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Bullying (and bullied) girls

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Two books about the horrible things done to girls, most often by other girls.

One is the application of the label “school slut”.

Now I think about it, every school, college and similar collection of adolescents or young adults with which I have been involved had a school slut, or, to be more precise, had a girl or woman identified as such.

At primary school, there was Sharon* who, reputedly, would let you watch her kissing boys if you paid her. She was the only one of us who came from a working-class, perhaps even under-class background. She was different, and was so labeled.

At high school, there was Melinda, who when I look back now was almost certainly a victim of some form of abuse. She claimed never to be able to do PE because she wasn’t wearing any undies (knickers), claimed to have had sex with boys in railway waiting rooms. She disappeared for unexplained reasons in Year 11.

Later, as a tutor in a university college, I overheard a young man of 20-odd hotly denying that he had intercourse with Sue, the college slut, supposed to have slept with just about every male there, and usually seen in a angry drunken condition very early at any event. He had a reputation as a lady-killer, and that was all to his benefit in the student hierarchy, but he obviously thought sleeping with Sue would lower that. “She only slept on my floor,” he said. He obviously wasn’t believed.

I was moved to muse on this by Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, by Emily White, which documents the phenomenon in America. She documents how girls who develop secondary sexual characteristics earlier than their peers, those who are, like Sharon, of a different class to their peers, who have unusual family set-ups, who stand out even in ways that would seem to have no particularly link to sexuality, can suddenly be labelled; the same stories – particularly “the football team myth” told about them.

It is The Lord of the Flies, with sex.

And of course there is so much around today, as always, to support this demonisation, while a boy who sleeps around is utterly different, a Don Juan, as in my college case, someone to be admired.

White quotes the alarming example from 1930 of the Catholic “philosopher” Dietrich Von Hildebrand, who wrote In Defense of Purity that the “loose” woman is indulging in a “significant squandering of self” and when a man sleeps with a loose woman he enters a “mystery of terrible sin” in which he is in danger of losing his soul. “In this black-hearted woman’s embrace, man is in the grip of a ‘diabolically evil lust’.” (p. 90)

It is noticeable that White doesn’t quote modern authors along these lines – although reading all of the posts Feminist Blogs about abstinence-only sex “education” in the US I bet she could have found plenty. If she was trying to avoid controversy and to get the book read in places where it might do some good, I can only sympathize.

Some of White’s case studies just make you want to cry. She’s reporting on a boring school assembly at which the pupils start to talk among themselves.

“The rumour goes like this: Heather Adams masturbates. Pass it on!

The rumour begins among the jocks behind me. Soon it has been heard by a dozen kids or more. Pass it on, pass it on. Over and over the phrase is repeated, cupped hands touching ears, the whisper as loud as a stage whisper: “Heather Adams masturbates. Pass it on!”

“Gross!” says the female recipient of this news, a red-faced beanpole. She hesitates for a moment, then whispers the news into the ear of the girl sitting in front of her . “Are you kidding?” the girl shouts. “She is soooo sick!”

The rumour moves west through the crowd. The point of the rumour, its defining quality, is that it moves. The rumour can’t stop. It’s a hot rock that must be passed quickly before it begins to burn.” (p.33-34)

When I compare this to my post a couple of days ago on ancient Roman sex – a gift of Venus to be enjoyed by all – I can only think that Christianity has an awful lot to answer for.

The topic that this book covers is opened out in the second, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons.

It argues that arising out of the strong pressures on girls to be “good” and “nice” is a resultant inevitable nastiness, in the form of bullying as a means to express anger. This takes the form not of physical or even direct verbal aggression, but the use of “sly”, “mean” tactics – being nice to someone for one day then cold-shouldering them without explanation, spreading rumours (eg about sexual behaviour, as per yesterday’s book) about someone behind their back.

What makes this so particularly damaging is that the victim of the bullying feels that she must have done something wrong, there must be something wrong with her, to attract this sort of behaviour from her “friends”.

A sixth-grader is quoted: “Most teachers think, ‘Oh well, she’s not hurting you. Don’t worry about it.’ But really they are hurting you. They’re hurting your feelings.” (p. 47)

The book argues: “We need to freeze those fleeting moments and name them so that girls are no longer besieged by doubts about what’s happening, so that they no longer believe it’s their fault when it does.” p. 37.

Definitely a book teachers, and probably parents of girls, should read – not that it offers many helpful suggestions about what that can be done about it. But it might at least help adults to understand why the problem is so serious for the victims.

*It was a long time ago, but I’ve changed all these names just in case.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    I well recall the girl at my college who was nicknamed “Dracula” for her rumored sexual habits. She dropped out after her freshman year.

    (Incidentally, she was an atheist who grew up in a Muslim country. This is a cultural rather than a religious issue.)

  • http://darkeroticism.blogspot.com swingingpuss

    It’s more a self-esteem issue or a cry for help which unfortunately never comes from the peers.

    That being said I still have mixed feelings about self-destructive women.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    I recommend “Charlotte Simmons” as a users’ guide, if jaded, to the people described herein.

    Nice post

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie

    I think you are right about the cultural issue. One of the points that White makes is that girls from African American and Hispanic-American cultures reported that “slut” bullying just didn’t happen in their cultures: “My interviews with non-white women did not yield the same moments of recognition, the same eye rolling in the face of the infernally familiar story.” (p. 163-4)

  • Sydney

    I think the term “slut” is one of the most destructive terms in everyday use. Part of the problem is that the average person is too uncomfortable with sexuality to denounce the terms use when they hear their children using it.

    Parents, teachers, and peers, tend to just let it slide when they hear it because they disaprove of “the slut’s” behavior themselves. It’s an awful thing. Anyone using a term like that should face harsher criticism than the “slut”.

    Someone had it right earlier when they wrote that promiscuity is the product of low self esteem and emotional dependance. Also, peoples fear of sluts comes from their own insecurities. It’s pathetic in my opinion.

  • http://canheadrecords.blogspot.com/ L. Cue

    I’ll have to pick this book up. Someone should so a aticle on the grwoing trend of teachers sleeeping with students.

    When I was in HS, there was a teacher who had a reputation for sleeping with students. I don’t know how true this is, but she was an odd one.

    It was rumored that she smoked pot in her office during school hours. I was in one of her classes and would peek in her office. She had her ashtray, as teachers could smoke in their offices back then, but I never saw any pot. But I did smell it, several times, and so did my classmates.

    High school indeed.

  • Melinda

    I was called a “slut” from the time I was 11 years old. Now at 21, I’m still called a “slut” in my hometown. We are quick to label, to shun, to blame & shame & ridicule anyone who seems different in any way.

    I’m with the person who said that people label others because of their own fears and insecurities. Most young women become extremely insecure & jealous, intimidated, by a girl who somehow stands out. Maybe she’s the bookworm who prefers to study. Maybe she has short hair & plays sports, so they call her “lesbo”. Maybe she’s the class clown, a silly type who seems to be friendly with everyone. Maybe she’s the tough punk rock chick with tattoos. Maybe she’s the new kid in town. Or the girl from a poor family. Or the girl with 36DD boobs, or the beautiful blue-eyed blonde who mostly hangs out with boys. People are always threatened & intrigued by that which seems different.

    Certain words & actions are meant to disempower people who don’t fit in. For gays, it is “queer”, “faggot”, “homo”, and “dyke”. For Blacks & Jews, there are racist and anti-Semitic terms. For women, it is “slut” or “whore”. Two words that completely devalue any female who is different. Many girls are called these names long before any real sexual activity takes place. I was the victim of vicious rumors for a long time. It was said that I masturbated with a pen in my 7th grade English class, that I engaged in sexual acts with a female classmate while on a field trip out of state in my 6th grade year, that I gave blowjobs. The rumors were almost always sexual in nature. Now in college, I’m still confronted by this type of thing. People really need to consider how this type of bullying is actually sexual harrassment. I suggest another book, Leora Tanenbaum’s “SLUT!”