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What Every Parent Should Know About the Growing Trend of Slut-Shaming

Leora Tanenbaum, author of the newly released I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internetsheds light on some dark and dangerous behavior.

While boys are often encouraged to explore their sexuality, girls must usually toe the tricky line between being alluring but not lewd. These days that sexual double standard is more difficult than ever to navigate. In this Q&A with Family Circle, author Leora Tanenbaum, who coined the term “slut-bashing” back in the 90s, helps us understand the struggles girls encounter today and explains how every parent can more responsibly raise a kid in the Internet age.

You break down the difference between slut-bashing and slut-shaming in your book. Why is it important for parents to know the difference?
Because the effects of each get played out differently. Slut-shaming isn’t necessarily repeated—it could be a one-time thing and the intent may not even be negative. I haven’t met any female in the United States under the age of 25 who has not been called a “slut” or a “ho” in some context, usually more than once. But slut-bashing is a very specific form of harassment that takes place over time and the intent is to hurt. Slut-bashing makes life horrible for a girl. What they have in common is that regardless of the intent, at the end of the day female sexuality is being policed and the sexual double standard is being reinforced and hammered in. We need to pay attention to both experiences.

How can parents allow their daughters to experiment with femininity without letting them fall into harmful categories?
You don’t ever want to tell her or make her feel that she is a slut. You want her to feel good about her body, her sexuality and her clothing choices. If you strongly believe that her clothing is inappropriate for her age or for the occasion, you need to talk with her about it. Say something supportive that gives her space like, “Wow! You look fantastic in that outfit, but there are so many people out there that aren’t as enlightened as we are about girls revealing their bodies. And unfortunately there are people who may treat you like a sexual object if you wear that outfit.”

What critical lessons should parents teach their sons about this?
Talk about consent with your children, boys and girls, and explain that consent is never present unless it has been verbally communicated. I think that’s really essential. It’s probably the most important thing many parents aren’t doing that we should be doing that better. It’s never ever too soon to talk about sexual consent.

What is your opinion about the recent campus sexual assault movement, including It’s On Us, Know Your IX and Carry That Weight?
I feel invigorated by the movement. It ties into this culture of slut-shaming where so many people—including women—believe that it's acceptable to have sex with a girl even if she hasn’t actually said yes. They think, “Well, because she’s a 'slut' or a 'ho' it doesn’t matter what she says.” And this is certainly true in high schools too.

What can parents learn from stories like Jada's from the #IAmJada campaign?
I do find those individual examples of girls talking back and raising awareness really great, but they’re kids and that should not be their responsibility. That should be our responsibility. We need to be the ones orchestrating that and helping the young people in our lives.

What is the most shocking thing you discovered while writing I Am Not a Slut?
How people hate the "slut" so much—even if she's somebody they don’t know—that they will tell her she should kill herself or that she shouldn’t be alive.

What is one thing you would ask parents to change when it comes to slut-shaming?
Never, ever use words like “slut” or “ho,” even in a lighthearted or joking way. Just never use them, because our kids look to us as role models and if we make it acceptable then it becomes acceptable to them.

Leora Tanenbaum is the author of the newly released I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet. She is also senior writer and editor at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a mom of two boys.