That Special Bullying Reserved For Women

I held the phone with one hand and my forehead with another. I had to sit down as she was talking before my legs gave out on me. This could NOT be real. In fact, I’m pretty sure the first words I found were, “Are you KIDDING me??” But it wasn’t a joke. It was my very own Scandal-type plot line playing out with dialogue that has become so common in America that Shonda Rhimes would blush at the predictability.

Her Southern drawl was all-too-perfect for the moment and I’m assuming that literal pearl clutching was happening on her end of the phone. “You know I hate that I even have to talk about this,” she started with that tone that let me know that she was DYING to be the one to deliver the gossip to me personally, “But people have stepped forward and apparently you exhibited some pretty promiscuous behavior in front of some of the men at a recent event…”

She continued on, playing her part of antagonist in the piece beautifully, as she feigned shock at what people were saying about me and peppered in phrases like “I can’t even bear to say the things I’ve heard out loud!” It was just shy of “Oh my heavens!” and “I do declare!” but not by much.

You know the story without me filling in the blanks. Strong woman walks into a room, someone “doesn’t take kindly to her in these parts,” a Mean Girls pop-up club is formed and vicious rumors are started to take her down a peg or two. The setting varies – high school classroom where she’s outshining the popular girl, an office where she’s being considered for a promotion someone else felt entitled to, a PTA meeting where she dares to question the Queen Mom – but the protagonist is expected to play her part the same no matter what the specifics are.

Be ashamed.

Frantically defend yourself and give the bullies power to now be your judge, jury and executioner. Cry, preferably publicly, so that they have the satisfaction of watching the cruelty play out. Hide from everyone so that the rumors become cemented legacy and they have stolen not only your opportunity to shine, but your name.

This type of bullying is so common that it has it’s own name: slut shaming. It’s when women are stigmatized for engaging in behavior judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative. That’s the literal definition and it’s pretty telling.

First, the dictionary actually specifies that this game is one that only the girls are forced to play and, second, it actually has the word “judge” in it. You don’t have to DO anything to be slut shamed. You just have to be around people who feel entitled to judge your sexuality.

The con to this particular game is that the victim cannot win if she plays it with their rules. If she denies the accusations then she is presumed to be lying. Prove the facts (which usually involves shadow boxing against cowardly anonymous “accusers”) and it’s still her fault for “putting herself in that situation to begin with”. If she defends her reputation then she is “making a big deal out of nothing” and “causing trouble”.

There is also a danger to this game. An estimated two out of three rapes go unreported and the primary reason women say they stay silent is the feeling of shame. Suicide rates are up among nearly all groups of women, but they have tripled in the last 15 years among young girls, partly due to an increase in sexual bullying and cyber-bullying. And, according to Women’s Refuge, objectifying (or in the case of slut shaming the actual attempt to govern) the sexuality of women “underlies, perpetrates and excuses violence against women.”

So if you’re keeping score, women get beat up, raped and die because of this. It is not something that we can afford to accept as the cost of being female.

The good news is that there are things that ALL of us can do to prevent it and there’s even a few things that women can do to protect themselves when it happens to them.

Stop the judging. A woman’s choices – real or mean-girl manufactured – are her own. Don’t participate in conversations that criticize someone for their looks, outfit choices or sexuality. If you find yourself a target of slut shaming, try and make an extra effort to be kind to yourself when you learn that someone doesn’t like something about you to reinforce your awesomeness.

Look after each other. Women can find support by surrounding themselves with positive, encouraging and more confident people. When I was lied about and slut shamed it was hurtful, but my friends rallied immediately. I went from outrage to laughter at their raunchy jokes to a determination to do something positive in a matter of hours. Being around positive people turns victims into survivors and supporters of other women.

Be aware and be part of the change. This is not going to happen overnight but every person we educate and empower helps to break this dangerous cycle. Correct someone (respectfully) if they are participating in slut shaming or misogyny. Talk to your kids or peers if you see something with a negative message on television. And talk to your own friends when the opportunity arises to build strength and solidarity.

Own your power. NOBODY has a right to diminish you or make you feel bad. You are amazing and you are unique. Remember that. Love that about yourself. Confidence is a beautiful thing and other people being intimidated or jealous or insecure has NOTHING to do with you. You deserve the respect of autonomy over your choices…from yourself as well as others.

And if you want to do something to help RIGHT NOW – because you care about this issue, because it’s happened to you or because you want to make my day a bit brighter since I’ve been dealing with knuckleheads – then you can give to the National Organization for Women, or any of a number of other fantastic organizations, who battles this every single day on our behalf.

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