Slut-shaming is at the root of all problems. Well, it seems to be at the root of a lot of mine, anyway. Anyone who’s ever been slut-shamed understands that it can alter your sexual health decisions, erode your self-esteem, and change how you interact with both sexes. And for anyone who’s not familiar with the term: “slut-shaming” is the act of declaring a woman a slut (or a whore or any other similar word, or even promiscuous, for that matter) based upon perceived sexual behavior: the clothing she wears, the way she communicates with potential partners, the people she dates, the number of partners she has or hasn’t had, and the type of sex she enjoys.
That slut-shaming intersects with and mars efforts to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) might surprise you. Slut-shaming, the sex-negative way of describing someone’s sexual activities, combines social repercussions, fear, and—as its name suggests—shame in an attempt to control the actions of those who are sexually active. The impact is, generally speaking, an increase in STD transmission rates. Young adults who are slut-shamed become embarrassed about their sexual interests, stop communicating what they want and need, and lose the confidence to plan, negotiate, and navigate safer-sex practices.
In my early teens, I developed a keen interest in the opposite sex. Having gone through puberty at a very young age, I had had a number of boyfriends by the age of 16—you know, those two-month-long high-school relationships that don’t really mean much. But to my peers they did mean something. As a cheerleader, I dated a basketball player, chose to break up with him, and subsequently broke his heart. My repayment? The basketball team started a rumor that I was a slut and to stay away. I had AP classes with some of the players, who refused to participate in groups with me. To them, I was a slut.
Embarrassed and dripping with shame, I wanted to redeem myself by going back to church (I had stopped attending after breaking up with the basketball player because he was also part of my youth group). I felt I had lost my way and hoped that becoming reacquainted with God would help quell some of the immense depression and self-loathing I was experiencing as a result of being called a slut
During our youth group’s spring break bus trip to Myrtle Beach, my best friend and I met a pair of Marines on leave and snuck away to flirt and make out with them on the beach. We were caught without a chaperone; I was caught in the middle of kissing one of the Marines. My punishment: I was made to apologize to the youth group—a room full of 60 of my peers—for disobeying, for running off without supervision with someone of the opposite sex, and for taking the elders’ time away from the trip to deal with me. I was sent home on a plane three days later; my friend came home on the bus with the rest of the group two days after I returned. To them, I was a sinful harlot. It was that year I decided to stop dating guys from my school.
Word got out that I was bad news. One of my then-best friends made it her job to let people know I had herpes.
That following summer, I contracted genital herpes. Word got out that I was bad news. One of my then-best friends made it her job to let people know I had herpes. When guys would approach her asking for my number, or if she’d orchestrate a connection, she’d let them know not to bother, that I was infected and would infect them as well. I knew this was happening because not all of them believed her; they’d approach me, ask me out, and then I’d learn about what she was saying behind my back. For a long while, I thought I deserved that kind of treatment: I was damaged goods and being punished.
Full of shame and embarrassment, and trying to both outlive and avoid my “slutty” and “dirty” reputation, I tried making friends from other schools. One of those girls and I became very close; I told her about my genital herpes infection. A little while after disclosing my darkest secret, she invited me on a trip to Canada with her and three of her friends. After spending the night out on the town, we returned to our hotel room, but I was made to sleep on the floor. At the time, I didn’t know why I was being treated as an outcast while the other girls shared beds. Later, when that friend contracted genital warts, she called me crying. In the same breath, she shared why I had been made to sleep apart from the other girls: She’d told them about the genital herpes, and they didn’t want to contract my infection. To them, too, I was dirt. I had endured another form of slut-shaming.
Suffice to say, those are just some of things I’ve endured as both a slut and one with a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It took me years to overcome that stigma—and to realize that what’s happening among our youth when it comes to their sexuality, in particular, is nothing short of appalling: By the age of 25, one in two will have contracted an STI. Some of those infections will be curable, some not.
When young men and women are made to feel shameful about their sexual behavior, they naturally become reticent to seek advice about sex. Though the subject is not very well-studied, we know from research that emotional distress among adolescent girls is linked to earlier sexual activity, risky sexual partners, and getting infected with an STD. The medical literature also includes research linking poor self-esteem to riskier sexual behavior, while "sexual self-efficacy"—feeling in control of your body and your decisions about sex, including feeling comfortable saying no to a potential partner—was correlated to a lower likelihood of doing risky things that would make someone more likely to contract an infection.
Feeling humiliated—as with slut-shaming—also means they are less likely to be equipped to have conversations with others about how to have safer sex. Specifically, when you tell someone that he or she is a slut because that is your perception, that person is less likely to talk to partners about using protection, how many partners they’ve had, when and for what they’ve been tested, and what they want to incorporate into their safer-sex regimen.
I also want to point out that having been slut-shamed was not the sole reason I contracted genital herpes. I take full responsibility for my actions, and lack thereof, when it came to safer-sex practices. But the labels made the experience much worse. My story is also not unique. At the website I run, The STD Project, I work with tens of thousands of young adults who’ve been treated similarly. Until we decide to forgo labels for thorough, comprehensive sexual education, the results will continue to be the same. People will continue to feel shame about their sexuality, their sexual health will suffer, and STDs will persist.
How much of a role do you think slut-shaming plays in the rising numbers of people with STDs? Have you ever been slut-shamed? Have you ever done it to someone?
Jenelle Marie is the founder of The STD Project, an award-winning website and progressive movement aimed at eradicating the stigma associated with contracting an STD and living with an STD by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through storytelling and resource recommendations. You can also find The STD Project on Facebook and Twitter. Look for her e-Book, “The Relationship Survival Guide to Living with an STD” available in 2013. TakePart.com