Slut-Bashing Is Sexual Harassment

Introduction

High-school girls who are sexually active or rumored to be are sometimes denounced as “sluts” by their classmates.

Some adults overlook these taunts as being part of normal adolescent behavior. Others even approve of the conduct as a means of discouraging girls from having sex.

But as shown in Leora Tanenbaum’s book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, teenagers who call other teens “sluts” are engaging in sexual harassment.

This harmful behavior should not be tolerated by school administrators and teachers. And they need to realize that the harassers are often girls as well as boys.

Sexual harassment

In employment and educational settings, a widely recognized form of sexual harassment is the use of sexual language to create a hostile or abusive environment. Stigmatizing some classmates as sluts fits squarely within this definition.

As Tanenbaum explains, the behavior “is unwanted and unwelcomed sexual attention that creates a hostile environment and reduces a girl to a sexual category.” She shows that the victims often suffer serious emotional and physical damage as a result.

Additionally, the hostile environment interferes with the victims’ ability to learn and denies them the right to an equal education.

Sexual inequality

The slut stigma is also discriminatory in that it is always applied to females. Males who engage in sexual behavior get a pass or may even be extolled as studs. But some females who behave the same way are denigrated and tormented by being called sluts.

It’s a double standard that should have been eliminated decades ago – right along with the other types of sex discrimination that are no longer acceptable. As Tanenbaum points out, having sexual desire is as natural for girls as it is for boys.

And she says there’s no rational reason for denying girls the same right that boys have to be sexual.

Effects of the harassment

The hurt inflicted by the slut stigma can be worse than the pain caused by physical abuse. Among the harms girls have suffered are depression, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, various physical ailments, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. Some of these problems led to drinking, smoking, using drugs, and avoiding school.

Adding to the pain is that the slut reputation often stems from matters having nothing to do with sexual behavior. Some girls are tagged as sluts due to their bodies being more developed than their classmates. Or they may dress or behave in a manner that isn’t considered “normal.” Others acquire the label as a result of false rumors stemming from a classmate’s jealousy, hate, or vindictiveness.

Tanenbaum emphasizes, therefore, that being labeled a slut can happen to any girl – regardless of behavior. And after the rumor takes off, it can be very difficult to counter.

Once the victims realize they may be stuck with the slut reputation, some conclude they might as well act in accordance with it and maybe even have fun with it. So instead of discouraging sexual behavior, the slut label causes them to be more rebellious and sexually active than they otherwise would have been.

Due to the association of sex with shame, however, other victims develop long-lasting hang-ups about sex and intimacy. These include viewing the subjects with guilt, squeamishness, or disgust. And they may acquire a tendency to have relationships with abusive males, since they have become accustomed to an abusive environment or feel they don’t deserve any better.

Moreover, the slut reputation makes the victims attractive targets for rape and other sexual assaults. The perpetrators reason that since “everyone knows” she’s a slut, no one will take seriously her claims that she didn’t consent. Due to the same belief, the victims often don’t report the assaults.

On the bright side for the victims, as adults they frequently report that the slut reputation produced long-term benefits for them. They say it gave them the ability to be nonconformists, to experiment, to develop strength, to see things from the point of view of outsiders, and to be sensitive to the plight of others who are treated unfairly. Many assert that the benefits far outweigh the pain they suffered.

Others harmed by the harassment

The slut stigma also harms people who have never had the epithet hurled at them. In dating situations, the fear of being called a slut causes some women to fail to carry or use contraceptives, because doing so could indicate they were planning to have sex.

If sexual acts do occur, the women then have the excuse that they really aren’t “that type of girl” and were simply overwhelmed by the passion of the moment. Unfortunately, the failure to use contraceptives causes unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Similarly, fear of the slut label causes some women to feel pressure to feign a lack of sexual desire. In one survey of college couples, 39% of the women admitted to putting up token resistance to sexual advances when they really wanted to have sex.

Those women believed that “good” girls have to be cajoled and seem overcome by passion in order to be sexual. But if women always say no to sexual advances even when they mean yes, it can be very difficult for men to understand the real meaning of what is being said on a particular occasion.

Tanenbaum maintains that such ambiguities often cause sexual scenarios that are neither entirely coercive nor completely consensual, but are somewhere in between. The miscommunication is also a factor contributing to date rape.

Additionally, when an actual rape or other sexual assault does occur, many suspect that the victim is lying about it. They think she may have had a sexual encounter she later regretted, and is trying to avoid being viewed as a slut.

These communication problems could be reduced if women were permitted to be honest about their sexual feelings – without having to worry about being stigmatized.

Further, when women are required to be timid and unassertive in regard to sexuality, they are more likely to behave the same way in other areas of life. This can harm their self-esteem, careers, and social relationships.

As John Ince explains in his book The Politics of Lust: “We cannot feel good about ourselves when we fear our own sexuality. In the grip of such insecurity we are less confident and more dependent, and that makes us more open to the control of others.” He says that as a result, “Sexual fear is a barrier to social equality.”

Likewise, Carol Cassell states in her book Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality: “A woman’s lack of sexual confidence overflows into the rest of her life: it makes her passive, dependent.” And it thereby promotes the antiquated and false view that women are the weaker sex.

Sexual pluralism needed

More honesty in sexual relationships on the part of both men and women is urged by sociologist Ira L. Reiss. He has studied American sexual behavior for over 40 years. In his book Solving America’s Sexual Crises, he advocates the adoption of a pluralistic attitude toward sex.

Reiss says it’s imperative to eliminate the deception, impulsiveness, and irresponsibility produced by intolerant sexual attitudes. As exemplified by the slut label, intolerant attitudes often view as “bad” or “immoral” any sexual conduct not conforming to some narrow, subjective, unrealistic, unequal, or irrational standard of what is proper.

A pluralistic approach to sex would include acceptance of the fact that there is no single right or wrong sexual conduct or relationship for all men and women. Instead, different individual preferences are completely natural and acceptable. What is right for one man or woman might not be right for others. And this is fine as long as no one is coerced, exploited, or hurt.

Reiss therefore espouses a tolerant attitude toward sex based on the values of honesty, equality, and responsibility. He explains: “All sexual encounters should be negotiated with an honest statement of your feelings, an equal treatment of the other person’s feelings, and a responsibility for taking measures to avoid unwanted outcomes like pregnancy or disease.”

The continuing existence of the slut stigma promotes intolerance and prevents the development of honesty, equality, and responsibility in sexual relationships. For those reasons, the stigma is unethical and unacceptable.

Conclusion

Young people should be taught that for persons who have reached the age of consent, sexual behavior is a private matter that is nobody else’s business.

And the behavior is not necessarily related to character. History shows that certain persons who were monogamous or celibate have been horrible criminals. On the other hand, some great benefactors of humanity were much more libertine in their sexual attitudes.

Students have the right to file a valid sexual harassment complaint with school authorities against classmates who harass them with the slut label. If the school fails to act, a complaint can be filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint can result in damages being awarded against the school district and a court order requiring the harassment to be stopped.

Schools should no more tolerate this abusive and harmful behavior than they would permit the use of racial or ethnic epithets directed at minority students.