When I was in sixth grade, I held hands with an eighth grader on the bus as we returned to school from a field trip. I was friends with his younger brother, & we’d known one another for awhile. We really didn’t intend anything by it–we were just joking around. But by the next afternoon, the eighth grade girls in my gym class had made me a target–he was “one of their guys.” I had a volleyball launched at my stomach by one particularly angry older girl who called me a “slut.”
I went to a different school than the majority of my junior high classmates–new people, new start. When, in tenth grade, I refused to have sex with a male friend, the ball set itself rolling again. Despite my rejection of his advances, he lied & told his friends we had slept together, going as far as to provide fake details to them–& because there were details, well, how could anyone not believe him? (Note the sarcasm.) A couple of years later, he would go on to apologize profusely, noting how immature & horrible he’d been to me & how he had no right to say those things. The apology was nice, but the seed had been planted.
When, during my junior year of high school, I started casually seeing a coworker, the other girls I worked with (who were mostly college-aged–as was he) spread countless rumors about me. Rather than try to combat it like I’d done at school, I simply decided to ignore it as much as I could. I needed the $7.50/hour from this fairly easy, mindless job. But then the gossip spread to work, to the point where my manager reprimanded me for engaging in “such behavior.” Needless to say, my male coworker didn’t receive the same speech. (Or any speech at all.) The environment became so vicious that there were a few girls who would refuse to help me with things at work or even speak to me beyond what was necessary. I ended up quitting–not because of my relationship, not because of the job itself, but because of what I know now as “slut shaming.” Ironically, I had not had sex with my coworker–we hadn’t even done more than kiss. But it didn’t matter–again, I was branded a slut.
By senior year, I felt set. I’d escaped from some toxic “friends,” I was student government president, in National Honor Society & 500 other clubs, & would end up being valedictorian. In my position as manager of the cross country team, I traveled along with the team. During one fateful October meet, I was sitting with a male friend on a bench when an older man I recognized as a teacher at my high school asked to photograph us for the yearbook. We agreed without much thought & put our arms around one another’s shoulders. My friend held a bag of Doritos in one hand like a trophy, & the photographer half-jokingly suggested he should feed me one. We laughed & agreed–all in good fun, of course! This went on & I realized there was something a little off here. For a few months afterward, this guy began popping up everywhere I was. Football games, hallways, events, anything–there he was, always in my immediate vicinity. There were a couple of inappropriate things he’d said that I’d brushed off, just rolling my eyes at this obnoxious, desperate, try-too-hard old man. Both verbally &, eventually, physically, one thing led to another (something for another time, another blog, perhaps) & I was left with little choice but to file sexual harassment charges against him.
The police officer I spoke with was understanding, helpful, concerned, even kind. He told me about the necessary process & got me appointments with the necessary people. I talked with dozens of administrators, police officers, investigators, social workers. This first police officer & one other person I still hold dear to my heart (my vice principal who tragically passed away only a couple of years later) were the only ones who offered me support. The rest of the people engaged in some pretty severe victim blaming. I didn’t, at first, realize there was a name for what they were doing. The police tried to bully me out of pressing charges, warning that “my entire sexual history would be displayed in a court.” (The fact that I was a virgin & didn’t really have many sexual “skeletons” in my closet didn’t cross my mind–I was sure people would find things to exaggerate or flat make up.) The district investigator/social worker was the worst, though.
She told me flat-out that she didn’t believe the accusations I was making, told me to “think twice” before this got out to my peers, &–the worst–learned over her desk menacingly, saying (hand on the Bible, I swear this is the direct quote), “Do you realize that you’re ruining this man’s career, his family, his life?” I burst into yelps & hollers at that point, screaming, “Do you realize he’s ruined mine?!” & storming out of the room. I speed-walked to the English corridor, the place I felt at home, & collapsed in a deserted corner, crying like I’ve rarely cried since.
It was foolish of me to think this was the worst of it–this victim blaming. Because then my ol’ pal slut shaming reared its ugly head. Yes, I had supportive teachers. (My favorite response is still one friend–a teacher who’d cried that she wanted to storm up there to cut his dick off with scissors & put it in a ziploc bag.) I had one teacher pull me aside to tell me that I’d done the right thing because she personally knew other girls this had happened to, but they hadn’t reported it. I knew, in my heart & in my brain, that I was doing the right thing on every level. But that didn’t make it easier to deal with the fact that I was completely ostracized. Most of my “friends” blamed me, said I had it coming, said I was too (x), (y), or (z). They didn’t believe me or they said I was just making too big of a deal out of it. And those were my friends. The responses from the people who didn’t know me, but only had heard gossip about the situation were infinitely worse. There I was again, a slut in the eyes of my peers. It didn’t matter that what had happened was not consensual, that I was purposefully targeted & harassed beforehand. It didn’t matter that I didn’t ask for his eyes or his hands or his breath on my body–*I* WAS A SLUT.
A few years later, when I was in graduate school, I got a call from my younger sister. At the time, she was working at a bank, & a woman had come in. She’d recognized my sister’s name on her nametag & introduced herself as this “man’s” (term loosely used) ex-wife. She had been vocal about shaming me at the time of the incident, & wanted to ask my sister to tell me that she had divorced him & realized that I’d never lied about what had happened, that she was sorry. I admit that I teared up when she told me this, but I wasn’t sure why. I knew what had happened, & the people who mattered knew what had happened. Why did this random woman’s validation even matter to me? Despite the fact that it took months before I was comfortable going out in public in anything but a baggy hoodie & that I didn’t date anyone for the rest of high school out of fear of other human beings, despite the fact that when I would go to the mall a year later, I’d still dart my eyes around suspiciously, out of fear he might be there, his ex-wife’s apology did something for me. I still haven’t figured out exactly what, but I suspect it worked to cancel out a little bit of my internalized blame. That’s when I realized that over five years later, I was still holding on to the blame because 95% of the people who were supposed to support me didn’t–instead they victim blamed & slut shamed me.
I don’t know if that internalization (I know I still carry some of it, too) has impacted my views on sex & sexual behavior today. Maybe. All I know is that when I finally decided to have sex–a decision I waited a remarkably long time for–there it was again. My best friend called me a slut for sleeping with someone I wasn’t “technically” dating. It was like something ugly buried deep inside of me reared its head at that moment, & suddenly I just didn’t care what people said anymore. I was happy, I was satisfied with my decisions about my own sex life. Why did it matter if people called me a slut for doing something that made me feel happy? He & I were consenting adults who cared for one another & weren’t hurting ourselves or anyone else–judge away for that!!
A few years later & out of that long-term serious relationship, I moved across the country for graduate school. At that point, I was still wrapped up in what is, to this day, the strangest entanglement I’ve ever had in my life. (He knows who he is–if you’re reading this, HI! Being my strangest entanglement is definitely a compliment!!) This is how people in Ohio met me. I had recently gotten out of a serious long-term relationship & was currently involved in some weird psychosexual drama with a guy much older than me whose circumstances (career, family, etc.) were much different than mine. No one seemed to judge too negatively for that. I thought, “Okay! We’re set! These people are not going to be a repeat of high school.” It’s almost hysterical how wrong I was.
During my two years of graduate school, I was called a plethora of things & had many, many rumors spread about me. (As you know if you know anything about me, my graduate school experience was famously horrendous.) My favorite? Being called (direct quote) “morally reprehensible.” Why, you might ask, was this bizarro moralistic insult thrown at me? Because I left a bar one night with a visiting writer who was older than me. It didn’t matter that no one hurling moralistic insults knew her (or, really, me), nor that they didn’t know where we went or what we did after leaving the bar. All that mattered was that we left together, looking cheerful. Oh. That’s when I realized that homophobia goes hand-in-hand with slut shaming. It’s bad if you’re perceived as a slut, but it’s even worse if you’re perceived as a queer slut.
Either way, though, it doesn’t matter. During this same time period, I had another non-consensual experience. I don’t really feel like going into the details of it right at this moment, but the relevant points here are that there was a man (a grown ass man) who insisted upon Facebook messaging my friends & colleagues, making assumptions about me & about the situation that night. Why? Because I didn’t feel obligated to tell him what the situation was. He had zero right to know anyway, but since he wasn’t my friend, I certainly felt no obligation to tell him anything. What should I have said, “Oh, yes, strange middle-aged man I’ve met twice, here’s what really happened!” Because I didn’t do that, he sent Facebook messages, trying to put the idea in my friends’ heads that I’d slutted it up that night. Thankfully, I was able to right the people I cared about, but to this day, I’m sure there are still people floating around the town who assume I’m a slut simply because I have never set the story straight–all because this one man felt the need to slut shame me when he knew nothing of the truth.
Throughout my grad school tenure as a whole, I had a strange & intense emotional entanglement (I really like this word, I guess). That entanglement prevented me from really forming romantic relationships with other people because my energy was so invested in the other situation. Because I had no interest in dating people, yet a had a couple of dalliances with people (mostly other writers), I was branded yet again. After one girl had hurled insults at me & a male friend defended me, she exclaimed to him that he “wouldn’t even be defending me unless he wanted to sleep with me!” Another–an ex-girlfriend of a male friend–called me “the town bicycle” despite the fact that at that time, I’d slept with exactly two people in the town.
It was strange for me to be forcibly placed with a group of people who were so moralistically concerned about the behavior of others. The people I flirted with, hung out with, slept with–that didn’t have any bearing on their lives. I wasn’t sleeping with them, nor their parents, children, partners, or even their friends. That’s what’s always baffled me about slut shaming–the simple questions of “Why do you even care what I do? How does this impact you even the tiniest bit?”
Despite running the obvious risk of sounding like a narcissist, I think it would be silly not to mention the contributing factors to slut shaming. Perhaps the most apparent one is jealousy. Someone is living her life the way she wants to live it, with freedom, with openness to experiences, & she’s getting what (or who) she wants. But it would also be equally as silly to leave it at just that. I’ve come to see slut shaming as a defense mechanism. The shamer might be jealous, but she might also be insecure about herself. She might have religiously/culturally/socially ingrained oppressive views about sex & sexuality. She might be scared of sex, sexuality, or sexual expression for a variety of reasons. Or perhaps she just wants to be popular & the easiest way to be popular is to (try to) bring other girls/women down. Mix & match as you will.
The point here is that this is not just a petty high school thing. These are things that happen past high school, past college, past graduate school. The other day, I got into an argument with someone because she claimed that having sex outside of a serious relationship is “disrespectful to yourself.” This discussion happened all in the abstract–no mention of my (or her) sexual history or behaviors. Because I disagreed with her sentiment, this girl, who barely knows me & certainly doesn’t know my sexual history oh, so kindly informed me that when I am (direct quote) “70 or 80 and look back on how many non-loving sexual encounters I’ve had, how many men have shared the sacred space of my body, that’s for me to deal with” and “good luck because I’ll need it.” First off, this is a flat-out batshit insane stance to take. Second, WHAT?!! It wouldn’t matter if I’d been with 1,000 people, this would be a totally ridiculous comment to make–the “sacred space of my body?” All I can say to that is “UGH.” I feel genuinely bad for people who hold these antiquated religiously-influenced views. They’re misogynistic & the people who espouse them ARE MISOGYNISTS, plain & simple. I couldn’t even get offended at this statement because it just sounds so… silly!
Only two days later, I received another level of this. I posted a Facebook status, asking for links to favorite lyric essays that I could teach to my students. I received a dozen great recommendations, & then out of nowhere, someone I went to undergrad with–but was never friends with (someone I not-so secretly couldn’t stand), commented. Keep in mind that this is a law schooler. This is not a sexist middle schooler, despite how much he sounds like one. He told me that I should quit trying too hard to be an intellectual & quit pretending that I like basketball. (I’m a basketball fanatic & had been posting obsessively a few days earlier about the NBA Draft.) I responded by asking him what he meant & why that had any relevance to my question. He launched in, calling me vapid, blah blah, all the same misogynistic insults. Some friends defended me & he kept in. I asked him why he was even commenting on the status & he replied, “I’m only here because a few years ago, you liked to show you tits at barbecues.” Needless to say, I deleted & blocked him. (Sadly, he couldn’t see the barrage of intelligent & hilarious comments directed at him by my friends afterward.) He’s referencing a cookout from my undergrad days wherein I told a guy I was seeing that I felt awkward at this cookout because no one was talking to me & the guy jokingly asked if I was wearing enough cleavage. I didn’t take this as a misogynistic joke because I knew his intent & his nature–I laughed. I relayed that text message exchange to a small group of people, including this Facebook commenter, who apparently had waited years to hold it against me.
This same guy, a couple of summers ago, tried to engage with me at a music festival. I wasn’t interested in hanging out with him because I found him to be–shocker–misogynistic & obnoxious. He then commented the next day on a photo one of my friends tagged me in, saying, “So beautiful! If you were only a bit nicer & sweeter, we’d all be falling all over ourselves to be with you.” I fumed. How did he think I owed him niceness or sweetness? How did he think it was a compliment to tell me that men wanted to be with me? Because I let him know this, he turned to the kind of slut shaming he did on my Facebook comment. This, to me, shows one thing–it wasn’t about my sexuality or sexual behavior. It was about his own anger that I had rejected him. He, as a male, was denied the power over me that he thought he deserved, simply because of the fact that I am a female. I was no longer subjugated just because of my gender.
This is what slut shaming is–it’s a tool of subjugation. It says, “You are not acting like a lady.” Of course, that statement is loaded with assumptions & stereotypes. It says, “You are deviating from normalcy.” All of this slut shaming I’ve experienced in spades over the past decade-plus has been far less about any sexual behavior I’ve engaged in than about my deviations from normalcy. I won’t be sweet to any ol’ guy just because he wants to sleep with me. I won’t be quiet when I’m sexually harassed & assaulted. I won’t hide my sexuality just because it doesn’t fit into the tiny “heterosexuality” box. I won’t refuse myself opportunities just because of the blind judgment of others. I won’t apply antiquated, narrow, shallow morals to everyone, nor to myself.
These people–the high schoolers who ostracized me for reporting a predator, the Facebook commenters who attack me for having feminist ideals, the colleagues who bullied & labeled me because my views on sex & sexuality deviated from theirs–what they’re doing is attempting to dehumanize me. Demure femininity is supposedly the pinnacle of being a woman. Because I don’t exhibit this stereotypical behavior/ideology, what their slut shaming aims to tell me is that I am a BAD WOMAN &, by extension, a BAD HUMAN.
You know how women get called “bitches” regardless of their behavior, & many women have started to see this, have started to realize that being called a “bitch” by someone is something you can shrug off? Let’s start doing the same with “slut.” I got called a slut when I was a virgin, when I’d had one monogamous partner, when I’d had multiple partners. I’ve been called a slut when I’ve been involved with men, with women, with no one. I’ve been called a slut no matter what I’m wearing (or not wearing), what I’ve said (or not said), who I’ve slept with (or not slept with). What this comes down to is that “slut” is a really empty, pointless label, that reflects far more on the attacker than on the target.
That’s what’s frustrating about slut shaming–I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been called a slut or been directly slut shamed by a guy. In middle school, it was the girls who called me a slut. In graduate school, it was the girls who called me a slut. Nothing’s changed. The insults when you’re 25 are the same insults from when you were 13. Take a second & really let that sink in.
THE INSULTS WHEN YOU’RE 25 ARE THE SAME INSULTS FROM WHEN YOU WERE 13.
The people who bandy around the word “slut” are still occupying a middle-school headspace where boys are icky & sex is icky & because popularity is everything, anyone who deviates from the norm is icky.
It doesn’t matter whether you have tons of sex or have none or have somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t matter if you have sex with men or women or both or neither. It doesn’t matter if you tell everyone or if you tell no one. It doesn’t matter if what you want to do deviates from someone else’s moral code.
You are not 13 anymore.