When Caroline’s daughter Sienna went to college, the 49-year-old single mother breathed a sigh of relief. Sienna had managed to avoid minefields like substance abuse, bullying, sexting, poor grades and bad boyfriends. Thanks in part to Caroline’s active parental involvement, Sienna had grown into a level-headed young woman interested in neuroscience and music.
Still, Caroline was nervous about sending Sienna to the nearby state university, known for its raucous party culture. Caroline knew Sienna would probably go to a few frat parties and drink, but she hoped Sienna’s good sense, intelligence and independent mindset would keep her out of trouble.
So it was a surprise when Caroline got a distressing call from Sienna midway through the first semester. Her daughter was practically choked on her sobs.
“What is it, honey?” Caroline asked. Her mind raced through all the possibilities: was Sienna struggling with the workload? Did she need money? Had she been sick, or assaulted in some way?
After some coaxing, it came out: Sienna had gone to a frat party, where she had a few drinks, danced with a popular upperclassman “and maybe kissed him a little bit on the dance floor,” according to Sienna.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Caroline said. It was difficult for her to hear her only daughter was drinking, but the main thing was that she was safe.
But, unbeknownst to Sienna, the upperclassman had a girlfriend. Some people caught the “dirty dancing incident,” as Sienna called it, on their smartphones and sent the video and pictures to the girlfriend. But instead of taking her rich, popular boyfriend to task, the girlfriend found out who Sienna was and branded her a “slut” online. Incensed, the girlfriend posted some of the images to Facebook.
Soon, the girlfriend’s sorority sisters commented on Sienna’s open social media profiles, calling her names and harassing her. Some even texted her at all hours, calling her names. The campus was a large place, but Sienna still found herself being glared at while siting in class or passing through the main quad. She felt hunted and humiliated, and she wasn’t sure if she could make it through the rest of the semester.
Sienna was embroiled in the 21st-century version of an age-old tradition — what experts and sociologists commonly call “slut-shaming.” Shaming women and girls for sexual behavior goes back to ancient history, but the omnipresence of mobile tech has ratcheted up the intensity on a new generation of women as the phenomenon reinvents itself for a new era.
Trying to help her daughter, Caroline immediately tried to figure out what the school and social media sites’ policies were for slander, libel and otherwise damaging public accusations. The idea of trying to control something that had “jumped into the cesspool of Facebook” as Caroline puts it, was overwhelming.
Sienna’s public humiliation also brought back some painful memories of Caroline’s own. Caroline herself had been publicly ostracized and shamed when she was a young woman in high school for her behavior. Caroline’s father had died suddenly when she was a young teenager of 14. They had a fractious relationship, so Caroline buried her father with many unresolved emotional issues and regret. Her grief was intense.
Caroline took refuge in drinking at a young age, “basically self-medicating myself,” she remembers. Always a social, outgoing person, she developed a wild “party girl” persona that masked her pain and isolation. Her judgment impaired, she sometimes made out with boys in her town. “I was like a sponge for awhile, just trying to soak up any semblance of human affection, however temporary or misplaced,” she says.
She often managed to extricate herself before things went too far — “Or maybe I was just lucky and happened to hook up with a few decent guys,” she says — but she still felt out-of-control.
Eventually Caroline stopped partying, thanks to some interventions from some of her teachers and mentors at school. “I had an English teacher I was close to who said I was at a crucial point in school in terms of applying for college, and she didn’t want to see me blow my chances into getting into a good school or getting a scholarship,” she says.
But the damage was done — her reputation followed her for the rest of high school. It affected her life in both overt and subtle ways. She was often the object of gossip, especially among the girls. She became all too familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of walking into a room and “all the other girls falling quiet, like they were clearly talking about me,” she says.
Many boys, she says, would talk and treat her “as if I were some kind of public property, like they would be overly familiar with me or insinuate things.” Even some of her teachers treated her differently, she says, as previously supportive or friendly authority figures grew distant and chilly with her.
“I wasn’t exactly bullied,” Caroline says, “but I did feel shut out.” The social isolation, compounded by her grief over her father’s death, was painful.
She was also angry, as well, because of the hypocrisy. “In all honesty, I did as much or as little as a lot of the other girls around me,” she remembers. “But I’m the one who got the reputation, simply because I didn’t hide it behind some cutesy all-American facade.”
Caroline toughed it out for the rest of high school, focusing on getting a scholarship to an out-of-state school and working often two to three jobs to afford tuition.
Her efforts were worth it. In college she flourished in the more liberal atmosphere, studying women’s studies and getting involved in community activism. She got involved in safe sex education. “I was part of a generation that wanted to make sexuality not a problem or issue,” she says. “To help people of all genders and orientations to be free, conscious and responsible.”
Beyond Caroline’s indignation as a mother watching her daughter get hurt, she was also disturbed by what she calls the public “witch hunt” aspect of Sienna’s experience. “It’s like we’ve regressed and become even more repressive in some ways,” Caroline argues. “Whatever happened to social progress? Why does it feel like one step forward, then two steps back?”
Caroline and Sienna’s parallel stories touch on some sadly enduring social traditions. Castigating, humiliating and otherwise punishing young women for their sexual choices, activity and appetites exists across history, cultures, generations and ideologies.
Interestingly enough, the word “slut” itself was first used in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to refer to a man who dressed in dirty clothes, according to Leora Tanenbaum, author of the books “Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation” and “I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet.” It wasn’t until the mid-1400s, however, that it became a term for a woman of low or loose character — in other words, a woman who violated the sexual mores of her day.
Punishing women and girls for their sexual behavior takes many forms throughout history. Slut-shaming is at the heart of a classic novel like “The Scarlet Letter,” in which the main character — an adulteress in a Puritan society — is forced to wear a large red “A” for the rest of her life to mark her as a “loose woman.” Repressive societies sometimes burn or stone young women who had sex or been raped outside of marriage.
Women are the primary targets of shaming and humiliation, thanks to the double standard between men and women. No matter how many people a man sleeps with, he’s rarely slapped with a shameful label — instead, he often gets praised or a high-five for his prowess as a “player.” And interestingly enough, it’s often women who slut-shame other women, often as a way to police one another’s looks and behaviors.
Shaming girls doesn’t necessarily have to be a public phenomenon, however. Parents, for example, can shame their daughters when they question or punish them for wearing a mini-skirt, implying their appearance is responsible for possible bad consequences that can fall upon them. Doctors and nurses can harshly judge young women for their behavior and choices, causing them to hide aspects of their sexual history and possibly endanger getting good health care.
The roots and causes of slut-shaming are complex, but the heart is the idea that women must adhere to a certain standard of sexual behavior and appearance. These standards can vary — some communities allow for absolutely no sex until marriage, while others allow for exploration within certain boundaries. But if someone violates these often unstated rules, she can be publicly called out, even humiliated.
The rules are confusing and often conflicting, though, even in more liberal societies. “You can look sexy, but God forbid you act that way,” Sienna tells me. “Maybe ou can be sexual in the confines of a committed relationship, but you can’t just go out and hook up indiscriminately. You can’t just follow or explore your own desires of our own volition — you have to wait to be the object of them. It’s ridiculous.”
The biggest irony of all is that you don’t have to actually have a lot of partners in order to be judged as slutty. According to Slate, college girls label others as slutty as a way to put down those they see as lower-class and affirm their relative high-status when it comes to class and wealth. Experiences and behavior have nothing to do with it — it’s all about appearances and behavior, and maintaining their spot in the social order.
Slut-shaming in the digital age, however, is in many ways a much different beast than past incarnations. If the phenomenon takes private behavior and turns it into public discussion against someone’s will, then today’s digital world has greatly expanded most people’s public spheres.
Caroline might have dealt with the gossip and recrimination of her immediate peers in high school, often dealing with stares and whispers face-to-face. But her Millenial daughter has to contend with a much bigger arena: the Internet itself.
Sienna might be better shielded from the unpleasant in-person experience of being looked at and discussed, but she also has to deal with a much larger pool of people who will hear about her.
Tanenbaum in fact distinguishes between “slut-bashing” and slut-shaming. Bashing, she says in her book, is a targeted attack on one girl by a group, with an intense but limited focus — similar to what Caroline experienced in her earlier high school days.
But shaming now is a wider, more casual phenomenon, enabled in part by the online nature of our lives and communication.
The online nature has also widened the pool of potential targets. In the past, a school might have just a handful of girls who were labeled as loose or overly permissive. Now, according to Tanenbaum, most girls contend with being labeled a slut, even in a joking manner among friends.
This is in part due to social media as well, since we all put ourselves on display publicly or semi-publicly on Facebook or Instagram. We’re all public figures, thanks to social media, and as a result, we’re judged in the same way we casually but harshly judge celebrities and other figures of fascination.
In some ways, this more diffuse but wider audience for Sienna’s public humiliation can be even more painful, since the anonymity and social distance of the Internet seems to reduce people’s empathy and increase their tendencies towards viciousness.
Another complication is the permanence of a “digital footprint.” Employers, schools and other official institutions will look up potential candidates and applicants on the Internet. Now Caroline fears what they’ll find when they look up Sienna’s information.
“The last thing she needs as a young adult in the world is a bunch of sorority girls from her college berating her about dirty-dancing with some drunken frat guy,” she says. “But the idea of a company or grad school in the future seeing this kind of stuff is infuriating to me.”
Beyond the personal attacks upon an individual person, sociologists and other academics see recent trends like celebrity nude selfie leaks as part of the slut-shaming continuum. They argue that everyone, women included, has a right to explore and express their sexuality, and leaking nude pics against someone’s permission is a way to shame these women.
But some believe that because actresses like Jennifer Lawrence make their living being looked at, and even sexualized, on some level, they should be okay with having their private sexual content made public — or they argue that they shouldn’t be exploring their sexuality using technology that is easily hacked and vulnerable.
The back-and-forth of these arguments go to the heart of the gender and sexuality debates that underlie the slut-shaming phenomenon. They ask questions about how far girls and women have really come in terms of social progress, and about the erosion of public and private lives enabled by technology.
But these aren’t just academic questions — these are the very issues girls like Sienna grapple with as they come of age now, under the lens of social media, every move being carefully watched and monitored for transgression.
Experts often slot online slut-shaming as a kind of bullying behavior and counsel the same advice. Practically speaking, many advise taking a break from social media and the Internet, and making your accounts private, for example.
They also advise getting up to speed on their school or institution’s cyber-harassment policies and building up evidence for their case, such as taking screenshots and keeping records of who, when and how you’re harassed. If a girl is shamed when someone posts sexually explicit material online against her will, she could have legal or otherwise official recourse to sue, although it takes a strong constitution to deal with the legal process, as well as the process of her own behavior coming under the lens.
Sienna’s own friends, according to Caroline, advised “riding out” the incident, saying another thing would come along for the other girls to fixate upon. In some ways, the fast and fleeting nature of content in the digital age can work to a girl’s advantage, though that’s little consolation while waiting for something to drop off the first few pages of a Google search result.
Sienna found it difficult — she’s of a generation that communicates and conducts a significant amount of their friendships over the phone and Internet — but she did cut off her social media participation, and has stayed off it since. But the thing that helps the most, she says, was actually discovering the wider social context of the very personal attack on her.
“Reading feminist blogs and books, discovering that history — it helped me to see that it wasn’t just me, it was against women in general.” she says. “It’s this long history, and it hasn’t gone away.”
Like her mother, who discovered women’s studies in college, Sienna is just now beginning to explore reaching out to a larger, more politically engaged community. For example, she participated in the saucily named “SlutWalk,” a protest march of women objecting to the shaming of women for their sexuality, where she met other likeminded people who shared her conviction. It makes her feel less alone, she says.
She’s also now interested in issues of privacy, particularly when it comes to women and sexuality. She’s become active, for example, in new areas of activism, like the debates around so-called “revenge porn,” in which disgruntled exes post salacious pictures of women who dumped them.
“Our laws and social policies aren’t changing as fast as the technology out there,” Sienna says. She also is mulling over attending law school after college.
“What happened to me sucks,” Sienna says. “I had never been so humiliated during my entire life. But in a way, it’s helped me realize I have to take a more active role in the world if I want things to change.”
Caroline herself is proud at how Sienna used the incident to broaden her horizons and her understanding, though it makes her sad on some level.
“As a feminist, I wish the activism of my generation had made this kind of consciousness raising obsolete,” she says. “It’s disheartening to feel like we’re always fighting the same battles in a different iteration.”
Sadly, though, the thing that relieved the intensity of Sienna’s public humiliation wasn’t so positive. True to the fast and furious nature of content in the digital age, yet another incident happened to capture the attention on Sienna’s campus — an angry boyfriend posted nude pics of his ex-girlfriend online after she broke up with him, and the girl was humiliated. Sienna’s feelings were mixed: on the one hand, she was relieved that the campus seemed to move onto a new incident. On the other hand, she felt sorry for the girl.
“And I was also disturbed by my own immediate reaction,” Sienna says. “When I first heard about it, my first thought was ‘That was stupid, sending a naked pic of yourself to your boyfriend, don’t you know how vulnerable that makes you?'” Sienna sighs. “Then I realized I was just blaming the victim again, instead of putting the onus on that guy to behave respectfully and responsibly himself. And this is me we’re talking about, someone who was also slut-shamed. It just goes to show, we have a long way to go mentally as a society in order to give women — and people in general — true freedom.” ♦