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What’s a Slut?

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 OPINIONS









What's a Slut? by Paula Bomer  







    Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation   
by Leora Tanenbaum   
(Seven Stories Press, hardcover, 1999; 287 pages)  





Yeah I deserve it, I asked you for it
I do admit it, we dress like targets
Yeah I deserve it, give me no leeway
I give you five times, you can call me devil’s gateway,
Easy . . . (I like it dirty).

     – from “Easy” by PJ Harvey





Perhaps like every other Brooklyn housewife in my neighborhood, I fantasize about starring in a
movie based on my adolescence: I Was a Teenage Whore. Screenplay by me, based on the memoir
by me. As I push my snot-nosed children in their stroller, my feet safely encased in sporty Velcro
sandals and my post-pregnancy tummy hanging over elastic-waist pants, I dream of being back in
those sex-soaked days of my youth, when I worried about my reputation rather than what to serve with
the meatloaf. Adolescence is my fantasy: the backseats of cars, loud AC/DC, bad boys who kinda
scared me, my young, young body. And although it was no picnic, my mind was on sex, sex,
sex, rather than diapers, bills and laundry.


    

Halcyon days or not, they all came flooding back as I read Leora Tanenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up
Female with a Bad Reputation,
which addresses what it means to fuck around with guys and get in
trouble for it. A mix of first person accounts, literary and film analysis and fascinating court
cases, Slut! delves into the mixed emotions experienced by those who’ve worn the label,

particularly in high school. Tanenbaum looks back to the famously puritanical ’50s, and follows
through to the present, concluding that things are not so different than they used to be. Tanenbaum
is nothing if not empathetic: she shares the maltreatment she suffered as a sexually adventurous
teenager — how she dressed in baggy clothes and kept her nose in the books to avoid the nasty
looks of her classmates. Although her “slutty” behavior wasn’t so scandalously slutty, she had a
rep, and knows whereof she speaks.


    

Yet it’s when Tanenbaum lets other sluts speak for themselves that things really get interesting.
“In a sense my reputation was a freeing experience,” says one girl. “The reputation put me outside
the boundaries of accepted behavior. Once you’ve crossed a line or stepped outside of what is
accepted, then you have much more freedom to experiment with who you are.” After letting a
rainbow of bad girls have their say, she concludes positively that being branded a slut forces a
girl to be more independent and more critical of society. She writes: “Faced with rejection by their
peers, they in turn reject the values of their peers. Why not flee the suffocation of
conformity?” She even goes so far as to say that “None of the sluts I interviewed is a victim. Every
one went through a painful experience, but each ultimately turned her experience into a positive
thing. Having a ‘slut’ reputation sharpened her thinking, gave her a sense of perspective about
gender roles, and made her acutely aware of the small-mindedness of the sexual double standard.”
This is refreshing stuff in light of the recent attention given to books such as A Return to
Modesty
by Wendy Shalit. Yet, despite Tanenbaum’s upbeat “I am woman hear me roar” attitude,
the painful parts are painful. Various details of rape, coercion and other sad happenings are
abundant and give pause: What does it mean to be a victim? What does it mean to be a slut?


    

Slut, ho, whore, tart, hussy, cunt. For every name for an easy lay (my favorite mentioned in the
book is “fwoppish,” referring to the sound of a vaginal fart), there is a different way of being a
slut. It’s all in the details! Many of the sluts in this book were sexually abused and felt badly
about themselves, seeking out bad situations to validate their negative self images. Other sluts

felt proud to defy the double standard — if boys can do it, then so can we. And yet others were
not slutty at all, just cute or big breasted — branded tarts for their looks alone. Tanenbaum
deserves praise for addressing the complications of sluttiness: If it’s okay for us girls to fuck
around just like the guys, yet sad if we do it because we don’t like ourselves, then, well,
then what? Is it possible to blow the entire football team voluntarily, enjoy it and love yourself,
despite the verbal abuse you’re sure to incur for the rest of your high school career?


    

While Tanenbaum argues that none of these girls are victims in a general sense, clearly many of them
are victimized on certain occasions. One slut recalls how her little sister was a slut, too: “She
told me that she once invited a boy over she liked, and he invited his friends and they were hanging
out. And then she went into the back and gave him a hand job. And then he was like, ‘Well Bill wants
one too,’ and she didn’t want to, but she ended up giving five guys hand jobs because she felt
pressured.” This is an achingly hurtful scene, yet, as with most awful things, it was most
certainly educational for the girl who lived through it. Herein lies the deep meaning and
complexity of I Was a Teenage Whore.


    

I still have come to no conclusion about the particular time in my life when I was referred to as a
“ho” and regularly asked to get down on my knees. I was twelve at the time, lived in a small Midwest
college town and was not very happy. Even after years of analysis, I’ve come to very few conclusions
about anything — why I am the way I am, why anyone is the way he or she is. I can’t even say I
was pressured to become the blowjob queen of Jefferson Junior High; it was mostly my idea. But the
resulting disgrace was a burden: no boy, or girl for that matter, thought too well of me. I guess
one could argue I didn’t think too well of myself, but I must say that, ironically, I felt powerful.
Having a boy’s dick in your mouth can make you feel extremely potent. And by the age of twelve, I
was looking for a new means of power. The accolades of my science teachers and the cheerleaders
who copied my homework assignments were no longer enough. Bodybuilding wasn’t really an option,
nor was I ever going to be an ax-wielding social manipulator, also referred to as a “popular girl.”
The power I sought was straightforward and physical (that’s no surprise to me now that I’ve known
myself a lot longer).


    

For a long time I tried to feel sad and guilty about my behavior, or sorry for myself because I
was treated unkindly. When I read about the girl giving five hand jobs, I felt sorry for her. I know
that other people may rightfully think her stupid, but most twelve-year-olds are stupid in some
way. And nothing makes you smarter than making big mistakes. Being a young slut was the greatest —
and most defining — booboo of my life. I didn’t play by the rules and I paid. Frankly, I enjoyed
sucking dick at twelve as much as I did in college and as much as I do now. But it wasn’t until
later in life, in college and after, that my periods of banging around with a variety of men
didn’t feel the least bit slutty; I finally could have some fun with it. Some people like sex more

than others, want to have sex with more people than others, think about sex more often than others
and like to do it in ways that disgust others. I’d have no interest in swapping mates with another
couple or fucking my husband’s co-worker for his benefit; others would. And while I was an
unhappy twelve-year-old, I don’t think that’s why I did what I did, nor was my unhappiness a result
of being labeled a whore. My unhappiness was one thing, sucking dick was another thing and
people not liking me for sucking dick was yet another thing. And all those things co-existed and
intermingled, along with other factors, like intense sexual curiosity, raging hormones, boys with
dicks, a good mouth for it and probably lots of other stuff, including the weather. And so I
conclude with no conclusion about myself, and that is why the end of my movie, I Was A Teenage Whore,
would be a little arty.


    

But before I finish that thought, let’s cut back to Slut!: Tanenbaum spends quite a bit of
time discussing the aggressive, promiscuous woman in popular culture and the history of the double
standard. Her analysis is right on target, but it seems unnecessary. The last thing we need in this
world is another polemic on the movie Heathers. Undoubtedly, writing about sluts requires a
certain framework, but I wish she had assumed her readers would embrace sluts, in all their
variety, and had spent less time ranting about how unfair the world is to sexual women. Yet at least
Tanenbaum respects sluts. She makes interesting connections between sluttiness and braininess,
gutsiness and independence. And she’s opened the door for more intelligent dialogue about how the
fast world today’s girls grow up in might make sexual transgressiveness a healthy option, blurring
the line between “precocious” and “slutty.”


    

Back to my movie: I wouldn’t zoom in on my pubescent face, stricken with fear as I walked the halls
of Jefferson Junior High. Nor would I end it with me triumphant, years later, happily married and
stronger for the harassment I suffered. Rather, imagine Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,
but with slightly bigger kids, licking each other’s genitals instead of lollipops. It was candy to
me — to many of us — and to say I saw the world in Technicolor surreality is not an exaggeration.
Just as Violet Beauregaurd blew up into a huge purple mess for her greediness, so would I for mine. A part
of me died as a part of me bloomed in the seventh grade. My childhood ended the first time I
unzipped Eric Knipple’s pants, put his hard dick in my mouth and felt a reaction so strong, so
overwhelming, that I would never think of myself the same way again. Nappies and meatloaves and
elastic waistbands won’t change it: I’ll forever be a slut at heart.






©1999
Paula Bomer and Nerve.com