The etymology of the word ‘slut’ is a tricky thing. Unlike so many words, especially those bandied about online, it’s not a shape-shifting, constantly evolving thing like slang, or something that holds different meanings depending upon the cultural context of the time period. This is a term that has rooted itself stubbornly into our collective consciousness — and it’s meaning, and the gender to whom it is directed, is quite clear.
Leora Tanenbaum knows this. She’s been called a slut before, and that experience is detailed in her breakout work from 2000, Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation. In a spiritual successor, Tanenbaum revisits the word, a decade and a half later, but in a totally different context, with I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet. Sadly, as it seems, the promise of online liberation, of approaching digital enlightenment, hasn’t done much to blunt the hard edge of something that, as Tanenbaum states, defines and distorts the sexuality of so many young girls and women.
I Am Not a Slut is mostly an examination of online slut-shaming. This is a curious, but utterly not unexpected, method of policing female sexuality. It’s a story as old as time, as Tanenbaum explains. Women, largely, have been slotted into binary categories of the virgin or the whore. You’re either the Madonna or Jezebel. Prude or slut. Now this form of control has moved online, metastasized, and become ever more visible and permanent. As the author relates, when she was called a slut at school, the insult was isolated and contained. With social media, ever present in the lives of many, especially young people, the label can now follow a girl’s reputation more than gossip whispered behind her back ever could.
Tanenbaum’s, or anyone else’s, lively social media footprint, sadly, is probably not enough to correct today’s online culture alone. But so what? Sticks and stones, and all that. What’s a word, after all? Doesn’t shaking an insult off show that one is mature, well-adjusted and, as necessary in social media these days, that one has a thick skin?
Well, words hurt. The body may heal from those sticks and stones, but the heart, the mind, the identity, not so quickly. Prick me, do I not bleed? Call me a prick and watch me be filled with doubt, questioning myself. This is where the real devastating power of I Am Not a Slut comes through. Tanenbaum lists, akin to part 4 in Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666 (2009), a series of girls “slain”, if you will, due to their active sexuality:
“In July 2008 in Cincinnati, eighteen-year-old Jessica Logan hanged herself one month after graduating from high school.”
“In March 2010 in Long Island, New York, seventeen-year-old Alexis Pilkington hanged herself after landing a soccer scholarship to college.”
“In April 2012 in Mantorville, Minnesota, thirteen-year-old Rachel Ehmke hanged herself after repeatedly having been called a slut and a prostitute in person and online.”
“In September 2012 in Saratoga, California, fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott hanged herself.”
“In October 2012 in Staten Island, New York, fifteen-year-old Felicia Garcia jumped to her death onto the track of an oncoming train.”
“In October 2012 in British Columbia, fifteen-year-old Amanada Todd hanged herself.”
“In December 2012 in Hudson, New York, sixteen-year-old Jessica Laney hanged herself.”
“In April 2013 in Nova Scotia, seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons hanged herself, leading to a coma; her family decided to switch off her life support machine several days later.”
“In May 2013 in Queens, New York, twelve-year-old Gabrielle Molina hanged herself.”
Notice the ages of these girls. This litany of tragedies is but a slice of the problem, which is magnitudes larger than anyone assumes or reports. The repetition of death, in a different context, or handled by a different author, could become desensitizing, much like in Bolano’s 2666. Of course, that was part of his point. For Tanenbaum, she preserves the impact of these suicides by the copious interview content she’s accumulated over years of writing and research. Instead of feeling numb, beaten into the ground by the damage slut shaming causes, Tanenbaum’s subjects are rendered as articulate, thoughtful, and above all else, alive. Their stories render them not solely as passive objects but as real living people, possessing a rich and complex subjectivity that is overlooked by both tormentors and well-intentioned allies who often speak only of victimhood.
But victims they may become. This exists because girls and young women, really all females, are stuck in a double bind, of trying to be the ‘perfect’ girl, demonstrated in one of Tanenbaum’s many interviews with said subjects:
Who is this person, this perfect teenage girl? Well, she’s beautiful… but approachable. She’s thin but not ‘scary’ thin. She’s funny but not funnier than guys, who all adore her. She doesn’t let people walk all over her, but she’s not strong-willed or opinionated. She’s smart, but she’s not a brainiac or a geek—and if she is, her other qualities (like beauty and willingness to party) must be pretty excellent to overcome that severe pitfall… We’re all competing to be a person who doesn’t have deep, meaningful life experiences… We’re competing to play her, to perform the role, because, really, nobody is that perfect girl.
Being slut shamed is being made to play a game without one’s consent. When it seems a woman has succeeded, the game goes on. Even female super performers, like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, who have adopted feminist nomenclature, crafting action-packed music videos demonstrating their power and pride, still adhere to all the heteronormative norms; e.g., thin, attractive, youthful, rich. Women can be anything, as long as it’s what money, men and, as Tanenbaum notes, other women, want them to be.
Tanenbaum exposes the reader to this inherent contradiction. Her book walks a fine line. On the one hand, she is visibly concerned about the epidemic of slut shaming, contemptuous of the patriarchal system that forces many women to simultaneously love and loathe their sexuality Meanwhile, she’s suspicious of some women’s coping strategies, whether it’s the attempted reclamation of terms like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’, women fighting fire with fire in an effort to drain these words of their power, or the examples of a Sheryl Sandberg type, trying to out-guy-the-guys.
Occasionally, Tanenbaum can seem to be doing the exact thing she cautions against: policing women’s behavior. Her commentaries stemming from her lengthy interviews can be scolding. Perhaps this is an earlier phase of feminism butting heads with today’s vogue. These things happen, especially online in running Twitter debates between feminists of every shape, size, and color. Still, the effort humanizes Tanenbaum, much like her interview subjects, demonstrating her humor, care, and concern. Few words have been as bastardized or conflated as “feminist”. It’s often used to paint a woman as a humorless neurotic.
If feminists like Tanenbaum are labeled as oversensitive, maybe it’s because so many people aren’t sensitive enough. I Am Not a Slut compels us to reconsider who we listen to, and why.