Maggie: A Story of Slut Shaming

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Maggie had a short, blond bob haircut, a round face and light-blue eyes. She was just what you’d expect a cute 12 year old to be.  Except she had breasts – not just protruding nipples she decently hid in an over-sized t-shirt, but actual breasts that merited a real ‘grown-up’ bra. She was the first in our class to actually have to wear one of these contraptions. And she wore close fitting t-shirts. Just like the rest of us, really, but in her case there was more than a flat chest in the garment. Her t-shirt actually wrapped around two unmistakable anatomical signs of puberty and we were all scandalized.

 I was never the popular kid in elementary school (having just moved back to Poland from the US I had  a funny accent and foreign clothes that did nothing to help me), but this was something all my classmates could bond over. Maggie was obviously a bad girl. Something must be done with Maggie! Maggie was too sexual! Maggie should really hide those breasts away, for heaven’s sake! And before long we were all calling Maggie a slut. That in itself is horrible. I’d bet you anything that Maggie hadn’t even kissed a boy, much less participating in any of the behaviors commonly associated with the word ‘slut’. The problem with slut-shaming (or one of the many problems with it) is that it’s not really a term for describing your sexual activity. Rather, it’s a way of devaluing women based on their sexuality. In the Maggie situation, the other really scary thing is that adults knew what we were saying about Maggie. And not just random adults, but adults including my leftist, hippie, feminist-identifying parents, and nobody called us out on it.

I hadn’t thought of her in years. Maggie and I were never friends and I only saw her once after we both finished elementary school – and she spent that whole ride on the bus with her head turned the other way to better pretend she didn’t see me; and I wasn’t about to despair over it. I would probably never have given her a second thought if not for Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities.

I was curled up on my sofa on a dark and wet British October day reading Wolf’s account of slut-shaming in California elementary schools. Everything about the passage seemed outlandish – the California sun, the ‘mean girl’ attitudes, and the 10-12 year olds shaming their classmates for signs of sexuality they had no real idea about. Wolf wrote about how all these kids knew was that women aren’t supposed to ‘flaunt’ there bodies and they should keep them, as well as any physical desires, under wraps at all times. Otherwise, they risked name-calling, social stigma, and exclusion. I remember thinking – ‘wow, this is crazy, I’m so glad Poland’s backwardness at least spared me this.’

And then I remembered Maggie. As dramatic as it may sound, I felt as if I had tripped and was falling into a black hole. I called my mom to try to deal with the feelings bubbling up inside me. Predictably, Mom had no recollection of us kids calling Maggie bad names and not being told off for it. She did, however, remember that Maggie was pretty straightforward with her sexuality. The thing is, Maggie was 12 and this was almost 15 years ago (so at a time in Poland when kids really did behave and dress like kids). The sexuality was being projected onto her – she was not ‘sleeping around’, she didn’t have a boyfriend, and she most certainly wasn’t juggling multiple boys. She just had breasts she wasn’t willing to hide away.

Promiscuities is a shocking book unto itself. For me, reading it combined with the sudden recollection of Maggie felt like a violent wake-up call. I suddenly remembered a number of other incidents in my life when female friends and acquaintances were harassed about their sexuality and ‘reputation.’ I realized not a single one of my male friends ever seriously worried about being called out for ‘sleeping around.’ I remembered back to the awkward teenage years when all my female friends and I were ashamed of our budding breasts and our first menstruation was a semi-traumatic event to be kept secret. Boys, on the other hand, got to brag about facial hair and having to shave. They also get to laugh off being told they’re ‘womanizers,’ and are allowed to sleep with as many women as possible. When men were polled on how many sexual partners merit calling a women a ‘slut’ the average response was five! Tellingly, no similar polls are generally conducted for men.

There’s something wrong here. And it’s not the men. There is no point or sense in blaming just one sex. I’m a prime example (or rather, the 12-year old version of me) of how slut-shaming and policing women’s sexuality is by no means only a male prerogative. The fault lies with deeply culturally-imbedded sexism. From early on we’re told that there’s something dirty and dangerously sexual about women’s bodies. After puberty women are portrayed as either well-behaved virgins or girls-gone-wild sluts. There’s very little language and a poorly developed framework for speaking about the full spectrum of female sexuality. We lack the words, the space, and the willingness to discuss the experiences that are part of real women’s and men’s lives. We need to work toward developing a cultural attitude in which neither sex is judged for consensual sexual encounters and we are we are taught to value ourselves, our bodies, and our sexuality. It’s absolutely vital we start by teaching this attitude to kids.

Maria M. Pawlowska is healthcare analyst with a passion for reproductive health and gender issues. Her articles on different aspects of reproductive and women’s rights have been published by The Maternal Health Task Force, RH Reality Check, HealthyPolicies, The European Pro-Choice Network, and The Good Men Project among others. Maria currently lives in London with her husband. You can reach her at: m.pawlowska@gatesscholar.org or on Twitter @MariaPawlowska.

Photo credit manyhighways/Flickr

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