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“You’re such a slut!”: Sexual validation in the age of social media

Why has exchanging insults become acceptable, expected and even desired behavior among young women?


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Leora Tanenbaum
February 9, 2015 5:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "I Am not a Slut"

Before social media, there was no ambiguity when someone called a girl a slut. She knew she was being insulted, bullied, harassed, or abused. But today, “slut” is often a casual, reciprocated greeting among peers. “It’s like saying hi in passing,” reports a white twenty-year-old college student. “Girls calling girls sluts is really prevalent. It’s become normal to do it.” Daniela, the Latina bartender in Texas, says, “Around here, girls basically call out ‘slut’ as a sort of compliment to any female who looks good. Basically, you say it to any female.” Sarah, the twenty-one-year-old white student whose high school boyfriend used slut-bashing as a form of blackmail, tells me, “On my campus, girls say to each other, ‘Hey, you’re such a slut’ or ‘You’re such a whore,’ and I’ve never heard anyone get upset about it. It’s just a way for girls to acknowledge each other.”

“Slut” is also commonly used on social network sites. Georgiana, a twenty-two-year-old white doctoral student in comparative literature, reports that her peers routinely call each other “slut” on Facebook as a complimentary greeting. She tells me that the women in her program sexualize themselves in their Facebook photos to attract attention from both females and males. Even doctoral candidates in their twenties and thirties, who presumably would be most likely to gain status from their academic work or job prospects rather than from their bikini shots, are chasing status from their sexuality. In response to their profile photos, their peers offer sexual validation.

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A lot of girls [and women in their twenties] think that showing their bodies on Facebook is the best way to get attention. In the comments section, people tell them that they’re hot and they give them “likes.” Girls use the word “slut” all the time when they’re “liking” a photo. They write, “I love you, you slut.” They mean it to be positive. So then a girl thinks, How many likes can I get? Because if she posts a picture of herself wearing a cropped shirt and short shorts, she’ll get a million likes. And that is very rewarding. And then the other girls who are paying attention see that this is a way to get attention, so they do it, too. So then everyone starts to do it. You even see girls who are fourteen, fifteen, doing the same thing.

Guys also like to show off their bodies. They post pictures of their abs and their tattoos. But guys don’t have to post pictures of their bodies unless they want to. That’s their choice. All a guy really has to do is “like” a girl’s picture or comment on it, and that’s enough for him to get status because it shows everyone that he’s in the game and that he’s friends with hot girls. It’s more important for him to “like” hot girls than to be hot himself.

It’s different for girls. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram teach them that they will get status and be rewarded if they sexualize themselves and get called sluts. Note that images of female bodies offer validation not only for girls and women, who are judged on the basis of their own appearance and sexiness, but also for boys and men, who are judged on the basis of their appreciation of female bodies. Images of sexy females have currency for everyone, females and males, while images of sexy males have limited currency. Within this framework, casual usages of “slut” are like trading cards. The more a girl receives positive affirmation for being “slutty,” the more her status is strengthened.

But at what cost? Girls and women are saying that they “love” the “slut” in question. Do they really? After all, we have seen that “slut” is an infinitely confusing term. Its meanings are not always obvious. How is a girl or woman supposed to know if she’s being complimented or insulted? “I’ve been called a slut in a joking way by my roommate,” says Jasmine, the twenty-year-old black and Latina student in California. “She’s like, ‘God, you’re such a slut!’ She said it three times over the last year. I laughed it off the first time, and after that I ignored her. She totally was judging me for hooking up with guys. She wanted to insult me, but under the cover of a joke.” Because “slut” has become an acceptable label among close friends, it can be used to frame an insult inside a term of endearment. “To me,” explains Sarah, “it’s like, ‘Hey, maybe you’ve done some crazy things over the weekend, so I’m going to call you a slut, but I’m not trying to be derogatory.” Translation: You are sexual, which is to be admired as long as you don’t go too far, in which case it’s bad—really bad. I’m calling you a slut, and I’m leaving my meaning deliberately ambiguous. I have my eye on you. But I’m being very casual about it, and I’m not putting in any real effort here, and if you accuse me of shaming you, I will deny it.

Unlike slut-bashing, which is an overt form of bullying, slut-shaming is a casual method of judgment. It may be indirect and conducted only one time, and its intention may not be clear. Like slut-bashing, slut-shaming is a method of policing a girl or woman for being inappropriately sexual and deviating from normative femininity. Reciprocal slut-shaming is a two-way communication system in which two girls or young women alternately police and affirm each other’s femininity. Even when used in a casual, reciprocal way among peers, in person or online, “slut” remains a hammer to nail down the sexual double standard. Do not be fooled by outer layers of friendliness. Beneath lies a judgmental and sexist core. Reciprocal greetings of “Hey, slut” constitute slut-shaming in camouflage. Because it’s performed covertly, slut-shaming is easy to deny and dismiss—even when it’s damaging girls’ and women’s reputations.

It’s not an accident that of all the informal salutations females have at their disposal to acknowledge each other—“girlfriend,” “sista”—“slut” is now ascendant. Young females are creating a sense of identity, even a sense of community, through recognition of each other as sexualized people. They are “not prudes”; they are “sluts”—“good sluts”—the kind that are acceptable and valued. This is the way young females perform femininity. Achieving “good slut” status depends primarily on the judgment of other girls and women; guys’ opinions carry some, but not as much as girls’, weight in this arena. After all, “good slut” status is ultimately an affirmation of femininity and reputation, which have meaning only within a community of girls and women who determine the extent to which each member conforms to or violates a series of rules. We are “good sluts” only if members of our peer group say that we are after we have proved that we fulfill the criteria they have established. We need their affirmation to maintain our status. In turn, they require our validation to maintain their own status. But a girl’s validation counts only as long as she is in good standing, so the platform for validation is weak and could crash at any given moment.

In the era of online social media, girls and young women have turned to new technologies to prove their credentials as “good sluts,” which authenticate their offline performance as normatively feminine. Almost all teenagers in America use social media, according to the advocacy organization Common Sense Media. Although Facebook is falling out of fashion, it remains the dominant social networking site. Calling a fellow female a slut within a social media platform seals the deal: two females recognize each other as “good sluts.” Each enters into this exchange to elevate her own status as sexually attractive. But because “slut” can also potentially mean “shameful, disgusting, sexually out-of- control female,” greeting another female with “Hey, slut” is a sly wink that says, “I’m watching you, and I’m policing you.” The exchange is empowering and disempowering at the same time.

Discipline and Punish

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Reciprocal slut-shaming among peers is a new phenomenon. When I was harassed as a “slut” in the 1980s, the idea of “Hey, slut” being a friendly greeting was absurd. Trying to make sense of this fast-moving twenty-first-century behavior, I first turned to the works of several twentieth-century philosophers of critical theory for whom the power structures implicit in the acts of performance and surveillance play a big role. I wanted to comprehend the psychology of reciprocal slut-shaming. Why has exchanging insults become acceptable, expected, and even desired behavior among young women?

Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, argued that capitalist states require an ideology—a system of ideas and representations that are understood as natural yet in fact are manufactured by the state to exercise power so that individuals (or “subjects”) accept the state’s authority. Althusser called this process “interpellation” or “hailing.” He offered the example of a police officer calling out to a passerby, “Hey, you there ...” When the hailed individual turns to acknowledge the police officer, he transforms from an autonomous person into a subject willing to accept the authority of the state. He accepts that the police officer holds power over him. The passerby accepts as natural and unremarkable that there exists a power imbalance between himself and the officer. Through the “slut” greeting, girls and young women hail each other the way the police officer hails the citizen. In this verbal exchange, however, each female takes a turn acting as police officer and passerby. Femininity is an ideology, and slut-shaming is a hailing mechanism that transforms females into both disciplinary agents as well as feminine subjects. When woman A posts a sexually revealing photo on a social networking site, and woman B comments, “You’re such a slut!” woman A recognizes herself as a “slut”—either a “good” or “bad” one depending on whether or not woman B “liked” the photo—and also affirms the fact that she is being judged and policed. Woman B is policing woman A. When woman A reciprocates on woman B’s post, the roles are reversed. Sexual policing is enormously easy today because women’s bodies are photographed, tracked, and monitored overtly and covertly within social media. Boys’ and men’s bodies are photographed, tracked, and monitored as well, but not nearly as often as girls’ and women’s are. The social news site Reddit, along with Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, and other sites such as Creepshots.com, has encouraged users to post “creepshots”—nonconsensual pictures of women taken in public spaces. The Reddit forum Creepshots (now shut down) stated on its introductory page, “When you are in public, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. We kindly ask women to respect our right to admire your bodies and stop complaining.”

“My students describe a suffocation,” says Shira Tarrant, PhD, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of "Men and Feminism" and "When Sex Became Gender." “They feel a relentless pressure to put themselves on display. They are constantly under surveillance, not only with the ATM cameras and other surveillance cameras that are on streets and in stores and in national parks, but also with the photos they and their friends take for Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. They have to perform for the cameras constantly.” In a sense, young women are living within a surveillance prison—a “panopticon.” We all are. The panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher of utilitarianism, in the late eighteenth century (although it was never built), that enabled a watchman to observe prisoners without their knowledge. The panopticon consisted of a courtyard with a circular tower in the center. Surrounding the tower were buildings divided into cells; each cell had two windows. One window faced the tower, and the other faced the outside to bring in light. One gaze, like a Facebook news feed, saw everything.

Michel Foucault, another French philosopher, expanded on the concept of the panopticon. He noted that the cells become “small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.” The prisoner can’t see if the watchman is in the tower; he never knows if he’s being observed within his “theater.” Therefore, he must always assume that he’s being observed and perform the way he would if he knew that the watchman were eyeing him. In effect, he becomes his own jailer. Meanwhile, the watchman is himself also being observed and therefore must regulate his own behavior as well. Observation becomes a mechanism of discipline and coercion.

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Self-surveillance—the result of having to assume you are always being watched—assures that at all times, individuals discipline themselves. Self-surveillance also underlies the fictional totalitarian society depicted in George Orwell’s novel "1984," in which the leader known as Big Brother and his Thought Police spy on all citizens through hidden microphones and cameras. Orwell wrote in 1949, There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. Orwell’s description of self-disciplining as a result of surveillance was prescient. Whether or not the National Security Agency is a Big Brother monitoring US citizens, in our digitally networked age we are all monitored by people we know and do not know: friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and everyone within each of their social orbits.

The feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky expanded on Foucault’s understanding of disciplinary practices with regard to women. “We are born male or female, but not masculine or feminine,” she notes. Femininity is a performance requiring “disciplinary practices that produce a body which in gesture and appearance is recognizably feminine.” Bartky points out that to conform to femininity, a woman must always remember that her body is meant to be seen by others. Therefore she must discipline her body, which must be the “right” size and shape; she must submit to regimes to control her skin, hair, makeup, fingernails, and toenails; and she must select an appropriate wardrobe. Bartky locates the source of discipline within a “system of sexual subordination” to which women voluntarily seek initiation. “No one is marched off for electrolysis at the end of a rifle,” she points out, “nor can we fail to appreciate the initiative and ingenuity displayed by countless women in an attempt to master the rituals of beauty.” But women do risk social and romantic censure, even ostracism, if they don’t conform to societal norms of beauty, and therefore they may become compliant within the regime of femininity “just as surely as the army aims to turn its raw recruits into soldiers.” Femininity as an ideology serves as a prison guard, and because women are rewarded for compliance, they police themselves as if they lived within a supervised prison.

Motherhood had long been the central feature of normative femininity, according to Bartky, but in the 1980s, when she wrote her analysis, she argued that motherhood had given way to the sexualized body as that which defines femininity. Three decades later, the self-regulation of women’s bodies has become truly oppressive in the mirrored hallways of social media. Today, the aesthetic of pornography determines the ideal of sexiness; achieving a sexy appearance involves mimicking the grooming habits of women who work in pornography. Women involved in sex work have become mainstream stars, even role models. When Jenna Jameson promoted her book "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," thirteen-year-old girls came to readings to tell her she was their role model. Although Jameson’s book relates a story of resilience—Jameson overcame rape, drug abuse, and alcoholism to become hugely successful in the adult film industry—her teenage fans seemed to have overlooked, or been unaware of, the book’s message. Jameson told the Los Angeles Times she was bothered by the fact that her young fans looked up to her as a porn star and not as a three-dimensional person. When Tracy Quan, a prostitute who also wrote a book, shared a meet the author event at a Barnes & Noble with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, she told the New York Times, “If that’s not being part of the Establishment, I don’t know what is.” Since so many heterosexual boys and men fantasize about women who look like Jameson and Quan, many girls and women come to believe that they should look like Jameson and Quan themselves. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph, the authors of the book "Sexy Feminism," point out that because of pornography, “huge breasts, platinum hair, and hairless vaginas seem standard,” and with the popularity of so-called Brazilian bikini waxes, it is now “a routine occurrence to pick your legs up over your head, approaching yoga’s plow position, and/or turn over on your side and spread your cheeks for the nice lady making you pretty.” To be sure, bikini line maintenance is not necessarily a form of pornographic grooming. Many women want to wear a bathing suit in public without displaying errant pubic hairs, and a normal bikini wax, which strips away the hairs at the top of the inner thighs, is the least uncomfortable method of removing those pesky hairs. Brazilian waxes are different not in degree but in kind. In a Brazilian, every single pubic hair is ripped out. Hairlessness is popular because porn stars are hairless; many ordinary women and men associate sexiness with hairlessness. As pornography has gone mainstream, so has the porn aesthetic.

Pornographic grooming practices are not just for adult women. Preadolescent girls are now going to spas to get bikini waxes. “For waxing, 12 years old is the ‘new normal,’” Melanie Engle, a Philadelphia aesthetician, told the "Today" show’s website. Armstrong and Rudúlph note that one New York salon advertises special rates for “virgin” waxing of “virgin hair” (prepubescent traces of hair from pubic hair follicles). “Virgin hair can be waxed so successfully that growth can be permanently stopped in just two to six sessions,” explains the website for Wanda’s European Skin Care Center. “Save your child a lifetime of waxing . . . and put the money in the bank for her college education instead!” The owner told the New York Post she’d seen two hundred child clients in 2007 and advised girls to begin waxing at the age of six.

Teenage girls, meanwhile, are turning to breast augmentation; in 2012, over 3,500 girls eighteen and younger underwent this procedure. If an adult woman contemplates having her breasts enlarged, she is capable of taking into account the medical risks involved to arrive at a sound decision. Such a procedure may not be risk-free, but at least she’s able to assess the costs and the benefits for herself. But girls who are still physically developing are not always capable of arriving at the best decision. Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research, told the Washington Post that she has “concerns about teens undergoing plastic surgery at a time when they are psychologically vulnerable.” While the increases in surgery on noses and ears among children and teens under eighteen are not dramatic, the “increases in breast implants and liposuction are very dramatic. In fact, the number of girls 18 and younger getting implants has tripled in the last few years,” she says. The distinction between surgeries like rhinoplasty (nose reshaping) and otoplasty (pinning back protruding ears) versus breast implants is that the latter have a high complication rate, she adds. “Having something implanted in your body causes more problems as the implant ages,” she explains. Breast augmentation also implants an idea in a girl’s head: that her body should conform to a narrow ideal of sexiness.

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Even before they menstruate, girls develop an awareness of themselves as sexual objects meant to pleasure guys. Shira Tarrant observes to me that for females, performance means looking sexy for the benefit of other people. Young women always have to think of themselves as sexualized objects to be consumed. “It’s not ‘I think I’m sexy’ but ‘Do you think I’m sexy?’ ” Rosalind Gill, a British cultural theorist, points out that there has been “a shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification in construction of femininity.” There has been “a move from an external male judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze.” This dynamic probably was always present to some extent, but it is amplified now in the age of surveillance. With the phone in her pocket acting as a GPS tracking device, a woman today may be surrounded by people who can photograph or record her with their own phones or with Google Glass. A woman today knows that her image may be broadcast at any moment to others near and far—prompting her to be hyper-self-aware of her appearance at all times. Men experience the same thing, but men are not judged by their appearance in the way that women are. To Gill, the new internal gaze is particularly exploitative because many women today actively choose to sexualize themselves in the name of liberation, but in the end they are really choosing to be regarded as sexual objects. Girls and women “choose” to represent themselves as “good sluts,” yet their “choice” is made within a regime of surveillance, policing, and self-discipline. A girl or woman who successfully conforms to “good slut” ideals finds herself trapped: The better her performance, the more evidence exists that can prove she’s really a “bad slut.” “You have evidence that you can use against a girl,” says Stephanie, the fifteen-year-old New York City student. “Everyone has profile pictures of themselves in bikinis. It’s so easy to label any girl a slut because you have all this evidence. All you have to do is go to her Facebook.” If you’re not slutty enough in the good way, or if you’re slutty in a bad way, the news is all over the Internet, leading to slut-bashing or other forms of gendered social ostracism such as being rejected by a sorority or a club because of sexual reputation, or losing professional opportunities.

Women objectified and policed themselves long before the Internet, as Sandra Lee Bartky demonstrates. They have long been the watchman in the panopticon’s tower, who himself is being watched. These processes are not new. Women in previous generations took diet pills during pregnancy to avoid excessive weight gain, wore breathing-constricting girdles to give the illusion of a wasp waist, vacuumed their homes in dresses and high heels, did aerobic exercise to look sleek like Jane Fonda, and slept with painful hard curlers in their hair—all in the name of feminine beauty. What’s new is that surveillance and self-surveillance have become inescapable and relentless. For women previously, the sidewalk was not a catwalk with paparazzi snapping photos of them against their will. “It’s like you can’t go anywhere without people keeping track of you,” says Jessica, a twenty-three-year- old Latina. “You’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you were at that party the other night,’ and it’s like, ‘How do you know? I never told you.’ Or they’ll say, ‘You looked good at that party the other night.’ People really pay attention to where you are and what you’re doing. It’s kind of scary, but I’ve kind of accepted it.”

Observes Julie Zeilinger, the FBomb editor, “You can’t be invisible, and you need to look perfect all the time. And you’re always being compared with everyone else. You have to worry about the way you look every single moment of every day. I know that body image was an issue for women of previous generations too, but for my generation it’s just constant.” The inescapability and relentlessness of surveillance, combined with the sexual double standard and the need to perform femininity, have collided to lay the foundation for reciprocal slut-shaming. When I call another woman a slut in a casual way, I am entering into a tacit agreement with her. I am affirming her sexual attractiveness, and I expect her to affirm mine. I am colluding with her in the understanding that I live in a time of economic uncertainty, when top grades in school may not lead to a good job, or any job, and my parents may be under- or unemployed at any moment; therefore, my sexuality may be the only ticket I have to any semblance of success. But I also am policing her sexuality, which is all too easy with social media, and I know that she will feel entitled to police mine as well. But what else can I do? I recognize that I am sharpening both ends of the stick, and that someone, perhaps myself, will get hurt . . . but this is the way femininity is performed, and if I want to perform femininity, this is how the show goes.

Excerpted from "I Am not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet" by Leora Tanenbaum. Published by Harper Perennial. Copyright 2015 by Leora Tanenbaum. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Leora Tanenbaum

Leora Tanenbaum writes about gender and culture for Ms. and other magazines. She lives in New York City.

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