Slut Shaming: When Teens Adopt Traditional Values

This article was first published on Cliterati.co.uk on 11/12/13.

 

Slut shamed to death. Not just Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Potts but other victims all over the world who we’ll never hear about. Most of the women we do hear about are middle class, cis, white and very young. They usually have caring, confident parents who can publicise their stories, hire lawyers and contact media. But girls whose parents can’t speak English as a first language, who are seen as promiscuous or troubled, whose parents and community don’t value them, whose culture might condone shaming them even more than ours does- who speaks for them when they are raped, bullied, and failed by the authorities? Many girls and women are bullied but don’t reveal what the ‘reason’ for the bullying was. Most don’t kill themselves and so they’ll never make the headlines. Perhaps the saddest thing is that while feminism and even mainstream culture view rape as the worst thing that can happen to women, these girls didn’t kill themselves because they were raped, molested or exploited. They killed themselves because of the bullying and slut shaming. For Rehtaeh- and many others- the slut shaming was worse than the gang rape. Rape isn’t always the worst thing or the fate that is worse than death.

 

 

One of the rapists who attacked Rehtaeh Parsons contacted her mother to tell her he is not a rapist and to ask her to help him as he was being bullied for committing rape. He claimed that he cried when he knew she had killed herself. Either he’s a compulsive liar or he genuinely believes that what he did wasn’t rape. In Scots law a genuine belief that the victim has consented can be used as a defence in rape cases (because mens rea, or intention, is needed for anyone to be convicted of any criminal offence) so if Rehtaeh Parsons’ attackers were tried in Scotland they might be acquitted. As a feminist it’s probably sacrilege for me to say this, but I think it’s sad if people who genuinely believe their victim is consenting go to jail (not that it often happens). I’m not saying they shouldn’t be jailed. While some of these people might genuinely misunderstand their victim, some might not know that what they’re doing is rape but nevertheless have the intention to disrespect or take advantage of their victims. That’s why we need to teach consent in sex and relationships education. Teaching consent benefits young people of all and no genders. Increasing the rape conviction rate is very important but preventing assaults and harassment from occurring in the first place would be even more beneficial. And we need to teach young children about respecting others. A message of respect could help stop bullying, sexual assaults and the publicising of sexts.

 

But it seems like the message that preteens and teens are learning is to disrespect girls and women. To share their sexts, label them liars when they report rape, bully them for having their sexts shared and shame them for doing anything remotely sexual- even if they were coerced into doing so by an adult. Cyberbullying and sharing images are often given a false veneer of ‘newness’ in the media but cameras have been around for decades and really all that these kids are doing is reproducing the classic slut shaming and victim blaming. The fact that they’re doing it via text and Facebook instead of face to face or via village gossip isn’t actually that relevant. Far from being an ultra modern hypersexed generation, they’re conservative and sexist in the extreme. Back when I was at school, 12 year olds getting pregnant weren’t slut shamed and a 14 year old girl secretly filmed by her boyfriend while they were having sex (the film was put online) wasn’t bullied for it- though she was slut shamed for changing boyfriends (!) Teens might actually be getting more misogynistic and sexually conservative.

 

The UnSlut Project aims to stop slut shaming in schools, communities and the media. The Project is currently in the process of creating a documentary to reveal the extent of slut shaming and explore the steps that can be taken to address this issue. UnSlut Project has been featured in The Observer and Slate and was voted the number one non fiction work on Wattpad, the world’s largest story sharing community. “Slut shaming doesn’t just harm the girls who are directly targeted,” warns founder Emily Lindin. “Living in a society where slut shaming is a constant threat harms all girls. Girls are sent very conflicting messages about sexuality and how they ought to dress and act – they should be sexy, but in a very specific way that they see reinforced in the media. And if they are somehow perceived as too sexy, or as embracing their own sexuality, they are ‘out of control’ and must be shamed.” Ms Lindin knows only too well how destructive slut shaming and sexual bullying can be. Part of the inspiration to create UnSlut Project comes from the slut shaming she suffered as a teenager. Lindin has published her teenage diaries on a blog and UnSlut Project offers teens and preteens a safe space to discuss their experiences of slut shaming. “It’s a terrifying challenge to navigate these expectations,” she says. “[A]nd it often leads to a misunderstanding of self-worth, low self-esteem, and long-term sexuality issues.”

 

In a nutshell, it’s dangerous, misogynistic and pointless. And most tragic of all, women slut shame other women at least as much as men. The child pornography of Amanda Todd was widely shared after she killed herself – not by disrespectful boys or even predatory older men, but by girls. They were trying to tell the world what a slut she was even after she was dead. They’re not yet 16 and they’ve already internalised a hatred of ‘sluts’ and a rabid victim blaming of 11 year olds coerced into sexting by paedophiles. They’re much more slut-hating than most adults. But maybe it’s not that surprising that yoiung teens slut shame to the grave and beyond. Kids learn values from adults. What chance have they got when adult women slut shame each other and the concept of ‘slut’ and the sexual double standard are popularised by pop culture and the media? Parents teach their kids that bullying is unacceptable but at the same time they condone or even encourage slut shaming. Even progressive, liberal or feminist parents often fail to teach their children to question the word ‘slut’ and the sexual double standard.

 

That’s a shame, because the concept of “slut” is based on historical patriarchal values which women didn’t get to decide. The double standard is self-defeating as it requires men to be experienced and women to be much less experienced, which means “sluts” are essential in society to give experience to men. So the double standard itself relies on “sluts” for its existence. The definition of a “slut” changes by the decade and varies between generations, countries and social groups. Anyone can be called a slut- even children, virgins or rape victims, as happened to Amanda Todd, Audrie Potts and Rehtaeh Parsons. Slut shaming relies on an artificially black and white way of understanding sexual behaviour and evaluating women, as we can see from the fact that the Facebook groups which supported the rapists designated Rehtaeh Parsons a “slut”. (Is this the hip new 2013 revamp of the virgin/whore dichotomy- the rape victim/slut dichotomy?) Slut shaming also relies on a set of ideas which designate more sex as bad and less sex as good, as well as the idea that there are only two genders and the opposite is bad or good for each gender. Sexual behaviour is also conflated with ethics or morality. We could just as easily designate more sex as good for women and bad for men. We could just as easily conflate sex with logistics or with cookery as conflate it with ethics.

 

Slut shaming and victim blaming are part of a wider problem of school bullying and misogyny. These attitudes are taught to teenagers by the media, by society and pop culture. Porn filters aren’t going to fix these problems (the scarcity of porn might if anything make sexts more ‘valuable’ and more likely to be shared). Children need to be taught to respect other people from a young age and there shouldn’t be a mystery or dirtiness about sex. In Sweden very young children know how babies are made and don’t get all giggly and pervy about it; they accept it as natural. Maybe if our kids were educated the same way, they wouldn’t see a photo of a naked peer as something worthy of sharing; nudity and sex wouldn’t be a big deal to them. As a 6 year old I was read a book called ‘Where Do Babies Come From?’ (complete with illustrations). The result? Sex Ed lessons as a teen were boring and I was confused at everyone else’s embarrassment and how ignorant they were. Teaching about consent and respect are better solutions than censoring pornography and if teens respect each other, there will be far fewer Rehtaehs, Audries and Amandas.

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One thought on “Slut Shaming: When Teens Adopt Traditional Values

  1. Philip Rose January 28, 2014 at 11:57 am Reply

    Interesting views. In some of the stories you mention, the details are not as clear-cut as the Press would like them to be, nor as straightforward as they would immediately seem. In my opinion, to get too bogged down by one view – in this case, perhaps, that of misogyny – is not a good thing. Perhaps you would also like to see it from another perspective: many of the young girls ONLY get attention, especially in the media, because they are ‘pretty’ or, indeed, just female. Many males are ignored, especially when it comes to suicide and male on male rape. The story of Daniel Perry, for instance, barely rated a mention. I know it is now beginning to sound like a cliche, but can I warn against misandry? Thanks.

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