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Slut Shaming Hurts Guys, Too – a guest post by author Jennifer Mathieu (A Part of the #SVYALit Project)


As part of the #SVYALit Project we’ve talked a lot about slut-shaming and how it hurts girls. And it does. But the truth is, it hurts boys, too. When I met up recently with the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE Jennifer Mathieu, she started talking to me about it and what she had to say was important, so I asked her to write about it. For more great discussion about our culture and what we are teaching our boys, please check out The Good Men Project.
As part of my 11th grade Language and Literature course, I spend a lot of time breaking down advertisements with my juniors, and one of the topics that often comes up in discussions is sexism.  The ads that always get the most laughs are the ones from the 50s and 60s – the ones so ridiculous that my students can’t even believe they’re real.  Like the ad for the Kenwood Chef mixer, with a young wife clutching her husband in glee after he’s gifted her with a (guess what?) Kenwood Chef mixer!  The copy that goes along with the ad reads, “The Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for!”

That one always gets a smile and an eye roll or two.  Today, women can be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, my students argue.  Surely we no longer reduce women to just their role in the home. 
But when we look at more modern ads, the conversation changes.  The infamous Dolce & Gabbana ad that shows a woman on her back surrounded by leering men, for instance.  Or the BMW ad that implies that a woman who’s had sex before may be used goods, but she’s so hot it doesn’t matter.  Or the Burger King ad with a woman about to down a large sandwich because it promises to BLOW her away.
Women may no longer be portrayed as just a happy homemaker, but they’re certainly still being reduced to something.

When my students and I examine these ads, I get a lot of responses from the girls.  They’re gross, they’re weird, they’re sexist.  They make women feel bad about themselves, they contribute to disordered eating and body image issues.  My students are smart – they’ve heard this stuff before.
“But what does this ad say to men?  About men?” I always ask.  “How does this ad make the guys in here feel about being guys?”
Usually the boys remain silent, unsure of how to respond.  When it comes to how these ads impact their female classmates, my male students know the “right” answer – these ads objectify girls – and they’re often just as grossed out as the young women in the class.  But I’m not sure if they’ve ever considered what these images, these stories, these cultural expectations do to them.
But when we as a culture create this narrative that girls are out of control sex objects that must be tamed, captured and conquered, what does that tell boys but that theymust be the tamer and the conqueror?  When we as a culture create images where girls are judged for their sexual behavior, what does that do to a boy’s ability to perceive a girl as a whole person he may want to have a relationship with?  When we as a culture create stories where girls are portrayed as objects always at the ready to pleasure any boy who comes along, what does that do to a boy who is questioning his sexuality or is unsure about how ready he is for a sexual relationship?
In writing my debut young adult novel The Truth About Alice, in which a young woman is ostracized for her alleged sexual behavior, I didn’t set out to create a slut-shaming book.  Honestly, I didn’t even know the term existed when I started crafting a plot sketch four years ago.  But I’m happy to have it be part of the conversation about how we view sexuality through restrictive gender roles, and how that hurts girls and guys.
I think when we slut-shame girls, we also put pressure on boys.  Pressure to have sex, maybe before they’re ready, and pressure to have sex with multiple women.  We make him feel like “less of a man” because he doesn’t want to sleep with a bunch of women indiscriminately.  We also send a not-so-subtle message that girls aren’t whole people and that their sexual pleasure or individuality isn’t of importance – a woman out there slutting it up deserves to be treated as less than, right?  So what does that do to a boy who has the capacity and the desire for a mutually-fulfilling relationship with a girl he really likes?  (And don’t most boys want that type of relationship?  The answer, of course, is yes.)
Also, when we tell young women that boys are constantly on the prowl, what happens when a guy rejects an offer of sex or says he isn’t ready – that could make a young woman feel like there’s something wrong with her – like she’s not desirable enough.  Then the boy feels he has to tell the girl she isdesirable, and around and around we go.  Not exactly the best foundation for a healthy, equitable relationship.
When we paint girls as total prudes or reckless whores, we use the same brush to paint boys as one-note creatures out for nothing but to get laid.  It’s time we laugh at that idea as much as we laugh at the idea that a woman would be thrilled to receive a Kenmore Chef mixer for her birthday.
Jennifer Mathieu is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, coming from Roaring Brook Press in June of 2014. During the day, she teaches English in Texas. Visit Jennifer’s blog and Tumblr or follow her on Twitter @jenmathieu
About THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE:
Everyone has a lot to say about Alice Franklin, and it’s stopped mattering whether it’s true. The rumors started at a party when Alice supposedly had sex with two guys in one night. When school starts everyone almost forgets about Alice until one of those guys, super-popular Brandon, dies in a car wreck that was allegedly all Alice’s fault. Now the only friend she has is a boy who may be the only other person who knows the truth, but is too afraid to admit it. Told from the perspectives of popular girl Elaine, football star Josh, former outcast Kelsie, and shy genius Kurt, we see how everyone has a motive to bring – and keep – Alice down. (Publisher’s Description) ISBN: 9781596439092 
Talking with Teens About Slut Shaming
Slut Shaming part 1 and part 2
Discussing The S Word by Chelsea Pitcher
Editor’s note: Both USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and THIS SIDE OF SALVATION by Jeri Smith-Ready provide examples of boys who ask a girl to wait, expressing that they are not yet ready to have sex.

Book Review: The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu

It starts with a text: “Alice slept with two guys in one night”.

It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, it is too late. The damage is done.

Then one of the boys, a star football player named Brandon, dies in a car accident. Alice must somehow be to blame.

No one cares what the truth about Alice is, for now she is nothing but a Slut and an outcast.

Told in 4 alternating voices, this is the story about Alice.

This is a truly fascinating book because although we hear the story of Alice in 4 voices, not a single 1 of those voices belong to Alice herself.

There is Kelsie, Alice’s former best friend and the girl who starts the “slut wall” in the bathroom.

There is Josh, a fellow football star who happened to be in the car when the accident happens.

There is Elaine, queen bee and mean girl extraordinaire who starts it all, in part because she is still mad about something that happened in 8th grade.

And there is Kurt, a shy genius who reaches out to Alice when no one else will.

Much like 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, this is a book about the effect of rumors. It is also a book about slut shaming. It is truly fascinating because many of the voices that we hear speaking are truly craptacular people admitting that they are doing horrible things and taking ownership of it.  It is an incisive and realistic look at teen/high school life and all the ugliness that it can – and often does – contain. Every teen that reads this will recognize the truth in it and will know who the Elaine, Brandon, Kelsie and Kurt’s of their school are.

There is a great conversation towards the end between Elaine and Alice in a beauty salon that really puts high school into perspective. I genuinely loved this moment. I think it is a revelation.

Matthieu does an interesting thing by waiting until the very last moments of the book to give Alice a voice.  She does some other truly remarkable things by making her characters truly unlikable and culpable, letting us see that, and having some interesting resolution in the end. This is a truly profound and discussable book, even beyond the #SVYALit elements. There are a lot of interesting relationship dynamics, including friendship, and some interesting behind the scenes looks at things like rumors, consent, peer pressure, religion, eating disorders, drinking and drugs, small town life and even abortion.

It is also an interesting look at a different type of storytelling, so from a writing perspective there is that as well. The fact that we don’t hear from Alice until the end is such a brave and unique storytelling choice.

For me, the best part was the subtle way it addresses taking responsibility for personal behavior, particularly when you discover the ins and out of the car accident. And I love how self-aware the teens in this book are and just own their pettiness and personal issues. Highly recommended for all the reasons mentioned above. I know it totally ages me, but the book itself brings to mind the Fast Times at Ridgemont High movie, and that is a good thing. The Truth About Alice obviously contains mature discussions of a wide variety of topics including drinking, sex, and abortion for those who need to know.

Publisher’s Description: Everyone has a lot to say about Alice Franklin, and it’s stopped mattering whether it’s true. The rumors started at a party when Alice supposedly had sex with two guys in one night. When school starts everyone almost forgets about Alice until one of those guys, super-popular Brandon, dies in a car wreck that was allegedly all Alice’s fault. Now the only friend she has is a boy who may be the only other person who knows the truth, but is too afraid to admit it. Told from the perspectives of popular girl Elaine, football star Josh, former outcast Kelsie, and shy genius Kurt, we see how everyone has a motive to bring – and keep – Alice down.

Coming June 3rd, 2014 from Roaring Book Press. ISBN: 9781596439092

Talking with Teens About Slut Shaming
Slut Shaming part 1 and part 2
Discussing The S Word by Chelsea Pitcher


See more in the #SVYALit Project at our Project Index

Slut Shaming, part 1 – a discussion by author Christa Desir (Part of the SVYALit Project)

Slut-shaming is defined as:
  1. the process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct
  2. making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from the traditional or orthodox gender expectations
Picture from the movie The Breakfast Club

So a few weeks ago, a friend reached out to me and told me about a situation that happened in his high school: a girl was making out with a guy in the hallway, followed him into the guy’s bathroom, and then was raped.

The girl had told the guy she was kissing she didn’t want to have sex, he corroborated this story when a teacher asked him. To repeat: He admitted that she told him she didn’t want to have sex and he had sex with her anyway.
My friend was talking to his students about this afterwards and a lot of them responded with, “That’s not really rape. She followed him into the bathroom. What did she expect was going to happen?”
I can think of no better example to demonstrate the inexorable link between rape culture and slut-shaming. “What did she expect was going to happen?” This is blaming a victim for her transgression in the accepted code of sexual conduct and thereby rationalizing any consequence of her choice.
“What did she expect?” is a very problematic argument with regards to sexual violence. I wrote an entire blog on it here. The bottom line is that she expected to be listened to, she expected her no to be adhered to, she expected not to be raped.
What’s informative about this discussion is that it demonstrates the “us” against “them” mentality that many people cling to in order to separate themselves or their daughters/sisters/wives/etc from the possibility of being a rape victim. If we can point to clothing choices, alcohol consumption, “slutty” behavior, etc. we think we can somehow protect ourselves from rape. This is, of course, ridiculous. I have worked in hospital ERs with children as young as 4 and with women as old as 87. The only protection against rape is stopping perpetrators from raping.
And here’s the fall-out of slut-shaming: it is another barrier to getting help. It is another barrier to victims disclosing rape. It keeps this horrible crime well and truly hidden so that perpetrators can continue to do it. It’s also a barrier to discussions about sexuality, enthusiastic consent, and figuring out what each individual truly wants.
The first time I chose to have sex, I was seventeen. And even in this case, “chose” is a bit of a nebulous word. I relented to the three-month long coercion campaign my boyfriend at the time had pressed on me. I decided to “get it over with.” All my friends had already done it. These are not exactly statements of excitement over having sex. And part of the reason for that is that I never had a sit-down conversation with myself about what I wanted. It was not even a consideration. Nor had I had a reasonable conversation with anyone who might help me figure this out.
Because when I was seventeen, talking about sex never included a conversation about what I wanted for myself. It included lots of conversations about what I’d done, but no one along the way ever asked me, “do you want to have sex?” Nor did any conversation ever include what being sexual felt like to me. My girlfriends and I could get into an extremely graphic discussion about every possible sexual thing we’d done or been asked to do, but not once did the question, “did it feel good to you?” ever come up between us.
I suspect the reason for that is we were all afraid admitting that we were active participants in sexual practices pegged us as sluts. In my group of friends, the unspoken code was that you could do anything sexually, as long as it was for the guy. I somehow dodged the bullet of being labeled a “slut” because everything I did was for my partner’s benefit. And that code would have left me culpable for following a boy into the bathroom and having sex with him, even if I didn’t want to. If I followed a boy into the bathroom, I was expected to have sex with him. What I wanted never came into play.

I have recently finished Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth About Alice. This book is an important and critical look at slut-shaming, both the reasoning behind it and the consequences of it. It’s excellent because it offers an insight into the girl who is shamed and those who are shaming her. It also demonstrates the mentality of girls hooking up with guys with little thought to what the girls want. And how the insidious code of sexual expectation in girls leaves them with very little real agency. Something I fear is all too true in real life.

We are very lucky that we live in a time where books can demonstrate the very complicated maze that is teenage sexuality. Books allow us to have nuanced discussions about sexual agency and gender expectations. They allow us the ability to dissect choices and not judge characters so much on their actions as look to the motives behind them. How did we get here and how can we change things?
I have been given quite a bit of “feedback” with regards to Ani’s choices in Fault Line. Her hyper-promiscuity after her rape has led many people to be repelled by her. This was a conscious choice. I have met a lot of Anis in my life. The girls who are dismissed as sluts, attacked for their choices, judged for their actions. And I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever sat down and asked any of them what they really want. Because if we’re really going to start a good conversation here, we need to step back from the question of what teen girls do and start looking at why they do it.

Christa Desir is the author of Faultline and co-moderator of the #SVYALit Project