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    opinion | Leora Tanenbaum

    Slut-shaming undermines women

    With sexual assault reports coming in practically daily from universities around the country, efforts to reduce these incidents and help women who have experienced them are at an unprecedented high level. While the attention being paid to cases such as the recent conviction of two Vanderbilt University football players is necessary and long overdue, one crucial contributing factor of campus sexual assault is being overlooked: the widespread belief that some women are “sluts.”

    “Slut” is a slippery term; it can be applied to almost any girl or woman. And it is. I have yet to meet a woman under 25 who has not been called a “slut” or synonyms like “ho” or “whore” at some point. To most people, these terms refer to a shameful, disgusting woman who is out of control sexually. Yet the women thus labeled are rarely more sexually active than her peers. When an adolescent girl is called such names, very often she is not sexually active at all.

    Once labeled, however, a girl or woman becomes a target for slut-bashing (a term I coined in the 1990s to describe repeated acts of harassment conducted by peers) or slut-shaming (which may be more casual, occur only once, and conducted by strangers). She may be publicly denigrated. She may be told, “Drink bleach,” “Go get cancer,” or “Go die.” She may be physically beaten up.

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    She is also a target for sexual assault because she is believed to never be able to say no to sex, even if she doesn’t want it or can’t say no because she’s incapacitated. Since all adolescent girls and young women living today in the United State are potential targets, it’s fair to say that they live within a culture of slut-shaming.

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    While speaking recently with 55 teenage girls and women around the country about the culture of slut-shaming, I noticed that the “slut” is repeatedly described as someone guilty of the crime of agency. She is believed to have actively done something to provoke her reputation — through her clothing, behavior, or attitude. Girls and women are supposed to be sexy in an understated, effortless way — not slutty in an assertive, obvious way.

    Today, when female bodies are constantly displayed, tracked, tagged, and “liked,” many young women have come to believe that their sexualized bodies are their primary source of power, so rationally they flaunt them. They don’t yet realize that the old sexist belief that women must never be as sexually active as men are continues to shape cultural attitudes. To complicate matters further, many young women refer to each other as “sluts” ironically to express pride in their bodies and sexuality. But inevitably, they end up losing control over the label as their peers turn it against them.

    Here’s what campus sexual assault within this culture of slut-shaming looks like: When Jamie was a first-year student, her resident advisor created a sign for Jamie’s door identifying her not by name but by a synonym for “slut.” The RA thought that this was funny and acceptable because Jamie herself expressed pride that she was sexually active. Jamie took down the sign immediately, but her RA put up a new one. One night, a classmate pushed open her door, forced her on the bed, and raped her. “He must have thought, ‘Well, she sleeps around all the time, so she’ll say yes to me,’” she told me.

    Jamie was raped as a result of her reputation, she believes. But the connection between the slut label and campus sexual assault can also operate in the other direction: sometimes a woman becomes known as a slut because she was raped. When Melinda was in the tenth grade, she went to a bar on her cousin’s college campus, drank too much, and blacked out. Melinda was raped by a student living in her cousin’s dorm, and she became pregnant. When she told her parents, “They were furious with me. I explained that I had been raped, but they said it wasn’t really rape and that I deserved it. My mother called me a slut.”

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    Neither Jamie nor Melinda, who asked that their real names not be used for privacy reasons, pressed charges. Despite widespread anxiety that women routinely fabricate accounts of campus sexual assault, in reality very few do — another consequence of the culture of slut-shaming. Since many people believe that slutty women either are not credible or somehow deserve to be assaulted, coming forward may be an invitation for further abuse.

    Chipping away at the culture of slut-shaming isn’t going to happen overnight, but there are concrete things we can all do. We must acknowledge that women are entitled to be sexual without shame. We can support women’s sexual health care such as that provided by Planned Parenthood, where I work as a writer and editor.

    Most important, however, we need to recognize that the words we use, even in a light-hearted manner, pack a wallop of power. To stop thinking of young women as sluts, we need to stop referring to them as sluts. Only then do we stand a chance of reducing campus sexual assault.

    Leora Tanenbaum is the author of four books about women’s and girls’ lives, including her most recent book, “I Am Not a Slut: Slut-shaming in the Age of the Internet,” released in early February.