Teenage Girls and the Problem of Slut-Shaming

Many of our daughters were wild and wily creatures once. They boldly exclaimed their desires, their opinions, and their dreams. They danced easily and sang or read aloud before groups of adults, eager for our praise and anxious for our attention. They appeared happy in their bodies and excited by what they could do with them. We frequently heard them announce, "Watch this!" and "Look at me!" During puberty, though, something began to change. At around eleven or twelve years old, our bright shining daughters grew quieter. They worried about their appearance. They fretted they weren’t enough-good enough, smart enough, pretty enough. They were still sometimes easily excited and charged with energy, but it was rarer to see them fully carefree, abandoned with giddy happiness. They grew into more timid, uncertain people. Sometimes it felt as if our daughters had been abducted by strange hormonal aliens, and we wondered if we might ever see them again.

So What is Slut-Shaming Exactly?

Slut-shaming is the act of disparaging a woman or girl for her sexual behavior or on the basis of rumors about her sexual behavior-including dressing in clothing thought to be provocative, wearing "too much" make-up, having had several boyfriends, or for speaking suggestively or expressing her sexual desires. A girl does not have to be sexually active to be called a "slut." The term has saturated the cultural lexicon to such a degree that it can be used to insult a girl for any reason, even ones wholly unrelated to sex. A feature specific to slut-shaming (and part of what makes it so damaging for women and girls) is that the same behaviors or rumors which illicit shaming behavior toward girls illicit congratulations for boys.

Slut-shaming is used not only to insult or disparage women and girls, but to police their appearance and behavior. If girls fear being called a "slut," they are less likely to speak frankly of their sexual desires or experiences and are more likely to feel shame about them. This is harmful to both girls and boys in our culture. The degree of shaming and policing of girls’ sexualities can and does harm their ability to relate to boys and affects the kinds of relationships they will have.

The Cultural Impact of Promoting a Feminine Ideal

It’s no wonder that adolescence changes our daughters so much. Around the time they begin to replace us with other, more intensely yearned for objects of affection, the messages they receive about how to successfully approach being a girl-and how exactly to woo boys-get confusing. Our culture teaches girls they must be good; they should be pleasing to others. They are drowned in impossibly idealized images and demands regarding what to be and how to look-saturated in media; from churches, synagogues, and mosques; and from within communities, schools, and their families. Girls are taught to believe there is an ideal of femininity and are encouraged to believe that physical beauty is of primary importance. To be beautiful you must be thin, feminine, and sexy. But never too sexy. Our daughters are urged to believe they will be rewarded if they are alluring enough, but soon learn they will be punished if they are too alluring.

Any girl who wears make-up, who dresses in body-conforming clothing, who practices being feminine and pleasing and sexy will be rewarded. She will earn the attention of boys-lots of attention. But if she goes too far, or not far enough; if someone becomes jealous or angry with her; or if she actually begins to make sexual choices about her own body, then her burgeoning sexual identity will be used against her. She will be called "slut" and every slang-worthy derivation of the term. She may even begin to call other girls these words in retaliation.

There is no word equivalent to "slut" used to punish boys for sexual behaviors or the rumor of sexual behaviors. Instead, boys are rewarded if lots of girls appear to be interested in them, for making sexual choices for themselves, and especially for being sexual. Teenage boys are encouraged to be sexual by their culture and their peers, if not directly by their families. Herein lies the double standard: When boys behave sexually, they are congratulated, but when girls behave in the same ways, they are scorned. Their reputations are ruined; they may become the objects of taunting, bullying, or even usury. If a girl is wearing revealing clothing, if she has too much to drink, talks too openly about sex, or has been sexual in the past, she may be blamed if she is assaulted or raped. She was clearly a slut and so she deserved it.

In many parts of the world today, and at times throughout America’s history, women and girls are imprisoned, brutalized, raped, exiled, or put to death on the accusations of those who would call them by this or similar words. Slut-shaming has been and continues to be an instrument to control women and to rationalize their exclusion or brutalization. For these and other reasons, "slut" and its many synonyms are destructive for girls and for our world.

But What Can I Do?

We all participate in a culture which insists on an ideal of femininity and which punishes women and girls for not living up to that ideal. We can engage our daughters in the dialogue about why this might be, and whether it’s realistic. Buying "women’s magazines," talking negatively about our own bodies, and allowing our daughters to spend too much time in social comparison through social media can be harmful. The aim is not to denigrate any woman’s method of expressing herself or her sexuality. If we want a society which doesn’t blame victims of rape, but rather rapists, and if we want our daughters to grow up in a culture which accepts their choices as much as it does boys’, then we must lead the way by being accepting, strong advocates for them and for ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to show them other examples of strong women. And if we ever hear our daughters call another girl a "slut," then, without harshness or criticism, we should simply ask her why another girl’s body and behavior are of her concern. We can point out the double standard which doesn’t punish boys, and remind our daughters that being committed to the strength and freedom of all women is the only way to ensure their own.

There is still hope.

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