COMES NATURALLY #122
Spectator Magazine -- April 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg
THE MYTH OF THE HIGH SCHOOL SLUT
"The archetype of the slut had already taken root in my mind by the time I arrived in high school. I was only waiting for a manifestation of something I had always intuitively known about. I knew Anna Wanna was there before she arrived."
- Emily White
She is the high school slut, the evil goddess, the whore.
She is the Word made flesh, only this time the Word in not "grace" but "sex" with all its potential to overturn our carefully constructed worlds of reason and moderation, with all its potential for chaos, madness, and oblivion.
She is the amalgam of all the fears and fantasies of unbridled sexuality that mercilessly take possession of the dreams and daydreams of middle-class, white, suburban, adolescent boys and girls alike.
She is the dark sexual underbelly of sanitized, rationalized suburban propriety, the shadow material of the collective suburban psyche that everyone fervently refuses to own, that everyone denies in themselves.
She is all the accumulated, repressed, emerging adolescent sexual desire that will not stay in its cage at night no matter how many moral and psychological locks are put on the door, no matter how many thousands of Just Say No abstinence assembly programs fall like clockwork on millions of deaf, distracted adolescent ears, month after month, year after year.
She is larger than life, beyond the scope of the merely human -- a mythical figure, an archetype of classic proportions, a primal force of the sort that the Romans and Greeks named and codified as gods and goddesses.
As Joseph Campbell, the venerable mythologist, repeatedly pointed out, it is always a mistake to confuse an archetype with a flesh-and-blood human being. Gods, goddesses, and religion itself, Campbell noted in many a critique of simple-minded fundamentalism, must be thought about in mythic, rather than literal, terms. People can usefully understand aspects of their personalities or their behavior as being reminiscent of the essence of a Zeus or an Aphrodite, but no man can actually become Zeus, and it makes no sense for a woman to think of Aphrodite as some kind of feminine role model.
And yet, as Emily White points out in her book, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, the sex-repressive culture of each and every white, middle-class suburban high school adamantly insists that some exceedingly finite, distinctly mortal young woman be designated as one such archetype-made-mortal, as the high school slut, as the literal embodiment of the mythic power that the slut archetype expresses.
Thus, as surely as other cultures select their own hapless, emerging women to sacrifice to vengeful, unpredictable, fearsome gods, the surprisingly homogeneous sexual culture of suburban high schools invariably focuses its uncertain, fearful sexual attention on at least one young woman -- typically one who is more extroverted than her peers, whose breasts and hips develop a little earlier, who has slightly darker skin, or slightly less disposable income -- and invests her with the mystique, the intrigue, and also the unbearable psychological burden of the slut extraordinaire.
Perhaps this girl is seventeen years old. Perhaps she is fifteen. She may even be thirteen or younger. She may be more sexually active than her peers, but it is just as likely that she is not sexual at all. Her real behavior is not the issue. She does not volunteer to be the symbol of sexual power, sexual mystery, and sexual fear for everyone at her high school or junior high.
Rather she is chosen by others, suddenly and unpredictably, most often when a rumor is circulated about some sexual deed she has never actually performed, most likely something no real adolescent would ever do voluntarily -- like fucking the entire football team in one night, or giving blow jobs to anyone and everyone for the sheer thrill of being of service or in exchange for a cigarette.
Once designated as the slut icon, this young woman's life will never be the same -- not as an adolescent, not as an adult. She is likely to be teased, humiliated, or violently attacked in school hallways, on the streets of her town, or in her home. She will almost certainly be uniquely isolated and alone. The girls at school will shun her even more than the boys. And, unless she is exceptionally strong and resilient, the fear and damage to her self esteem that result will severely limit her for the rest of her life.
Emily White was not called a slut in high school. She describes her high school self as "a well-behaved, unobtrusive goody-goody: on the honor roll but not too high up." But she was fascinated by "Anna Wanna," the designated slut of her Portland high school, a fascination that she found to be alive and well almost twenty years later when she was writing for "The Stranger," an alternative Seattle newsweekly. White decided to research an article about girls who had been branded high school sluts. Through "Savage Love," Dan Savage's syndicated countercultural sex column, she invited girls who had been labeled sluts in high school to call and tell her their stories. She set up an 800 number, promised total anonymity, and waited for the phone to ring.
And ring it did. Within two weeks she had gotten over 95 messages. All in all she received calls and e-mails from over 150 girls and women across the country, ranging in age from 13 to 55, many of which she followed up with personal interviews and even visits to their old high schools.
White found that the designated slut was a ubiquitous presence in the landscape of white, middle-class America -- a recurring icon so uniform and predictable that before long she could predict the stories she was about to be told even before specific women revealed the details of their specific lives in their specific locales. She realized that the notion of the high school slut was very much a true archetype, an urban legend, an expression of what psychologist Carl Jung would call the collective unconscious of white, middle-class America.
Several books have been published recently about girls labeled sluts in high school, notably Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation (1999), and Sharon Lamb's The Secret Lives of Girls (2001). What makes Fast Girls particularly interesting is White's identification of the high school slut as an archetypal figure, which shifts attention from the girls themselves to the culture that needs to create them. The central issue, White notices, is not the sexually precocious behavior of some high school girls, but the need of a sex-repressed, sex-fearing culture to invent mythical sluts onto which that culture can project its deepest fears and confusions about sex itself.
"No one rumor illustrates the archetypal quality of the slut story better than the legendary train job," White notes -- the recurring story of the girl who "moves from one man to another willingly and indiscriminately; they line up and she provides service.... Virtually every girl I interviewed was at some point in her slut career an object of this rumor."
"Slut rumors," says White, "hinge on the fear of female sexuality and its mystery; they evoke fear of the woman with a hole at the center of her body that is infinite, the black hole of feminine space into which a man could disappear. By turning one girl into the slut among them, the kids try to reassure themselves that they are on the right side of fate: They are good while she is evil. They are safe while she is unsafe. They have the right kind of desire while she has the wrong kind."
Thus the function of the designated slut is to delineate the difference between good (romantic) sex and bad (lustful) sex, to warn both the boys and the girls that if they don't stringently control their sexual urges, all hell will break loose for them. The slut, writes White, is "a place on the map marked by a danger sign, where legions of boys have been lost at sea..., where a girl should never wander for fear of becoming an outcast."
The most powerful emotional dynamic reported to White by the women she interviewed was the sense of loss of control over their lives. Once the slut rumor is set in motion, there seems to be nothing the designated women can do to derail it, or even to slow its momentum. The fact that they were not even at the party where they were supposed to have sucked off all the guys makes no difference whatsoever. Retorts to taunts and slurs just invite more of the same.
"The girl chosen as the high school slut experiences coming of age not as the dawning of self-possession and subjectivity, but as a darkening loss of self and complete objectification," White notes. "Girls reported suicide attempts, stays in psych wards, a life on and off medication, in and out of addiction.... Many of the girls I interviewed in their twenties and thirties rarely experienced orgasm."
The one road that seems to help girls who have been labeled sluts reclaim authority and agency in their lives is for them to somehow reject the stigma associated with being openly sexual women and to embrace and celebrate the full power of their sexual natures. One of White's respondents talks of the day she stopped caring that she was being labeled a slut, when she realized ho w pathetic the guys were who were throwing rocks at her bedroom window, calling her names, and begging her to come out and give them blow jobs. Suddenly, "she felt sorry for them, sorry for how powerless they were in the face of her heart-stopping cleavage. At 26, she relishes her sexual power, puts herself on display: she bleaches her hair and drives a convertible and waits for the inevitable truck drivers to honk.... She is over being the slut, but she is also more the slut than ever -- she has accepted it as her glorious, sex-crazed destiny."
Another factor that helps girls find the strength to reclaim their lives is not feeling completely isolated and alone. White notes that the few women of color who contacted her had significantly different, less damaging, experiences than their white suburban counterparts, mainly because these women had never lost their girlfriends as a result of the slut label.
Also helpful is finding a countercultural context to replace the hypocritical mainstream culture from which girls designated as sluts have been ostracized. "Embracing a subculture made them feel they were choosing their own tribe, their own fate, their own symbolic life."
But the ultimate healing act to White is becoming "unafraid of describing the sexual story at the depths of imagination and memory, to pull everything possible out of the closet and into the light," to tell the truth about one's sexual life and one's sexual past, including the pain of the designated slut experience, to realize that talking about sex is "perhaps the most important language of one's life." She notes that the women who chose to tell her their stories "were not merely talking about sex for the thrill or the pleasure of it, or even because they wanted to be daring or hip. They talked about it because they needed to tell their side of the story. They were like seekers of justice who wanted someone, anyone, to know what they had really done, as opposed to what people said they had done."
Maybe, she says, "as the slut story comes further into consciousness, what will happen when the rumors are formulated will be a gradual release in the tension of the archetype, like a balloon losing its helium and coming slowly down to earth. As the archetype succumbs to gravity, [maybe] the rumors will not flow so freely or so quickly; when one is in the midst of them, one will be aware that a cliché is being reenacted."
FAST GIRLS: TEENAGE TRIBES AND THE MYTH OF THE SLUT by Emily White, Scribner, 2002, 219 pp., $22.00.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at email@example.com. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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