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RCASA’s Sunday Book Review: Slut! Growing up Female with a bad reputation.

In Outreach, Sexual Assault Awareness on March 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

The statistics are daunting: “Two out of five girls nationwide have had sexual rumors spread about them,” reports Leora Tanenbaum. “Three out of four girls have received sexual comments or looks, and one in five has had sexual messages written about her in public areas.” Tanenbaum sets out to show that “slut-bashing” (her term), is still happening thirty years after the second wave of feminism raised the consciousness of so many American women. In 1997, in Seventeen magazine, Tanenbaum, a journalist, wrote about her experiences of being labeled a slut in high school. “My body and face burned. I felt mortified. I contemplated suicide…. These events occurred in the 1980s, not the 1950s….” An overwhelming number of women who identified with her experiences responded to the article. The response provided the impetus for Tanenbaum to expand and investigate the matter further.

The 50 women interviewed for this book differ greatly in ethnic background, age, and economic status, but they share one thing in common–each of them, along with Tanenbaum herself, was labeled a “slut” in junior high or high school. As such, they became victims of a double standard that winks at sexual promiscuity among teenage boys but insists that young women remain virginal and pure. Even worse, the slut bashing is perpetuated in nearly every case by female classmates.

In addition to insisting that schools get serious about combating sexual harassment, Tanenbaum urges the development of sex education programs that acknowledge responsible alternatives to abstinence, programs that would recognize the sexual desires of young women (and men) without condemnation. Her social critique is solid, but it’s the personal accounts of emotional abuse–and, thankfully, perseverance–that will thoroughly convince you that the current tolerance of slut bashing is simply unacceptable.

Girls may be called “sluts” for any number of reasons, including being outsiders, early developers, victims of rape, targets of others’ revenge. Often the label 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.

For the professional working with teens, the book is of great importance. As humans we may carry our own stereotypes and hidden hurts with us from our own adolescence; whether we were “sluts,” “slut-avoiders,” or “slut-bashers,” this book enables us to view our own experiences, and the experiences of our teenage clients, within a feminist historical perspective. If we haven’t come to terms with our own issues about “sluttiness,” sexual behavior, and sexual attitudes, how can we expect our clients to do the same?

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