Sex & Relationships

Girls Gone Mild: Are Feminists and Prudes Rebelling Against Slut Chic?

Wendy Shalit's new book suggests there's anti-slut rebellion in the making.
Wendy Shalit isn't quite shocked anymore by how eroticized popular culture is. She delved into that when researching her first book, A Return to Modesty, which defended premarital virginity and was published in 2000 when she was 23. Back then, Shalit was skewered by sundry venues from Playboy to The Nation. Hustler magazine dubbed her its Asshole of the Month. She jokes about trudging "under the heavy burden of the Scarlet M, baffled but fascinated." What startles her now -- now that she's married, with a baby of her own -- is how young the eroticization starts. She shudders at a line of bibs and onesies on display at that proclaim: I'm too Sexy for my diaper!

Meanwhile, a quick Google-surf yields, at, child-size tees that read PROPERTY OF PIMP UNIVERSITY. "PIMP" is twice the size of the other words, in case passersby almost miss the point.

Hello Kitty preteen thongs and Hasbro Pussycat Dolls dolls shock Shalit, as do crimson-lipsticked Bratz Babyz and department-store padded pushup training bras.

"Being a child is no longer a valid excuse not to be sexualized" -- but the literal sexy-baby thing is just a symptom, Shalit contends, of a much crueler crisis in which young women are barraged by pop-culture pressures from My Scene Bling Bling Barbie to The Vagina Monologues, so they transform into vacuous Stepford sluts, the hybrid nightmare of both feminists and prudes. Sensual. Casual. Available. And so very eager to please.

"Not since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 has there been such bipartisan agreement that we have a problem," Shalit avows in her new book, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good (Random House, 2007), in which she posits a brewing revolution among girls who just wanna say no. Comparing Bratz Babyz to the Cuban Missile Crisis is a bit bombastic, but what prompted her to climb out on that bouncy limb was a 2006 Rolling Stone story in which Duke University students, pole-dancing in a go-go cage, said they wished they could just date. When born-to-be-wild Rolling Stone "starts to read like the National Review, then clearly something has gone very wrong," Shalit proclaims.

"On the one hand, girls are more educated and women more successful in business than ever before." On the other hand, she avows, the hookup scene is making them miserable. If we are to believe the myriad surveys she cites and Shalit's thousand-plus personal interchanges with females aged twelve to 28, many resent the randomness, the anonymity, the forced unnaturalness of what she calls "bottling up those emotions" and separating sex from love, in being warned to remain "cling-free" and in having sex only because "you can't get out of it." Today's mothers, teachers, doctors and therapists are veterans of the sexual revolution. Deluged by the advice of these adults, young girls told Shalit that they feel pressured to strut boldly through the gates their elders crashed circa 1972. They told Shalit, or so she writes, that their moms call them freaks for wearing loose-fitting, figure-hiding clothes or hesitating to lose their virginities.

So merchandisers pounce: with tees for six-year-olds proclaiming LUST, with pimp-and-ho Halloween costumes. With the $24.95 Striptease Kit, including "red sequined pasties with adhesive, sheer black scarf, body glitter, 10 fold-out cards" detailing "step-by-step routines." Politics pounces too: Shalit recounts Women's Pride Week at her alma mater, Williams College, where the campus feminist group "distributed SHAMELESS HUSSY stickers that we were all expected to wear, to prove that we were proud to be sexually active. They also distributed stickers reading F - - K THE PATRIARCHY that seemed to be in conflict with the first set of stickers (unless they meant F - - K THE PATRIARCHY literally)."

Confusion swirls when girls casually greet each other with "Hi, slut!" -- and "prostitot" is not really an insult. The line is hair-fine between liberation and exploitation. The refrain to a swelling pro-promiscuity chorus, Shalit writes, is that "being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity." It stands in for identity, replaces emotional intimacy. And it's easier than thinking or talking: a kind of autopilot.

To many of us, this might seem scare-mongeringly silly. Surely we can think for ourselves! But think back down the years to, say, high school or middle school. Especially if you weren't the rebel type then. Especially if you, like so many kids that age, were a little insecure. Especially if you attended conformist schools in conformist towns. The suicide rate among American girls has spiked dramatically in the last few years, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control; the sharpest increase is among those aged ten to fourteen. What's making so many girls so tragically stressed-out? Well ... what bothers kids that age? Peer pressure. Hormones.

The awkward not-a-child-yet-not-an-adult cusp. That sad I'm-fat-and-ugly thing. Whether being expected to look and act hotter and hotter younger and younger might be driving some to suicide, we don't know, because we can't ask the dead girls. But if you were ever ignorant and impatient and impressionable and still years away from realizing that someday you'd grow up and away and out of this, and your best friends were wearing Hello Kitty thongs and double-A padded push-up bras and giving BJs behind the gym, who knows? You might have done things you'd regret. The question keeps coming around to "Who's having fun?" Most of the girls quoted in this book say they're not. One resented having to make out with girl-pals at parties so that guys could watch. One was weirded out when her boyfriend insisted on having sex with her in front of a webcam. Another was irked when her eighth-grade teacher cracked "69" jokes. Others said they felt bullied, stunted, invisible. The image of the twelve-year old circling a suburban bedroom on her knees, servicing fourteen-year-old boys as they played video games, chiming "Next!" after each one, then explaining that "she was doing it because that was what she did for her guy friends," sticks in the mind. You don't have to be evangelical to think: Uhh, twelve?

Shalit decries online sex-ed Web sites such as, highly recommended by the American Library Association as "honest, fresh, and fun" and which advertises its own sex-toy shop staffed by "wonderful babes." Columbia University's Go Ask Alice advice site, also recommended by the ALA, vouches for bestiality: "Sexual contacts with animals might be stimulating for some people," Shalit quotes from, "because they are secretive, forbidden, and dangerous. An animal doesn't 'kiss and tell,' nor do his or her expectations 'get in the way.'" The tendency on such sites, Shalit laments, is "to view virginity as a boil to lance." While it's yawn fodder at this point to note that teen idols dress like hoes -- Britney's recemt MTV Awards underwear-dance, for example -- it's getting easier and more expected for teens themselves to dress that way, like for school. In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch launched a line of thongs for preteens with "eye candy" and "kiss me" printed on their fronts. Target, too, sells preteen thongs. Shalit quotes the catalog text: "Bows and lace thong panties feel sexy under your clothes."

She toured the tweener retail world: "Limited Too, a store catering to preteens, now offers lace and rhinestone low-rise panties to its young customers. Hot Topic, where twelve-year-olds shop, sells black and red satin bustiers and see-through undies.... Don't get me wrong: I don't have anything against lingerie," she reassures us. But what worries her is that after this deluge, "there is no longer any mystery or power to sex -- it is just expected that everything will be sexual, and so ... there is nothing to wait for, or to look forward to. And that seems to me to be the real crime."

At a toy store, shopping for a doll to give a friend's child, Shalit was startled to hear Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" soughing through the loudspeakers -- and to note that the young shopper next to her, "who looked about seven years old, wore a purple cropped top and peep-toe wedgies with heels two inches high."

But Shalit posits a rebellion, simmering among the deliberate virgins, romantics awaiting Master Right, angry bandannaed adolescents refusing to be "totally obsequious to men," sly dissidents in sweater sets and flowing opaque skirts.

They're taking something back. Okay, not sexy. Authenticity, some say. And innocence. Ours is "a culture so hostile to innocence," Shalit claims. And in an era when Arizona State University students celebrate V-Day with a forty-foot-high inflatable vagina, these new rebels are reclaiming "the right to be embarrassed."

Hey, backlashes happen.

Shalit toured North America interviewing girl-guerrillas in this strange strawberry-scented war. Despite what her haters might expect -- or perhaps anticipating them; in this book, the "professional smirkers" who dubbed her a "professional virgin" because of the last one come in for a hot roasting -- not all of these abstainers are Hasidic Jews or Christian conservatives or immature or scared or shy. Some are. Others are militant. The "Girlcotters" are Pittsburgh teens who boycotted Abercrombie & Fitch in 2005 to protest the company's sexist tees. ("WHO NEEDS BRAINS," one shirt asked, "WHEN YOU HAVE THESE?")

"One of the big parts of equality," a Girlcotter tells Shalit, "is women being able to make their own decisions.... A lot of people accused the Girlcotters of trying to censor stuff. But we weren't trying to make the company illegal or whatever."

A fourteen-year-old Quebeçoise organizes feminist conferences at universities, railing to auditoriums full of adults against what she calls "hypersexualization" and "the pornified media" -- from Christina Aguilera to beauty pageants: "We have to speak to young people about intimacy and love, not just performance," Léa Clermont-Dion tells an audience in Montreal. "Because now for young people, it's all about performance."

Out of the mouths of -- oh wait, we can't say that. But it's fascinating to have reached a point in Western civ at which teens rage against ... casual sex. "Girls think that they're empowered in all this," Clermont-Dion says -- and she is "livid," Shalit tells us. "They think it's their choice to degrade themselves for men ... it's sexual submission and we don't even realize it."

Shalit keeps returning to the concept of the "good girl." Too often dismissed as invoking the priss, the nerd, the tattletale, the goody two-shoes, the religious zealot, these days it is being claimed anew, a badge of sorts, by other types of girls who defy any partisan attempt to crowd them all into the same easily labeled box. We meet pink-fingernailed philosophers, dreamers and activists. Nonprofit founders -- launching food drives for the hungry with their sweet-sixteen cash -- and seventh-graders rendered iconoclasts for saying no.

"In an age when even an ad for Evian water features a naked woman lying in the snow," Shalit muses, "and when college officials are proud of their 'varsity streaming teams,' you have to wonder how it's possible for a young person to rebel."

Because while it's not easy to be any teen, ever, it's cooler now to wear PIMP shirts than not. When Barbie and Ludacris and Jane magazine and Eve Ensler all seem to be singing the same song, which direction is upstream?
Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto.
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