A Parent’s Guide
Episode 9: Side 5A (Part 1) Slut Shaming
Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the tenth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah decides to try to be more positive and even attend a party. She inadvertently observes her drunk friend Jessica (who is widely known to be sexually active) being raped by their friend Bryce. In this episode, there are prominent examples of slut shaming and sexual assault. Slut shaming (and virility shaming) will be discussed in this column. The issues of sexual assault raised in this episode will be covered in the next column.
Gender norms in the 21st Century
In the US, it is now widely recognized that girls (and women) have sexual feelings, desires and impulses just like boys (and men) do. It is also accepted that guys are capable of being sensitive, emotionally self-aware and sexually selective. Culturally, girls are increasingly able to openly pursue their own sexual agendas (i.e., hit on guys, initiate intimate physical contact, have sex, etc.) without universal condemnation. Guys can pursue intimate relationships that are emotionally fulfilling where sex is secondary without having their masculinity questioned. Kind of.
Unfortunately, gender norms and gender rules have not yet caught up with this long overdue overhaul of female sexual rights and male needs for emotional intimacy. There is not a model for how girls are supposed to be a sexual person. They must still navigate a fine line between being a sexual being and being shamed and ridiculed for pursuing a sexual agenda of their own (i.e., slut shaming). All of the main female characters in this series struggle with these conflicting messages.
Likewise, there is not a model for what masculinity means for teenage boys when they want meaningful, fulfilling and emotionally intimate relationships that don’t follow the traditional expectations for being stoic, tough, sexually voracious and domineering. Consequently, guys are virility shamed for not being “man enough” when it comes to scoring with girls. There are main male characters in this series that represent the worst of the traditional masculine role, that embrace more emotionally intimate and satisfying relationships and that struggle with the confusion these conflicting masculine expectations are creating.
Teenagers are gradually fumbling their way to a new formulation of identity where everyone, regardless of gender, can be sexually responsible. But, until new social norms are developed, teenagers are drawing on existing models of sex and sexuality. Unfortunately, the only existing model that actually allows people to be in charge of their own sex lives is the traditional male model of sex as an objective to accomplish (rather than as an intimate interaction between two people). So both teenage boys and girls are feeling pressure to treat sex as a competition; as sport and entertainment rather than part of an intimate relationship. In the meantime, girls still get the short end of the stick. They have to be both (i.e., sexual and chaste) and neither (i.e., slutty and prudish). Girls feel pressured to act like they are comfortable with sex (though it has to be only occasional and not with just anyone). Boys, on the other hand, are completely confused about how to deal with a sexually available girl who has both assumed some responsibility for her own sexual needs yet still feels (and is) vulnerable to exploitation.
Now throw pornography into the mix! Due to the pervasive exposure of the large majority of teenage boys to pornography, the models for sexual intimacy are mechanical, recreational and unrealistic. The intimacy of sex is not portrayed or modeled. Like in the old days (and in many parts of the world still), boys are socially rewarded for pursuing superficial sexual relationships and shaming girls who “let them” succeed. Many teenage guys don’t clearly understand they can choose whether to have sex or not. So teenage guys feel pressured to even greater braggadocio and the sexual objectification of girls. If they don’t, then their masculine identity is brought into question.
Slut & Virility Shaming
And so we come to shaming people for violating gender norms. Slut shaming is still a thing for girls if they are sexual (and enjoy sex). Slut shaming is still used to isolate and punish girls who don’t fit the outdated but still active views of the chaste and virginal girl. Slut shaming often happens to girls just because of early breast development! Slut shaming inhibits girls from developing a healthy and self-respecting view of sexual intimacy.
Virility shaming is still a thing for guys if they don’t focus primarily on getting sex (and if they desire emotional intimacy). Virility shaming (e.g., gay, faggot, wuss, “you’re such a girl,” wimp, etc.) is still used to isolate and punish guys who don’t fit the outdated but still active view of the dominant, tough, emotionally controlled and sexually experienced guy. In its less serious form, it is the primary playful putdown used between guys. Virility shaming inhibits guys from developing healthy, emotionally intimate and self-fulfilling relationships, both with friends and with dating partners. Slut shaming and virility shaming can be seen not only in this episode but also throughout this series (not to mention in every teenage social group).
What’s a parent to do?
Discuss what it means to be a modern woman and man. Slut shaming and virility shaming pressures teens to conform to outdated notions of what it takes to be a man and a woman. The rigid roles imposed on men and women in the past worked well when women were not empowered to pursue their own life goals and when guys had to “protect” them. If your kid is going to succeed in the 21st century economy, both boys and girls will need to be self-sufficient, in charge of their own bodies and able to form emotionally intimate relationships. As you probably noticed, the challenge is to merge the best of traditional feminine qualities with the best of traditional male qualities in one person. Your kid will need A LOT of help trying to figure this out so get in there and let them know what you consider to be the best qualities in a person (regardless of their gender).
Slut shaming/virility shaming is wrong. Even if you think sex before marriage is wrong or that boys shouldn’t cry, your kid needs to know whether it is OK to shame and humiliate someone else when they don’t demonstrate these same values (or fall short of living up to them). I’m hoping that you take the position of all major religions and all major philosophies that people should be kind and compassionate to each other. This means not insulting and demeaning others, even if they are a sexually experienced girl or an emotionally sensitive boy. Whatever your view, make it clear what you expect of your kid when it comes to shaming other people.
Be sex positive. Sex is (or should be) fun for everyone. If you try to discourage your kid from having sex by making it a negative thing they will stop listening. Decisions about sex are best made using moral or ethical principles and least on fears of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancies (though those are important). Sex, at its best, is an act of shared intimacy. It is a relationship, even when it is a one-time thing. Twenty first century teens are not getting this message. The message they are presented with is that sex is a sport, a competition or a release of tension. They need guidance understanding the importance of intimacy in sex and of the role of sex in relationships. Check out the Resource section below for some suggested readings and web sites that can help you clarify what you think and to formulate a way to talk to your kid about what you want them to think (and do) about sex.
What if your kid is being slut shamed or virility shamed?
Slut shaming is often part of a larger campaign of harassment of a girl. You can read about how deeply that can wound a kid in the book Fast Girls by Emily White. The suggestions provided here are for dealing with specific instances of slut shaming (not how to deal with a broader network of harassment). Here are some things your kid can do to respond to slut shaming. Many of these elements can be found in the Episode 1 column in this series dealing with rumors.
- Holding your head up. Nothing encourages jerks more than when the person they have targeted slinks around and looks like they feel guilty. Work with your kid on projecting an air of confidence, lack of concern and disdain.
- Talking directly to the “shamer.” It helps if your kid has something to say back to a “shamer.” The best responses are brief, pointed and said while walking past so the “shamer” has to talk to your kid’s back.
- “Why are you so interested in my business?”
- “What kind of jerk says something like that to someone?”
- Getting support from friends and other people. Make sure your kid is talking to their friends so they don’t feel like they are in the spotlight alone. Friends may even be able to bring some pressure on the “shamer”
- “You know this guy is being a jerk. You really should say something.” Said to a friend of the jerk who is not a jerk.
- Talking to friends and getting them to help quietly extinguish the slut shaming.
- Taking it to the source. You can find a description of how to confront someone spreading rumors in my blog on rumor-mongering. (Note: your kid should be certain that the “shamer” is not a violent person before deciding to confront them.)
Virility shaming is a basic part of teenage (and, unfortunately, some adult) guy culture. Put downs and insults are a playful and humorous competition among guys as they try to dominate each other. However, virility shaming can get intense, quit being funny and start undermining a guy’s self-confidence when it is taken too far. There are a few general strategies guys can use to deal with virility shaming.
- Develop some effective come backs. Part of the put-down games of boys is to try to get a reaction from the person they are teasing. So one strategy for dealing with virility shaming is to construct a couple of good come backs. (Some of the more effective come backs turn the virility shaming back on the “shamer.” This unfortunately continues to perpetuate the view that sensitivity and emotional openness are weaknesses to be exploited. Right now, the immediate goal is for your kid to be able to shut the person down, not change our society’s view of men and masculinity.)
- Comebacks should be short and pointed. “Dude! Quit hitting on me. That’s not my thing.” “That is really getting old man”
- Avoid sexual references in the comeback. Any kind of sexual reference (e.g., “screw you” “kiss my butt”) can be turned back around “oh, you’d like that wouldn’t you, fag!”
- Have a quiet talk with the main culprit. Many (most?) guys who are giving a friend a hard time don’t mean to be hurtful. They just don’t realize they have gone too far or that their remarks are hurting the other person. Have your kid consider finding a private moment to let the person know they’d appreciate it if they would drop all the remarks; find something else to pick at them about.
- Own it. Some people can pull off taking the insult and then exaggerating it to eliminate the intended effect.
- “Oh yeah. I just love the ‘D’” (said sarcastically)
- “You are just threatened by a sensitive man.”
- “Love you too, dude.”
- “No, but I’m sure you can find someone if that’s what you’re into.”
- “You say that all the time man. It kinda makes me wonder about you.”
The blog on Episode about talking to your kid about gay shaming is a parallel for guys to slut shaming for girls.
Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut by Emily White is a great discussion about what girls who have been slut shamed have to go through and the effects of these experiences into adulthood.
Raising Teens in the 21st Century by James G. Wellborn provides an overview of talking to your kids about sexual intimacy. You can find other website and book resources on talking to your kid about sex on my website.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
The next column will be Part 2 of issues addressed in Episode 9 with a focus on talking to your teen about sexual assault.