An exploration of the high-school slut archetype, the conditions needed to apply the label to a particular girl, and the lasting results of being labeled in this manner.
While working at an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, freelance writer White placed a query asking, “Are you or were you the slut of your high school?” The response to her query was overwhelming. After interviewing more than 150 women, White discovered that the collected narratives showed distinct themes. The “slut story” did not seem to have an urban counterpart; the narrative flourished best in small-town and suburban areas. It was also a predominantly white phenomenon; stories told by African-American or Latina women followed different patterns. Focusing her research on white students, the author found several integral elements that had to be in place before a girl was so labeled. Students most likely to be designated a slut had experienced precocious puberty. She lived in a suburban setting where there wasn’t much to do. She didn’t grow up with the other students; she transferred in from another school. Many (but not all) of the girls had experienced childhood sexual abuse. (Some girls were virgins who could trace the origin of the rumor to a spurned boyfriend.) And finally, the condition of being multiracial in a predominantly white school was a strong indicator of being labeled. The sorriest aspect of White’s research shows that the girls internalize the rumors placed on them by others, and have great difficulty shedding their negative self-image. Many of the interviewees have considered suicide; some have made actual attempts. Moving away doesn’t seem to help; the author notes, “Throughout my interviews with adult women, I heard the story of the flashback: a man in a grocery store gives a grown woman a look that propels her back to high school, or the tone of a girlfriend’s voice suddenly recalls an earlier betrayal.” Being branded a “slut” during their formative years (some girls had been labeled as early as junior high, and carried the role for six years or more) has significantly damaged their prospects in life.
A sobering look at the power of rumor.