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Soraya Chemaly

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Slut-Shaming Needs To End Now

Posted: 11/21/11 02:15 PM ET

"Did you see what that girl was wearing?"
"Someone should tell her she looks like a streetwalker."
"She's going to get a reputation if she's not careful."
"What a slut."

Sound familiar? Everyone does it.

It's hard to describe the breadth of what the word "slut" means to people, or to agree on the use, "reclaimation," or abuse of the word.

So, what's slut-shaming?

After reviewing a wide array of gender studies and feminist sites and sources, I came up with the following definition: It's embarrassing, insulting or otherwise denigrating a girl or woman for her real or extrapolated sexual behavior, including for dressing in a sexual way, having sexual feelings and/or exploring and exhibiting them. I know, pretty broad. But perhaps the most useful and meaningful qualifier is the addition of "in a way that you wouldn't do if she was a boy or man." It's the flip side of stud-baiting, which I would describe as pressure on boys to be "play the field." [source of quote?]

As a mother (and former girl), I've seen a lot of girls shaming other girls in this way. They get a whole lot of input that teaches them, from a very early age, that it's OK to do this. When I see slut-shaming firsthand it often comes from parents policing their own children and their children's friends. Every parent of teens occasionally sees their kids or their kids' friends behave in ways that gives them pause or cause concern, but slut-shaming goes beyond that and into the realm of destructive gossip and innuendo and often has real consequences for the girls involved. It's often a girl's first real exposure to gender based double standards. It's illogical and confusing to a girl who's been told she can do anything a boy can do for her whole life until that point. It's particularly egregious in this country, where we teach our kids to assume equality and then effectively turn on them as they become teenagers by enforcing repressive, damaging, antiquated and gendered rules like these. Rules that hurt both girls and boys.

At its core, slut-shaming is an overt and socially acceptable illustration of the misogynistic impulse to control and police female sexuality as it develops in teenage girls. Jessica Valenti's He's a Stud, She's a Sluthttp://www.amazon.com/Other-Double-Standards-Every-Should/dp/1580052452/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1321294653&sr=8-3 will clear up any ambiguity you may have in believing that.

Slut-shaming enforces a sexual double standard in which boys can engage in sexual behavior freely, whereas girls can only do it when it's part of transaction that includes "true" love or marriage. You don't even have to use the word "slut" to be a slut shamer. Next time you talk about, with a wink and a nod, what a "man about town" or "player" a boy is, think about saying the same thing about his sister. I am not saying girls should be "like boys" (whatever that means) or that I think rampant promiscuity is a good thing for teenage boys or girls. I'm saying there should be the same standard of behavior for both.

The rule in our house is that we don't ever call a girl or woman a slut, because it's a code word for a double standard that punishes girls and rewards boys for the exact same behavior. I don't fall into the "reclaiming the word" camp, even though I heartily appreciate the use of the word for Slut Walks.

Teenage girls will experiment with make up and clothes and maybe alcohol and drugs. Like boys, they will take risks and make mistakes as they figure out their place in the world. But they will be held to a much higher public standard. Everything from the amount of eyeliner they wear to the height of their heels is scrutinized for any signs of incipient sluttiness, which could mean they're burdened by a "bad reputation" for making immature, impulsive decisions and trying to sort things out. Kids have to learn limits and rules, and they have to understand the consequences of their actions, but not this way.

And, the consequences of slut shaming for girls who are victims of it, sadly, continue to be significant.

On an individual level, girls who are the victims of this type of bullying can suffer the effects for years. These range from how she perceives herself to how others treat her. Girls who are slut shamed are often harassed and shunned. It's why Phoebe Prince and countless other girls have killed themselves after intense slut shaming bullying.

At a societal level, women continue to be told not to "dress like sluts" or they're inviting rape, which perpetuates the very dangerous myth that the way a woman dresses encourages rape and continues the habit of blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator.

In some countries the same underlying principle of shame and honor manifests itself in radical and violent control of girls, resulting in stoning and death ... a solution that was suggested in a letter to the Editor in a US newspaper this summer.

In any instance, slut-shaming is a subtle and powerful social tool. The way you keep a group (ie. women) oppressed is to divide and conquer. In a world that consistently portrays women as isolated and competitive this is easy to do. Catty, backstabbing women are a pervasive trope in our media and entertainment portrayals of women. They are the highlight of every base reality TV show and the majority of movies that feature more than one woman. It's also a persistent Biblical theme. Our culture revels at making women the tools of their own undoing.

In this manner, slut-shaming is a way that women gain power by participating in a system that denigrates them. It enables girls and women who engage in it aggressively to be and feel more "virtuous" by comparison. It gains them the approval of the reigning powers that be ... insert your hierarchical patriarchal structure here. And, I know. I'm dating myself. Race, class and sexuality all very legitimately compound these issues and are valid concerns. But, I'm sticking to patriarchy because it's simple and evokes a really clear picture of the guys at the top of the heap who get to make and enforce decisions about females, their bodies and their sexuality. Don't you think it strange how every picture of the people making decisions ... oops thought for a split second that this was an article about Congress and reproductive rights? Sorry, that's totally unrelated.

We live in a world that sends massively conflicting messages to boys and girls. It's a place where women are celebrated for dressing like "sluts" to sell, well, everything but they are "shamed" for doing it to protest rape and sexual assault. That's confusing and wrong.

So, if you suspect that you are, indeed, a slut shamer, do what Tina Fey says in "Mean Girls" and stop.

 

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