Slut, demystified 

An oral history of high school's bad girls

Emily White, a journalist and sometime contributor to Seattle’s provocative newsweekly The Stranger, frames her inquiry into the mythology of the high-school slut with a very interesting premise. She suggests that almost everybody remembers—usually by first and last name and at least one caustic nickname—the girl who was supposed to be the biggest slut at the high school they attended, be it five or 50 years ago. The author doesn’t pose this as a thesis, merely as a topic of conversation, albeit one singular in its potency and the uncanniness with which it collects and codifies strands of evergreen urban legend.

The specifics of each girl’s behavior, of her infamous sex acts—putatively unique to each case—are actually remarkably similar from school to school, city to city and state to state. Try asking a few people you know if they remember their high school’s equivalent of Donuthole, Two Dollars and Anna Wanna. Chances are they will, including unconvincing details about specific deeds she was reported to have eagerly done. Chances are just as good they never questioned the provenance of rumors at the time, have no firsthand knowledge of events, and probably never even talked to the person whose name was a punchline then and is still being dragged through the mud years later.

Author White points out that accounts of what happened to the slut after high school are also remarkably similar from case to case, place to place: “I heard she was living in a basement with a coke dealer.” “Funny,” White writes, “I’d heard almost the exact same story about [the “fast girl” at her high school]. And funnier still, I’ve heard almost the exact same thing about the one at mine.

What begins as a kind of icebreaking exercise with the reader, however, White quickly sharpens into an intriguing thesis: The high school slut seldom creates the position for herself, indeed probably never actually did a fraction of what she was said to have done. Rather, “slut” is a kind of popularly-elected post, thrust upon one unlucky candidate groomed for the ignominy by a peer electorate eager to draw lines, hang labels, choose sides, close ranks and ostracize the one without a seat in a perverse game of musical chairs.

Teenagers do this, White contends, for a number of reasons. The most obvious of them, but also the hardest to quantify, is that they’re confused by the new roles, responsibilities and feelings that come with the teenage territory—and looking to dump on someone else. Preoccupied with sex but also mystified and somewhat panicked by it, and flooded with new hormones, adolescents cull sluts (also “fags”) from the peer-herd by mass consensus as a way to put boundaries and landmarks on their sketchy map of sexuality. Boys and girls participate equally in exchanging slut-stories as currency, passing them on as a way of showing they belong (if only because they have someone lower on the popularity-pyramid to ostracize).

There are added incentives to propagating slut rumors for both sexes. For high school boys, there’s the dare factor (many a lunch bet was won at my high school, and probably at yours too, with an exceedingly cruel request or solicitation made of this girl), plus the implied sexual authority and I-could-do-her-if-I-wanted cachet of simply knowing who the slut is, and possibly having a lie of one’s own to tell. The slut is so low on the high-school totem pole that no one would think to get her side of the story, especially when her protests merely set off a new gale of wild rumors and reflexive accusations that she’s covering something up.

In “boy-crazy tribes” of adolescent girls, White writes, the slut mystique arouses more complicated feelings: “For boys, contempt for the slut is intermingled with desire...Boys can see a sexual moment when they might ask the slut for forgiveness, but for girls forgiveness is not part of the picture and they react to her with a more straightforward, virulent negativity.”

White also implies a kind of territoriality-in-training, by which groups of girls conspire to remove a few specimens from mating competition, thereby improving their own chances. For girls, she explains, the slut also performs the task of providing an object lesson in the consequences of sexuality—a traffic sign clearly marking the wrong side of the sexual tracks.

What’s cruelly apparent from reading the author’s interviews with women aged 16 to almost 60 (White put out a call for them to come forth with their stories in The Stranger’s widely syndicated “Savage Love” column) is how undeserved most slut reputations apparently are—at least, to hear the survivors tell it. Based on these interviews, White argues that girls are singled out for slut candidacy if not exactly randomly, then at least for reasons mostly beyond their control: whispers of dysfunctional (or at least unconventional) home life, different ethnicity, late transfer from one high school into the closed loop of another. Saddest of all are the survivors who got saddled with the rep simply because their bodies began “betraying” them, developing before everyone else’s, those first hips or breasts becoming lightning rods for the collective dirty mind. White also asserts that suburban high schools with mostly homogenous (read: white and middle-class) student bodies make the most frenzied rumor-mills, as though in the absence of existing ethnic or socioeconomic differences, kids are eager and more than able create their own demarcations.

White treads lightly on the “soupy psychology” characteristic of so many books written by adults about teenagers, and generally avoids the pitfall of pounding away at small truths with too-broad metaphors. She’s also restrained in her invocation of pop-feminist writers like Naomi Wolf and Adrienne Rich, which is refreshing—she arrives at some profound insights and many stunning sentences quite on her own.

  • Email
  • Print

More by Andy Smetanka

  • High lowbrow

    Midnight Tomorrow's shorts make a universal leap
    • Dec 11, 2014
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

© 2014 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation