The first time that I remember being called a “slut,” I was about 10 years old. As an elementary student, I barely understood what the word meant — let alone how it applied to me. A kiss on the cheek was as “sexual” as I had been at that age. I know now that my sexual history had nothing to do with my label. I was an outsider. I preferred the rough & tumble company of the guys to the makeovers & gossip of the girls. I went through a phase of shopping in the boys’ section before coming to terms with my developing body. And I almost always had a boyfriend, although we were little more than best friends who awkwardly hugged in the hallway. In middle school, I embraced the role of the rebel and dated a couple of high school guys. The slut slurs thrived for a few years, but eventually, my purity ring and monogamy put an end to any controversy surrounding me. There were other girls to call a slut; girls who were said to have had an abortion or gotten chlamydia. I was old news.
What is “slut-shaming” and why do we do it?
Slut-shaming is sex-negative behavior that occurs when a person is made to feel shameful or guilty for enjoying sexual activity, participating in sexual activity, or even simply being part of a rumor involving sexual activity.
Many people hold tightly to the misconception that a girl is only called a slut if she “deserves” it, i.e., is sexually promiscuous. It makes people uncomfortable to think about the unrelated & insignificant reasons that slut rumors get started. In reality, these rumors may evolve out of jealousy, anger, peer-pressure, or nothing but plain old meanness. A girl can be targeted for anything, ranging from her appearance (knee-high boots or large breasts) to her real or imagined behavior (public displays of affection or association with certain cliques). Fellow girls often start these rumors in order to feel superior to a girl they dislike. Boys often lie about having sex with a girl simply to prove their manliness. Both genders spread the rumors in order to “fit in” with the crowd while distancing themselves from the girl in question. And adults may ignore the harassment, believing that making an example out of one girl will scare the rest into being chaste.
What damage does slut-shaming cause?
Even if someone is willing to accept that virginal girls are sometimes wrongly accused of being “sluts,” they usually lack sympathy for the girl whose rumors are actually true. This displays a fear of female sexuality, viewing it as something that is inherently wrong. It’s a perfect example of the sexual double standard. A promiscuous male is “just being a boy,” “sowing his oats,” or is praised for being a “stud.” But the idea that a woman could consensually engage in the same sexual activity (and enjoy it) makes people want to punish her.
Slut shaming is harmful to all women. It damages one’s confidence. It can cause isolation from peers and lead to depression. It invites sexual harassment, even rape, from boys who consider her “easy.” It may create a negative association with sex that could last a lifetime. And it perpetuates society’s dichotomy of good girl vs. bad girl, based entirely off our sexual purity — not our achievements.
How do we put a stop to slut-shaming?
Being raised with the idea that sex is shameful, I spent many years judging others (mostly females) by the number of people that they had sex with. Even now, I’ll occasionally catch myself trying to make a friend smile by reassuring her that her crush’s booty-call is a “whore.” Being conscious of slut-shaming does not automatically stop the behavior. It takes effort.
Get into the habit of checking yourself before you comment on someone’s sexuality. (Let’s be honest, it’s rarely appropriate.) Call others out on their slut-shaming — whether they’re male or female, teenager or adult. And if you’re looking for more information on the topic, I highly suggest Leora Tanenbaum’s book, Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.