Sign up for our free newsletter
Leora Tanenbaum was a nice Jewish girl who, after an hour of uninhibited teenage sexual experimentation, found herself saddled for the entirety of high school with an unfortunate (and clearly damaging) reputation as a slut. A decade later, Tanenbaum, now a freelance journalist in New York, wrote about her experience with whispers and tears, self-imposed chastity and humiliation, for Seventeen magazine. Seventeen’s readers so related to the piece that Tanenbaum decided to expand her original article into a book. Part confessional, part academic treatise, Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation lays bare the uncharted territory of “slut-bashing,” an issue, Tanenbaum claims, “that affects every single female who grows up in this country because any preteen or teenage girl can become a target.”
Tanenbaum’s crusade against slut-bashing is a weaving of three parts: oral testimony gleaned from 50 women aged 14 to 66 who were targeted as sluts in junior high and high school; a short history of sexual stereotyping and harassment in the United States (primarily through the second half of this century); and a rereading of secondary sources, polls and studies conducted by sociologists on attitudes toward women and sex. Beginning with the results of a 1993 poll conducted by the American Association of University Women that concluded 42 percent of American girls in eighth through 11th grade had had “sexual rumors” spread about them, Tanenbaum set out to understand how these rumors are perpetuated.
Intimate personal stories of slut-bashing form the solid and engaging core of the book. This oral history of women and sexual harassment in schools paints a grim picture of an American high school that has changed little from the 1950s until today. “No one actually said the word slut out loud,” Louise Desalvo tells Tanenbaum of high school in the ’50s, once her classmates suspected she was sexually active, “but I felt humiliated. There was a kind of social exclusion, a kind of mockery of me.” Desalvo was fooling around, she explains, but so were many of her fellow students. “There was a hell of a lot of lying and fraudulence that went on in the gossip about who was doing it and who wasn’t…” she recalls.
Like Desalvo, Laura Krupilski went through puberty early—developing both a chest and a reputation. At her high school, in the mid-’80s, Krupilski reports, long before she was ever sexually active, the “girls were vicious” to her. “A lot of what I heard about me was secondhand,” she says: “‘That bitch’ or ‘That slut, what does she think she’s doing?’”
Tanenbaum uses these stories well, creating quick portraits of the sexualized girls as social outcasts—and of the bewildering years of exclusion that were often the result of the process. The only upside, she finds, is that all of her “sluts” eventually found freedom in their labeling. Each discovered that her outsider status accorded them mobility (often sexually, but not always) that other girls, still trapped by social convention, were denied.
But the freedom of ostracization was rarely appreciated until long after the sting of rejection had worn away. Tanenbaum argues that the very construction of the “slut,” and the presence of that kind of pathologized (even mythologized) female sexual figure, is emblematic of a flaw in modern society that continues into the work and social arenas of adults. That is, the majority of women and girls continue to be trapped in the Madonna/whore dichotomy, despite the best efforts of sassy exceptions like Sex and the City.
The author is at her best when she challenges the construction of sexual identity: “How,” she asks, “do you contest [the label] slut without critiquing what it means to be a slut?” Tanenbaum’s most effective analysis comes when she investigates the “othering” of girls through the label of slut. In two cases—the “raped girl” and the “lower class girl”—Tanenbaum finds the stamp of “slut” may be thrown about so that other girls and classmates can effectively distance themselves from that which they fear. Refreshingly, Tanenbaum is not above accusing girls and women of slut-bashing. She points out that, in fact, girls perpetuate and sometimes create the worst environments for other girls as a way of elevating their own social status or placing the victim in a category so different from themselves as to be incomparable. With rape victims—and Tanenbaum interviewed quite a few victims of rape, date rape, and gang rape—other girls often disbelieve the horrific stories of the victims or support the rapist’s (or rapists’) version of events so as to reassure themselves that there was a “good reason” one girl was a victim. It is, Tanenbaum points out, easier to believe in reason behind such a random, unreasonable event in order to maintain the illusion of control over the situation.
In story after frightening story, it seems, a disproportionate number of girls who ended up with the label “slut” were raped or sexually assaulted in some way, and the victim’s peers tried to order their world by ostracizing and labeling the girl a “slut.” In Tanenbaum’s analysis, the process of constructing that which is “normal”—for girls, for female sexuality—is almost interchangeable with a puritanical (and often hypocritical) definition of “moral.”
The creation of boundaries between “normal” and “deviant” forms of sexuality in late-20th-century American high schools mimics efforts to control women in public space throughout history, Tanenbaum argues; modern feminist historiography and theory inform her work. (She “discovered” feminism and critical thinking, she explains, at Brown University.) But though Tanenbaum situates her subjects within the history of American sexuality in the 20th century, she misses an important opportunity to expound on what her subject matter means in a larger context. The creation of the sexualized and/or raped girl as social outcast continues a trend that began long before this century. The modern embracing of this identity as a form of revolution—Tanenbaum’s commentary on the mobility accorded by the label—is in and of itself worthy of further investigation. If it is so ultimately freeing, why then protest the label?
Important points like these make Tanenbaum’s simplistic core argument a disappointment. A sexual double standard, she argues again and again, continues to exist for boys and girls/men and women in both the teen and adult worlds. Did anyone think it didn’t? I wanted Tanenbaum to go further here, leave behind Women Studies 101 and strike out on her own. Instead, she brings us: Boys are allowed sexual license their female counterparts are not. Girls and boys may be doing the same things, but boys can get away with it. Girls are held to an unrealistic model of purity. OK, but why hasn’t feminism, in all its various incarnations, toppled this model? That is the more significant, and disturbing, point here.
Tanenbaum is well aware that her “discoveries” are hardly revelations (“Slut bashing,” she says, “is evidence of a sexual double standard that should have been eliminated decades ago…”). And she illustrates well how the sexual double standard has remained pervasive in modern society, bringing in stories of both personal woe (the women she interviewed) and urban atrocities the media have brought to our attention (the Glen Ridge Rape case, for example, wherein four “star” athletes raped a girl with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, and the town rallied behind the boys). But she doesn’t push past rehashing tired arguments left over from consciousness-raising seminars.
Bogged down in a sea of endless, if individually interesting, examples from the media (Monica is not forgotten here), Tanenbaum loses her focus in a sprinkling of platitudes that undermine the efficacy of her argument. Consider this passage: “Many jocks in particular share the macho belief that nothing matters more than scoring, on the playing field and in the bedroom. These boys may use the word ‘bitch’ as a synonym for ‘girl’…Ten years down the road, some of these boys no doubt will be sexually harassing their female colleagues.” It’s in instances such as this that Slut! falls victim to difficult-to-support generalizations that dilute Tanenbaum’s other, better-argued, points.
To create a more perfect world, Tanenbaum would like formal complaints and lawsuits against sexual harassment and slut-bashing in high school to be acceptable—and workable—alternatives to silent suffering. She worries that fear of the “slut” label prevents some girls from carrying contraception—putting themselves in danger of pregnancy or STDs—and leads them into situations where they fear both saying no and saying yes. She advocates that teens start “women’s empowerment clubs,” open dialogue between parents and daughters, and join in a mass social rejection of labeling. “As long as being a ‘good’ girl means being asexual,” writes Tanenbaum, “the slut label will thrive. Honest sex education—which discusses female desire rather than false and scary scenarios about ‘bad’ girls who go too far—is a prerequisite for eliminating the word slut from our vocabulary.” Tanenbaum’s recommendations make sense, but it would take a strong lobbying team to combat the conservative opposition that would surely try to defeat any school board that tried to implement such a curriculum.
Maybe embracing the word “slut”—reclaiming it and re-visioning society without sexual manipulation—is the next step. It’s a moment that seems, unfortunately, far beyond Y2K. CP