Rape

Does the Word “Slut” Have the Power to Ruin Us?


Slut-shaming is so pervasive, we even do it to ourselves. And as our columnist discovers, the ramifications can be devastating.



There are times when the debate about whether we can reclaim the word “slut” echoes the one over who gets to call herself a feminist. We find ourselves going in circles, never resolving what either word represents in women’s lives.           

But what “slut” and slut-shaming represent are not just about identity politics, but deeper issues that connect to how girls and women are socialized to think of their bodies and sexuality. Two new books, I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet by Leora Tanenbaum, and SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, go beyond the label alone to make important connections between what how slut-shaming affects teenagers and young women regarding birth control, sexual violence, and sexual agency. Both take a stand against using the word “slut” casually, and all three authors affirm their resistance to the word because of its deeply gendered roots, believing it can’t be reclaimed in a world so unequal in matters of sexuality.

In this column, though, I want to talk about how both books opened my eyes to the way slut-shaming—the kind that comes from within when we wonder Will doing ___ make me a slut, and the invectives and intimations hurled at us from others—is intimately connected with being able to say yes to sex freely. If we are constantly worried about the possible repercussions of owning our sexuality (whether it is through engaging in sexual activity, flirting, wearing certain clothing, etc.), we will never be able to appreciate the pleasures of sex fully.

Tanenbaum, who says she was called a slut in high school and has been writing about the topic for 20 years (including her first book, Slut!) claims the “good slut” is the type of woman who wants to be seen as “sexy, not slutty,” which she says has now become compulsory. “Girls are growing up today believing that their sexuality or their sexualized bodies are their primary source of power.” To Tanenbaum, they aren’t so much saying that enthusiastic yes to sex as going along with what they’re told they need to do to be sexy and therefore accepted. The problem, she claims, is that the “good slut” can easily turn into the “bad slut,” the kind nobody wants to be, with zero say from the girl in question.

“We see so many teenage girls and young women performing a sexy identity. The ‘good slut’ is something they are cultivating quite intentionally because they enjoy the sexual attention they receive from their peers. In the ideal utopian world, there would be nothing problematic about this,” Tanenbaum told me. Yet a provocative selfie, photos shared with a boyfriend that get leaked, rumor or truth about a girl’s sexual activities can be enough to get her ostracized. “You can never predict who’s going to be called a slut, which means that basically every girl or woman is at risk of being labeled a slut. I have yet to meet any female 25 and younger who has never been called a slut or a ho at some point in her life. This is really omnipresent,” she said.

Her take echoes the drama in the play SLUT, written by Cappiello, and created as part of Cappiello and McInerney’s all-girl New York–based theater company, the Arts Effect. SLUT grew out of conversations and experiences of their teen girl performers. In SLUT, the testimony of a 16-year-old high-school senior named Joey, to an assistant district attorney’s about her own sexual assault, is interspersed with Joey’s peers talking about what they think happened to her. Even though she is part of a dance team who affectionately calls themselves The Slut Squad, when she is sexually assaulted during a cab ride with three guy friends, the fact that she got in the cab, and that she’d been drinking, marks her as guilty in the eyes of some of her peers, and a friend’s mom. For them, nothing Joey says or does, and no amount of “good slut” camaraderie, will shift the blame away from her.

This is the most valuable part of both books: the explicit link between slut-shaming, and the way it’s used as a weapon against girls and against women who’ve been sexually assaulted. As Jane, Joey’s friend, says to her mother after overhearing her call Joey a little slut: “Would you and Dad have called me a slut while making dinner when you thought I couldn’t hear? Would the other moms be calling each other talking about what a slut I am, and what a liar I am, and what a sloppy, fucked-up drunk I was?”

The play may be a work of fiction, but these ideas are drawn from real-life incidents. Recall when tennis champion Serena Williams told Rolling Stone regarding the 16-year-old girl who was raped by two football players victim in the Steubenville case: “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

As Tanenbaum writes, “A slut or ho” is not only someone to be judged; she is also someone to be disbelieved. She has incredibility. As a result, when she’s gang-raped, her friends are more likely to snap photos of her assault than to snap away the rapists.” Indeed, Tanenbaum interviews a woman who was raped twice as a teenager after blacking out from drinking. Recalling the incident, she said, “I felt an immense weight of shame. I became really depressed, and I decided that I was going to own the label. I thought, ‘I’ll just become the slut you think I am.’” That’s how deep, twisted and disturbing slut-shaming goes. Both the play and Tanenbaum also touch on girls being afraid to acquire or carry condoms for fear of being seen as slutty.

Internalized slut-shaming means we are constantly policing ourselves along with one another. As Joey says in the play, “I wouldn’t even believe me, probably. So I’m a slut and a liar to everyone, you know?” Having witnessed the ways her every action has been judged more strongly than the actions of the boys who hurt her, this is the only conclusion she can draw. This happens on much smaller levels all the time. Last year I was traveling in an unfamiliar city and, used to New York’s bustling 24/7 subway system, took a train to the airport late at night. When I found myself practically alone in a train car, I worried—not just for my safety, but about whether I would be seen as having done something “wrong” for having taken the train in the first place. I’ve wondered whether my tops were too low or my dresses too short when going into unfamiliar areas for precisely the same reason. It’s almost impossible not to take on some of the baggage of a culture that is constantly telling women what we should and shouldn’t do regarding sex, and that there will likely be consequences for choosing incorrectly.

The main lesson imprinted on me by these books is that slut-shaming is not only about the most extreme cases we hear about, but a mind-set that permeates our everyday lives, where sorority sisters can label one of their own a slut for having a boy in their room, or a potential mass murderer can believe “every girl is a type of slut.” These are connected, and these ideas start early.

The conversations at home about sex need to be specific, rather than vague. As Cappiello put it, “Parents have to evolve. There needs to be in-depth conversations starting in fifth and sixth grade, about consent, about respect, about everyone’s right to embrace and enjoy their sexuality. It can’t just be ‘don’t rape people’ and ‘don’t get raped.’”           

There is a lot more to be done, but one of the first is to recognize that it’s sexism, not sexuality itself, that is the culprit here. As Tanenbaum writes, “It’s not female sexuality that is dangerous, but the sexual double standard.” That applies to girls as well. We are not going to end slut-shaming by telling girls they should be wary of sex, dress modestly, and generally act like “good girls,” because that leads us right into the trap of assuming that the girls who get slut-shamed, or worse, somehow brought it on themselves by not acting in the proper way.

This isn’t an issue only about girls or women, either. Boys and men have to be part of the discussion as well. As Cappiello told me, “We know so many boys who don’t see coercive sex as the same thing as sexual aggression or violence. So they don’t see a problem with forcing a drunk girl to have sex with them, but they would never rape them. That’s a problem; that right there is an indicator that we need to have deeper conversations.”

The good news is: Women are taking action. An outgrowth of the play has been StopSlut, whose mission is “to transform rape culture through youth-led activism. Schools can stage the play and foster dialogue between boys and girls about these issues. Emily Lindin of nonprofit The UnSlut Project, which grew out of her posting her middle school diaries about being called a slut, is making a documentary film featuring the family of Rehtaeh Parsons and Roman Polanski rape victim Samantha Gailey Geimer. Even teenagers are bringing the topic of consent culture into the classroom.

I don’t think it’s the word “slut” or women who proudly call themselves sluts (which I have done on occasion) who are the problem. It’s what being a “slut” represents, and how strong that specter still is, even in 2015. That stigma, and how it insidiously causes so many of us to judge ourselves and one another, is the real enemy.

 

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