The XX Factor

“Slut” Gossip Passed Off as News

Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

A woman holds a poster reading “Slut” during the worldwide “Slutwalk” against sexual violence, in Buenos Aires.

I really shouldn’t have to feel like I need to take a shower so soon after taking a shower, but thanks to watching Good Morning America do the titillation/shaming dance with teenage female sexuality, there I am. They literally put together a panel of teenage girls and asked them to gossip about the “sluts” in their school, and then took every “did you hear what Buffy did with all the boys?!” comment like it was truth issued from the mouth of God himself, all for the purpose of scandalizing an audience of people too old to remember their own dry-humping days. The reason is another release of a hand-wringing book about how girls who have sex are all emotionally broken train wrecks, this time by Kerry Cohen. Be surprised: The cover of her “girls who have sex should be ashamed of themselves” book features a provocative picture of a teenage girl in her underwear. Or, really, don’t be surprised.

Sadly, semi-pornographic hand-wringing about teenagers doing it is to be expected on national television, with its audience of people whose sex lives died somewhere between buying their first pair of pleated pants and then deciding “I don’t care how Crocs look, they’re comfortable.” The money in offering tender young teenage flesh to this crowd is too good to let your conscience guide you; just slap a little finger-shaking shame aimed at the girls onto the whole thing and it all seems very holy. What I don’t get is convening a panel of girls to spread schoolyard who’s-a-slut gossip. I remember those stories as a teenager. Their main defining quality was that 95 percent of them were untrue, and the other 5 percent of them were exaggerated. That, or every single high school class in history had a girl who tried to masturbate with a frozen hot dog and had to have it removed at the hospital from her vagina—and in every single case, she just so happened to be the girl everyone thought was the “slut.” I’m trying to imagine journalism getting lower than treating schoolgirl gossip like fact. It’s like doing an exposé on the local haunted house: “Local students say if you park your car in front of it with flour on the dash window, you’ll see the handprints of all the little kids who died there!” To learn more about the giant gulf about what kids will say about girls they’ve targeted as “sluts” and the girls’ realities, I highly recommend Leora Tanenbaum’s book Slut!: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation

The actual facts about teenage sexuality are less interesting. As usual, a quick jaunt over to the Guttmacher will clarify the issue. Sadly for the easily titillated, teenagers do not generally live in worlds of orgiastic depravity. Kids are actually having sex at slightly older ages than they used to; the average age of first intercourse is 17. Of the girls who are sexually active, 72 percent started having sex with a steady partner. (Only 56 percent of boys report this, but no one ever seems to care about the slutty, slutty boys.) Generally speaking, high school kids are still committed to serial monogamy. The “hook-up culture” that gives so many morning news shows the fits doesn’t tend to start until college. Even if you’re inclined to sleep around in high school, the need to have a steady Friday night date (and a prom date!) plus the intimacy of high schools (it’s hard to avoid the guy you hooked up with when you’ve got an 8 a.m. class with him) makes it harder to pull off.