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The Fishnet Fallacy | The Nation

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The Fishnet Fallacy

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When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.

Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?

Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."

White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.

When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.

These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.

In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.

White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."

The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.

Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.

Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.

She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.

It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.

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