Skip to main content _

Jessie Klein PhD, MSW, M.Ed

Psychology Today Blog

Girls Get Called "Slut" Everyday

Girls get called "slut" every day. My students are so used to getting bullied and harassed they can't imagine a school without bullying. A student in one of my classes once said, "Get over it." They look at me like I'm some kind of crazy pollyanna professor when I suggest that it doesn't have to be that way. The repercussions are growing however, even as students become more resigned.

Social isolation has tripled since the eighties according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Depression occurs at increasingly younger ages; 1 out of 3 high school girls are depressed, and 29 percent of all teenagers. Anxiety is so high among children that psychologist Jean M. Twenge wrote that children considered "normal in the eighties were substantially more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s!" No wonder children are becoming resigned—their highly disturbing emotional stress is considered "just fine."

It's not though. And kids are dying. They are being killed in school shootings and they are committing suicide. Every year we hear about youth who were bullied so badly they took their own life. There is a culture of despair in schools.

Ten-year-old Ashlynn Connor, a cheerleader and honor student killed herself in November 2011 in Ridge Farm, Illinois, last November. Her mother said: "They'd call her a slut. 'Ashlynn's ugly.' 'She's fat.'"

Alexis Pilkington, 17, of Suffolk County, New York, killed herself in March 2010. She was a popular athlete and incited some jealousy—her Facebook page became littered with personal insults, sexually suggestive comments, and pictures of people killing themselves. The taunts continued after her death. One person wrote: "She was obviously a stupid depressed—who deserved to kill herself. she got what she wanted. be happy for her death. rejoice in it."

Phoebe Prince, 15, in January 2010, made the mistake of dating a popular senior football player at South Hadley High in Massachusetts. Girls called her "Irish slut" and "whore" on Facebook and Twitter. They didn't think a freshman immigrant had the right to date a varsity athlete.

Most of the harassment doesn't end in death—instead children are found with depleted self-esteem, self-cutting, truancy, substance abuse, debilitating anxiety, and depression.

Many youth have no idea what it means to have real friends. Girls (and boys) desperately want authentic friendships and connections. Too often, though, they find that their relationships in school are largely instrumental—students trade each other's secrets as information capital, exploit their sexual interactions to try to become popular, and compromise their former values to be accepted. Where students look for friendship, intimacy, and self-acceptance, many find it "makes more sense" to mistrust. They learn quickly that punishment for going against the expectations of those students perceived as popular may well land them at the bottom of their school's hierarchy and render them a target. Slut bashing (and gay bashing) become normal aspects of children's days as they vie for dominance rather than seek connections. Prejudice regarding race, class, ability, sexuality, and other differences can become the glue that cements student relationships rather than their more intrinsic interests and passions.

Girls get called "slut" every day. And it is not okay. They are told in one way or another that they are not acceptable as they are—then their sexuality is scrutinized and judged relentlessly; the barometers by which girls are being judged are steeped in prejudice and envy. Schools need to figure out ways to bring these issues out to the open. Schools need to help kids develop real friendships based on trust, kindness, and meaningful sharing. Right now many students objectify one another and some can't even feel empathy when their peers die.

Today, connecting with other human beings and ourselves, valuing other people as priorities in one's life, caring for others, and living with compassion and empathy are unusual. Among college students, those who started after 2000 have empathy levels 40 percent lower than those who came before them, according to Maia Szalavitz, co-author of the 2011 book, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered.

True friendship based on deep love, trust, and support of one another is literally revolutionary—as Robin Morgan famously proclaimed with the title of her 1970 anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful. We need to help girls build trusting friendships.  

Contemporary society encourages people, instead, to achieve socially, academically, and professionally at anyone's expense—and the cost to personal relationships is devastating.

New studies show that female animals like monkeys, baboons, and porpoises make lasting friendships with one another. Yet in today's cutthroat and competitive environment, too many of us have forgotten how to care.