Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 12.18.31 PM

The Feministing Five: Leora Tanenbaum 

This week, we spoke to Leora Tanenbaum, activist and author of the just-published book I Am Not a Slut.

Leora TanenbaumBack in 2000, Tanenbaum published Slut!, a now foundational text in the study of slut-bashing and women’s sexuality. Fifteen years later, the landscape has significantly changed, particularly when it comes to social media, messaging technologies, and cultural shifts. Yet the root of the sexual double standard and scrutiny of women’s sexuality has remained.Tanenbaum’s updated work addresses these new challenges and provides strategies communities can use to support young women in being mindful and confident in their sexuality.

And without further ado, the Feministing Five with Leora Tanenbaum!

Suzanna Bobadilla: I Am Not a Slut is in some ways an update to your previous book on the subject, Slut! It’s been more than 10 years since Slut!, and I was wondering what was the biggest change you’ve noticed in your subsequent research.

Leora Tanenbaum: When I did my first round of research two decades ago in the mid-nineties, I was shocked to discover that, in my observation, just about every middle school and high school had one or two girls who were singled out by their peers as the school slut. At that time, that prevalence was absolutely horrifying. Fast forward to today, 2015, and it’s still horrifying, but we should be so lucky. Only one or two? Because now, being labeled a slut or one of its synonyms like “ho” is ubiquitous. Try to find any girl or woman under the age of 25 who has not been labeled a slut at least once in her life. Good luck to you! That is a huge difference. This issue has really metastasized. It is not limited to just one or two girls — it’s so many more.

SB: Your central argument in the book is that even when young people use the word “slut” to refer to themselves or their friends in what they would say is a positive way, the usage of the word is still harmful to themselves and their communities. For our readers who haven’t had a chance yet to read the book, can you provide some further elaboration?

LT: First, I’d like to set up the answer. I want to distinguish between “slut-bashing” and “slut-shaming.” When I did my original research, I was looking at this phenomenon and I coined a term, “slut-bashing.” It describes the dynamic when a girl in school was labeled a slut by her peers when her peers over time harassed her with hostile intent. That experience of slut-bashing was the heart of what I was analyzing then, and it continues to exist today. But now, we have a whole new label of slut-labeling today, and that is “slut-shaming.” I did not come up with that term — I think it came up organically through feminist movements. It’s very useful because it is very vague, and it’s vagueness is appropriate.

“Slut-shaming” is a more casual, more diffused experience of being labeled a slut. It may happen only once or twice — it’s not necessarily that is repeated over time. It may be performed by a stranger, someone you might not know, maybe someone online. The intention is not even a negative intention — it could be neutral, it could be positive. Like when girlfriends say to each other instead of “Hey girlfriend,” “Hey slut.”

Now, you might be asking, wait a minute Leora, if the intention is not necessarily negative — it might be negative or light-hearted — why are you putting that on the category of “slut-shaming,” if that isn’t the intention? My argument isn’t really about the intention — it’s about the effects. My conclusion after talking to 55 girls and women across the US is even when the intention of the name calling is not a negative intention, the effects in the end always are negative. I’m trying to raise awareness about that distinction, because I think lots of folks are using terms like this without malicious intent, and I get that. I’m just trying to get them to recognize that sometimes the intention is beside the point.

SB: How can a girl or woman take ownership of her sexuality, feel confident that her body belongs to her, and mitigate the risk of being labeled a “slut” or “ho”? 

LT: Oh my goodness, I wish there was a magical answer that I could say, do this and this and you’ve solved this problem! As your readers know, we do not have sexual equality. We are living in a culture where the sexual double standard reigns supreme. The sexual double standard includes this assumption that boys and men are expected and encouraged to be sexually active even in an uncontrolled manner, while simultaneously girls and women are expected to be minimally sexual and are punished if they behave identical to boys and men. The way I like to recap the sexual double standard is: Boys will be boys and girls will be sluts.

So how do we get around this problem? We aren’t there yet because we don’t have sexual equality. But what I am asking young women to do, and for adults to help them do, is to be mindful about how they present themselves to the larger world. If they choose to cultivate a sexual identity online or in any other manner, they should be aware of what they are doing.

I’m not trying to clamp down anyone’s sexual self-expression — I am calling for a mindfulness. This is something that adults that have young people in their lives need to take responsibility for because when you are a adolescent or pre-adolescent girl, you may not have the developmental cognitive skills yet to recognize that when you dress in a manner that a majority of people consider sexually provocative that people are going to make presumptions about your sexuality. There is not nothing inherently bad about that. It’s just when you don’t know or recognize what you are doing.

The reason that I am putting this message out there is that there is so much pressure on women of all ages to be sexy but not slutty. It’s this impossible contradiction. When you are a teenager and a young woman and you feel this pressure to cultivate this identity online, you may not realize that when you present yourself as a “good slut” other people will take evidence of your “good sluttiness” and use it as example of your “bad sluttiness.” They will punish you for it. Certainly, those people should not do that, and feminists are actively doing so many things to fight against that. But young women in particular are getting ensnared in this net because they haven’t yet learned that they don’t quite control the way they are seen by other people.

SB: How do you suggest that communities use your book as a tool to talk about slut-bashing and slut-shaming ?

LT: Whether or not an adult has children, so many of us interact with young people. I feel that all of us are potential role models and we need to lead by example and that includes never, ever calling other women even as a joke labels such as “slut” or “ho.” I know that sounds really simple and it’s an easy form of activism, but language has so much power. Some words have the power to create or re-open trauma, and slut is one of those words. By ceasing to use it, I think we could help chip away at the sexual double standard. It’s a way to start and it’s a way to be mindful. It’s not like I think that we stop using this word and poof! Everything is great! Of course not, that would be absurd. But it engenders a mindfulness and I think that does have an impact on attitudes. That is one thing we can do.

If we do have young people in our lives, we need to be talking about issues around consent and coercion, even at a very young age. I don’t think it’s too early, ever. And as I parent two boys, I think it is so important to introduce sex ed in our family life. That includes discussions of consent, the sexual double standard, issues around sexting.

Something all adults can do is to support women’s sexual health care. I work for Planned Parenthood, but this is important at large. We have just started a new session in Congress that has a new alarming number of lawmakers who are actively trying to take away women’s access to sexual health care, including birth control and abortion. This very much connects with slut-bashing and slut-shaming because what these lawmakers are doing is shaming women for being sexually active. Anybody who can afford to should make a charitable donation to a health care center or an organization that provides this health care or fights for it. If you can’t afford to do that, you can be an advocate in other ways. The easiest thing is to vote and to vote for lawmakers who support birth control and safe and legal abortion.

I think if we didn’t have stigma around women’s sexual health care, we would not have stigma around women’s sexuality.

SB: You’re stranded on a desert island and you can take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

LT: I would bring hot coffee and iced coffee, together with sushi and veggie burgers, to enjoy with my colleagues at Planned Parenthood. I enjoy their company because they are smart, hard-working, funny, and dedicated to providing and advocating for sexual health care for all women, no matter what.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

Read more about Suzanna

Join the Conversation