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Bullying (and bullied) girls

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.

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