Phoebe Prince

Hope Witsell

The recent publicized suicides of Phoebe Prince and Hope Witsell illustrate the worst case effect of slut-bashing. Slut Bashing, a form of bullying characterized by insults aimed at a girl's actual or perceived sexual behavior to shame, degrade and quickly dehumanize the victim, is a topic rarely discussed. In fact, many adults carelessly toss around words such as whore and slut without giving much consideration to the damaging effect they can have.

The use of a word such as "slut" polarizes girls into two categories, good girls and bad girls. It's the Madonna/Whore Complex, the Ho vs. Housewife. "Good girls" aren't sexually active (at least not outside of a committed relationship) while "bad girls" express themselves sexually. There is no in-between and thus any girl is at risk of being branded with the "bad girl" label. Victims can be anyone, including girls who develop early, turn down male attention, receive a lot of male attention, enjoy sexual activity, girls who are an outsider, a rape victim, and on and on.

It is a double standard. Teenage boys are expected to express themselves sexually. People expect them to pursue and enjoy sexual exploration. Teenage girls are not and can live in fear that similar expressions of sexuality could lead them to being called a slut. Take sexting, for example. A study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicates that boys and girls sext at similar rates (4% of teens report sending sexts, 15% report receiving sexts). However, it's usually the girl's photo that is spread around leaving the girl's reputation tarnished in the time it takes to press ‘SEND'.

Suicide is a rare and extreme result of this type of abuse, but there are countless other outcomes which are more subtle. While many parents would prefer not to think about it, a goal of adolescence is to become sexually healthy adults. Teenagers need to learn how to assert themselves sexually, talk about sex with their partner, ask for what they want, say no when they are uncomfortable and protect themselves from STDs and pregnancy. This becomes harder to do because a girl may fear taking charge of her sex life if she is perceived as bad or undesirable. These words have a lasting effect on boys as well. It can be detrimental to a boy's future adult relationships if he has a deep seeded belief that women with sexual histories, or who are sexually assertive are bad.

It's important for parents to talk to their teens (girls and boys) about the word slut and its implications. The following can help a parent get started.

Discuss: If you overhear your teen using the word or you hear it together while watching TV, use it as an opportunity to have a discussion.

Probe: Ask your teen what the word means to them. They may say it's just an insult or it's not a big deal. Ask the hard questions. Do you think it's okay to judge another person's sex life? Why does slut equal bad?"

Double Standards: Explain the concept. Ask if they have any examples from TV/Movies or from school. Talk about how the word slut is used to put women down.

Status Quo: Your teen may think using the word "slut" is not misogynistic because girls use it as well. This is an opportunity to talk about how girls are often conditioned to accept double standards. Tell them it's brave to question the status quo.

Tables Turned: Your teen may argue that men can be labeled sluts too. Challenge this assumption. Does it shame and degrade a man to be called a slut? Does the insult really affect boys and girls in the same way?

Remember, even if your teen refuses to answer, they are likely listening.

About the Author

Kathryn Stamoulis Ph.D.

Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., teaches at psychology at Hunter College, and specializes in adolescent and sexual development.

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