Sluts, Gossip, and Girl Powerby Ashley Nelson
Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut
A few months ago, I totally got a blast from the past. My best friend from high school, also named Ashley, called me out of the blue. Despite having been constant companions for four years (we were called Ashley2), after that cosmic shift known as graduation, we had somehow fallen out of touch. She went to Israel to study and I went to a private liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Meeting up again, we could not have been more different. Once distinctly a Reform Jew, Ashley was now Orthodox with a Hebrew name, conservative views, and was open to arranged marriages. I, on the other hand, read The Nation, am spiritually phobic, and think marriage should be done away with. But, on that night, differences schmifferences. This was, after all, the girl who stuck by my side when Bess K. took my boyfriend (okay, my dream boyfriend). If she told me she thought birth control was overrated, I’d probably have been cool with that. Yet politics, thankfully, were not on our agenda. Instead it was all about Amy P., Steve D., and Sara B. “Did you hear Sara B. was a lesbian?” Ashley asked innocently. “Really?” I answered, full of guilty pleasure over the chance to return to high school la-la land one more time. “That’s like a total 180!” I said in my broken teenage ease. “Awesome!”
Of course, neither of us had ever talked to Sara B. before—or, actually, she never talked to us. She was the girl about town, the one who got around, okay, the “slut.” And if she was ever offended by the insecure chatter of two girls with a squared sign above their names, she gets her revenge in Emily White’s Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. The book is a sensitive, if skimpy examination of how such girly gossip can stick with the chosen high school slut long after the final bell rings, damaging her self-esteem for years to come.
You know her, claims White, a former editor at The Stranger, an alternative weekly. Everyone knows her. She is the girl with the supposedly “insatiable sexual appetite,” the body “with no boundaries.” Though White’s descriptions tend toward the extreme, most readers will recognize her subject. She is that one student known for her supposed promiscuity and her tight skirts—the one who took “spin the bottle” way too far. In my high school, I never actually heard the one about the whole football team (a “legend” the author dwells on), but I was familiar with the tales emanating from under the bleachers and out of the cafeteria bathroom. And Sara B. did fit the description of White’s typical target: she was white, middle-class, suburban, and had beat us all to the training bra by a year. The book is White’s attempt to analyze the effects of such rumors on the sluts themselves, and to offer some insight into why teenagers—boys, but especially girls—feel the need to “banish” these young women. She makes many strides in these efforts—going perhaps to second, even third base, if not exactly all the way.
At her best, White resurrects those dimly lit halls and mutant lunch “guards” that so well capture the alienation and insecurity most teenagers, at some point, feel. Imagine this times 10, she suggests, and you reach slut territory. Having interviewed over 150 girls and women who either are or were “the slut of their high school,” the author describes well the lack of control, self-esteem, and trust that stem from being 16 and “eye candy.” They are anxieties that linger. “All those worthless feelings come back,” confides 25-year-old Madeline, on whose locker people wrote “whore” in lipstick. It is hard not to feel sympathy for these women, though at times White’s language, so hyperbolic it belongs in a high school literary magazine, can make it hard to relate. References to sluts being “human sacrifices—living outside of time” under the spell of rumors that “come from beyond the self,” but “eclipse” it as well, could make even the most repentant Queen Bee a bit skeptical. And there are also some logical explanations that belie the overblown rhetoric. As White herself notes, many of the girls profiled were also from homes where drug abuse and sexual abuse were common. They had a lot, in other words, to be depressed about.
None of this diminishes the stress of growing up as a sexual object or discounts what the image of the slut suggests about society more generally. As White explains, politics and popular culture have long claimed there are two types of women: those men “use for sex” and those they marry. The “loose woman” is the home wrecker who betrays society by casting a spell of “diabolically evil lust” onto men. Although one wishes she hadn’t pulled out an anthology of outmoded tropes—complete with random references to Jung’s “universal images” and someone named Wilfrid Lay’s thoughts on “the right [and wrong] type of girl”—White rightfully attributes these myths to our reverence for family values and corresponding fear of women’s sexuality. Girls who “want it” are portrayed as “inviting [their] own violent end.” Why else would promiscuity be listed as a warning sign of suicide in every high school counselor’s manual? And why else is the slut always the first one killed in horror movies? “She must be destroyed for everyone else to move toward the light.” In this age of born-again virgins and federally funded abstinence-only programs, these are valuable points to be made.
Given these larger sexual politics, it’s even more damaging that girls are the most active propagators of the slut myth. “The really vicious ones were the girls,” says Susan, a former slut. White defends her by arguing that “girls are predators, too.” While boys secretly hope to “get” the slut, girls are motivated not by desire, but by “straightforward, virulent negativity.” This is where White stretches her “mythic structures” a bit far, suggesting that girls spread rumors about the slut because she is a threat to their “home-life.” “The specter of the home wrecker is alive and well—in the hallways of high school.” Actually, if I ever made fun of Sara B., it was probably because I wanted to be her. At 16, I was less concerned with guarding my homestead than with just getting a guy to call me.
Ignoring how feelings of insecurity and guilt could motivate such assaults, White instead focuses on how the slut narrative speaks to the ways girls are “intuitively destructive, effortlessly imagining one another as enemies.” In doing so, she joins a pretty trendy clique herself. As Margaret Talbot explained in “Mean Girls,” a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, nastiness between girls is a hot topic among writers, psychologists, and school officials today. Technically it’s called “relational aggression” and, according to some, it’s being treated as seriously as domestic violence was 20 years ago. Girls, the theory goes, are socially superior to boys, and thus able to develop intricate networks governed by specific rules of behavior. As White suggests, cliques, while intensely loyal to their members, distinguish themselves from others for a variety of reasons, from class differences to good old revenge to unfounded football team rumors. Consequently, school “empowerment” therapists work frantically to curb these cliques by bringing each of them—from the “Wannabes” to the “Queen Bees”—to the same lunch room table. But amid all this relational aggression talk, one wonders: if girls are the true networkers, the real ball-breakers, why, then, aren’t women ruling the world?
In Fast Girls, Emily White correctly encourages readers to reflect on how these “perennial” thoughts on troubled teens reveal the views and insecurities of adults. These “teenage tribes” can be easily translated into grown-up groups. And, whether it’s done in Cosmopolitan or Congress, typecasting women—especially as sluts—is a common practice. As White nicely puts it, the slut is really a “dream” the culture is having. After all, who could forget the nightmare that was Monicagate? While no innocent victim, Lewinsky hardly deserved being cast, by pundits both left and right, as a no-good tramp. Cat-fights between women are also a national pastime. To be sure, women have their differences, yet these are rarely intelligently presented. The best one can hope for is the “token” woman on Sunday morning talk shows, but increasingly all one can expect is to see Paula Jones begging Tanya Harding for mercy. It makes you miss the traditional media battles between the good old housewife and the uppity career woman, doesn’t it?
In the end, however, a bit of hope may be found in Fast Girls and other new modern guides to girl-fights like Rachel Simmons’s Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. For one, most teens grow up. Many of the former sluts White interviewed even turned out fine, as did most of the insecure girls who spread the rumors in the first place. Some had even sought their targets out to seek forgiveness. Secondly, there is always hope that those “empowerment” groups will bring girls together so that even if they can’t bridge every difference, they can still gain some perspective. Then again, one would hate to see them tamed too much. After all, social know-how, networking, and especially that fierce loyalty that can bring two friends together after years of separation and real differences are skills that can be put to good use. Remember that many female politicians—both Democrat and Republican—said that seeing Anita Hill cast as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee was what convinced them to run for office. Their clique had been infiltrated and they launched a pretty successful counterattack—securing seats and awareness of sexual harassment. Now there’s a battle worth fighting.
ASHLEY NELSON lives in Brooklyn Heights and writes frequently on women, culture, and politics.