8 Ways You Were Unconsciously Conditioned To Slut Shame As A Child

I can’t remember when I learned the word “slutty.” Certainly, by fourth or fifth grade, I knew that "being slutty" was a bad thing — something that I absolutely did not want to be, even if at the time, I only had a general concept of what actually happens between couples in the bedroom. And now I’m asking myself, Where did I learn that?

A new study recently presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association found that, as early as sixth grade, girls who have sex lose friends, while boys who have sex gain them. That means that by the age of 11 or 12, girls already know that girls who have had sex are to be avoided and isolated. Where are they learning that?

The unconscious ways that we learn to slut shame others (and ourselves, for that matter) are insidious and plentiful. The term “slut shaming” has been getting a fair amount of press lately, but for all that attention, it’s still a hard-to-define concept. On the most basic level, it seems rather simple: “Slut shaming” refers to shaming someone for their sexual conduct. But “slutty” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. People can get targeted with the label for reasons ranging from their actual sexual behavior, to the way they dress, to flirting (or simply being perceived as flirting). 

And the shaming can take many forms, too — from passive-aggressive questions about one's lifestyle to the out-and-out victim blaming of survivors of sexual assault. And although women are usually the targets of slut shaming (men who are perceived as sexually promiscuous get the much more forgiving “player” label), slut shaming is practiced by both men and women, so often and in such subtle ways that many may not even realize they’re doing it.   

Slut shaming judges and denigrates women for being perceived as sexually available, regardless of their actual sexual behavior. It’s based on an assumption that to be openly sexual as a woman is inherently wrong; that a woman who has sex or likes sex is somehow polluted. And here’s where things get particularly tricky for girls growing up: At the same time that they are learning that a “slut” is the worst thing they can be, girls are also learning the importance of being “hot.” Movies, TV, music, even toys teach them that women should be pretty, appealing, and sexy. In the study mentioned above, researchers found that, although girls who had sex lost friends, girls who made out with boys actually gained popularity. Thus, even in sixth or seventh grade, girls are already learning that they have to walk a very fine line of being sexually desirable, without being sexually available — or they risk judgment and possibly even violence.

Slut shaming is such a deeply rooted bias in our culture that it’s hard to identify exactly how it makes its way into our lives. These are a few of the ways it happens:

Dress Codes

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There’s nothing wrong with a dress code, per se. Schools are allowed to have standards about how they want students to dress, in order to promote the safest, most effective learning environment possible. The problem is that a lot of dress codes disproportionally police their female students’ clothing (and therefore their bodies), banning everything from exposed collarbones to shorts to leggings, all in an effort to keep other students’ from being “distracted.” Male students, in contrast, rarely face similarly stringent requirements.

Implicit in these codes is the argument that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and therefore distracting, and that female students should be responsible for the behavior of male students. In the last couple of years, story after story has emerged of female students being targeted by schools for violating school codes that insist they stay covered — even when their male counterparts face no such rules. In these cases, female students are often taken out of class, and even suspended, sending the message that, although boys’ education must be protected at all costs from the distraction of the female temptresses surrounding them, it’s OK to sacrifice a girl’s education because she’s (gasp!) wearing leggings. For example, there was the story about a girl in Utah (pictured above) who was told that her exposed shoulders were “inappropriate.” And the one about 25 to 60 girls being pulled from class for dress code violations in California. And the one about school administrators who actually had female students watch clips of Pretty Woman (yes, really) and then compared girls who wear leggings to the main character, who is a prostitute. Oh, and this story. And this one. And this one. And wow, look! Another one. And … yep, one more. Oh, wait, we’re not done. Nope, still going …

Sexist dress codes aren’t only for kids and teens. Recently, in a move to prevent legislators from sexually harassing interns, Missouri lawmakers proposed a special dress code for the interns, stipulating that they wear modest attire. Thankfully, the proposal was thrown out, but not before people criticized the lawmakers for indirectly suggesting that interns who have experienced harassment must have provoked it by being improperly dressed, and that legislators (yes, adult elected officials) just can’t be expected to help themselves.

Movies And TV Made For Kids

OK, before you yell, “But I LOVE THE LITTLE MERMAID, you soulless brute!!!” I want to make clear that I’m not trying to suggest that Disney movies have some grand misogynist agenda, and are bent on slut shaming little girls. I don’t think that’s true, and I honestly love those movies. But I do think that many films made for children — including Disney’s iconic princess movies — perpetuate in subtle ways the idea that there are “good girls” and “bad girls” out there, and that “badness” has to do with aggressively vying for male attention.

For example: In The Little Mermaid, the evil Ursula becomes the predatory Vanessa in order to prevent Prince Eric from marrying his true love, the innocent Ariel. In Beauty and the Beast, there are the three blonde sisters who are always throwing themselves at Gaston and are generally portrayed as idiots (and apparently, they are popularly known as “bimbettes”?!). In Cinderella, part of what makes the ugly stepsisters so “ugly” is the desperation to bag the prince. Movies for a slightly older crowd — particularly those set in high school — often have a similar dynamic, with “bad” or “mean” girls portrayed as aggressively flirtatious or possessive of men.

I wouldn’t argue that, on their own, any of these movies are trying to project a slut-shaming message. But collectively, they set up a dynamic wherein heroines are sweet, kind, and innocent in contrast to women who are assertive or openly flirtatious with guys. Kids are smart — they pick up those kinds of cues. 

Movies And TV Made For Adults

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Kids don’t live in a vacuum — they see a lot of the same TV and movies that adults do. Even those with parents who strictly monitor what they’re watching will occasionally be exposed to TV and movies made for adults. And plenty of that programming perpetuates a slut-shaming message. 

One prominent, recent example was the public backlash that Kaitlyn Bristowe received in response to sleeping with one of the male contestants on The Bachelorette in June. The criticism aimed at Bristowe was discussed on the show itself (and at least one reviewer felt that the discussion only perpetuated the shaming). ­The Bachelorette airs at 8 p.m. There were undoubtedly kids who were awake and watching what happened. How many internalized the idea that “Having sex” equals “Being publicly shamed"?

Parents

For better or worse, we learn about the world from our parents. Some teach their daughters to slut shame by literally telling them that being sexually promiscuous (or having sex at all) is shameful or wrong. (Some also teach their daughters to prize their virginity above all else, often on religious grounds — more on that below). However, other parents may unintentionally teach slut shaming simply by commenting negatively on other women’s clothing and behavior, or by using words like “trashy” and “slutty” within earshot of their children.

Promise Rings And Purity Balls

In some parts of the country, promise rings (rings meant to symbolize a promise to stay “pure” until marriage) are popular among adolescents and teens. In fact, there was a time that the promise ring was practically part of the uniform among Disney stars, with the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato all sporting them. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with deciding to wait until marriage to have sex. But in some circumstances, the promise ring can be a way of declaring that one's personal value depends on virginity, especially for girls — and that therefore, having sex is a way of losing value. 

Another iteration of this is the purity ball — a formal event in which teenage girls vow to stay virgins until marriage, and their fathers vow to protect their daughters’ "purity." (I know. This makes me cringe a little.) As far as I can tell, purity balls are held for girls only — suggesting that a girl’s worth is a matter of her sexual “purity” and that a boy's value is not similarly attached to his sexual behavior. By describing a girl’s virginity as her “purity,” and suggesting that this purity must be maintained at all costs, these ceremonies imply that a girl losing her virginity before marriage makes her impure — dirty, contaminated, worthless. That’s a message that they’ll apply not only to themselves, but to the other women around them.

Friends

Kids are like sponges — they pick up ideas from everything around them, all the time. So even kids who aren’t receiving slut-shamey messages at home can get them from their friends, who learned to slut shame from their parents, or siblings, or grandparents, or the TV, or the babysitter, or whoever. The problem is that slut shaming is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it emerges in all sorts of contexts, all the time, and kids are bound to soak that up.

Sexual Education

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As John Oliver brilliantly demonstrated in a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, sex education in the United States is Completely. Messed. Up. There's the lack of consistency in what is taught, no requirement in many states that what is taught be medically accurate (Yes, you read that right), and many states’ dedication to abstinence-only sex ed, despite the fact that abstinence-only programming has been proven to be ineffective

But a major issue is that many sex education curriculums teach students that sex is shameful, and that people who have it are somehow tainted. In the programs John Oliver discusses, for example, people (especially women) who have sex before marriage are compared to dirty shoes, old tape, and chewed gum.

It is perhaps not surprising that many of these programs put the burden on preventing sex on women, suggesting that while “boys will be boys,” girls are solely responsible for guarding their virginity, or they risk losing value in the eyes of others. For example, this is an actual passage from the student manual for a sex ed program called Heritage Keepers:

... Girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts. (p. 46)

Excuse me for a moment. I need to go stand in a corner and scream.

The Public Slut Shaming Of Celebrities

Many of you will remember the uproar that erupted in 2007 when risqué photographs of then-18-year-old Vanessa Hudgens were leaked online (without her consent). Hudgens, then known primarily as the star of High School Musical, apologized for the photos (which, again, were taken in private and leaked without her consent) amid rampant slut shaming and speculation that she would be fired from the High School Musical franchise. Disney kept her on for the third film, but not before releasing this patronizing statement: “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she's learned a valuable lesson.” Was the valuable lesson that an adult woman shouldn’t be allowed to take nude photos in her private life? Or that it’s her fault that they were leaked online?

High School Musical came out a bit after my time — I was out of college when the scandal occurred — but I'm troubled by the message this incident (and similar ones with other celebs) sent to her younger fans. It wasn't “this is a horrible thing to have happened to her,” but “an adult woman who engages in sexual activity should be publicly exposed and shamed.” Thankfully, the public response in 2014 to the massive nude photo hack, which targeted Jennifer Lawrence, Victoria Justice, and many others, showed some change for the better. Many responded to the leak with outrage — at the hackers this time, rather than those who had been violated. And Lawrence famously refused to apologize.

Image: PixabayWalt Disney Pictures; Giphy (1, 2, 3)

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