Monday, November 9, 2015

UnSlut: A Diary and Memoir

UnSlut should be required reading for everyone.  Or strongly suggested reading.  I know there are people who wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot-pole because it has the word "slut" in it a lot.  And those are the people who need this information the most.


Emily Lindin's thorough takedown of rape culture, slut shaming, and victim blaming takes an interesting form: it's her middle school diary with footnotes from Now-Emily.  Since a lot of readers weren't even alive in the late 90s (*insert existential crisis here*), she also explains all of the social and pop culture references.  And as I read, I came to a rather shocking realization.

Emily and I were in the same grades at the same time.  Obviously, she was outside of Bah-stahn and I was here in Wis-kaahn-sahn, but when I was a sixth-grader, so was she.  This explains why I knew about the Britney Spears lyrics, Coolattas, Trapper Keepers, and the ever-present spaghetti-strap tank top.  And AIM.  And the tragedy of not being able to use the phone if someone is on the internet, which, as we all know, Al Gore invented.

Except there is one crucial difference: Emily and I are opposites in almost every way.  And because of this, I am especially glad to have read this and experienced what Emily did.  It's not pleasant, but it is necessary if we are to change the way people talk about and treat girls.  Let me explain.  I'm going to use the world's cheesiest metaphor, so get out your tortilla chips and prep your nacho toppings.

Imagine a mirror.  You're standing in front of it.  You reach out one finger and touch the mirror.  At that one point, you are connected to your reflection.  Everything else that you see is, in fact, the exact opposite of how you really look.  The only point where you merge is at your fingertip.

Emily and I are connected by a point in time: middle school in the late 90s.  But outside of connection point, we are totally opposite.  And that's why I found this book so fascinating.  I could relate to the culture and the references, but Emily had a life that was so different from mine that it was like looking at another me, someone I could have been but wasn't.

My middle school days were probably quite different from those of most others.  First of all, I skipped some grades, so I was seven years old when I was in third grade.  My mom had homeschooled me for first and second grade, but I ended up going to a very small private school. The largest class I was ever in (and by "class" I mean "grade level") had about eleven students.  At its smallest, when I was in eighth grade, there were three of us.  It wasn't a religious school, but we did wear uniforms and were expected to deliver firm handshakes and develop proper table manners.

I was always trying to keep up with my classmates, even though I could have been a younger sibling. But the age difference really became apparent when we (or rather, they) hit puberty.  Suddenly it was BOYS! and GIRLS! and OMG SHE LIKES YOU! and JTT I LUV U!  I preferred reading books about horses to any of that.  I didn't have a favorite actor because my friends and I were going to see Toy Story, not I Know What You Did Last Summer.  In sixth grade, I was eleven.  I had finally (alas, unfortunately!) hit puberty, but still watched with a detached bemusement as my classmates planned dates and plotted about who would sit next to whom on our next field trip.  This was not a difficult task, since there were four girls and six boys and there were only so many choices.  I wasn't interested in going on a date with any of my classmates, even the one kid who was the universally acknowledged "cute guy" because he had the late 90s bowl cut (OMG SAVE ME).

This was also due to my upbringing and my beliefs.  My parents did not encourage dating.  Now get your hands off of your pearls and hear me out: to judge someone for choosing not to do something is just as bad as judging them for doing it.  Calling me a prude is not a valid response.  And I'm really grateful to my parents.  I didn't see any point in dating anyone since I wasn't going to like, marry them or anything.  Especially not when I was nine.  But that's my personal belief, and I'm not saying THOU SHALT DO AS I SAY.  I support the Unslut Project because at its core, it fights for women's basic rights: the right to say no and have a boy respect your no.  The right to be safe in your body.

As the cherry on top, I was not pretty like Emily was.  I didn't have a perfect body.  My hair was lank, I got the puberty weight gain (ugh), I wore glasses (which for some reason made me think I was hideous), and I was the class nerd.  The respected nerd, but still, a nerd.  Back then, nerdiness did not have the cachet it does nowadays.

So as I read about Emily and her friends' rotation of boyfriends, who likes whom, who's hot, who's not, who's popular, who's not, it was like looking at another version of the world I lived in.  I don't remember anyone being branded as a "slut" in my four-girl class, but there were the "dateable girls" and the "uhhh, no" girls.  I was one of the latter, which suited me just fine.  To be sure, it would have made my ego nice and happy had one of the boys asked me out, but it would have also been supremely awkward.

But getting to the actual point of the book (my heartfelt apologies for my rambling autobiographical tangent), Emily is doing as her friends do, dating one guy, breaking up with him via a friend, passing notes, the usual.  She swings from love to hate to love from one journal entry to the next.  Everything changes when an older boy sexually assaults her (he fondles her breasts) at another person's house.  Emily's boyfriend at the time, Nathan, finds out about it and dumps her because obviously she was "asking for it" and she was cheating on him by "letting him" touch her.

Unfortunately, the majority of men still think this way.  Emily clearly said "no" to her assaulter and he touched her anyway, but the idea that she could be judged by other boys was so ingrained in her (as it is in most girls) made her simply accept the "slut" label that came with it.  A lot of Emily's sexual encounters in this book occur when she really doesn't want to be with that person, but feels pressured to kiss him or let him touch her breasts because that's what girls do.  That's how relationships are, right?

Wrong.  That's a super unhealthy relationship, and Lindin's footnotes to her diary entries illuminate that wonderfully.  She identifies every time her younger self did something that was self-destructive or rationalizing wrong behavior.  She also helpfully explains all of the pop culture references for today's teens.

The back of the book led me to believe that Emily's bullying was of the dump-pig's-blood variety, but it's much more subtle.  It's verbal humiliation, shunning by "friends," and being treated by boys as a doll who'll do anything because she's a "slut."

I really needed this book.  Since I didn't experience anything like Emily did (at least not that I can recall--I was a spotty diarist at best), I don't have something personal to draw on when I'm helping teens at work.  Lindin repeatedly calls her younger self out for using "gay" as an insult.  I hope that one day, using "slut" to denigrate women will be equally derided.

And I'd like to take a moment to address some criticism of the book because of its format: some reviewers have complained that the book is "just a diary of some middle school girl,"  Um, did you read the description?  There is no better way to read about a woman's experience with bullying and "slut"-shaming than to hear her own words.  Also, some people are saying, "I have a middle-schooler, and I can't imagine anything like this happening to her."

Hold the phone.  First of all, pull your head out of the sand (I'd say something stronger, but I like to keep this blog as clean as possible).  Look at how many kids are cyber-bullied.  Look at the numbers of kids committing suicide because of bullying and being called a "slut" or a "whore."  You think that this is not happening in your kid's school?  Of course it is.  That is, unfortunately, the middle school experience.  Don't be so naïve and pretend that your child is a special snowflake who hasn't experienced bullying of any kind.  I did--we all have.  Is that right?  NO.  But pretending that "it doesn't happen here" only undermines our fight to stop this sort of destructive behavior.

I loved everything about this book, but I'm afraid that the people who need it the most won't read it.  So if you're hesitating about this because it has the word "slut" in the title, read it.  This is not a primer on "how to be a slut" (like that's even a thing, because it's not), but it's about the systematic silencing of women in the face of sexual assault and bullying.  It's about how much is wrong with our culture when we talk about men and women and sexual experiences: women are "whores" or "sluts" and men are "players" and "ballers."  No matter what you think about sixth graders dating, or going to third base, or sex in general, I would hope that you feel that this societal fusillade of hatred for women has to stop.  It needs to stop now.

Please follow the UnSlut Project on Twitter at @UnSlutProject.

And remember: No always means no.


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