'Slut': Gender Policing As Bullying Ritual

Oct 12, 2012 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

We at QuERI often ask LGBTQ kids to list for us the "bad names" that they get called in school spaces, hear others called and see scrawled across bathroom walls and on lockers. Those derogatory terms are, by vast majority, terms that police gender: words like "fag," but also words that mark the sex and sexuality of girls through slut shaming.

The variety of names for the high school "slut" is astonishing, and she is often painted as a larger-than-life character performing superhuman feats on the 50-yard line and sending nice girls to zealously guard their boyfriends with a watch that would keep the crown jewels safe. Most people can tell you who the "slut" in their high school was, regardless of how many decades might have passed since graduation. Stories of her wanton escapades spread like wildfire through the halls of high school, and students take pleasure in sharing their own richly fabricated details, making the story steamier with each telling. This is a bonding activity: Students create a sense of belonging and group membership through joining together to throw verbal stones.

Research suggests that for girls, "slut" and its derivatives are among the most common and most feared of possible pejoratives hurled in the high-school social arena, equivalent in regulatory power to the "fag" label for boys. Both "slut" and "fag" tell young people that they are doing their gender "wrong" and that they'd better get in line or suffer the consequences. The virulence of "slut," and the reduction in a girl's cultural capital that accompanies being called a "slut," make clear to all that there is an association between a woman's worth as a human being and her sexual behavior. Abusive naming practices reveal not only the in-group/out-group dynamics (who's hot, who's not) but the cultural value system that situates the named positions within the social hierarchy. In other words, calling a girl a "slut" not only marks her as "undesirable" but simultaneously restates that sexually active women are unwelcome pariahs. Our culture still marks a woman who is sexually active outside heterosexual marriage (or perceived to be) as a person of little value. Amazing, isn't it?

As kids approach adolescence, increased value is placed on gender conformity and heterosexual desirability. Social stratification and popularity in schools become increasingly based on how well an individual's gender matches up with peer ideals of masculinity and femininity. A significant portion of the expected gender conformity for girls includes managing relations to and with boys. Social worth for girls becomes less determined by their individual accomplishments in arts, academics or athletics, and increasingly they are evaluated by their success in attracting, maintaining and regulating the attentions of boys in "acceptable" ways. Girls straddle an often unclear line in appearing sexually attractive (desirable) and receptive (thus not "gay") yet unavailable (not "sluts"). Girls who cross the line, appear to have crossed it or are rumored to have crossed it are marked as transgressing gender norms and disrupting moral order. The "slut" (and the "dyke" and the "fag") are positioned as transgressors, failing to properly align their sexual desires and behaviors with normative gender prescriptions. Adolescent culture regulates gender and heterosexuality through active assault on those who break the gender rules, and through social exclusion and isolation -- through bullying. Other (presumably "good") girls justify openly hostile (mean/bullying) behavior toward their marked peers through moral judgments; breaking the rules of gender and sexuality makes a girl a "bad" person, and she therefore "deserves" the social harassment she receives ("She brought it on herself").

Slut marking begins as early as late elementary or middle school. In middle school girls can be marked as "sluts," "bitches" and "whores" for demonstrating assertive behavior, sharing their opinions or challenging boys' authority. The "slut" label is also applied to middle-school girls who wear makeup and attractive clothing, actively pursue boys (in defiance of the double standard), develop breasts before their peers, are from a lower socioeconomic status than the majority of the students in their school or are attracted to both boys and girls. Many young girls who have never had sex or anything close to it -- at all -- have been marked as "sluts." Once marked, young girls are repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment, threats and taunts, which are often overlooked by teachers and rarely called "bullying." Marginalizing young girls with the stigma of "slut" has serious consequences not only for the girl who is marked but for the girls who see what happens to her and fear also being labeled a "slut" and will do anything to avoid it and maintain their "respectability," including silencing their needs, desires, questions, voices, opinions, experiences and burgeoning sexual awareness.

Years of abstinence-only sex education, a refusal to discuss female desire as part of sex education in schools, inaccurate sex and relationship information that often reinforces the gender binary, and a fear-based approach to HIV education have further suppressed discussions of women's sexual agency in and out of school. "Respectable" girls are expected to just say "no," stay silent on the topic of sex and wait for a committed, long-term heterosexual relationship. The "slut" serves as the standard against which other young women can measure their own worth ("Well, I'm not as bad as her!") and try to figure out how to keep from getting marked themselves. The presence of the "slut" (bearing a label that has nothing to do with her actual behavior) is a constant reminder of what can happen to girls perceived as having violated societal norms through their sexual agency, or as having rejected the constrained gender boundaries of heterofemininity. She is a neon, flashing warning sign to all girls to keep their sexual desires silent. The loss of a good reputation can happen quickly, and once marked a "slut," a "slut" you likely stay for the rest of your school career. The "slut" is a powerful regulatory image for all young women, regardless of sexual orientation/identity.

When we think about what bullying is and what we should do about it, it is imperative that we understand how it functions socially. Generally, bullying behaviors are targeted at students who are deemed by their peers to "fail" in some way. Often, where the bullied student is found lacking is in the area of gender compliance. "Sluts" are memorably marked in every high school (and some middle schools) decade after decade, because they serve an important, culturally sanctioned social function: They remind girls to police their own gender and sexuality, or else. Girls collude in the patriarchal oppression of their own sexual subjectivity through policing other girls' sexual reputations and through naming and blaming the "slut." Boys claim, use and reproduce male privilege and the double standard through their participation.

Slut marking is a shared social activity; through calling a woman a "slut," creating lurid stories about her "sexcapades" and sharing those with peers, a cultural value system that demeans women and denies them a right to sexual agency is reproduced. These bullying behaviors create bonds between the bulliers, reestablish group membership ("We are the good girls, not like that slut over there") and reaffirm what is "appropriate" and expected. Slut shaming serves the social function of policing the lines of (hetero)normative gender and establishing the "right" way for doing "girl" gender: straight but not sexually assertive or experienced.

In order to really begin to change these longstanding patterns of bullying, we must begin to ask: Who gets targeted for bullying, and why? Why is it culturally "OK" to harass a woman who demonstrates sexual agency? Why are girls who express their opinions often marked as "sluts"? What are the values that underlie these targeting and bullying behaviors? What role does the school play in validating the values that underlie these behaviors? Why is such a significant percentage of bullying targeted at kids who are judged to do their gender outside the box? How can we engage kids in conversations that lead them to reflect more deeply on who they pick on/harass/bully, and why? Why target gender difference? What's so wrong about it?

In the past year we have seen a great deal of attention paid to public figures using the word "slut" to mark strong women, we have seen women try to "reclaim" that label, and we have seen public debates on women's health care and their ability to make decisions for their own lives and bodies. We have also seen an increase in public awareness of bullying and government and educational institutions more actively addressing the issue. What we have not seen is consistent naming of slut shaming as bullying behavior in schools and discussions of how a public discourse that toys with women's health care and rights is related to the continued marking, targeting, bullying and sexual harassment of girls in schools. And we surely have not seen a discussion of how the continued cultural privileging of traditional straight-male masculinity and the devaluing of all other genders are key in understanding how and why the same groups of kids get targeted for bullying decade after decade.

This piece is partially based on my 2010 research article "Sluts: Heteronormative policing in the stories of lesbian youth," which looked at lesbian adolescent participation in slut marking. It was published in Educational Studies: Journal of the American Educational Studies Association.