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Sticks, Stones and #Slanegirl or Why Shaming Girls Is a Blood Sport

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It's sad to think about the first time a young girl, maybe your daughter or another you love, will be called a "bitch" or a "slut" or a "cunt" with malice. Even seeing that word gives some people a physical start. She might respond, if she is young enough, doesn't know what the word means, (or can't fathom why it's being applied to her) with bewilderment.  If she knows enough, and cares, there might be a searing feeling of white heat.  Or, maybe she'll laugh it off, as it settles in.  But, one thing is for sure, you can't be standing there next to her reading out loud from Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, debating the pros and cons of "appropriation," or telling the people doing the name-calling to sod off.

When, during this year's tediously sexist Oscars, The Onion sent a tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis that I won't repeat here in conjunction with her name, but that employed the most difficult of those words, this was my great sadness for her, and all girls. Outraged response in Twitter was swift, and even The Onion realized there was no passing the message off as cutting edge satire.  Writer T.F. Charlton, who responded viscerally as I did, explained the day after, "We all get that this was meant as a joke, that the writer doesn't actually revile Quvenzhané Wallis. I can see that the intent was perhaps to send a message about the vicious scrutiny of girls and women in the public eye...What they did was call a girl a gendered and sexualized slur. What they did was send the message, yet again, that girls and women are open game when it comes to sexual jokes and jokes about our bodies, and that it's extra funny if the target is a very young girl."  Especially a young black girl.  Even within a broader cultural context of women portrayed as a public resource, we have a long history of representing black girls and women as hypersexual and available, part of a traditional justification for the daily rapes necessary to perpetuate race-based domination and slavery.

The Onion
's error was clear cut, because, after all, Wallis is nine. The question is, when exactly does it become ambiguous? When a girl is 10? 12?  I mean, the tweet followed Seth McFarlane's comment linking Wallis and George Clooney sexually. She was in the audience, by the way. A girl doesn't have to be a celebrity to encounter this treatment. By the time a girl is 14 or 15, steeped in our mainstream culture, chances are high that she's already navigated the words "slut" and "bitch" and, maybe even "cunt," which is still often reserved for effect, and grappling with what they mean and what to do with them. How do you make lemonade out of these lemons? While these words might not be part of a household's daily conversation, they are certainly pervasive in popular culture. Adult women have complicated feelings and relationships with these words, that ultimately hinge on our heightened dependence on "respectability," which, in theory, is a kind of armor that keeps us "safe."

There is nothing new about slut-shaming or intrinsically misogynistic language used to silence girls and women. But, at least now we can take these words and this socially sanctioned, hypocritical cruelty and have them make their way all over the world at the speed of light. That we end up with scared girls, sad girls, sick girls, dead girls as a result can only shock the willfully blind or the ignorantly sexist.  And, just to be sure, when the shaming and the name-calling happen, whether in school halls, or for the whole world to see, targeted girls are just examples for other girls.  Because who wants to end up like Amanda Todd, Raetah Parsons, Lizzy Seeberg, Audrie Potts, Felicia Garcia, Rachel Emke, Steubenville's Jane Doe, the Torrington girls, or the 17-year-old #Slanegirl?

Know her? Because last weekend, thousands and thousands of people shared and "liked" photos of her fellating a man at an Eminem concert outside of Slane Castle in Ireland (a second incident involving another man surfaced).  At one point, a YouTube video (later removed by the company) showed her surrounded by up to eight men, jeering and pushing her as she kissed one of them. During the concert, for reasons not clear, the girl sought medical attention. She was later hospitalized and sedated.  The police are also now investigating a sexual assault incident as a "matter of concern." No one knows what happened leading up to acts of public sex. But, we all know what happened after that act was photographed and shared.  All the major social networks are removing any images and suspending users who posted them and the police are trying to find the original poster.

As Caroline Linton described it in a Daily Beast article, "The image and hashtag #Slanegirl came attached with comments such as "slut," "ho," "disgusting," "am I supposed to feel sorry for #Slaneslut? She deservers everything she gets... #Slanegirl and #Slaneslut trended worldwide, and early posters allegedly were able to track her identity via social networks." Comments like "Slanegirl will suck anything" were mild.  BTW, everyone sharing the images transmitted child porn. Which is illegal.

#Slaneboy? He and his John Thomas just happened to be standing there, boys being boys and all that.  In one well-circulated and frequently admired picture he is, smirking, holding his arms up in a victory pose, while the girl remains knee height.  Dude, way to go. As Helen McBride points out, Lad Culture 101. No letters to him.  Although, mercifully, #slanegirlsolidarity quickly surfaced.  But, as Sarah Ditum noted earlier this week, "Women who asked why the boy didn't get the same judgment have been called man haters, told they need to raped or threatened with a 'kick in the flaps.'  A culture that hates women for having sex is one that simply hates women, and that is the grotty truth photographed at Slane."

It's hard to "unslut" a girl.  Emily Linden, who recently launched The Unslut Project with the publication of her middle-school diary, is doing her best to do help girls bullied this way, however. She was 12 when she first experienced a more common, everyday, middle-school slut shaming.  She's also started a Kickstarter to raise funds for a documentary. A big part of Linden's project is removing the stigma of being publicly shamed, and she's asked girls and women to share their stories. Like these:

"I had people one, two, three and even four years older than me passing me in the hallway calling me 'slut' or 'whore'. This went on for months. The thing I kept thinking through all of this was, okay, I didn't, but what if I had? Would it really matter? Would it make any difference in these people's lives if I did?"

My best friend was called "whore" and "fat shit" by several other people simply because she had had a crush on a popular guy who rejected her when he found out. Instead of being a gentleman and letting it go, he spread it around that she liked him, called her a whore, and MADE people call her a whore.

My harassment began in the 6th grade. Incessantly taunted not only for being a "slut" (though even currently I've never had any close contact with a boy) but also a "homo," "faggot," and "lesbian bitch" because of my short hair, my self-esteem endured a hard plummet. I was admitted into a governmental health facility for emotional rehabilitation that included therapy sessions and medication. An additional result of bullying, I also developed a dietary disorder.

Because I was labeled a slut, they assumed I was up for anything. I had never even talked to boys before. At a party they locked me in a closet with an older boy who grabbed my breasts and put his hands down my trousers. When they let me out they all laughed and chanted slut. I was 13.

Had enough, because this is nothing, it happens everyday. "Social media, and particularly the easy sharing of graphic photographs, has brought a new and devastating dimension to slut-shaming," says Sandy Garossino, one of the founders of Red Hood Project, which was started to advocate for online child safety after the death of Amanda Todd. "The catastrophic harm of slut-shaming spreads far beyond the victim herself, damaging the emotional health of young people just forming their impression of healthy sexuality. Linden is part of a growing movement dedicated to changing this culture.

Generally speaking, the same people, schools, religious cultures and media that insist on "boys being boys" are those ones ultimately responsible for the deaths of Carolina Picchio, Felicia Garcia, Raetah Parsons, Lizzy Seeberg, Audrie Potts, Rachel Emke, Gabrielle Molina,  and countless others whose faces don't meet social media demographics, but who nonetheless are similarly treated.

To be clear, this isn't about boys and men targeting girls and women. Girls and women participate fully. This internalization of contempt for girls and policing of women is part of the actual textbook definition of misogyny.  That's why this isn't about the person who is being shamed, but about the people doing the shaming and the institutions that teach them to do it. Children, as young as 10,11, 12 years old are aping adult authority, repeating sexist media tropes, and gleaning social sanction from institutions they're immersed in.

I mean, really, think about how early this starts: when my daughter was four, hot and sweaty on a beach, I took her tee shirt off and left her bathing suit bottom on. A total stranger politely castigated me for her public "nudity," while this person's son stood next to her, topless and cool, and physically identical.  That's sexualization, shaming and public contempt. This encounter did not end as she probably expected it to.

It is entirely possible to change this.  Last year, two girls in Sweden thought it would be fun to set up a 'Sluts of Gothenburg' Instagram account targeting 13 and 14 year olds and asking who "the biggest sluts" are. Teenagers there rioted in protest.  The two girls have been fined fifty-five thousand pounds and assigned community service. They rioted. Here?

As Emily Linden wrote this week, "Though it's certainly worth looking into, what might have led to [#slanegirl's] behavior is a question that pales in importance next to that of what might have led to 1) the behavior of the men who publicly received fellatio from a minor 2) the behavior of the person who took the photos and posted them online and 3) the behavior of those Internet users - hundreds of thousands of people all over the world - who are still participating in the public shaming of a minor."

"Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me," has to be one of the most patently false platitudes ever uttered. The everyday casual uses of these words are "harmless" micro aggressions in a macro aggressive culture that has contempt for female humans. The only thing you can do for your own daughter is to make sure she know, as early as possible, that when it happens it has absolutely nothing to do with her, or her sister, or her best friend -- and everything to do with the person doing the speaking and the gendered dynamics of power in the world we live in. People need to understand that their double standards hurt people. And sometimes, they kill them.

This post has been updated since its original publication.