9780060957407

Slut! : Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780060957407

  • ISBN10:

    0060957409

  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 12/2/2009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Summary

Girls may be called "sluts" for any number of reasons, including being outsiders, early developers, victims of rape, targets of others' revenge. Often the labels has nothing to do with sex -- the girls simply do not fit in. An important account of the lives of these young women, Slut! weaves together powerful oral histories of girls and women who finally overcame their sexual labels with a cogent analysis of the underlying problem of sexual stereotyping.Author Leora Tanenbaum herself was labeled a slut in high school. The confessional article she wrote for Seventeen about the experience caused a sensation and led her to write this book.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii
Insult of Insults
1(26)
Who Gets Picked On
7(5)
My Story
12(7)
Shame
19(4)
Strength
23(4)
``Then There Were the Tramps'': The ``Slut'' Label in the 1950S
27(46)
Mixed Messages: The Historical Roots
37(7)
Sexual Containment
44(11)
The Sex Police
55(11)
The Sexual Revolution
66(7)
``She's So Loose'': The Sexual Girl
73(42)
Who Is a ``Slut''?
87(3)
Good Girls Have No Desire
90(10)
The Romance Myth
100(5)
Equality ``Sluts''
105(10)
``She Asked For It'': The Raped Girl
115(42)
Bad Victims
125(5)
The Culture of Sexual Entitlement
130(12)
A Rite of Passage
142(11)
Nobody Believes You
153(4)
``Not One of Us'': The Outsider
157(46)
``I'm Sorry''
166(3)
Consensus Through Gossip
169(10)
Class Dismissed
179(9)
Are You a Jock or a Druggie?
188(2)
All Girls Are Outsiders
190(7)
``She's So Pretty, Let's Kill Her''
197(6)
From Sexism to Sexual Freedom
203(24)
``Sluts'' and Suits
205(10)
Just Say No to Abstinence-Only Education
215(5)
A Support System
220(7)
Afterword to the Perennial Edition 227(14)
Appendix A What To Do 241(6)
Appendix B Recommended Resources 247(6)
Notes 253(16)
Acknowledgments 269(4)
Index 273

Excerpts


Chapter One

INSULT OF INSULTS

Women living in the United States are fortunate indeed. Unlike women living in Muslim countries, who are beaten and murdered for the appearance of sexual impropriety, we enjoy enormous sexual freedom. Yet even we are routinely evaluated and punished for our sexuality. In 1991, Karen Carter, a twenty-eight-year-old single mother, lost custody of her two-year-old daughter in a chain of events that began when she called a social service hot line to ask if it's normal to feel sexual arousal while breast feeding. Carter was charged with sexual abuse in the first degree, even though her daughter showed no signs of abuse; when she revealed in court that she had had a lifetime total of eight (adult male) lovers, her own lawyer referred to her "sexual promiscuity." In 1993, when New Mexico reporter Tamar Stieber filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the newspaper where she worked because she was earning substantially less than men in similar positions, defense attorneys deposed her former lover to ask him how often they'd had sex. In the 1997 sexual-harassment lawsuits against Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing, a company lawyer asked for the gynecological records of twenty-nine women employees charging harassment, and wanted the right to distribute them to company executives. And in 1997 a North Carolina woman sued her husband's secretary for breaking up their nineteen-year-marriage and was awarded $1 million in damages by a jury. During the seven-day trial the secretary was described as a "matronly" woman who deliberately began wearing heavy makeup and short skirts in order to entice the husband into an affair.

    It's amazing but true: Even today a common way to damage a woman's credibility is to call her a slut. Look at former CIA station chief Janine Brookner, who was falsely accused of being a drunken "slut" after she reprimanded several corrupt colleagues in the early 1990s. Consider Anita Hill, whose accusation that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her was dismissed by the Senate because, in the memorable words of journalist David Brock, she was "a bit nutty and a bit slutty." Clearly, slut-bashing is not confined to the teenage years.

    Nor is it a new phenomenon. If anything, it is the continuation of an old tradition. For girls who came of age in the 1950s, the fear of being called a slut ruled their lives. In that decade, "good" girls strained to give the appearance that they were dodging sex until marriage. "Bad" girls--who failed to be discreet, whose dates bragged, who couldn't get their dates to stop--were dismissed as trashy "sluts." Even after she had graduated from high school, a young woman knew that submitting to sexual passion meant facing the risk of unwed pregnancy, which would bar her entrée to the social respectability of the college-educated middle class. And so, in addition to donning cashmere sweater sets and poodle skirts, the 1950s "good" girl also had to hone the tricky talent of doling out enough sexual preliminaries to keep her dates interested while simultaneously exerting enough sexual control to stop before the point of no return: intercourse. The twin fears of pregnancy and loss of middle-class respectability kept her desires in check. The protagonist of Alix Kates Shulman's novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen summed up the prevailing attitude: "Between me and Joey already one thing had led to another--kissing had led to French kissing, French kissing to necking, necking to petting, petting to bare-titting, bare-fitting to dry humping--but somehow, thank God, I had always managed to stop at that penultimate step."

    No wonder that obtaining a reputation was even more frightening than becoming pregnant. An unwanted pregnancy could be taken care of--somehow, somewhere. A reputation, however, was an indelible stamp. "Steve's finger in my cunt felt good," reminisced Erica Jong's alter ego, Isadora Wing, about her 1950s high school boyfriend in Fear of Flying . "At the same time, I knew that soft, mushy feeling to be the enemy. If I yielded to that feeling, it would be goodbye to all the other things I wanted. `You have to choose,' I told myself sternly at fourteen. Get thee to a nunnery. So, like all good nuns, I masturbated ... at fourteen all I could see were the disadvantages of being a woman.... All I could see was the swindle of being a woman." The maneuvering was so delicate that pretty girls, the ones most sought after by the boys, sometimes secretly wished they were ugly just to avoid the dilemma altogether.

    In the realm of sexual choices we are light-years beyond the 1950s. Today a teenage girl can explore her sexuality without getting married, and most do. By age eighteen over half of all girls and nearly three quarters of all boys have had intercourse at least once. Yet at the same time, a fifties-era attitude lingers: Teens today are fairly conservative about sex. A 1998 New York Times /CBS News poll of a thousand teens found that 53 percent of girls believe that sex before marriage is "always wrong," while 41 percent of boys agree. Teens may be having sex, but they also look down on others, especially girls, who are sexually active. Despite the sexual revolution, despite three decades of feminism, despite the Pill, and despite legalized abortion, teenage girls today continue to be defined by their sexuality. The sexual double standard--and the division between "good" girls and "bad" or "slutty" ones--is alive and well. Some of the rules have changed, but the playing field is startlingly similar to that of the 1950s.

    Skeptical? Just take a look at teenage pop culture. On the TV show Dawson's Creek, which chronicles the lives of four hip, painfully self-aware teens, an episode is devoted to Dawson's discovery that his girlfriend Jen is not only not a virgin, she's had sex with a number of guys. Dawson is both disappointed and disapproving, and before long the relationship ends. An ad for Converse sneakers, appearing in a 1995 issue of Seventeen , depicts two girls, one white and the other black, sharing self-satisfied smirks as a busty girl in a short, tight dress lingers nearby. The caption reads, "Carla and Rachel considered themselves open-minded, nonjudgmental people. Although they did agree Brenda was a tramp." In the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire you just know that Tom Cruise's girlfriend is a good-for-nothing tramp the moment you lay eyes on her: She makes her first appearance in a torrid, sweaty sex scene. (If it were a horror movie, she'd be murdered within ten minutes.) Indeed, her heartlessness is later revealed when she berates Cruise for allowing conscience rather than greed to guide his career as a sports agent.

    But forget about make-believe characters in TV shows, ads, and movies: real life has enough examples. In Kentucky in 1998, two high school students were denied membership in the National Honor Society because they were pregnant--even though boys who engaged in premarital sex faced no such exclusion. One Georgia teen wrote anxiously to Seventeen : "A few months ago, when my mom saw me hugging my boyfriend outside my house, she called me a slut and said we were 'putting on a show for the whole neighborhood.' I've never been so hurt in my life. I had done nothing to be called such an awful word other than display affection for someone I love very much. The word `slut' doesn't need a definition; it needs to be abolished."

Teenage model Jamie Messenger sued YM magazine for $17.5 million because the magazine ran her photo, without her permission, alongside an advice-column letter that had no connection to her. The headline was I got trashed and had sex with three GUYS. After the magazine's 2.15 million readers received their issue in the mail, Messenger got a quick course in slut-bashing. The football team bet on who would sleep with her first; her best friend's parents wouldn't allow their daughter to visit anymore. Her brother was caught in a fight after someone called the model a whore. "She wanted to go to the prom, she wanted to go to the homecoming," her mother said. "She wanted to be part of that. But unfortunately, she couldn't." (Messenger was ultimately awarded $100,000 by a jury that found that YM was "grossly irresponsible" for using the photo without "valid consent.")

    Jamie Messenger isn't the only girl who has turned to the courts. A number of high school students around the country have sued their school districts for sexual harassment because teachers and administrators allowed slut-bashing to flourish. In 1996 alone there were three well-publicized cases, all involving junior high school students. In upstate New York, Eve Bruneau was called "whore" and "dog-faced bitch" by the boys in her sixth-grade class and became so depressed that she transferred schools; her harassment complaint against the South Kortright School District was rejected. But Tianna Ugarte, a fourteen-year-old girl living near San Francisco, won a $500,000 award from a jury that found school officials had ignored her complaints of verbal abuse from a male sixth-grade classmate. And in another northern California case, a girl identified only as Jane Doe from Petaluma won a settlement of $250,000 because the faculty at Kenilworth Junior High did nothing to stop students from hounding her for a year and a half with rumors that she had sex with hot dogs. (It got so bad that one day a boy felt free to stand up in class and say, "I have a question. I want to know if Jane Doe has sex with hot dogs.")

    In 1988, educators Janie Victoria Ward and Jill McLean Taylor surveyed Massachusetts teenagers across six different ethnic groups--black, white, Hispanic, Haitian, Vietnamese, and Portuguese--and found that the different groups upheld different sexual values. But one thing was universal: The sexual double standard. Regardless of race or ethnicity, "boys were generally allowed more freedom and were assumed to be more sexually active than girls." Ward and Taylor found that "sexual activity for adolescent males usually met cultural expectations and was generally accepted by adults and peers as part of normal male adolescence.... In general, women are often seen in terms of their sexual reputation rather than in terms of their personal characteristics."

    The double standard, we know, does not vaporize after high school. Sociologist Lillian Rubin surveyed six hundred students in eight colleges around the country in the late 1980s and found that 40 percent of the sexually active women said that they routinely understate their sexual experience because "my boyfriend wouln't like it if he knew," "people wouldn't understand," and "I don't want him to think I'm a slut." Indeed, these women had reason to be concerned. When Rubin queried the men about what they expected of the women they might marry, over half said that they would not want to marry a woman who had been "around the block too many times," that they were looking for someone who didn't "sleep around," and that a woman who did was a "slut."

    Similarly when sex researcher Shere Hite surveyed over 2,500 college men and women, 92 percent of the men claimed that the double standard was unfair. Yet overwhelmingly they themselves upheld it. When asked, "If you met a woman you liked and wanted to date, but then found out she had had sex with ten to twenty men during the preceding year, would you still like her and take her seriously?," 65 percent of the men admitted that they would not take her seriously. At the same time only 5 percent said they would lose respect if a male friend had had sex with ten to twenty women in one year.

    Teenage girls who are called sluts today experience slut-bashing at its worst. Caught between the conflicting pressures to have sex and maintain, a "good" reputation, they are damned when they do and damned when they don't. Boys and girls both are encouraged to have sex in the teen years--by their friends, magazines, and rock and rap lyrics--yet boys alone can get away with it. "There's no way that anyone who talks to girls thinks that there's a new sexual revolution out there for teenagers," sums up Deborah Tolman, a developmental psychologist at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. "It's the old system very much in place." It is the old system, but with a twist: Today's teenage girls have grown up after the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. They have been told their whole lives that they can, and should, do anything that boys do. But soon enough they discover that sexual equality has not arrived. Certain things continue to be the privilege of boys alone.

    With this power imbalance, it's no wonder high school girls report feeling less comfortable with their sexual experiences than their male counterparts do. While 81 percent of adolescent boys say that "sex is a pleasurable experience," according to a 1994 Roper poll, only 59 percent of girls feel the same way. The statistical difference speaks volumes. Boys and girls both succumb to early sex due to peer and media pressures, but boys still get away with it while girls don't.

WHO GETS PICKED ON

Girls who are singled out for being "sluts" are by no means a monolithic group. And contrary to what most people think of when they visualize a "slut," many have no more sexual experience than their peers do, and some have no sexual experience at all. Whether or not a girl is targeted because of her sexual behavior, the effect is nonetheless to police her sexuality.

"SHE'S SO LOOSE": THE SEXUAL GIRL--One type of girl is picked on because she appears to flaunt a casual attitude about sexuality: She is either sexually active or is perceived to be sexually active.

    Pamela Spring, from Massachusetts, was a sexual girl who was taught a lesson. When she was discovered to have had intercourse with two different boys the summer before ninth grade, a girl on the basketball team called her over during lunch. "Pam," she asked before a packed table, "did you fuck Andy and John?" Everyone laughed. People talked about her in school and at parties. When she was a senior, someone spray-painted "Pam Is A Slut" on the school building.

    On the other end of the spectrum, some girls who aren't sexually active at all are presumed to be so because of their physique. When everyone else in the class is wearing training bras, the girl with breasts becomes an object of sexual scrutiny. Yet when boys develop early, they are not similarly stigmatized. A girl with visible breasts becomes sexualized because she possesses a constant physical reminder of her sexual potential, whereas height, the marker of boys' development, does not carry sexual meanings, notes sociologist Barrie Thorne. (Boys generally don't develop in build or grow facial hair until they're in high school.) In other words, a girl can become known as possessing a sexual persona simply because of the way she looks, not the way she behaves.

    Eighteen-year-old Paula Pinczewski, from northwestern Wisconsin, got her period in the fifth grade and by seventh grade wore a 36C. In eighth grade, classmates called Paula, a virgin, a "five-cent whore," "hooker," and "slut." They took her notebook and wrote things in it like, "You're not worth shit" and "You're a bitch." "If I didn't get one of my daily insults," Paula tells me, "it was not worthy of being a school day." For her part, Julie, the girl who was raped when she passed out from drinking, was singled out as a "slut," she suspects, "because I was chesty. I was wearing a C bra in ninth grade. Even my girlfriends would make comments about my chest. It made the stories about me easier to believe. I fit into a stereotype."

"SHE ASKED FOR IT": THE RAPED GIRL--I never expected to find so many "sluts" who had been raped or attempted-raped. In fact, when I first thought about why certain girls might be singled out as "sluts," the issue of sexual coercion did not occur to me, nor did I ask a single interviewee if she had been assaulted or raped. And yet over and over again my interviewees volunteered that they had been raped by a date, acquaintance, or stranger, or that the boys in school assumed they were "easy" and therefore gang-raped or tried to gang-rape them. (Others mentioned that they had been sexually abused by a relative or baby-sitter.) Not one reported her assault to the police or school.

    The parenthetical way some of the girls and women told me these stories made me wonder how reliable rape statistics are, especially for teenagers. According to a 1997 Commonwealth Fund survey, one in five high school girls has been physically or sexually abused, with nearly one in ten of the older girls reporting abuse by a date or boyfriend. But I wouldn't be surprised if the real numbers are much higher. The fact is that most people refuse to believe that a teenage girl has been raped, especially if she knows her attacker. They assume that the sex was consensual, not forced.

    The "slut" reputation protects rapists because it makes the victims believe that they are partly to blame. Julie, for instance, did not press charges against her rapist. "I knew no one would believe me," she explained to me. "And I didn't want to tell my parents because they'd be mad that I was out drinking." She did confide in a few of the girls at school, but as expected, they thought she was making the rape up. "They felt, `Oh, she's just saying it because she has a bad reputation.'"

    Two of Julie's friends heard from another friend that the sex was in reality a rape. But Julie sensed that they didn't really believe it. "They never came out and said they thought I was lying, but if we'd be talking about past boyfriends, they would bring up the rapist's name, as if he were a boyfriend. In their minds they believed the rumors. My friend Liz, who had seen me passed out, would stand by me in those cases. She was like, 'Well, that was a different situation; Julie couldn't help that. She was raped.' But the group always liked to have someone to make fun of, and I was the butt of jokes at times. Even though they were my friends, it stopped being funny."

"NOT ONE OF US": THE OUTSIDER--Adolescents label everybody. When they are confronted with someone who doesn't fit their idea of how a girl should act or look, they grasp for an insulting label. Typically the girl with the "slut" reputation fails to conform in some way. "Slut" becomes an insult like any other, with sexual implications thrown in for added measure.

    Jaclyn Geller is a tall, striking-looking woman with defined cheekbones and penetrating blue-green eyes. Born in 1963, she is currently an essayist and doctoral candidate in English literature. She was called a "slut" in junior high. "I didn't have sexual relations with people aside from playing Spin the Bottle," she says, "so I knew it was a crazy thing." Jaclyn was taller and older-looking than the other kids. She read books while everyone else went to football games. She always sensed that somehow she was different.

    Jaclyn grew up in the leafy suburb of Scarsdale, New York, where "popularity did not necessarily mean wealth--everyone was affluent. Popularity meant conformity." During the seventh grade, boys called her a slut when she walked down the halls. The jokes turned into violence when she was in the eighth grade walking to the cafeteria: Five boys pushed her down on the ground and climbed on top of her; Jaclyn had to fight them off. They were all boys who lived in her neighborhood.

    Janice, now thirty-six, was a new student when she entered seventh grade: her father was in the military and the family had just moved to town. Almost immediately the boys in her Illinois junior high school started a rumor that she stuffed her bra. "I was very embarrassed. I changed my seat to get away from the boys who were talking about me, but my teacher made me go back. When my mother found out, she said, `Don't you care about your reputation?'" This was already her third school, and in eighth grade she moved again. Each time she was a new student, the boys looked her over. Even though Janice was not sexually active, the boys reinforced the idea that she had no right to be sexual. Janice began to hunch her shoulders and wear a coat whenever possible. "I never really felt comfortable with my body," she says. "To this day I don't like people to hug me or feel my body."

GIRLS SLUT-BASHING GIRLS--A refrain throughout the interviews was how cruel girls could be. Nearly every "slut" told me that girls either had engineered the ostracism themselves or were more hurtful than boys. In some cases a girl spread a rumor about another girl whom she envied or resented.

    Janet Jones, twenty-four, has radiant brown skin and deep brown eyes. In her South Carolina high school, she was captain of the cheerleading squad. "I don't mean to sound conceited," says Janet, now a student at a black women's college in Atlanta. "My immediate friends in my circle--I ain't gonna say they weren't as attractive--but they weren't. And girls can be extremely vengeful and extremely jealous when it comes to things like that. Friends that I thought were friends turned out not to be at all. That was my first important lesson in life. I found out that people I thought I could count on would turn on me."

    One Sunday, Janet spent the afternoon with a close male friend, talking and hanging out. The next day everyone was buzzing about how the two of them had slept together. "What really hurt is that no one came back to me and asked me, `Janet, is this true?' They just accepted it." It was girls, not boys, who made the rest of her high school years miserable. Even her best friend from elementary school stopped talking to her.

    Boys and girls both can inflict emotional harm, but when girls are involved, the harassment tends to become more personal. Julie, the girl who was raped, says that it hurt more when girls judged her than when guys did. "If a girl gets a reputation and then does something that gets on another girl's nerves, that girl is going to immediately mention the reputation. Like, `Not only did she do better than me on that test but she's also a slut.'"

    Because girls rather than boys are often on the front lines of slut-bashing, teachers rarely identify the behavior as a form of sexual harassment. Americans seem to care more about harassment when it involves a male and female than when both harasser and victim are the same gender. Yet, as we will see, girls can bring enormous pain to other girls, leading them to engage in a number of self-destructive behaviors.

MY STORY

My breasts started to grow in the fifth grade, and by the time I was in the seventh grade, I was wearing a C cup. That's when I became known in my suburban New York private school for something other than my sterling report cards. Before, I had been someone who kids turned to for help when they were stumped with vocabulary homework. Now I was the number-one target for bra-snapping.

    Jeremy, Joe, and Ivan were the leaders. They snapped my bra, and even tried to unhook it, during the four-minute lulls between classes as one teacher left and the next came in. They knew when to dash back to their seats because one student stood guard at the door and ran in to report the imminent arrival of the teacher. My girlfriends, meanwhile, were nervous about their own sprouting breasts. They couldn't wait to grow out of their AA cups, of course, but they also knew that once they hit the big time (an A or a B), they would themselves become targets. So they decided not to interfere and draw attention to themselves. I understood and didn't hold it against them. I was on my own.

    In the beginning I was terrified that sooner or later I would have to run to the bathroom to rehook my bra, breasts bouncing as I sprinted down the hall. It seemed like such a humiliating scenario that I strategized at great lengths how to avoid it. I vigilantly guarded my personal space, holding my arms stiffly at my sides and constantly darting my eyes around me, ensuring that no boy could get directly behind me for more than a few seconds. They caught onto this pretty quickly, though, and would work in pairs: One would divert my attention by, say, asking to borrow a pen while another would sneak behind me. Like a cartoon character involved in a cat-and-mouse chase, I became preoccupied with every object within a 360-degree radius and would always whip my head around just in the nick of time.

    The boys of course had a blast. And I, too, joked around and laughed about it. At first my reaction was a form of self-protection: If the boys believed that they weren't flustering me, maybe they would stop. But soon my laughter became quite genuine. To be honest, I wasn't completely upset about the bra-snapping: it wasn't done entirely against my will. If I had really wanted it to stop, I could have done so easily by reporting it to a teacher. But I chose not to.

    In truth I was sort of flattered that the boys had chosen me as their target. For me the bra-snapping was, in a way, a compliment: The boys were indirectly telling me that they found me attractive, interesting, and fun. The boys did not consider me inferior to the other girls or to themselves. I was their equal, but different. No one called me names like "slut" or "bitch" or told me that because I wasn't a boy, I was worthless; I never felt that there was anything sexist about their behavior. My body was simply new territory; the boys were curious about it, just like all boys are. In any event the boys didn't regard me only as a pair of breasts. They still gossiped with me about the two single teachers we all thought would make a cute couple and groaned to me about the awful smell of formaldehyde in the science lab. In short they treated me like a peer. They didn't equate me with my body--they just liked my body.

    Besides, though I was embarrassed, there was also a compelling element of sexual danger. School was no longer the safe, boring, same-old, same-old place it had been before. I liked being this new Leora, who was much more exciting than my old self--a Goody-Two-shoes with glasses, neatly printed homework, and an arm shooting up with an answer before the teacher had even finished the question. I didn't stop excelling in school, but I did begin to experiment with clothes that hugged my body rather than hid it. I spent hours each evening in front of the mirror, checking out which outfits most flattered the new me. In addition to the eyeliner and lip gloss that all the other girls wore, I started to put on mascara that I'd found in my mother's medicine chest. I began to practice flirting--to seem at once aggressive and coy, daring and demure. The minute calculations of when to look a guy in the eye, when to look away, and when to toss my hair became more engrossing than the beloved algebra problems weighing down my book bag.

    By the time the boys had matured enough to give up the brasnapping, junior high was over. I had just begun to like the way my breasts curved in my T-shirts. I was also beginning to feel comfortable with my desire to hook up with guys, but it was time to graduate to high school, where I was soon to have an entirely different kind of sexual identity.

    I was accepted into a private religious high school in New York City, and I quickly began to miss many of my friends from junior high (only a few continued on with me). I was no longer a member of the graduating class; now I was among a group of first-year students who kept forgetting whether the library was on the fourth floor or the sixth. But even among the first-years, there were clear social distinctions. Most of my new classmates came from wealthy and high-powered families, and there was a lot of competition to be popular. Clothes, attitude, and address (Manhattan's East Side or West Side) were key. Before, I had been perceived as smart and was respected for getting good grades. But in high school no one popular cared about getting A's; they just wanted to party. If you weren't good-looking, smooth, and trendy (within the constraints of the school's dress code, which dictated that girls wear skirts), you weren't a candidate for entry into the popular crowd. All of a sudden I felt very young and immature. I was surrounded by a lot of girls who wore underwire bras, could insert a tampon with their eyes closed, and had boys lining up to call them--a situation that both relieved and disappointed me. I no longer stood out as anything special.

    One of the first friends I made freshman year, Michelle, was very sophisticated for a fourteen-year-old. She got me automatically accepted into the popular crowd. Michelle went to parties with seniors and smoked pot. She took me under her wing, instructing me on how to meet boys from other schools by getting a fake ID and hanging out at certain bars. It was a trade-off more than sisterly bonding: I helped her with homework, she improved my social life. Both of us felt we had made a good deal.

    In the spring of ninth grade Michelle told me about a senior named Andy from another of the private schools in the city. She was interested in him but couldn't tell if he liked her. Would I talk to him, she asked, to find out what his feelings really were? After all, I was so good at that sort of thing. I said okay, and gave Andy a call one evening, sprawled stomach-down on my canopy bed with my geometry book open beside me, not too pleased with playing the mediator role. Andy had a deep, older-boy voice. He didn't want to talk about Michelle, though. Andy immediately asked me questions about myself--my age, where I lived, what kind of music I liked, what I looked like. He told me he thought I had a sexy voice. Then he asked me out. Thrilled that a senior would have anything to do with me, I flirted back and agreed to meet him Friday after school for a date. When Michelle asked me the next day about the call, I lied and said that I wasn't able to get through.

    The day of the date, I brought a new pair of jeans to school and changed into them the moment the last bell rang. Then I ran for the subway, constantly keeping an eye out to make sure that I wouldn't bump into Michelle. I finally got to Andy's apartment building and took the elevator up, flushed and eager. When I saw his face, I was disappointed: It seemed rather unremarkable. But he did have a nice body. It was hard and muscular, clad in jeans and a white T-shirt.

    Andy said he didn't want to go anywhere: he wanted to stay in his bedroom and fool around. I figured, why not? It didn't occur to me to be insulted; I was flattered and curious. I knew he was using me, that he didn't care about me as a person at all, and that he would probably never want to see me again. But I decided to use him too. I worried that Michelle would feel jealous and upset, but I rationalized that she wouldn't be hurt because I wouldn't tell her. So we went to his room and made out for about twenty minutes. Then Andy decided he'd had enough, and showed me to the door.

    As I walked down the hall to the elevator, I instantly regretted the whole encounter. I didn't feel that I had done anything wrong by fooling around, but I was annoyed with Andy's behavior. By cutting short our make-out session when he felt like it, Andy had taken control and made me feel cheap, like I was nothing but his toy. He had used me more than I had used him. Even worse, I felt that I was a bad, immoral person who had betrayed a friend. I spent the next two days trying to forget what had happened. Little did I know that Andy called Michelle and told her everything.

    Monday morning my date was the number-one item of gossip, not only for the freshman class but for the entire school. Every face I encountered wore a smirk. No one came over to say hi. Girls standing in the hall in a cluster, animatedly whispering among themselves, became silent the moment I walked by. Michelle, I knew, had good reason to be angry, because she felt betrayed. But I couldn't figure out why on earth everyone else cared about my date. It turned out that most of them, in fact, didn't know a thing about the betrayal. I was amazed when it dawned on me that people were interested solely in the story of my sexual activity.

    I knew that seeing Andy had been selfish. Michelle had every right to lash out at me, every right to make me feel guilty. But Michelle never confronted me. Instead she transplanted a private issue between the two of us into a public arena. And she did so in a way that could only be done to a girl, never to a boy.

    In the space of a few hours I had become a "slut." I had obtained a reputation that followed me for my remaining three and a half years of high school, and probably follows me still today in the minds of some of my former classmates: I was a loose girl who had fooled around with a random guy and who therefore was worthy of scorn and ridicule. And since I felt guilty about my behind-the-scenes flirtations, I felt that I deserved it. Every time someone would look at me with that knowing, "you're such a slut" look, I felt like garbage. I started to suspect that maybe there really was something wrong with me. Maybe I really was garbage.

    The first few days were the roughest. Students with whom I had never exchanged a word--girls as well as guys--came up to me to look at me with pity or to joke at my expense. My image was beyond my control, and the more it was taken out of my hands, the more tarnished it became. And my big breasts didn't help; they became "Exhibit A" rather than biological circumstance.

    Slut. Hey Leora, who are you going out with tonight?

    What hurt me most is that girls were the first ones to point a finger at me. Looking back, I realize that for them it was a way to deflect attention from themselves: If they called me a "slut," it meant that they themselves (girls who had actually done the same thing, or who had considered doing the same thing) were pure and good. Besides, I had broken an unspoken code--that it was fine to flirt and lead a guy on, but "slutty" to be out-and-out sexual. In fooling around with Andy, I had made a statement that being sexual was okay, that I felt comfortable with guys. Hesitantly discovering sex themselves, the girls were probably jealous that I felt free to act on my desires. Along with the boys, they felt entitled to comment on my sexuality, to maliciously mock me and try to make me feel subhuman. And the intimidation worked: I felt utterly humiliated.

    The comments lasted for the rest of the year, spilling into the beginning of the next. My friends from junior high stuck by me, though none of them actively dispelled the rumors. As for my parents, they saw that every night I glumly sequestered myself in my room the minute dinner was over, but since I was bringing home terrific grades, things seemed fine enough to them. Besides, en route to a divorce, they were too engrossed in their own battle with each other to notice much else.

    The differences between the bra-snapping of junior high and the "slut" rumors of high school were significant. With the bra-snapping, no one thought I was "cheap" or "loose." It was just my physique, not me as a person, that was being judged. I was therefore able to remain the kind of girl whom parents thought of as a good influence for their children. In high school, though, there was only one identity attached to me: "slut." Nothing else about me seemed to matter. The two events were also as far apart as you could get in terms of how I came to regard myself. The bra-snapping did not cause me to doubt my abilities: I understood, and even identified with, the boys' motives. The "slut" label, on the other hand, made me doubt my own worth.

    I wasn't a prude who couldn't handle a dirty joke. I was caught in the sexual double standard. I was told that my value was measured in sexual terms only, and for a while I even began to believe it.

(Continues...)

Copyright © 1999 Leora Tanenbaum. All rights reserved.

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