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December 13, 2014

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How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut-Shaming

uses for boys 199x300 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut ShamingEverything about the word “slut” changed for me when I read an online article by a woman who shared her experiences as a former slut. Ostracized at school for her sexual behavior, this woman revealed that as a teenager, she had multiple sex partners as a means to redress her sexual abuse as a child. She was attempting to write over that abuse with positive experiences—to take back control of her sexual life.

Reading her story was, for me, one of those eye-opening moments. I was reminded that whatever my—anyone’s—personal beliefs may be, we can never understand others unless we truly hear their stories. Now, I am thinking about what we can do to better understand slut-shaming in the teen community and to help to put an end to it.

Slut-shaming is the practice of branding girls who are sexually active and shaming them for their behaviors. In the 1985 cult-classic movie The Breakfast Club, Ally Sheedy’s character makes a pithy declaration about why female sexuality and the naming that goes along with it is a no-win situation. “If you don’t do it, you’re a prude. If you do, you’re a slut.” And if you earn that label, you will be shamed.

Slut-shaming and YA lit

the truth about alice 198x300 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut ShamingFast forward almost 30 years. Have things gotten better for young women? Not necessarily—based on any number of YA books about the topic, and my own observations. For instance, in Uses for Boys (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) by Erica Lorraine Scheidt, protagonist Anna’s first sexual experience occurs at the age of 13 on the bus on the way to school. A boy grabs her hand and places it on his crouch, forcibly holding it there until he ejaculates. Two of his friends watch. The boys spread the story, and she is branded, alienated, and rejected for what was in fact an act of sexual abuse.

In Fault Line (S. & S., 2013) by Christa Desir, Ani is gang raped at a party. She too is labeled, and in response, becomes very sexually active. In her mind, if she can’t escape the label, she might as well fulfill it. Similarly, in The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook, 2014) by Jennifer Mathieu, a rumor spreads that Alice slept with two boys in one night at a party. She’s instantly labeled, regardless of whether the story is true. In a uniquely interesting storytelling device by Mathieu, we don’t hear from Alice until the end of the book. Author Chelsea Pitcher’s novel The S-Word (Gallery Bks., 2013) mirrors the truth that some teenage girls have been driven to suicide by the extreme bullying aspect of slut-shaming.

13600711 192x300 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut ShamingMany of these scenarios also play out in real life. As adults, we need to resolutely face this issue and talk to kids about why slut-shaming can’t be tolerated. Our culture has a complicated female sexuality problem. We sexualize girls at a young age, and we objectify women in order to sell everything from hamburgers to sports cards. Yet, we stigmatize women who take control of their sexuality, especially if they adopt the same practices men are often lauded for: having multiple partners, engaging in sex outside of marriage, and embracing one’s sexuality. Multiple partners will often earn a man a pat on the back. It will earn a woman a negative label.

Mathieu points out in a post on the Teen Librarian Toolbox website that slut-shaming hurts men as well as women. “We view sexuality through restrictive gender roles,” she writes, and the flip side to slut-shaming is our equally destructive view of male sexuality. Starting young, many men are told that virility is a primary characteristic of manhood. This leaves late-bloomers in a vulnerable spot. Choosing to wait, or being slow to become interested, will lead teens to be labeled gays, geeks, or something else.

How librarians can change slut-shaming culture

fault line 198x300 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut ShamingLibrarians can do something good with the attention this issue is receiving in literature, blog posts, and the national news. But many of us will need to step outside of our comfort zone and talk to teens about slut-shaming.

As people who work with youth, we must continually examine our culture and engage with teens to break down these harmful stereotypes. One way to do this is through collection development. Whatever our personal bias, we must actively develop diverse collections, and seek and purchase titles with varying discussions about teenage sexuality. According to the Guttmacher Institute, now in its 50th year of researching sexual and reproductive health, the average age of first sexual experience is 17. Teens are having sex, and they need sex-positive titles that help foster healthy sexual identities and values.

A useful upcoming book about slut-shaming conundrum is Some Boys (Sourcebooks, 2014) by Patty Blount, in which protagonist Grace finds herself labelled and rejected after accusing the town golden boy of rape. Alienated and bullied, Grace contemplates ending her life. But she also speaks out, trying to raise awareness about rape and how the harmful ways that our culture views women contributed to her shaming.

some boys 200x300 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut ShamingBlount, along with the other authors here, raises discussion points that help us talk with teens about the dangers of slut-shaming. She also asks us to think differently about teenage sexuality, culture, and gender norms.

We librarians can help de-stigmatize female sexuality by providing sex-positive examples in our collections. For instance, in This Side of Salvation (S. & S., 2014) by Jeri-Smith Ready, we are presented with a female protagonist who is sexually experienced and confident. She has an understanding of her desires and is comfortable asking for what she wants. Her boyfriend, however, is inexperienced and wants to wait. Here, we see negative stereotypes challenged. Teens discuss sex—and then when they decide to proceed, they responsibly navigate issues such as birth control.

Creating a safe space and supportive programming initiatives

Those of us working with teens can also declare our libraries safe spaces by creating well-crafted codes of conducts and anti-harassment policies, educating our teens and staff about what they mean, and following through and enforcing them when needed. Our policies must involve discussion of factors including touching, and they should also discuss how we talk to and about one another. Make it known that behavior such as sexual harassment and slut-shaming will not be tolerated in your school or public library.

We can also use a variety of programming initiatives to help teens engage thoughtfully with these topics. If you have a book discussion group, don’t shy away from talking about books such as 13 Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007) by Jay Asher, a story in which Hannah shares the 13 reasons why she ended her life, most of them centering on an incident of slut-shaming, or any of the titles mentioned above.

You can also contact local organizations that work with youth and put together discussion panels and resource guides, as well as host educational seminars. Your local hospital may have a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) nurse who can come and do some sessions with your staff and your community. Local rape crisis centers may also be able to assist you in providing educational programming. Organizations such as the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) or Scarletteen are also good resources for information. And the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape has a curriculum available online to teach sexual harassment prevention in schools for grades one through 12.

Let’s do our part to erase the scarlet letter of slut-shaming, for the sake of teen boys as well as girls.

 


karen jensen portrait 170x170 How Librarians Can Help Fight the Culture of Slut Shaming

Karen Jensen, a 2014 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, is the creator of the site Teen Librarian Toolbox and a part-time librarian at Betty Warmack Branch Library in Grand Prairie, Texas. Her book, The Whole Library Handbook:Teen Services (ALA Editions, 2014) co-edited with Heather Booth, was released earlier this month.

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Comments

  1. Katy Grant says:

    I enjoyed reading this article with its frank statements, but the suggestions for books and supportive programs were what made the article complete for me. The world has reached a point where not only does sex sell, but we are pushing it to the fore front of everyday life for all ages to see, whether we feel it is appropriate for the age level or not. Many of today’s teens are far older in development then they were 50 years ago. What we need now is to help them understand when and how to handle sexual relations, when they are confronted with a situation. As a selector for my library system I will be looking foreward to adding these titles where I can.

  2. This morning I ran across a post on the Cuddlebuggery Book Blog about this very topic. http://cuddlebuggery.com/blog/2014/07/23/the-s-word/

  3. Marry me, Karen Jensen, this article is amazing.

  4. Richard Moore says:

    KACEY MUSGRAVES

    “Follow Your Arrow”

    If you save yourself for marriage
    You’re a bore
    If you don’t save yourself for marriage
    You’re a horrible person
    If you won’t have a drink
    Then you’re a prude
    But they’ll call you a drunk
    As soon as you down the first one

    If you can’t lose the weight
    Then you’re just fat
    But if you lose too much
    Then you’re on crack
    You’re damned if you do
    And you’re damned if you don’t
    So you might as well just do
    Whatever you want

    So

    Make lots of noise
    Kiss lots of boys
    Or kiss lots of girls
    If that’s something you’re into
    When the straight and narrow
    Gets a little too straight
    Roll up a joint, or don’t
    Just follow your arrow
    Wherever it points, yeah
    Follow your arrow
    Wherever it points

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