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Birds & Bees

When a Teenage Girl's Reputation Hangs on a Single Word

Those stigmatized by the sexual epithet say the damage is devastating and long-lasting.

January 14, 2002|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the young woman's name was posted on a Web site in the summer of 2000 under the category of "ugliest girl" in her entering 10th-grade class at Agoura High School, a rumor spread that there was a videotape of her having sex with several boys. Classmates then began calling her "whore" and "slut," sexual epithets potent in their sting even in this postfeminist, sexually liberated era.

Alison Goller, now 17, has left Agoura High School. A lawsuit was filed on her behalf against the Las Virgenes Unified School District in a Los Angeles federal court charging that school officials did nothing to stop "the escalating pattern of sexual harassment" by other students.

Administrators from the school district said the district "did everything it was required to do."

Although the word "slut" is now used as humor in everything from punch lines to wedding cards (one crudegreetings.com card begins with the usual congratulations, followed by the sentiment, "I guess this means you'll have to stop being a slut") to marketing ploys (Blue Q soap has a "Virgin soap" and a "Slut soap"), the term is nothing short of devastating for young women in the fragile, formative years of their sexual coming of age.

"I don't think it is ever appropriate to use the word with teenage girls," said Leora Tanenbaum, author of "Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation" (HarperCollins, 2000). Tanenbaum said she was stigmatized by the word in the ninth grade, a reputation that stuck through her senior year.

"The bottom line is the word means a woman of loose character who has something fundamentally wrong with her. What's wrong with her is she has sexual desire. You don't have to do anything sexual to be called a slut. Most of the [50] girls I interviewed had little or no sexual experience. Being clean-cut does not make one immune."

To be pegged a slut is to be an outsider, according to Emily White in her new book "Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of Slut" (Scribner), scheduled for release in March.

White's book reveals young girls and women at the mercy of a cultural and sexual double standard, the center of the sordid "slut" maelstrom for which there is no male equivalent. ("Stud" and "player" are congratulatory slang). Being labeled with the word was a defining experience that tore many young women's lives asunder, according to White, a Seattle-based writer who interviewed 100 girls and women across the country who reported being labeled during their adolescence.

"The slut myth is rooted in ancient fears of the devouring female," said White, referring to the mythology of the sexually insatiable woman whose desires threaten to consume men. "It's also rooted in fear of female power. The myth is a way of putting girls in their place in a decisive way, so we learn early that girls will be ostracized if they go beyond certain limits."

White found that teenagers most likely to be victimized by the epithet fit a pattern. They had developed breasts and hips when peers were still in training bras; departed from the norm (transferred into a school, had a lengthy absence or dyed their hair, say, blue); were extroverts (girls who cussed, talked dirty or wore short skirts); or felt like an outcast. As one 14-year-old San Francisco girl explained in White's book, the kids at her school believe that just because she bleaches her hair blond she'll also perform oral sex for cigarettes.

Girls use the epithet against each other as well, which White says is designed to lower each other's status, to strike a blow at a girl who garners too much male attention or to retaliate for a real or perceived wrong (stealing a boyfriend or flirting with someone's boyfriend).

Young men use the rumor that they engaged in some sexual act (oral sex is a favorite) with a "slut" to inflate their reputation, to take revenge on an ex-girlfriend or to get even with a young woman who spurned an advance.

The truth doesn't get in the way of a sexual rumor. "I interviewed plenty of girls who were virgins the whole time the rumor proliferated, but I also interviewed girls who were promiscuous," said White. "The stories never matched up to what actually happened, so there was a profound dissonance going on for these young women."

Sexual rumors are nearly impossible to refute, said White, and they can shadow young women through their senior year and sometimes to college. "The rumors are intractable because of the irrational atmosphere in which they spread," said White. "Things get exaggerated, and there is no way for a girl to argue against it because whenever she does, people assume she is guilty."

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