How do I get rid of a slut reputation?

DebbieK
asks:
I'm 15 years old and a freshman in high school. I had no self-confidence in middle school and I have glasses, braces, and I have to get my eyebrows and upper lip waxed because I naturally have a unibrow/mustache. I really wanted to be thought of as desirable, hot, and sexy since I felt so ugly all the time. My eighth grade boyfriend, who essentially had been my middle school crush all three years, was really perfect for the first couple months of our relationship and then he started to ignore me and be horrible. I wasn't getting the affection that I wanted from him so I cheated on him with a sophomore.
Sam W replies:

DebbieK's question continued:

I was (and still am) a virgin and I had never done sex of any kind (oral, anal, etc.) but I had been a sexual person since I was a kid. I masturbated all the time when I was younger because it felt good but I didn't associate it with sex until I was around 13. This sophomore lived in my neighborhood and I went over to his house one day and all we did was make out and he wanted to finger me but I said no and I left and nobody ever found out except close friends of mine. I felt so guilty so I broke up with my boyfriend about two weeks later and I really did care for him and I became depressed. My math grade was going down the toilet (before high school I was a straight A student) and my parents put a lot of pressure on me relating to school and I felt really bad about myself and I wanted attention. I acted pretty crazy and I was constantly talking about sex and how much I wanted it and I called myself a hoe and I would make out with guys whenever I could (it's a miracle I didn't get mono). Most of my friends hadn't even kissed a guy. Nobody at my school was spreading rumors so I didn't care. Recently, I was on a school trip and we were on a bus for 16 hours. My best friend didn't want to sit with me and we were sitting by all the guys so I start talking about sex. I ended up making out with a junior in the back of the bus and we tried to be quiet but everyone knew. I didn't do anything that bad it was just touching and making out. He told everyone on the trip that he was drunk and he didn't remember anything but he was lying. People called me a slut and they were starting to call my friends sluts too when they literally didn't do anything. I decided afterwards that I wasn't going to be a hoe anymore. One of my best friends told her parents about it and they haven't said anything to my parents yet and she told my other friends and now all my friends are leaving me. I promised them that I would change and go back to who I was before I was a hoe. And I don't want to change just for my friends, I want to change for me. My friends hate me now but they said they'd give me a chance to prove myself but if I did anything else slutty then I'd be kicked out for good. I'm so hurt but they're right. I'm going to change and be better (not just saying that I really mean it). However, they won't accept me if my bad reputation doesn't go away. How do I fix it?""

There are so many layers of difficulties in this situation that it's like a giant birthday cake of awful. So, we're going to cut that cake into slices and deal with them one by one.

To start out, take a moment to think about what it means to you when you say you (or anyone else) is being a slut. What does the word “slut” mean to you? I ask because when I read your letter and saw why people were calling you a “slut,” my eyebrows took a trip to the very top of my forehead. Even by the standards of high school-aged me, your actions sound downright tame. And I wondered, if people are calling you a slut for this, what in the world do they call the girls at your school who have sex? Ultra-sluts?

The reason you and I might have such different definitions of sluttiness is that “slut” is a word that is both cruel and useless. Cruel because it’s a tool used to punish women and label them as worse than their non-slutty counterparts. And useless because it’s subjective: It’s unclearly defined by design.

Here's the truth: All women are sluts in one way or another because “slut” is a trap. It’s a trap we call slut-shaming.
People pretend it means something specific when it really means they think a woman is “too much” in some way. Maybe they think she enjoys sex or talks about it “too much.” Or they believe she has too many partners, and she’s too confident in her body. They think she’s too assertive, too unashamed of her desires. Maybe she said "no" more than people like, or to the wrong person.

If you stop one “slutty” behavior, you have to walk a very narrow, and realistically impossible, path to avoid being tagged with that label again. Even if you do everything "right," slut-shaming will always be a tool for sexists to use against you. All that has to happen is for someone to get annoyed with you and decide to use that word to put you down. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen people called sluts for things that had nothing to do with sex.

I don't bring this up to get on my feminist soapbox, but because you and your friends want you to be less "slutty.”

First, I want you to think about whether you want to make this change for yourself or for your friends. You insist it’s both in your letter, but take some time to think about how much you’d want to change if they weren’t putting pressure on you. Because if the goal is to change for them, you need to know what they want you to stop doing. Are you expected to stop talking about sex? Or are you not supposed to be casually intimate with guys? And if that's the case, is there a timeline they expect you to hold to if you do start dating someone, a length of time you must be with that person before being sexual?

If your goal is to make these changes for yourself then the questions become different. What, if any, of your behaviors are making you unhappy? What specific parts of them make you feel bad and how could you go about changing those? It’s much easier to decide on goals for that second set of questions because you’re the only person who needs to be consulted before deciding what changes to make. If someone calls you a slut for something you enjoy that isn't hurting anyone, give yourself permission to ignore them. And if the behavior is making you unhappy or uncomfortable, that's the reason you should stop it, not because it’s “slutty.”

You also mention your friends want you to lose your “slut reputation.”

Reputations are easy to get and difficult to shake, even if you thoroughly change your behavior, because they depend on how other people choose to see you, something you have limited control over. If you really want to try meeting all these requirements your friends are putting in place, you are setting yourself up for failure. You can change how you act, but if someone wants to call you a slut for any reason, the word will stick to you. As a side note, if your friends want you to lose your “slut reputation,” they should make sure they’re not contributing to it by referring to you as a slut or shaming you for your behavior.

Your friends seem very fair-weather, willing to toss you out of the group for being “slutty.” I get that they're also being labeled sluts by association, but it's odd to me that they've blamed you for that rather than the people doing the labeling. I sincerely hope that if the situation was reversed, you would not be threatening a friend with social exile for kissing people or being called a slut (or for someone else calling you a slut-by-association). That you might, instead, tell the person doing the name-calling to mind their own freaking business. If nothing else, if your friend was targeted with rumors and called a gendered slur, you'd let them know that you still care about them, that the rumors (or the truth) don't change your opinion of them, and that you'll stick up for them the next time someone talks smack about them — whether or not they’re in the room.

A good friend in this situation should stand up for you. Reassure you that you're not worthless or bad or any other of the traits that "slut" implies. But your friends seem to have decided that you're not worth that kind of support, or worth the risk that comes with sticking up for a friend who's being stigmatized. Which is a shame, because something that seems to be missing from your life is a sense of worth, whether that sense is coming from inside you or from the people around you. You said yourself that you don't feel desirable, your partner didn't treat you well, and now your friends are making it clear that they're willing to push you out to save their own reputations.

You could definitely use some life changes that would give your self-worth a boost, because you’re worth it. For starters, it's time to take a break from romantic or physical relationships with other people and focus on your relationship with yourself. Because right now the person who most needs love in your life is you. Learning to love (or even like) yourself can take many different shapes. Given that you mention feeling unattractive, taking a look at the world of body positivity could be a good starting point. Body positivity can teach you to treat your body with the kind of affection you wish it received from other people, and help you feel better about what you see in the mirror. Another angle to explore is ways to feel sexy that don't require anyone else's input. That could be masturbating, taking a bath that leaves you relaxed and smelling like summer flowers, or dressing in a way that makes you feel confident. The end goal of all of this is to get you feeling that, no matter how you look, you’re worthy of love and respect.

It's not that loving yourself will remove any desire to be, well, desired. Humans are social creatures, and even the most confident and lone wolfish of us want some love or acceptance from our peers. Many of us want to feel sexy or desirable from time to time, and there’s no shame in that. But a good relationship with yourself is the foundation on which you can build relationships with others. If you see yourself as deserving of love and respect, it can be easier to cut out toxic people from your life or set boundaries around how you want to be treated. It also makes the stretches of your life where you're without a romantic partner far more enjoyable because you haven't tied your whole sense of worth to having one.

If you want to redirect your energy away from hook-ups or other activities that don't leave you feeling good I suggest finding some things to do that boost your confidence. What activities or hobbies do you enjoy? What things in life give you pleasure? What goals do you have that you could start working towards? Having new experiences and building skills, accomplishing things (even little things) or simply indulging your curiosity goes a long way towards creating a positive sense of self. It sounds like your academic life is important to you, so some of your energy could also go towards your schoolwork. Right now, intentionally or not, you’ve tied a lot of your identity to your sexual behavior. While sexuality is part of who you are, it can’t be the only thing at the center of how you think about yourself. Having passions and projects gives you more options for how you want to define yourself.

As you’re rebuilding your relationship with yourself, you can also focus on nurturing platonic relationships with your friends or family. Those relationships are as important as any romantic partnership, and in many cases they last longer. Nurturing them means you have lots of fulfilling connections in your life instead of just one. So, if there were relationships that fell to the side when you were with your boyfriend, you could put energy back into those. And if there are people who you’re interested in becoming friends with, or who seem like they’d be fun to talk to, take the gamble of striking up a conversation with them. I think your friend group could use some broadening, because making new friends helps you feel a little more accepted by the world and you may need some friends who are less likely to kick you out of their orbit in an act of slut-shaming.

Speaking of those friends, if it feels safe for you to do so, I think it’s also time for you to confront them about how they’ve been treating you. It’s up to you how exactly you want to approach this topic with them, but it would good to tell them how this whole situation has left you feeling. For example, did it hurt to realize that they saw your sexual reputation as trumping all the things they like about you as a friend? Tell them that. You could also ask them why, if they noticed you were suddenly acting out of character by kissing lots of people, didn’t they ask you if everything was okay (maybe they did and that detail didn’t make it into your letter, in which case you can skip this step)? I don’t doubt that you have reasons for wanting them as your friends, but you’re also within your rights to tell them that regardless of how slutty you were being, the way they treated you wasn’t cool. And if they insist that you deserved to be treated that way, then it is definitely time to find new friends.

Next, I suggest that you think carefully about how you use words like “slut.” Whether you want to reclaim them for yourself or not, the world gets so much better when you stop judging other women for having, talking about, or thinking about sex. I say this as someone who wishes she'd learned this lesson much earlier in life. It's drilled into our heads to call other women sluts to keep them in line and deny parts of our own sexuality in order to avoid the label. All we accomplish by that is hurting each other and ourselves when it would be just as easy to live and let live. When we use it to control and punish each other, we do the work of keeping each other down when we could be building each other up. And in instances where the word is used to point out a negative behavior, there are plenty of ways to say that someone is acting in a selfish, hurtful, or otherwise jerkish way. Calling them a slut is not one of them.

Finally, how about you take some time to reflect on what you want from romantic and sexual relationships? That reflection could include what traits are important to you in a partner, what sexual activities you're ready for, and how casual you want to be with your partners. There are no right answers to those questions, and your answers to them will likely change over time. The important part of that exercise is reminding you that the person who gets to decide when and how you pursue relationships is you. Not your friends, not your schoolmates, not me. You. This process may not be quick, and it may be tricky, but over time it will help you feel a lot better about yourself and far more comfortable in your skin. And that feeling is worth more than getting rid of a “slut reputation” ever will be.

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