An Interview With Leora Tanenbaum: On Slut Shaming, Choice, and Moving Forward

slut shaming (n): the idea of shaming and or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. 

victim blaming (n): the devaluing act that occurs when the victim(s) of a crime or an accident is held responsible—in whole or in part—for the crimes that have been committed against them.   

 Writer Leora Tanenbaum thought she was alone in experiencing the shame of a bad reputation. She realized that the sexual double standard she was subjected to as a teenager—where men were applauded for the same sexual behavior for which women were continuously humiliated for—was lived by many young women, and no one was talking about it. Her book Slut! follows the personal narratives of young women who were victims of slut shaming. The book went on to become a foundational text in many gender studies circles. She has written several other books, including Catfight, which looks at conflict between women. Bluestockings talked with Leora about SlutWalk, the idea of “choice,” and why she finds hope in the Internet.

Bluestockings:  Even before the recent SlutWalk marches, women have been questioning whether “slut” should be reclaimed. What do we lose and what do we gain from reclaiming this term?

Leora Tanenbaum: I know for many feminists of different generations, there is a lot of power tied up with reclaiming the term slut. I am not trying to diminish that empowerment for anyone, but I do want to point out some problems. For many of us who either have been called slut in our own lives or are members of groups, especially African American women, who’s bodies have been historically marked as a sexually promiscuous, the term still carried too much baggage. I am a white Jewish woman so I am not putting myself in that group; I have my own problematic relationship. For me personally, I am 43 years old and I was called a slut starting when I was 14 and I am still not at the point were I want to reclaim it.

Instead, I want to get rid of the sexual double standard. The cultural moment we are in right now is one in which all women, but especially teenage girls and younger women, feel enormous pressure to self objectify, to dress and present their physical appearance in an overtly sexual way. I worry that many women will feel they have to adopt this hypersexual persona in order to be empowered and accepted. I know from having attended the SlutWalk in New York City, so many women really did feel empowered by that experience so I don’t want to take that away from them.

BS: It is hard line to play if you want to present sexual liberation for women as possibly empowering without implying that it is a necessary and overtly feminist choice. There is this myth of empowerment where making a choice becomes inherently feminist in a way simply because you are choosing.

LT: The idea of choice is inherently problematic because we are all living and existing ideological and cultural framework in which our choices are cut off. When we say we are making a choice, we are already making that choice within specific constraints to begin with. In the public school I teach at, some of my female students, who I hold with the upmost care and respect, dress in incredibly revealing clothes. Now I wrote the book on slut; you know what I am about. This is not about what girls should and should not be allowed to do. But they are 15 years old and it did make me wonder—why are they making these choices? Are they trying to make a statement about their physical self or is there something else going on? Is this perhaps the best strategy to get attention or to be popular? I just wanted to know what was going on in the heads and the answer I kept getting is, “this is the way girls dress,” “this is what’s in stores,” “you want to be trendy or fashionable, this is what you wear.” So when a 15-year-old girl wakes up in the morning and is choosing what to wear to school, this is what all her peers are wearing; this is the only fashion she knows; so what kind of a choice is it exactly? On top of that, the New York public school system has a dress code that restricts cleavage.  So then these girls are caught in this difficult situation where they are getting punished eveN though weren’t even trying to be oppositional or offensive. That wasn’t the choice they were making. Within their “choice” they are already being given these limited options, and then they have to face the scrutiny of accepting those options by administrators or people at school calling them sluts. Either way there is no easy way to make a choice and not feel like you are being judged by it.

BS: To what extent then can we say that a “choice” is feminist or not?

LT: One the one hand I reject that whole approach to thinking about the concept of choice within an ideology, because what work for one person might for many reasons not work for another. On the other hand everybody’s got to draw their line in the sand. I certainly have some. I don’t think it helpful. Do I think any choice enacted by a woman is inherently feminist? No—I’d like to know the context, why the person is doing that, and what she is trying to achieve.

BS: ln your second book Catfight you investigate the inherent competiveness and jealousy within female-to-female relationships. Can you talk more about cat fighting and its connections to slut shaming? How does race play into this?

LT: I think that every single human being oppresses other people at some level. Certainly we all have the potential to do it. Certain women have certain privileges that other women lack, whether its racial privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, and so on. A woman who has certain privileges that other women lack, can still be experience oppression too. I just want to start that as a baseline understanding.

There is this popular idea even since Queen Bees and Wannabes that you got a group of girls who are the mean girls and the other girls who are the victims. I totally reject that dichotomy—we are all mean girls and we are all victims, because we all oppress each other. You could be an affluent white woman living in a home of Park Avenue on Upper East Side of Manhattan and still be a victim of domestic violence. I think it is important to think about subjectivity that way. Intersectionailty is complicated and constantly fluid. It not that all the black girls are this way and the Latina girls are this way and white girls are this way.

The thing I found after doing research for Slut in the 1990s was how similar the narrative arch of slut shaming was regardless of a girls ethnic, racial, economic, sexual orientation, and even gender positionality. Being steeped inc critical theory I originally figured there would be differences. I need to point out something important—I am not a sociologist, I am a journalist. Everyone who I interviewed wanted to be interviewed, so it is not representative of all women called sluts. They had to have some educational privilege because they were all people who were literate, who had some education, who felt comfortable talking about their life stories. They are not representative of all girls who experience slut shaming. But I found that when a girl was marked as a slut, it wasn’t about race or economics—it was about being different from her peers. She was left holding that minority position even if that meant she was affluent and no one else was.

BS: How does the Internet play into slut shaming?

LT: I am actually really optimistic. The Internet is an amazing vehicle for consciousness raising. I wonder what if this would have be around when I was going through this? Back then I thought I was the only person in the world going through what I was going through. I had no other way of knowing it was so common. The Internet has been a real force of good in the sense of sharing information. If someone is repressed or harassed or victimized she has a forum and she can fight back.

There are also certainly many negative things regarding social media networking and constant sharing. The issue of permanence is particularly scary. Every single one of us can lose control over how we are percieved Especially when you are dealing with younger kids, they are not developed mentally and cognitively at the point where they can recognize the dangers inherent with sharing on the Internet. There are so many awful stories of girls who are slut shamed online and they feel they are never going to escape this—and for some of them they are right. That is the most frightening difference between now and the previous generation. Fifteen years ago I would have told the parents of these young girls to let their daughters transfer to another school and get a fresh start. Don’t think of it as being cowardly; think of it as an empowering step to start over. You can’t say that to girls anymore. Changing schools isn’t going to make a difference. When its online its going to follow them whether they go. The opting out way of dealing with slut shaming does not exist. This stuff can follow you for the rest of your life. That part is very scary, yet I am trying to be hopeful that the generation that comes after you will benefit how to grow up and living with the Internet.

BS: After all of your research on slut shaming and cat fighting, have you found a silver lining?

Just in general there is so much more awareness now about slut bashing that did not exist in the 1990s. The concept of sexual harassment was only coined in 1994. When you put it in a historical context you realized people didn’t use terms like sexual harassment and because they lacked that vocabulary to talk about it. And now it’s like the air you breathe. The more conversations you have, the more critical thinking occurs, so I am very hopeful.

This interview was featured in our second issue.  If you would like to receive a free copy of Issue 2 subscribe here.

 Image from “No Slut Shaming” sticker by Maya Dodd. You can buy this sticker on Etsy

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