The Slut Goes to College
Where was I when the word “slut” became a compliment? Probably head down in the sand off the coast of New Jersey, in the same position I was in when it became okay for thirteen-year-old girls to wear push-up bras to bat mitzvah parties. My father wouldn’t have let me out the door in a “barely there” dress the likes of which I saw on at least half a roomful of prepubescent girls at a recent affair.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, a slut is a “dirty, slatternly, or immoral woman.” A generation ago this was not a label a girl aspired to, despite the fact that millions of us protested for the right to be as dirty, slatternly, and immoral as our male counterparts.
Thanks to the determination and grit of their mothers and grandmothers, young women today have equal access to higher education and to positions of power in all sectors of public and private enterprise. But what happens in the social world of the college campus and then trickles down to high school and even middle school is maddeningly regressive to me.
In a thought-provking New York Times article last week that can be read here, Lisa Belkin tackled the issue of gender equality on college campuses. She did not paint a rosy picture. In college parties across the country, the slut is alive and well and socially under the thumb of her male classmates.
Belkin quotes a Halloween party invitation sent by a Duke University fraternity to 300 female students. (The ungrammatical substitution of “your” for “you’re” was the fraternity’s error, not mine or Belkin’s.) “Hey Ladies. Whether your dressing up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut, we invite you…”
Some took umbrage with the sleaze factor. Fliers were distributed around campus asking, “Is this why you came to Duke?” But the sad fact remains that hundreds of women attended the party and most dressed as requested.
Last spring, Princeton University hosted a weeklong “She Roars” conference to celebrate progress. Before an invited audience of 1300 alumnae including Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay, Wendy Kopp, chief executive and founder of Teach for America, two female members of Congress and several best selling authors, an all-male Princeton a-capella group mimed unzipping their pants and thrusting their pelvises as they crooned at a female student pretending to have mistakenly wandered onto the stage. I am outraged by this behavior, and so were many other people who witnessed it. But, for every indignant response, there were several from college students who saw it as “no big deal.”
When Belkin’s journalism students were sent across the country to interview their fellow coeds, the responses they amassed were varied, but often disheartening. Several women claimed that men have power over women on campus because they are generally the hosts of the parties. These men attend their parties in casual clothing they may have worn to class that day, or even slept in, while expectations are that their female guests will wear cocktail dresses, makeup and heels. The women happily comply.
“You feel privileged when the host pays attention to you,” a University of Utah junior explained. When questioned, most of the responders had no problem with the “he chases, she submits” paradigm and more than one laughed off sexist antics by saying “boys will be boys.” Sigh.
Every interviewee eventually arrived at the topic of generational differences. Parents are too uptight, the students agreed. Parents don’t understand that some girls just like to have sex. They’re wrong. I do understand. I was there for the sexual revolution and I have no problem with girls having sex. My problem is with them being treated as sex objects. My problem is with their willingness to be treated as sex objects. I fought off too many unwanted advances to be comfortable with the boys-will-be-boys cop-out.
It has been many years since I’ve had to grapple with issues of this nature. As the mother of three sons, I pounded respect for women into their skulls from the earliest age. I pounced on any perceived condescension or disrespect, and I believe I have raised respectful, egalitarian men. But now I have a granddaughter and the issue of sexism raises its ugly head once again. I want her to grow up believing in her equality in the classroom, in the business world, and in the social milieu. I do not want her to bow to pressure from men or women to be anything other than her authentic self.
I suppose, as a feminist, I must tell her she has the right to dress any way she likes. She even has the right to dress like a slut if she so desires, but not because some boy expects or demands it of her. And then I’ll tell her I’ll kill her if she goes that route because I have options too.
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