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The harmful effects of slut-shaming in school

July 27th, 2019     by Sylvana Poon     Comments

Illustration by Katie Chin

Content Note: This blog post discusses slut-shaming and mentions sexual violence, rape culture, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide.

“That outfit is too revealing.” “She was just asking for it.” “I heard she sleeps with everyone.”

Have you ever thought, said, or heard these phrases? That is slut-shaming.

Slut-shaming is making someone feel guilty, shameful, judged, or inferior for both real and perceived sexual behaviour and appearance. It is a social practice that stigmatizes primarily people who are perceived as women for being “promiscuous” — socially punishing them for acting outside of what is considered the “norm.” If you’re perceived as a woman, this norm means you are expected to not only be cisgender and straight, but also docile, compliant, and lady-like (yet somehow subtly sexually available). This narrative was not created by and is almost never dictated by the people who are oppressed by it, but rather stems from the ridiculous binaristic and heteronormative double standards applied to men’s and women’s sexuality: our society applauds men for being sexually active or desirable, but persecutes women for being sexually active. Slut-shaming can take on many forms, from verbal accusations, enforcing social practices like dress codes, to blaming sexual assault and rape victims for these unjustifiable experiences. Yes, slut-shaming has much to do with rape culture, and is a form of culturally accepted, gendered bullying.

The first time I was slut-shamed, I was only 13 years old. I did not even realize what it was, I just felt immense shame and humiliation. I was wrongly accused, threatened, punished by school authorities, and ridiculed by my peers — all for sitting on a boy’s lap in a classroom (with other people present). Even though I had not yet had sex, I was accused by my own teachers of doing so, and I was told by them that I was lucky that the school had only punished me privately and did not bring the incident to the police. Because I was so young, I thought my peers and teachers were right to have treated me that way, and that I deserved it. I would like to think my peers did not understand the effects of their actions and words, yet the effect is still there: I was convinced that I was a “slut,” and that I was a bad, gross, and dirty person. This reputation made me an easy target for other boys to assume I was open to engaging in sexual acts, or that they could force their desires onto my body. It took me many years to even realize I was slut-shamed, and that what happened was not my fault in any way. To this day, my friends bring the incident up like it was a joke, unaware of the damage it had caused me and the effect it still has on me. I am still learning to grow and come to terms with it, and it will take many more years before I heal.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Slut-shaming has been upheld and practiced for decades. From Monica Lewinsky’s sex life being publicly examined and criticized to the way Taylor Swift has been vilified for writing songs about her “many” past relationships , we still see glaring incidents of slut-shaming in our lives. We unfortunately live in a world that sexualizes young girls, but paradoxically condemns women for expressing their sexuality. Slut-shaming has proved to have devastating effects, many of which are unaddressed. Such forms of bullying can make someone feel worthless to the point where many girls use self-harm and eating disorders to cope. Studies show that other debilitating effects of slut-shaming for teen girls include having body-image and self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Rehtaeh Parsons’ story is a tragic example of just how lethal slut-shaming can be. At the young age of 15, Rehtaeh was sexually assaulted. Her peers took photos of the assault and circulated them online, labeling her a slut. The humiliation, harassment, and bullying Rehtaeh faced because of these photos caused her to take her own life.

The ironic thing about slut-shaming is that it makes no difference whether a person is sexually active or not. We can be labeled a “slut” for simply being perceived as a woman — whether we identify that way or not — because society thinks that a woman’s sexuality should be defined and controlled by others, not herself. Once someone is seen as a “slut,” they can easily become a target or victim of assault. In this world of double standards, victims are often blamed for the assault — the phrase “she asked for it” is but all too familiar for many of us. It is ridiculous how we are conditioned to perceive this kind of treatment as normal. We are told from a young age by many authority figures—parents, relatives, and even teachers—that what girls wear defines how we should be treated. At school girls are taught to abide by a dress code that only seems to objectify our bodies, and to act a certain way, such as “sit properly and close your legs” in class because it could give others the “wrong idea.” While these comments and lectures are often well intentioned, it only further endorses these unhealthy social norms that give way to slut-shaming. It plants the idea into our minds that if we are called a slut or even sexually assaulted, it is our fault for dressing “indecently.” When teased, bullied, or even harassed by boys, many girls are met with the justification that “boys only do that because they are interested in you,” or that “boys will be boys.” Ask any girl and I can assure you that either a parent or teacher has told them that. As we learn to accept these social standards, we unfortunately begin to apply them to our peers and ourselves. We create this unhealthy environment where we superficially judge each other instead of build each other up.

The school setting can have the most effect on our growth. For most of us, school is everything in our teens — our community, our peers, and our authority figures. These years are when we struggle most with our self-image, when we are developing mentally, physically, and sexually. This is why we need authority figures to encourage our growth, and not reduce us to hyper-sexualized bodies. I think it is safe to say everyone who is perceived as feminine or as a woman has had to endure some degree of slut-shaming. We even perpetuate this behaviour ourselves without realizing how toxic and harmful this can be. We do it to other women, but worst of all, we do it to ourselves. We learn to deal with incidents of slut-shaming by telling ourselves “it wasn’t that bad,” and we chastise ourselves for dressing, talking, or acting “inappropriately.” After all, we are our own harshest critics. But it should not be this way. Slut-shaming causes irreversible harm to the individual experiencing it, so we should be aware of the impact our—and others’—words and actions. If you are being slut-shamed, know that you do not deserve it and you are not to blame for what is happening to you. Remember that the person who is bullying you is the one with the issue. The fault is in the system, and not with you. Try to create a safe space for you or anyone else you know who is struggling with this to have an open conversation. Everyone should have the right to take ownership of their sexuality and body without being judged, so be the SHAMELESS and BLAMELESS person that you are and own it!

About Sylvana Poon: Hi, my name is Sylvana, a University of Waterloo student studying English literature (but no, I don’t like reading Shakespeare). I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and moved to Canada when I was 16. I get mistaken for a child quite often. Procrastinating and over-thinking are my strong suits. My ultimate goal in life is to be happy (and also maybe find purpose in life), and to bring happiness to those around me.

Tags: body politics, rape culture, school, sexuality, slut shaming

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