Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Slut Shaming - In HIgh School, It's a Big Deal

A few days ago I was doing some research for a presentation about the portrayal of sexual desire in young adult series. In my research, I came across some field research regarding adolescent girls and sexuality. I found this study incredibly interesting, because my own views on sexuality in high school never seemed to be the norm. Not only that, but I had zero experience with boys or sex in the real sense - books and movies and my mother's talks were the extent of it. So seeing how a variety of girls responded to surveys given to them over a period of three to four years during high school seemed really interesting to me.


But what I found really, really upset me.

There were many issues brought up in the publication - a piece by Margarita Viner if you're interested in checking it out. Its easy to find on google scholar. Anyway, the issue brought up that most worried me was the issue of labeling.

According to Viner's study, most girls' ultimate decision about whether to or not to engage in sexual activities has very little to do with what they actually want. Instead, many girls said fear of being called a "slut" or "whore" by peers was the deciding factor.

I dealt with slut shaming a little bit in THE DUFF, but it's also a theme - well, labeling in general, not just slut shaming - in SHUT OUT. So it's clearly been on my mind a bit, but now? Now I'm really worried.

I'm all for encouraging teenagers to wait until they are ready and mature enough to deal with sex. I do think teens should be educated about consequences, but my feelings on abstinence only education aren't appropriate for here. Regardless of which side of that very heated debate you are on, can we agree that fear of name calling and peer torment is NOT the right way to keep girls from engaging in sexual activity?

Since reading the article, I've started paying attention to how my peers, even in college, refer to girls. I hear girls use "slut" and "whore" a lot around here, and not always in regard to girls who "sleep around." One of my friends called a girl who flirted a lot as a "whore." Another friend described a girl who sexiled her roommate (kicked her out so she could be alone with her boyfriend, presumably to have sex) as a "slut." This made me take pause. The girls in question weren't necessarily having sex, and if they were, not necessarily with more than one person, and yet they earned the label.

Even if the girls in question were "sleeping around," I couldn't help thinking that labeling them still seemed very antifeminist and unfair.

But this is what I hear everyday. This is what high school girls hear every day. Girls ridicule each other for sexual activities frequently. And now, according to this study, this fear of name-calling and shaming is what drives many girls to avoid sexual encounters.

I"m noticing, too, in popular media, not just our own mouths. The other night, while listening to a Taylor Swift song I used to love, I caught this line:

"She's not a saint, and she's not what you think. She's an actress. She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress."

The song, "Better than Revenge," is actually about a girl who steals boyfriends. Regardless, I worry that the wording on this phrase sends a very, very negative message. The line here implies that the girl isn't a "saint" because she's "known for the things that she does on the mattress." So her sexual activities make her a bad person. Don't get me wrong, I love Taylor Swift, but this particular line and the phrasing seriously put me off.

Since the end of high school, I have done my best to eliminate the word "slut" from my vocabulary. Sometimes, out of habit from back then, it slips out and I have to check myself. But, for the most part, I've gotten rid of it when referencing another female. In a discussion with a friend the other day, though, she said, "I think some girls do deserve to be called sluts, though. Definitely not all. But some."

I"m not sure I agree, since men are never called out for their promiscuity and, if they are, its just "manwhore" which is usually taken as a joke, not as damaging as "whore" for a girl.

But i'm curious - what do you think? Is slut shaming something we should be worried about in our teenage girls? Is there ever an okay time to call another woman a "slut?" And, better yet, what can we do to help fix this problem of slut shaming? I want to know your thoughts.

24 comments:

Casey (The Bookish Type) said...

This is fascinating and seriously disturbing. I think what bothers me most about the "slut" name-calling is the double standard. Boys are Macho Macho Men if they're sleeping around -- applauded by their friends. Girls, on the other hand, get called "sluts," not just by guys but by other women. It blows my mind the way women turn against each other. We've been fighting the other sex for equality since the dawn of time, but more and more it seems like we're turning against ourselves these days. If we can't respect each other, how are we ever going to change the degrading stereotypes society still places on us?

Thank you for raising so many important issues on your blog, Kody. It's great to see an author using their platform to raise awareness.

FBF said...

I agree with everything you said here! I just got up on my soapbox about this when my boyfriend called Caddy from "The Sound and the Fury" a slut, and I was amazed that a) he would use that word and b) that he would use it about someone whose promiscuity level is fairly average for today's standards. Why is sexual desire in females considered shameful? If a girl wants to have sex, she has just as much right to it as a guy does. Another thing that bothers me--a guy sleeps with a random girl, he feels good about himself, but suddenly, he doesn't respect her. I hate the double standard inherent in that.

That being said, I wonder if there's a sociological difference between girls who sleep with guys (or girls, whatever floats your boat) because they want to, or girls who sleep with whoever because they think the other person wants it.

Jordyn said...

Alright, I guess this is only tangentially related, but all I could think about while reading this post was a line in my WIP where the main character, talking about another girl, says something about her "slutty clothes." It's not something said out loud and she doesn't like the girl for other reasons, but maybe that's part of it... I think when girls don't like other girls the way they insult them is by calling them "sluts" and it might not have anything to do with their actual sexual activity.

I don't know. Just a thought.

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Slut is a word not in my vocabulary. I'm with you here--its incredibly damaging in so many ways, and sometimes I think I'm still working out the issues I developed when I was named "Biggest Whore" on a school poll in middle school--way before I even kissed a guy. It changed the way I dressed and held myself completely. Girls have a right to do what they feel comfortable doing and wear what they feel comfortable wearing and shouldn't have to be worried about acquiring a label that honestly by the end of the day, means nothing, but is seriously hurtful nonetheless.

Kelley said...

I could be way off, but something I've noticed is that while guys aren't called out on their promiscuity, they're instead called out on their sexuality. In high school, if a girl didn't like a girl, it was "she's such a slut/whore/tramp." If a guy didn't like another guy, it was immediately, "You're such a fag/queer." They aim for where it hurts, I guess.

Anyway, fascinating post. And it'll definitely make me think twice before using these kinds of comments in my own writing! I agree that girls (and boys) should be taught to wait until they're ready, but not for these reasons.

Sophia Richardson said...

I agree with Casey that it seems like nowadays it's more likely to be women/girls badmouthing each other and FBF raises a good point about the double standard regarding one night stands for guys and girls. I've never heard of a guy worrying afterwards about loss of respect, like Western culture still believes that whole 'why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?' as if all a girl has to offer is her sexuality. This might tie in with Shut Out because it's that kind of rationale -- all women have to offer is sex -- that leads to a culture where withholding sex is one of the few places women have more power than men, because everyone knows a man doesn't have to rely on his attitude toward sex to show he's an upstanding guy.

You write such insightful and inspiring posts, Kody, I just wrote and scheduled a longer version of this comment as a blog post because you got me so fired up.
- Sophia.

Lucy V Morgan said...

This is a great post. I think girly magazines are to blame, partly. They stigmatise desire because they simply don't talk about it (I'm talking about mags marketed towards tweens and teenagers, rather than Cosmo). All the emphasis on sex is about "being ready emotionally" and all the bad experiences cited are girls who were with boys they didn't know so well. While there is technically sense in that advice, ignoring the fact that having sex out of physical enjoyment is valid does suggest that it's negative.

All the mags say, "don't sleep with somebody just because he wants you to," or "because all your friends are doing it." It's patronising -- we already know these things are wrong. Where's the counsel as to how to cope with raging teenage desire? Absent. And labelled "slutty."

The Romance Bookie said...

I have thought about this topic MANY times. Kody, it sounds like you and I had a lot in common in high school, I definitely didn't know the real things about sex, relationships, except from the books I read and my mom. But I did notice the sex talks around me in school... and I do admit that sometimes I would call a girl a slut; however, to be fair I did think a couple of guys were sluts too. However, looking back and even at the time, I realized/realize how wrong it was of me to say those things. I had a friend who some would call promiscuous, but one of the reasons she called me her best friend, was because I wouldn't call her things like 'slut' and 'whore'. I do admit sometimes though I did think them, especially when she would cancel on me to go hook-up with some random guy to get some booze. It bugged me.

However, thinking to the times I would say those words, and even others, as well as hearing what others said, they are all used as weapons to cover up how people feel on the inside. Sometimes, when I would call some of these girls, in high school, "sluts" and "whores" it was because I either didn't like them (because they weren't very nice people) or because I wished that a guy would look at me like that; I mean, I am definitely not saying that I would have put out, but just to have a guy look at you like he desires you, I always imagined that to be a great feeling.

Of course, what also didn't help, was that a lot of the times, these girls who people referred to as "sluts" or "whores" or even "promiscuous" most of the time they were these absolutely gorgeous girls, who had a lot of guys chasing them. I believe, at least threw the experience I've had, that calling someone names comes from jealousy.

Looking back, I really feel bad about some of the things I said, but everyone makes mistakes in life...especially in high school. It probably didn't help matters much that I didn't particularly like high school, but many people had the same thing happen to them. Since then, like you, and some of the other girls here, I have tried not using that word, and I have been good at not saying it out loud; however, there are still those few moments in life, where that word slips into my mind, when I hear about random girls speaking loudly around school where they talk about some random hook-up they had over the weekend, and that they didn't know his name. I realize that somehow, these name callings come from jealousy, but sometimes I just can't control the thoughts that go through my head.

I hope this made sense...

Samantha Manzella said...

I haven't had any personal experience with sex in my life, other than movies and books and health class, but I agree with you: it strikes me as really thoughtless when people use the words "slut" and "whore" so nonchalantly. It seems as though those words have almost lost their meaning; I know plenty of people who use them with their friends in a joking matter. But I think that, just like calling something "gay" to mean "stupid", misunderstanding is responsible. Society has always condemned a young girl having sex before marriage, just as many a conservative person condemns gays. It truly bothers me that people could be so ignorant, allowing a words that can have so much sting into their every day vocabulary with ease. Yet, of course, when the words are used in a startlingly common matter, they become a habit that's hard to break.

That was a bit rambley. Sorry. I've just been thinking a lot about what society deems to be "bad", as I'm doing the Day Of Silence at my school as a complete gay-rights supporter and have put up with a lot of garbage for it. :/

Britany Clarke said...

Personally, I have this theory about words like "slut" and "whore." I think they were invented by some bitter, lonely, old guy a really long time ago as a way to get back at women.

I strongly dislike these words. No matter what a woman does, I don't think she should be called a "slut" or a "whore". These words are degrading to all women. It especially bothers me when women call women these names. In my opinion, if we call each other this, it makes it okay for men to call us this. It creates a pattern that never ends. This pattern effect young girls and their sexuality. I think it needs to be stopped.

I really love how you bring up topics like these on your blog, Kody. They bring awareness.

Jolene Perry said...

I think that teens are all at that age where they're more likely to be swayed by name calling, trends, music... you name it.
Now let me backpedal and say that this isn't always a bad thing, it's a time when we all were finding our identity and we have to try a few things on maybe before we know where we fit.
I teach high school and I know many kids who have their heads on straighter than some of the teachers.
Any type of labeling is going to hurt someone - the problem is that the kids using it know this and will continue to do it for that purpose. Well, and I really shouldn't limit that to just kids.
You've definitely given us all something to think about.

Milena March said...

I think this is a serious issue. I agree with your stance on using the word 'slut'. I've been avoiding it since high school. It's very sad that most of the 'slut labelling' actually comes from other women - so much for solidarity! I think if other women label somebody it's perceived as ‘OK’ if men do it too. And as for the double standard, it's a thing you see every day, a relic left over from medieval and ancient society which, for the most part, the only thing we can do is find ways of dealing with until it's eradicated from our social consciousness - if it ever is. I live in hope, for the most part. I think it’s really good that you are tacking issues like these in your fiction. When a reader is addressed by a writer who is roughly their age, and understands the sorts of problems they encounter in everyday life, the writer’s message can really hit home.

Anonymous said...

When I was called a slut by a girl I barely knew for messing around with a guy (over three years ago) that she currently had a crush on, I sent her this reply: "Which is worse: the fact that I had some thoughtless sex with this guy when I was a freshman, or the fact that this guy gossips like a little old 90-year-old woman? Should you finally land him, maybe you ought to worry about whether or not he'll say the same things about you when things go sour."

Then I promptly blocked both of them, both metaphorically and online. I have no patience for the blind idiocy it takes for a woman who is herself sexually active to call another woman a slut.

Anonymous said...

Something that really bothers me is "Other Woman-Shaming." (Such as in the Taylor Swift song.) Unless a girl slips date-rape drug into a guy's drink, I don't understand how she is "stealing" him from anyone. Last time I checked, men are capable of making their own sexual and romantic decisions, and if your boyfriend leaves you for another girl, you should be mad at him, not her.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so much concerned with the name-calling than the activity itself. The society has taken such a downward spiral; sexual activity has been downgraded in the media and otherwise as just another activity to do--nothing special or sacred, just give up the most personal part of yourself and keep it moving.

I think the way young woman (and men) are encouraged to indulge in such behavior is the real pity. I hear a lot of boys call girls, sluts, ho, smuts etc and it's awful, but if you open yourself up (quite literally)that is a possible consequence. I know I hold an old-fashioned view, but I believe it's probably a healthier one.

Granting boys/men less sexual access would probably increase womens value and make guys less likely to blow girls off and dismiss them while they move on the the next unexplored vessel; all the while, percieving the young ladies with disdain.

Thanks for the post. It raised important issues.

Nicole L Rivera said...

I'm reading D.U.F.F. for the first time now (love, btw) and I totally agree. I think labels in any case should be avoided. Who are we to judge others and pigeonhole them into a particular role? I think most will agree we are way too complicated to fit just one label and that none of us are perfect.

Great post! Thanks for putting this out there.

Debra D. said...

I. LOVE. YOU. AND. THIS. POST.

<33333

That is all.

Heike Domine said...

Kody, it really upsets me that you get the right idea going here re: not labeling sexually active young women as sluts, and I agree with a lot of your readers that "slut" is simply too horrific a term to be used.

Then why in the world does the jacket of your book The DUFF call the main male character a man-slut? Is it okay because he's a boy? Because he does sleep around? No, it's not, and it's especially not okay because using the term "man-slut" still manages to give men preferential double-standard treatment in the labeling game. I wonder what your thoughts are.

Anonymous said...

I dont think its really a good thing to call someone a slut especially if you dont know them well but saying that kinda makes me a hypocrite b/c me and my sister and pretty much everyone else in my family call my cousins gf The Skank we dont call her by name and dont really talk to her either b/c they had an affair while he was still married but we dont just blame her either it goes both ways espcially since he's pretty much abadoned his kids.i've gotten some what better about b/c she isnt going anywhere even though she cheats on my cousin but it doesnt really help either taht she doesnt open up and talk cause i dont really care anymore and she does seem ok. But my sister is a whole different story.

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