loveable on the silver screen. But I do not recall Divine Brown, the prostitute, apologizing for anything. Instead she brazened it out and became a minor celebrity. Nobody, however, ever forgot that she was a prostitute.
But this double-standard has no basis in reality. Men and women are both sinners and sin has the same effect on us. If a human being, male or female, commits a mortal sin, he or she falls from grace. If the fallen human being, male or female, feels contrition, confesses and does penance, he or she is forgiven. Men are changed ontologically if they become priests, and both men and women are changed ontologically when we first have sexual intercourse of our own free will.** But that's it for ontological change. (Oh, maybe baptism is in there.)
It does not seem right, then, for women to carry a bigger or smaller burden for our sins than men do. A Catholic guy with a past does not really worry that this will stop him from getting married one day. A Catholic girl who slept around before she saw the light sure does. Not fair. But then there are thousands of women who have gone to doctors to have their unborn children killed and then go ballistic if they hear a word of blame.
The only solution to this uncomfortable state of affairs is to acknowledge that we are all, men and women, sinners, and that sin ranges from unpleasant to truly horrible, but that we are not our sins. We are people who sin. Women are not sin. We do sin. And we can and should be forgiven if and when we ask.
Meanwhile anyone who begins or passes along rumours about a guy or girl being a slut has committed very serious sins indeed--both detraction and scandal. The pain of the victim, whatever he or she might or might not have done, will cry out to heaven for justice.
*My hypothetical college student does not experience same-sex attractions. Young men of traditional religious backgrounds who experience same-sex attractions often suffer very much from the salacious gossip of others. I've noticed that their female friends are often very protective of them, possibly because the women know intuitively how damaging it can be on many levels to be labelled a sexual sinner.
**I am currently fact checking this. I could be wrong. The Ancients and Mediaevals made SUCH a song-and-dance about virginity, they really did, that I may have been misled by their enthusiasm. Or by the fifty-cent word "ontological." Baptism wipes your soul clean of original sin (and any extra sin accrued, in case of those over 7), and priesthood gives the priest's soul a priestly character. Marriage does NOT stamp a permanent character to the soul. I guess the question is whether loss of virginity changes a person in any significant way. The Ancients and Mediaevals and whoever recruits Consecrated Vrigins might very well say "YES." Whether it has any affect on the SOUL, however, is something I am completely unsure of. I don't see why it would if marriage does not. ANYWAY, side issue, peeps. The point I am trying to make is that repentance and forgiveness of sins DOES wipe your slate clean, and so admitting to your sins does not make you a worse or "a bad" person, it makes you better.