When it comes to the topic of slut-bashing--when a girl is harassed by classmates because she is believed to be a "slut"--there always has been a lot of harsh judgment. Ten years ago, when I wrote a book about it, I noticed that most people have a compulsive urge to divide so-called sluts into the categories of innocent and guilty.
The thinking went like this: girls labeled "sluts" who are sexually innocent do not deserve to be mistreated, while other girls are guilty of the crime of having been sexual and therefore deserve to be bullied. According to this logic, only those who are innocent and "good" are worthy of our empathy. The rest of them? Who cares--they're "sluts"!
The judgments are even more caustic in today's world of "sexting" (sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically). A "good" girl, many argue, would never take a photo of herself naked and certainly would never email it to anyone. Therefore, if a girl engages in "sexting" and then becomes known as a "slut"-- because the boy to whom she sent her message or photo forwarded it to his friends, who forwarded it to their friends, who posted it on a site where everyone can see it--she has caused her own social demise and has only herself to blame. If walking down the hallway or entering the cafeteria at school becomes a living hell because everyone is calling her names and treating her like a pariah, well, it's a valuable lesson she clearly needs.
But does she really deserve to be punished in this way? Last June, whenever Hope Witsell, a thirteen-year-old from rural Florida, walked into a classroom, someone invariably said, "Oh, here comes the slut." No matter where she tried to hide at Beth Shields Middle School, kids taunted her. Turns out that Witsell had sent a photo of herself topless to a boy she liked. Another girl borrowed the boy's phone, found the photo, and forwarded it to some friends, and before you could say "sexual double standard," everyone at school--even kids who went to a neighboring school--had seen it.
A student advisor for the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) who went to church every Sunday with her parents and enjoyed fishing with her father, Witsell wrote in her diary that, "Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can't be a whore I'm too inexperienced. So secretly TONS of people hate me..."
Two weeks into the summer vacation, the school administration learned about the photo and suspended Witsell for one week in September. Her parents took away her cell phone and grounded her for the summer, but they permitted her to attend an FFA convention in Orlando. Several older boys were staying at the same hotel, met her at the pool, and called her room repeatedly to ask her for a photo of her breasts. According to a friend who was in the room, Witsell was scared of the boys and took the picture to get them to stop bothering her. An adult found the photo and as a result, her school decided not to allow her to run for student advisor this year.
When school started up again, so did the bullying. Witsell met with a school social worker, who noticed cuts on her leg and had her sign a "no-harm" contract in which she agreed to talk to an adult if she felt the desire to hurt herself. But the school did not call the parents.
On September 12, Witsell's mother went to kiss her daughter goodnight, and was startled to see that she was standing with her head lowered. She took a closer look and discovered that Witsell had hanged herself to death with a pink scarf tied to the canopy of her bed. The "no-harm" contract lay in the trash can.
In his excellent exposé, Andrew Meacham of the St. Petersburg Times recounts how Beth Shields Middle School botched up big-time. The school did not take any action against any of the students who forwarded the photo of Witsell or brazenly humiliated her. Instead of being understanding, the school was relentlessly punitive.
We all need to be understanding, not punitive. It's true that Witsell initiated the chain of events that led to her reputation. She did a profoundly stupid thing. And she did it twice--doubly stupid. But she was thirteen. How can you be thirteen and not do something stupid, perhaps even twice?
Witsell is the second girl to commit suicide in reaction to slut-bashing at school that was initiated after a "sexting" incident. Last year in Cincinnati, an eighteen-year-old girl named Jessica Logan also hanged herself. She had sent a photo of herself nude to a boyfriend and after they broke up, he forwarded it to other girls.
According to an Associated Press-MTV poll, a quarter of teenagers and a third of young adults have been involved in "sexting." Ten percent say that they have sent naked pictures of themselves on their cell phone or online. Several years ago at the private Horace Mann School in New York City, a girl sent a digital video of herself masturbating to a male classmate she liked, and it ended up on a file-sharing network that millions could access. (Sometimes students quaintly use tried-and-true bullying methods. At Millburn High, a top-ranked public school in New Jersey, every September the senior girls create a "slut" list of incoming freshman--using a piece of notebook paper.)
Girls take their shirts off, or more, for their cell phone camera for several reasons. They are not mature enough to foresee the consequences. They don't realize that our technologically connected world is monstrously devoid of privacy. Crucially, they get the idea that taking a picture of their naked breasts is empowering and a legitimate way to get attention. This is not an unreasonable conclusion, given the circumstances. Mother-and-daughter pole dancing is considered a legitimate form of familial bonding and otherwise-sensible women leave their homes wearing clothes that resemble costumes from a tacky porn set. And how did Paris Hilton get famous again? Oh yes--there was that sex tape.
At the same time, there is also a bizarre prudery. Two years ago, three juniors at a public high school in suburban New York were suspended for using the word "vagina" during a reading of "The Vagina Monologues." If you were a 13-year-old girl, wouldn't you be confused?
As the sad, sad story of Hope Witsell shows, there shouldn't be any distinction made between those who deserve a bad reputation and those who don't. No girl deserves to be called a "slut." After all, when was the last time a sexually active boy was punished by his school or harassed by his peers? Dividing "sluts" into the innocent and guilty reinforces the idea that male sexuality is normal while female sexuality is deviant at worst, defiant at best. Look what happens when this thinking is taken to its extreme.
Follow Leora Tanenbaum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LeoraTanenbaum