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This book is written with both passion and academic certitude. I found it shocking, not because of the behavior of the protagonists but because it depicted a savage counter culture hitherto unknown to me and certainly not in my experience - that of the lives of some young women in junior and senior high school in America. I am from an Australian culture, a feminist and fifty-six years old.
To be labeled a "slut" and "slut-bashed," Tanenbaum relates, does not even require that a girl have consensual sex and be gossiped about. All it takes, apparently, if not sexually active, is to have well developed breasts, or experience sex through rape, or belong to a different ethnic group, or not to the dominant social class of the school. In other words either to behave, or to be, outside a very narrow social norm.
The consequences of this, as related to and by Tannenbaum, are horrendous to that person labeled "slut" - graffiti appears on the school walls about her, name calling is constant, as is the ostracism and the assumption by all the boys that she will oblige them any time, anywhere. Sometimes she is even set upon by her female peers. And this can go on for years. Some of the interviewees became the sluts they were accused of being, some took to drink and or drugs, some acquired eating disorders, some mutilated themselves, all became severely depressed. True, in hindsight there were several who saw the experience as painful but liberating as it was necessary to survive on the margins.
How reliable are the facts? Tanenbaum inundates with interviews of fifty women aged 'fourteen to sixty-six, who had been targeted as "sluts" in junior high or high school. The picture of a sexual double standard that is as invidious as it is destructive is remorselessly portrayed, and relentlessly validated. While I thought 'not again' as I read yet another personal story of humiliation and shame, in the end it was impossible not to believe the story-tellers or the author.
There were three things that really caught my attention in Slut: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, apart from the barbarity of "slut-bashing." The first was the casual way rape was seen either as acceptable behaviour, or believed to be the victims fault. Sitting here at my computer in Tasmania it seems extraordinary. Not that teenage rape doesn't happen here - of course it does - but such acceptance of it is not prevalent. (I have counselled victims of sexual assault).
The second thing is the role of the girl friends of the "sluts". It seems, far from giving support, they are often the first to label. Indeed Tannenbaum is concerned that sexual harassment law is not effective if the harasser is female:
'Also, the charge of sexual harassment implies that the problem is strictly gendered -that boys alone are responsible for harassing girls as "sluts." Yet, as we have seen, girls can be vicious name-callers and rumor-mongers.' (p. 236)
The explanation given for this lack of solidarity is one of disempowerment and the need to compete for boyfriends but I find this unsatisfactory.
Looking in from the outside it seems unfathomable that such inhumanity should be passed off alike by most teachers and administrators as a rite of passage. Faced with girls openly degraded in classroom and playground, with boys congratulated on their sexual 'adventures' the only conclusion to draw, as Tanenbaum does, is that, in that milieu, nothing has really changed since the fifties. On top of this the broader society, has its evangelical organisation of True Love Waits and the sex education program Sex Respect advocating abstinence as a realistic answer to burgeoning human sexuality. It seems that the American culture prefers to deny a healthy sexuality to its young people, especially its young women.
Leora Tanenbaum has written a powerful book. Perhaps her passion for her subject has narrowed her focus too much - the viewpoint of the schools is mainly absent - and her style combining the academic with the journalistic and a personal crusade occasionally jars; nonetheless she has astutely achieved her goal - to document an injustice in such a way that it cannot be ignored.
Fran Gillespie writes about herself:
I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of likeminded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.