News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Julia Molony: Slut-shaming is a real teenage threat

Of all the bogeymen parents fear, conservative bullying might be the worst

Published 13/01/2013 | 05:00

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All credit to parents of teenagers in our age. It must take nerves of steel to raise them. Last week, the prophets of doom on the interweb brought more bad news of the latest destructive teenage trend.

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Slut-shaming (it sounds made up, I know, but it's real, just ask Wikipedia) is the practice of kids, or to be specific, girls, taking to social networking sites to call each other out over their indecent choice of clothing.

On the surface of it, it seems quite a turn up for the books. Perhaps today's young ladies have embraced the ethics of the Women's Institute and collectively swallowed an editorial line about decency from the Daily Mail? Whatever their inspiration, the phenomenon is becoming common. Behind cloaking avatars and usernames, teenagers gather in virtual herds to chant things like "did your mother really let you out like that?" and "shame on you!" Or, presumably, stronger, more explicit and more bitchy variations on that theme.

For a gist of the moral tone, imagine the sort of tight-lipped disapproval you might expect from your granny. Now imagine your granny as a foul-mouthed 14-year-old in school uniform, who is text-typing said opprobrium with one hand while watching Home and Away. It's a bit of hard to compute, I know. 'Teenagers in mass conservatism shocker' isn't what you expect to hear of as the latest threat to the minds of our youth.

Those who thought that the pitfalls of adolescence stopped at underage pregnancy and the occasional stomach pumping clearly have another thing coming. Just when you thought that sex, drugs and binge drinking were the main scourges to keep an eye out for, the kids turn prudishness into a weapon.

Of course, it's easy to be glib. But the concern is real. Amongst the many "worrying trends" amongst teens these days, this seems amongst the most credible and damaging. Much of the rest is just parental angst-mongering. I know this because just a few days ago, I read a news story about another new alarming teenage "trend", which described teens soaking their tampons in vodka as a novel approach to ingesting alcohol. If Mary Whitehouse invented a dystopian vision of post-sexual revolution hell, tampons soaked in spirits would almost certainly be involved. Which is how we know it's probably rubbish.

It's a guaranteed attention grabber of a story, but I'd bet my last bottle of WKD that most sensible teenagers (and most of them are) would see through this "trend" straight away as a waste of good vodka.

Of all the worrying stuff bouncing around the news, the advent of cyber-bullying in is the one that has the most potential to do long term harm. While a short, sharp life-lesson delivered via gastric lavage in A&E isn't the sort of thing any parent would wish on their teenager, it tends to be the kind of lesson most kids only need to learn once. There's a simple Pavlovian aversion logic to it that most young adults cotton on to first time round. The disassembling of fragile teenage self-esteem in front of one's peers, however, is arguably a more profound and damaging kind of a shock. Even if those peers are anonymous and online.

In my day, things were different. Back then, growing up in a suburban secondary school outside London, dressing like a slut was de rigueur and the worst kind of shame was reserved for the last remaining virgin in the sixth-form common room.

As far as fashion was concerned, I remember trotting around town in a pair of silky French knickers that I'd decided worked just as well worn as hotpants. In those days, I was blissfully out of reach from any baying mobs of slut-shamers. Even my own mother hardly seemed to raise any noises of disapproval. She probably predicted that looking back on the photographs would be punishment enough.

But in the importance of this issue to teens, the specifics of the dress code is almost beside the point. In my teen years, the fashion judgements may have been different, but the desperation for acceptance, and approval from one's peers was exactly the same.

When young girls call their classmates sluts, they join an ancient tradition. Within any social group, unspoken yet rigorous codes of behaviour around sexuality and dress, have always been an easy means by which to shame and exclude members of the female sex. Today's teenage girls dance to Rihanna, are familiar with pornography, and also have to walk a precarious line between seeming too slutty and not slutty enough. Sadly, as they learn all too quickly, when it comes to their bodies and the way they choose to dress them, their own feelings don't matter a jot compared to what the outside world thinks.

Sunday Independent

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