By Dr. Micaela Wexler
When I say “girl,” I am talking about females who have not yet reached adulthood. Girls start being subjected to this abuse starting at the age of 10, if not earlier. By “slut,” I am not just referring to the actual word, but also to any language that shames a girl for expressing her sexuality. And, when I say “you,” I am limiting myself to the adults in girls’ lives who do this who are supposed to be supporting and nurturing these girls: parents, step parents, parents’ girlfriends, aunts, older sisters, teachers, neighbors.
This behavior is so wide spread that a word defining this behavior is now part of our lexicon: slut-shaming. Slut-shaming is defined as “publicly or privately insulting a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women.” As a child psychiatrist, I hear slut-shaming several times a day. And, sadly, it is usually women who engage in this behavior. Examples I have heard include:
- a teacher I spoke to about a bullying incident said, of the 12 year old in question, “excuse my language, but if she didn’t dress like a slut . . . ”
- a woman, speaking about her stepdaughter: “she is 15, and she’s already a slut”
- another stepmother, speaking of her husband’s 14 year old daughter, “she goes prancing out the door with skirts up to here, make up that makes her look cheap, to hang out with a bunch of kids to do who-knows-what. I don’t like that sort of behavior around my 12 year old son. You should see how he looks at her. I wish she would just go away.”
- a woman whose boyfriend has a 16 year old: “instead of making her babysit (their one year old), he let her go out with her friends. All she does is go out and screw everyone she sees.”
The implications behind this slut-shaming behavior is that these girls are unworthy of our love, support and protection. In each of these examples, the girls’ behavior was being used as a rationale for not considering her needs. In the first example, the teacher is absolving herself of any responsibility for protecting a 12 year old girl because of how she DRESSES. The other examples all involve stepchildren. So, not only do the girls in question have to suffer the calamity of their parents’ divorce, but they now have a new slut-shaming person in their lives.
In every single example, the needs of the girls are completely ignored. The 14 year old girl mentioned above is entitled to safety in her own home regardless of how she dresses. The 12 year old son would benefit from being taught to respect females rather than watching the behavior that is undoubtedly being demonstrated. If it really is true that the 16 year old is “screwing everyone she sees,” that is a tragedy, not an opportunity for derision.
As a child psychiatrist, I have to think that the women in these slut-shaming examples, and others like them, do not truly wish these girls harm. The teacher chose a helping profession and has dedicated several years to serving middle school children. All the mothers in these examples are incredibly nurturing to their own children.
So, why do you do this? One reason, in my opinion, is that you are truly overwhelmed by the daunting task of shepherding girls through these turbulent years. Raising teenagers, both boys and girls, has become very complicated. Families face constant intrusion from the world at large, through the media, social media, as well as from economic pressures that expose families to risky situations. Many of you are the products of a society that gave you negative images and limited opportunities. You live in a world that offers your family very little support.
I have to believe, also, that you are unaware of the damage this behavior causes. Slut-shaming causes deep, long lasting damage to a girl’s self perception. When girls are slut-shamed by the adults in their lives, they are shunned, isolated, left to navigate the dangerous waters of the teenage world alone, without protection, information and support. This places boys at risk, as well. Slut shaming leaves boys without any meaningful tools they can use in communicating with girls. They are being asked to view potential friends and romantic partners in a negative, one dimensional fashion which ignores who they are as people.
When we make negative comments about how a girl dresses, we are are objectifying that girl, and teaching her, and her male peers, that her value is based on how she looks. Whenever we slut-shame, we make it harder for these girls to defend themselves against rape, child molestation and relationship abuse. We also make it difficult for these girls to develop a healthy sexual identity. Some girls react by exaggerating this behavior. Other girls react by shutting down their sexual side, acquiring negative attitudes about their sexual feelings.
By slut-shaming, you are adding to the turbulence all teenagers face. Since I know that this is not at all your intention, I ask, for the sake of all teenagers, that you examine this behavior and why you engage in it. Next time you get the urge to do this, instead find out what the girl’s behavior means about how she feels as a person. Reach out to her and help her navigate the treacherous waters she and all teenagers find themselves in.