Five Lessons to Take Away From I Am Not a Slut by Leora Tanenbaum

Being a teenage girl has never been more complicated than it is today. For generations, adolescent girls and young women have dealt with slut-shaming and sexual double standards in school, but today’s Internet culture has added an entirely new element for them to navigate. Never before has it been easier to record and distribute evidence of “slutty” behavior on cell phones or to bully classmates within the anonymity of social networks. In I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, Leora Tanenbaum interviews adolescent and college-age girls as well as journalists, academics, and other professionals who work with them to provide fresh insight into the lives of young women today.

I was absolutely fascinated by this book. It shines a light on how slut-shaming is used by both boys and girls to police the activity of their female peers, how sexual double standards create a toxic environment for young women, and whether the term “slut” can be reclaimed. But I also had some trouble with how universal Tanenbaum’s arguments seemed. When she says “almost all” women have been called a slut at some point, I wanted numbers. Reading this book painted a picture of high school and college very different from my own not-too-far-removed experience. Although it’s sad and awful that ANY girls have had the experiences these women did, I couldn’t help but wonder just HOW typical their stories were.

However, this book isn’t about the girls who kept their noses down and didn’t talk to boys or go to parties. It’s about the girls who have been called sluts, regardless of their actual level of sexual experience or their agency in those experiences. (And those seem to be the only choices a girl has: to be ignored and seen as a prude, or to express her sexuality at the risk of being labeled a slut.)

To give you a taste of the information imparted in I Am Not a Slut, I would like to share five things I learned from this book.

1. A girl can become known as a slut, even if she has never had sex.

She may be singled out because she is perceived as other, seems to have an unfair advantage with boys, or even because she has been sexually assaulted. Actual level of sexual experience is often irrelevant.

2. There is a fine line between being a “good slut” and a “bad slut.”

A girl tries to portray herself as a “good slut” to show that she is sexually sophisticated, but she can easily lose control of the label and become a “bad slut” when her peers perceive her to violate feminine norms by exercising sexual agency, having sex outside the boundaries established by her peers, or appearing as if she is trying too hard.

3. The word “slut” is used by both girls and boys to police the actions of their female peers.

A boy may call a girl a slut to assert his dominance and masculinity. When a girl playfully calls her friend a slut, it distances the first girl from the label (reinforcing her own femininity) while serving as a sly reminder to the friend that she is being monitored. The use of the word “slut” among female friends also serves to normalize a derogatory word that place’s a woman’s value in her sexuality.

4. With the rise of social media and camera phones, girls are always on display, and they must perform their femininity at all times.

Seventy percent of all Facebook activity is related to viewing pictures and profiles, and women receive two-thirds of all page views on Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. In this atmosphere, “Girls’ sexuality is just another thing to document.”

5. In college, hooking up is seen by women as the first step toward a relationship.

Although many women may not find hooking up empowering, they see it as a “necessary evil” in developing a relationship. But because hooking up is seen as slutty, women turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking; “If you hook up drunk, you can always attribute your sluttiness to the influence of alcohol… Hooking up drunk is a strategy to disavow agency and sexual desire — two ingredients in the definition of a “bad slut.””

I Am Not a Slut is a fascinating, important book about how slut bashing (overt bullying), slut shaming (a more subtle form of policing women’s behavior) and the sexual double standard damage young women, especially in a culture in which images, videos, and taunts can be spread with such ease and impunity. I had some objections to how she portrays slut-shaming as something that happens to nearly every woman, and I wished Tanenbaum had written at more length about slut-shaming on the internet more broadly (rather than focusing only on how it affects young girls), but I thought it was a thought-provoking book that’s definitely worth a read.

I would highly recommend this book to parents and educators. In addition to the great information in the body of the book, I Am Not a Slut contains appendices with “Dos and Don’ts for Parents of Teenagers and College-Age Children,” a “Slut-Shaming Defense Toolkit,” and resources for further reading. It’s flaws aside, this is an excellent book about the complex sexual pressures young girls and women face.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.