Slut! Ho! Girls Speak Out on Slut-Bashing in School

Jenn, a 17-year-old high-school student from Mulvane, KS, was repeatedly called "slut" during band practice. She says the boys just wanted to be mean. Jenn eventually stopped playing tuba in band because of the name-calling, which really ticked her off.

"I don't think people quite understand the power of their words. They don't know how much what they say can hurt someone," says Jenn. "From day one, we learn a spoken language, and words shape everything we do. Everything's given labels, and you're defined by your label."

Unfortunately for many teen girls today, the label that's used to define, bully, and often harass them is "slut" or "ho." What starts out as isolated name-calling can even turn into sexual harassment when it's done on a repeated basis. At the very least, being called slut or ho leaves many teen girls in pain.
"If one person calls you a slut, then all the people they hang around with will, too. Then when you're alone and thinking to yourself, you realize that someone has called you this. You feel so much turmoil inside."

Take Tammy, a 16-year-old from Damon, TX, whose classmates called her a slut.

"I felt that people thought I wasn't worth anything, that they thought of me as trashy. If one person calls you a slut, then all the people they hang around with will, too. Then when you're alone and thinking to yourself, you realize that someone has called you this. You feel so much turmoil inside. I know I did," she says.
"Good" vs. "Slutty"
"Slut is the greatest insult you can call a female, the most shameful insult," says Leora Tanenbaum, author of Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation. "And it's part of a sexual double-standard. There's this idea that guys, but not girls, are allowed to express themselves sexually."

Take Emma*, a 17-year-old from CT.

"I've been called a slut for going farther than most girls do the first time I hook up with someone. It made me feel dirty," she says.

Tanenbaum herself was called a slut during high school. To research her book, she interviewed 50 girls and women who were also called slut at school. She discovered that "girls are in a bind" when they're forced into one of two groups--"good" or "slutty."

"Adolescent girls have a lot of anxiety about their own sexual desire and identity. And we live in a culture that says that guys are allowed to be sexually expressive, but girls are supposed to be more interested in love. Feeling sexual or doing sexual things, that's not what 'good girls' are supposed to be feeling and doing," explains Tanenbaum.

Even if a girl is not sexually active, like many of the victims Tanenbaum talked to for her book, the idea of promiscuity was used to punish and insult them. Tanenbaum discovered that many girls were called sluts because they were raped or in a coercive sexual situation. And what concerns her is when teens use the words "slut" and "ho" to constantly bully other girls.

"If someone calls you a slut once or twice, but it's not persistent, that's not that big of a deal," says Tanenbaum. "My focus is on girls who have an entire identity based on the troubling rumors spread about them."

Slut bashing in high schools is not uncommon; it's part of a larger form of nonphysical harassment that goes on in schools.

Last year, the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, in Washington, D.C., surveyed more than 2,000 students for the report Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School. Researchers found that 66 percent of high school students had been victims of unwanted sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks. Only Words?
Are you Being Sexually Harassed at School?
Learn to recognize sexual harassment and learn about your rights to a safe environment.
For more on sexual harassment check out another Sex, Etc. story on the subject.
You can also check out Sexual Harassment at School: Know Your Rights, from the Equal Rights Advocates of San Francisco. They run an Advice and Counseling line at 1-800-839-4ERA (4372).
You can also learn more from Sexual Harassment: It's Not Academic, by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Only Words?
Tom* and James* are two 17-year-old guys from CT and NJ. They believe that calling a girl slut can be harmful, but they insist it's just "casual language." "It's like saying 'gay' for something stupid. It's changed into other meanings," says Tom.

"Using 'slut' is not a big deal. It's funny," says James. "It's just laughing at other people's expense." But James acknowledges that words like "slut" or "ho" punish girls for being sexually active.

"Most of the time, a girl is called a slut because of something she does or has done," he says. "If she's proud of giving head or having sex, or if she hooks up with a lot of guys."

Tom and James don't feel that teens will stop using the word "slut," especially because it's such a casual part of their language. But even though slut is often thrown around in teen conversations, the tie it holds to female sexuality continues to make it a biting remark.

"Guys called me slut because they didn't like me," says Jenn. "My friend was called a slut for hugging and hanging out with guys. ... At first, it's no big deal, but then it's like conditioning. When they say it over and over again, a girl can feel badly."

Author Tanenbaum brings it back to "the bottom line."

"Nobody deserves to be called a slut. I don't care what her sexual history is. Boys are not called sluts," she adds. "There is no equivalent for boys, and that is completely unfair."

Jenn agrees.

"In our society, a guy is allowed to sleep with whomever he wants, but not a girl. A girl is supposed to wear white on her wedding day to symbolize purity, while a guy can sleep around. It's gender bias."

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Elizabeth Greenberg, 17, is a SEX, ETC. national correspondent from Princeton, NJ.

This article is reprinted with permission from SEX, ETC., the national newsletter written by teens for teens on health and sexuality issues that is published by the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Visit SEX, ETC. at

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