When I was in the sixth grade, one of my classmates, Ashley, developed breasts early and frequently wore low-cut tops and shorts that were just barely long enough to meet dress code requirements. She was pretty, with slightly frizzy hair that she kept cut just below her ears. She may or may not have made out or had sex with a boy in the dugout. The rumors, of course, said she was guilty. As the year progressed—and people called her a slut (and worse)—she became depressed. I recall she cried frequently and stopped hanging out with people she’d considered friends. Later, in high school, she confessed she thought about killing herself.
I think about Ashley occasionally, especially as I look around at my middle school and high school students.
My students have told me about crushes gone awry, about dropping out of school (and dropping back in), about cyber- and in-person bullying. I recently subbed in a seventh-grade classroom. One student, Nicole, came to me and said other students were calling her “loose” and worse.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Reporting them will make it worse.”
These feelings are legitimate. Telling her to report them, after she’d directly expressed not wanting to, would invalidate her feelings.
I listened and knew I had to give Nicole extra support. Nicole talked about friends who’d turned against her, remarks she was subjected to, how she knew it was bullying and how reporting bullying never worked.
I let Nicole know I was there to talk to and would check in with her. I also talked with the primary teacher to get her support.
While we have to support individual students who are victimized, we also need to focus on the school climate and make all students aware of the detrimental effects of a culture that allows young girls—in particular—to be tormented.
The Unslut Project is a helpful tool. Emily Lindin, the project’s author, is a writer now in her late 20s, who was the “sixth-grade slut.” She kept a diary, and is now blogging that diary, word for word, with adult-Emily comments in brackets. It’s heartbreakingly honest. Based on reader-responses, her story touches people of all ages and genders.
I think it helps to know that someone else is experiencing—or experienced—what you’re going through. I learned about The UnSlut Project long after Nicole approached me, but I would have directed her toward it and encouraged her to submit her own story, as Emily Lindin suggests.
Lindin’s project has fostered an important discussion about the culture of slut-shaming and victim-blaming. It's a blog I'll recommend to youth in the future. I’ll ask them to read and write responses to the blog that will be part of a discussion and a larger campaign to help students understand the ramifications of slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
We have more examples in the news headlines. We could start with the story about a teenage girl raped by two football players. When the guilty verdict came from the court, the victim was harassed and threatened. We might tie this into the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, a girl in Canada, who was harassed after a photo of an alleged rape was distributed throughout her school and she was rejected by the school community.
As educators, we have a responsibility to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming with students. By talking about the way society polices girls and women, based on the way they dress or their perceived sexual activity, we have the opportunity to foster caring learning environments, prevent suffering and save lives.
Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.