THE BLOG
11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The "Slut List" as Badge of Honor: Breaking News?

This week, New Jersey's Millburn High School found itself at the center of a media storm over a hazing incident. A group of senior girls apparently publish an annual "slut list" of incoming freshmen, which is followed by intimidation and assaults. The New York Times has covered the story generously. Today, in its supposedly analytical "Week in Review" section, the paper proudly introduces the insight that it may be a "badge of honor" to be called a slut.

Is this really headline news? Girls have been making hay out of their own sexual objectification for a while now. The assumption that all girls would find their presence on a "slut list" disappointing stems from a knee-jerk belief that girls are victims, especially where sexuality is concerned.

The truth is much more complicated. First of all, girls are voracious consumers of a media culture that teaches them to compete for attention at any cost. This is not just the "me" culture; it's the "click on me" culture. And it's not just any attention girls are taught to want; it's male and sexual. "Obviously," my 18 year-old intern Blaine wrote in a letter this summer, "girls want to be liked by as many guys as possible." This isn't the case for all girls, of course, but there is undeniable pressure to seek male attention, making even the most resistant girls vulnerable to unfortunate social realities.

Girls are hardly passive in the drive to be recognized as sexually powerful. Take sexting. We're big on portraying girls as ignorant victims of their own myopic adolescent outlook (I count myself just as responsible with my constant trilling, Girls, don't you understand there's no such thing as privacy online!). But plenty of them know full well what they're doing when they press the send button.

"When a girl sends a picture and receives a 'Wow, that was so hot' response, it increases confidence and induces a false sense of worthiness," Blaine wrote to me. "If a guy wants to see a picture of her naked, he obviously finds her worthy of his time, attention, and affection."

The photograph replaces old-fashioned flirtation, but it's also a rush of power for the sender. The attention is thrilling, and it places control squarely in her hands -- for the moment, anyway.

Not to mention that sexting, despite its risk of mass exposure, is actually safer than the real sex girls are taught to feel so much anxiety about: it's a no strings attached dalliance that carries no immediate risk of sexual pressure or assault. Again, more power for the sexter.

Back to Millburn. Because the media is largely watching this incident through a lens of "mean girl" power, it's easy to reduce this to a hazing incident. And it is that, to be sure. But what we're also seeing here is the dangerous confusion girls are developing around their sexuality and bodies.

Sexual self-confidence in girls makes our culture deeply uncomfortable. As Jessica Valenti points out in her important book, The Purity Myth, the unreasonable pressure girls face to be passive, pure (and uninformed) virgins is setting girls up to aspire to the hypersexualized images they see around them. And in the absence of reasonable sex education that might connect girls to their authentic sexuality, the media offers its own brand of sex education.

Enter what Ariel Levy calls "raunch culture," the sexual objectification of girls and women rebranded as personal power. As she explains in Female Chauvinist Pigs, feminism's original intent to define sexual self-awareness as a form of liberation was grossly distorted. Now, sexual objectification -- whether being on a slut list or flashing your breasts on a "Girls Gone Wild" video -- is seen (by some) as a new kind of girl power.

As a result, we see girls using sex to police each other ("You're a slut"), and using sex for power ("I'm a slut"): that's why the weapon in this situation -- sexual notoriety -- is also the reward.

This episode offers Millburn High School a chance to talk with girls about more than just bullying and power. As one of their past parent education speakers, I'd suggest asking female students some of these questions:
  • Explain how being called a "slut" can be a put down, and how it can also be a sign of power. Is there a difference in your definitions of "slut as put down" and "slut as power?" Or: how is it possible for the term "slut" to be both a put down and a sign that you have status? What is your opinion about this?
  • Do you see signs of the "powerful slut" in our culture? Does this influence how girls act? Does it affect how girls treat and judge each other? Discuss.
  • Does sexting allow girls to become powerful sexually?
  • Do girls use the term "slut" to call out other girls for sexual behavior, or does it mean something more? How is the word "slut" used to police girls' behavior in general? What does the word "slut" have to do cultural rules about how girls should look and act?
PS: Another thing that's missing here is the fact that girls use the term "slut" to designate much more than sexual misbehavior. It's often used to pathologize outspoken or otherwise threatening girls. For more on this, see Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation by Leora Tannenbaum.

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