Slut-shaming has become more rampant and acceptable than ever before in our surveillance-saturated culture. Girls deserve better.
As the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret reminds us, girls on the cusp of adolescence have long walked around wearing a bikini top as a shirt, posed suggestively and lied about being more sexually developed and experienced than they truly are. They also have a history of singling out the early-developing classmate and fabricating stories about her to smear her as a “slut.”
Girls in 1970—they’re just like girls in 2023!
But with one enormous difference: Whether they were sexualizing themselves or others, girls’ reputations could travel far, but not that far.
If Margaret were transported to 2023, she likely would have access to a smartphone (you can envision her grandmother secretly getting her one, her parents none the wiser) and would consider signing up for a period-tracking app. In the department store dressing room, trying on bras, she might take selfies to share with friends to ask which bra she should get, or just to savor the moment that marks becoming an adult. She might send one to someone she likes—because they asked for it, or because she just wants to.
And through these actions, she would be risking humiliation exponentially more dignity-crushing than anything her 1970 self could possibly imagine, with her selfies shared nonconsensually to everyone she knows. She may even jeopardize her own well-being, since data from her period-tracking app could become evidence against her if she seeks an abortion in a state in which it is outlawed.
Meanwhile, the early-developing classmate rumored to let boys “feel her up” behind the A&P might very well find her phone hacked, her private images sold to porn sites and published along with her name and address.
Three decades ago, I began speaking with girls in middle school and high school who had been called “sluts” and “hoes” by their peers. In the 1990s, they shared with me stories of excruciating cruelty—classmates who threw bottles and cans at them, named them as a slut in graffiti on the back of the school building, told them to drink bleach and die, raped them and taunted, correctly, that no one would believe that they had said no.
In the aftermath, they developed eating disorders, cut themselves, had sex that wasn’t coerced but wasn’t truly what they wanted and became severely depressed, even suicidal.
But as horrible, even traumatic, as these experiences were, the school slut of yesterday had an option that the school slut of today does not: She could transfer to another school and start a new life. Today, no one really gets to start fresh, ever.
Perhaps because they recognize that sexual reputations today are difficult or impossible to shed, parents regularly pull me aside, worried about their teenage and young-adult daughters’ crop tops and leggings and Instagram bikini selfies. They are anxious that their daughters are putting themselves at risk of not being taken seriously, or of being sexually harassed or assaulted.
But girls today are not behaving differently from girls of yesterday—their mothers—and there is no evidence that what a girl or woman wears influences her risk of sexual assault.
I tell parents to shift their focus. Instead of seeing their daughters’ appearance as a problem, they must identify the real problem: the sexist practice of slut-shaming—judging girls and women negatively because of their real or assumed sexual behavior. When people are dismissed as sluts or hoes, they are denied care and compassion in a variety of situations, including when they are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and need an abortion.
Slut-shaming has become more rampant and acceptable than ever before in our surveillance-saturated culture. Lacking privacy, we are denied dignity.
In her chilling book The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age, Danielle Keats Citron—University of Virginia law professor and vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Institute—reveals the extent to which our most private information is available and shareable. Anonymous data captured by web pages and apps are easily matched with identifying information, revealing to companies and governments our identity along with our shopping and dating history, HIV status, even our masturbation frequency and methods, if we use a vibrator app.
We are all at risk of losing control over the most precious part of ourselves—what Citron names “intimate privacy.” Put another way: every girl deserves to chant at the top of her lungs, as Margaret does with her friends, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!” without worrying that she will be secretly recorded.
Regardless of gender, we are all at risk of having our intimate privacy violated. But the consequences for girls and women are graver than for others because they are perpetually evaluated by their physical appearance and sexual appeal whether or not they wish to be.
Think of Donald Trump’s alibi that he could not have raped E. Jean Carroll because she’s “not my type,” a disgusting statement with no correlation to rape that nevertheless resonates because assigning value to a woman based on her looks is so routine. Evaluating women based on their appearance is so widely acceptable that Trump felt comfortable telling Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta A. Kaplan, “You wouldn’t be a choice of mine, either, to be honest. I wouldn’t under any circumstances have any interest in you.”
In this cultural environment, all girls and women today know what it feels like to be robbed of intimate privacy, to communicate with another human being while realizing all the while that they are being viewed and evaluated as a sexual object.
By normalizing the behavior of pre-adolescent girls obsessed with sexuality that they don’t yet comprehend, Are You There God? is an excellent reminder that girls—like all of us—need space to act foolishly, sometimes cruelly and then grow up—without being treated like a sexual object and without the whole world knowing all about it.