Commentary Media

‘SLUT’ Takes Direct Aim at Stigma About Adolescents’ Sexuality

Eleanor J. Bader

The book opens with 20 first-person narratives by young people who explore the bombardment of conflicting messages about sexuality that continually besiege them. Later in the text, the play mentioned in the anthology's title—also called "SLUT"—provides a case study about the ways slut-shaming impacts those on the receiving end of it.

When I was 14 years old, my mother saw my best friend necking with an unidentified boy. By the time Mom arrived home, she was apoplectic, and barred me from socializing with “that slut” ever again.

Growing up is always hard, as is parsing truth from fiction. In this case, my mother had provided a hands-on lesson in slut-shaming, using a single word to malign and denigrate a young woman I’d befriended in kindergarten. And although the incident happened more than 40 years ago, I’ve never forgotten the sting of the word or the panic I felt when she uttered it.

The sickening thing is that, despite the passage of time, little has changed. Today, thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, slurs about one’s alleged behavior can spread like wildfire among one’s peers, friends, or even family members with just a flick of a finger or click of a mouse. This can be devastating for those who shoulder public condemnation—especially teens. The results, sadly, are sometimes deadly.

SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence, forthcoming in February from the Feminist Press, positions itself as a counter to that stigma by focusing on adolescents as well as those who teach and parent them. The book opens with 20 first-person narratives by people between the ages of 13 and 20 who explore the bombardment of conflicting messages about sexuality that continually besiege them. Later in the text, the play mentioned in the anthology’s title—also called “SLUT”provides something of a case study about the ways slut-shaming impacts those on the receiving end of it. It also spotlights the perpetrators, since they are central to any discussion of this heinous behavior.

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The play was originally created two years ago by the New York City-based Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company in collaboration with high school students from four states. It centers on the experience of one young woman, 16-year-old Joey Del Marco, who was sexually assaulted by two boys she’s known since childhood. SLUT not only examines what happened to this fictional character; it also touches on victim blaming, the role of passive bystanders, and the ways the legal system reinforces sexism and further traumatizes the complainant. It’s a highly charged piece and has been performed numerous times since its 2013 debut.

Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, founders of the Arts Effect and editors of SLUT, note the urgency that underscored the play’s development: “Reputable studies concur that between one in four and one in five women and girls will experience sexual assault,” they write in a chapter entitled “Why Slut? Theater as Activism.” “Eighty-one percent of kids and teens experience sexual harassment during their middle school or high school years. Clearly, it’s time we talk about this.”

Yes, it’s high time, indeed, which is why the Arts Effect has joined with numerous organizations to launch StopSlut, an organizing campaign that, among other things, will bring the play “SLUT” to college campuses throughout the country beginning this spring. The goal? To raise consciousness and ignite conversations about the deleterious impact of sexually loaded hate speech on others, zeroing in on the impact of language castigating them as sluts, whores, hos, or thots, an acronym for That Ho Over There.

The timely release of the book SLUT is not a coincidence; it is intended to help parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, peers, friends, and social workers better aid this growing contingency.

First and foremost, SLUT takes direct aim at slut-shaming. As writer Jennifer Baumgardner explains in the book’s introduction, “Slut-shaming means to degrade women and girl’s sexuality and use it to justify harassment and rape. With slut-shaming, girls are made to feel guilty for their sexuality and punished for their sexual power or their desire for sexual attention … Being called a slut [or doing what they can to avoid being labeled that way] is often a girl’s first experience of being second class.”

Several of the book’s teenage contributors bear this out. Fifteen-year-old Darci, for example, recounts an incident that happened when she was in eighth grade. She had just begun dating a classmate named Nick. “A week after we started going out,” she explains, “I was sitting across from Nick and his friend Jack in the hallway. They were messing around on Nick’s phone and laughing. They saw me watching them and yelled out, ‘Hey! Check your phone.’ My phone started vibrating and texts flowed in from Nick, saying things like, ‘You’re such a little whore, get your tampon out of your ass … You’re a fucking slut.’ I was mortified.”

When a school administrator ran into Darci shortly after she received these messages, the teary-eyed middle schooler revealed what had happened. Nick was subsequently ordered to apologize for his “inappropriate language” and mandated to do several hours of community service. Nonetheless, Darci remained hurt and angry. “No one ever told him why calling me a slut and a whore wasn’t okay,” she writes.

SLUT also scrutinizes school dress codes and the arbitrary way they are used to police female appearance and perpetuate the myth of the temptress who lures unsuspecting boys into her lair. Willa, 16, reports that, in her school, shorts, mini-skirts and crop tops are regulated to keep male students and faculty from becoming aroused. India, another 16-year-old at the same school, notes that she has never seen a boy get disciplined for his attire. Instead, when a young woman is determined to be provocatively dressed, Willa writes, she must change into loose, ill-fitting, “punishment pants,” a response that results in what Willa calls “frustrating social and educational repercussions.”

Another schoolmate, Soren, 16, explains how this works. In her case, she was a ninth-grader when she was singled out. It was near the end of the school day and, because she was tired, she says that she lifted her arms over her head to stretch. “This caused my shirt to come a bit above my belly button (I’m guessing),” she explains. “The teacher proceeded to announce that it was a huge distraction to the class. My innocent freshman self was horrified and embarrassed. I couldn’t even look at the teacher for the rest of the class.”

So much for creating an environment conducive to learning.

This and other indignities are clearly elucidated in SLUT, but the book is more than a simple recitation of gripes. It is also an activist tool. In addition to debate over use of the word slut, including attempts to “reclaim” it —Farah Tanis’ “An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk,” included in the anthology, outlines what she sees as the folly of attempting to re-appropriate the term, especially since “Black women have worked tirelessly since the 19th-century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist and racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, and sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and define what women who look like us represent”—the book is a hands-on manual of tactics and strategies for ending sexual harassment, slut-shaming, and sexual violence.

The protections offered by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 are also laid out in SLUT, so that students, faculty, and administrators can make sure their institutions are in compliance with rules “prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex,” or exclusion because of gender disparities in any program receiving federal money. The channels for lodging complaints are provided. But that’s only the start. A chapter entitled “StopSlut” by editors Cappiello and McInerney urges readers to remove words like slut from our vocabularies altogether and use language that avoids judgment about what people do, or don’t do, with their bodies. At the same time, Cappiello and McInerney condemn attempts to silence survivors of sexual violence, which serve to protect abusers or keep colleagues and family members from speaking out in support of those who have been verbally or physically assaulted. Blogging, they write, can further kick-start discussion and help individuals deconstruct harmful media messaging, including TV news and online porn that adolescents often begin consuming in elementary school. Most importantly, the authors of SLUT urge readers—whether they’re teens or adults who care about them—to “identify offending behavior … Shine a light on the issue even if everyone else is pretending not to see it.”

Obviously, ending slut-shaming and creating a world where everyone is respected poses enormous challenges for educators, parents, and activists. In fact, SLUT makes clear that, to date, efforts to derail sexual violence and increase sexual choice have not done enough to make it easier for kids to talk about bodily autonomy or stay safe. Worse, instances of sexual assault and slut-shaming remain a near-epidemic. On one hand, SLUT exposes how much is left to do; on the other, its concrete suggestions offer valuable help to individuals who have been shamed and suggest a path for the hard work of social transformation.

My mother would have disagreed that any of this is necessary. Her behavior, however, was rife with incidents that prodded me to become a feminist. And lest you were concerned: I did not abandon my friend. To this day we remain close BFFs, no matter whom we chose to kiss or snuggle up to.

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