An honest conversation among women where they can feel truly comfortable speaking about any subject related to their sexuality is hard to come by. A constant component of these discussions is “slut-shaming.” You’ve likely heard about this act of sexual bullying or been on the receiving end of its destruction, but Emily Lindin is exposing its prevalence and seeking to end “slut-shaming” with The UnSlut Project. By publishing a personal diary of her experiences as the school “slut,” Emily is propelling the conversation by imploring young women in similar situations to talk about their sexuality and remove the painful meaning behind the term “slut.” We had the pleasure of chatting with Emily about The UnSlut Project and her upcoming venture, Slut: A Documentary Film.
Her Campus: Through The UnSlut Project, you’ve been able to share your experiences as the school “slut” with a community of young women who are dealing with similar issues. What inspired you to publish your writings on this topic?
Emily Lindin: I decided to publish my diary when I realized that, fifteen years after my own experience, girls were still suffering for the same reason. In fact, with the ubiquity of social media and photo sharing, it had actually gotten worse. It struck me as a good time to make what had been a really unfortunate time in my life into something that could be positive.
HC: What do you hope young girls who have been in your position take away from your writings?
EL: Sometimes, it’s as simple as knowing you’re not alone. When I was labeled a “slut” in middle school, I would have loved to know other women who had gone through something similar and not only survived, but became successful and happy. Sexual bullying can be particularly isolating because often, girls don’t feel comfortable confiding in their parents or adults in their life about it. It’s hard enough to start a conversation about sexuality with adults when you’re that age—let alone when you’ve been labeled in a way they might actually blame YOU for. So I hope they can gain some perspective that even though what they’re going through right now is terrible and unfair, it’s not all there is.
HC: Why is “slut” shaming such a problem for females?
EL: There’s no simple answer for this question. It’s about control, when it comes down to it. Female sexual expression is expected to look a very specific way, and once it seems like a girl or woman is embracing something other than that, something that might feel authentic to her, she’s seen as out of control and there’s an impulse to shame her for it, and this is sometimes seen as “helping” her. Many of us are taught from a young age that our “purity” is something to be treasured and even “saved” for marriage (saved from what?!), and that it’s equal to our worth as a girl. So when we lose that image of ourselves, it’s easy to feel like we’ve lost our identities. It’s easy to feel like we’re completely worthless.
HC: Why do you think young women are insecure about their sexuality? Is there societal pressure to hit “milestones” (kissing, sex, etc.) by a certain age?
EL: We see pretty clear representations in all kinds of media sources about what women are supposed to look like, and usually that’s some form of what is typically understood to be sexy. Most of us don’t look like that. And when young women DO look typically “sexy,” they are still at risk of being “slut” shamed for it. So of course they’re insecure. They can’t win! Many young women who read my diary on Wattpad comment that they are embarrassed or feel silly because when I was making out with boys at age eleven, they are now in their late teens and haven’t kissed anyone. When I see those comments, I always reply that there is no right time to start figuring out what you want to do sexually—I went through puberty at age ten, so I was masturbating and fantasizing about boys WAY before most of my peers. Some women take much longer and some women just don’t feel very sexual ever in their lives. That’s all fine. Part of undoing the idea of a “slut” is realizing that female sexuality isn’t a concrete, static thing, and the same rules don’t apply for everyone.
HC: Why is there less pressure for guys to live up to a standard of sexuality?
EL: The idea that female sexuality is dangerous, dirty, or shameful is rooted in a lot of our cultural mythologies and religions all over the world. For much of human history in most cultures, women were traded as property and a huge part of their value depended on their virginity. That’s going to take a lot of work to undo—especially since it’s still the case in some parts of the world. I do want to point out, though, that guys face sexual pressure, as well. The same line of thinking that leads to “slut” shaming enforces a specific type of aggressive masculinity that is damaging to guys just as much as it hurts girls.
HC: When we think about bullying, we often don’t associate the term with sexual bullying—especially in our own country. How prevalent is “slut” shaming in the U.S. and what can we do to prevent it?
EL: Well, given just how many people have come forward to share their stories through The UnSlut Project, I’d say it’s incredibly prevalent. Anecdotally, almost every woman I speak to about this project offers a story from her life in which she or a girlfriend or sister was “slut” shamed. Talking about it and sharing our personal stories will bring to light how prevalent it is and, I hope, inspire some academic studies so that we can get more solid statistics. The first step to preventing “slut” shaming is to consider our own biases and assumptions. It’s a hard thing to do, but once we commit to examining our private reactions to different women in our lives, news stories, etc., we can begin to change other people’s minds, as well. And that’s the next step: starting conversations with people in our lives and speaking up about our experiences. Once we establish what a widespread and devastating issue it is, we’ll be much more likely to see bullying prevention strategies that encompass sexual bullying, as well.
HC: Since publishing your work on Wattpad, you’ve started a Seed and Spark campaign to fund Slut: A Documentary Film. What can you tell us about this film and how it speaks to your message?
EL: When I realized how many people were interested in reading my diary on Wattpad, I wanted to expand The UnSlut Project. That’s because the only thing unique about what I went through is the fact that I saved my diary from that time. My experience can’t stand as a representation of ALL women’s experiences with “slut” shaming, so I wanted to find a way to share other women’s stories with a broad audience. Rehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life after being gang-raped and then sexually bullied, inspired me to start The UnSlut Project in the first place—and her family tells her story in Slut: A Documentary Film. We also interviewed four women in North America who have survived various types of sexual shaming over the past four decades and discussed the issue with experts who shed light on how we got to this point and how we can get OUT of this place we’re in. I’m really proud of the footage we have, and I’m confident that when we meet our funding goal, we’ll be able to turn it into a wonderful film!
HC: One of the main concepts from your documentary is working toward a world where “slut” would no longer make sense as an insult. How can we strive to make this a reality?
EL: For the word “slut” to be an effective insult, everyone involved—the person doing the insulting, the person being insulted, and any bystanders—have to share the understanding that it represents something shameful. The definition of “slut” can be whatever the person using it wants it to be, so it’s particularly powerful because of its versatility. I’m not pro-censorship, but I’d love for “slut” to fall flat as an insult because it doesn’t make sense. If someone tried to use it, their target and anyone else overhearing them would think, “But… what on earth could be wrong with female sexuality?” Comprehensive sex education—that is, mandated age-appropriate programs that include not just safety but pleasure, as well as all genders and orientations—will be a huge part of changing the way we as a culture approach female sexuality.
HC: Why is this a conversation worth having?
EL: In the best case scenarios, “slut” shaming can lead to insecurity into adulthood. Many girls who are “slut” shamed have fraught sex lives when they become adults. Even those of us who are never labeled a “slut” witness others being labeled that way, and it’s a constant threat that at any moment, we, too, might be deemed slutty. So, as women, we always have to self-police in a way that isn’t healthy or conducive to a full life. In the worst case scenarios, “slut” shaming leads to self-harm and even suicide.
HC: What’s one piece of advice you would give young women who feel “slut” shamed?
EL: It’s hard to give one piece of advice to all girls in this situation, since so much depends on the specifics of their lives, but I would reassure them that nobody else is allowed to define who they are. If someone wants to label you a slut, that reflects poorly on his or her self-esteem and relationship with sex, not yours. YOU get to define who you are—so define yourself however you want! Focus on something you enjoy doing (like a sport, language, musical instrument, etc.) and get really good at it. There. Now you’re a skilled basketball player, or an advanced painter, or brilliant guitarist! And maybe that person is still going on about how you’re just a “slut”—who cares? Now you KNOW it’s not true.