Trigger Warning: This post mentions sexual assault.
Picture Joey Del Marco: she is sixteen years old, and she plays video games and dances her butt off with the best of them. She and her friends refer to themselves as the “Slut Squad” because they enjoy their newfound, emerging, and exciting sexuality. Joey goes to a party, where she splits an entire bottle of vodka with a few guy friends. Joey’s friends rape her. Her family and friends turn their backs on her, faulting and shaming her for the wrong that has been done to her.
Joey Del Marco isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean that her story isn’t true. Joey is the invention of eleven teenage actresses. These astounding young women catalogued and fictionalized their actual life experiences in their new play SLUT, with the help of Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney and the Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company. The Fringe Festival show will run at the Fringe’s Encore series from September 14-29; a special performance will also take place at the New School’s StopSlut conference on October 19.
New York Magazine recently sat down with these ladies, and they had some pretty shocking and amazing things to say. First, they discuss what the word “slut” actually means: is it positive or negative? The word can be exchanged as a token of respect: “[it] is kind of empowering,” says Clare Frucht. Vikki Eugenis, 15, agrees, “We call each other ‘sluts’ in a friendly way.” But the word, of course, can be turned at any moment against young girls; it can be used to humiliate them for consensual sex acts and blame them for assaults.
The actresses also address the pressure teenage girls feel today to be sexual and the resultant girl-on-girl slut-shaming; when young women are taught that their (often confusing, exciting, and brand new) sexuality is such a source of power in the high school social world, they compete. Says one of the actresses, Amari Rose Leigh, “Sometimes [being sexual is] what we’re taught to admire and girls don’t know how to deal with that, so you turn against other girls.” The other girls agree that for the most part, slut-shaming comes from other women as a result of jealousy and competition, but it can also come from boys: young men use the word “slut” to degrade and devalue a woman, to make her a sex object unworthy of his respect. One of the most important messages of this play is that “all girls [should] have the chance to be on each other’s sides. There’s no point, otherwise, if we’re not on each other’s sides.”
The girls also explain that modern culture fosters sexual abuse in many subtle ways and that a woman’s control of her sexuality is continually put in jeopardy. These young women have been catcalled, and the lines between consensual flirting and harassment are blurred. One girl, Edson Cohen, feels guilt when she’s catcalled: she says, “I feel like I did something incorrect to provoke that.” One girl explains that when she was graphically verbally harassed on the street, she came home to her mom; her mom asked her what she had been wearing. The onus for harassment and abuse continues to be placed on women.
One of the most important takeaways from these women and their work is that sexual assault is in no way connected to a woman’s “slutiness,” to what she wears or how much she enjoys sex. When young women are made to feel that their newfound sexual urges are wrong and bad, it only adds to the confusion. Teen sexuality is uncomfortable to think or talk about, but we have to give young women a voice, and so often, that voice gets stifled.
When I was in my first years of college, I interned in a magazine photography department, and one of my greatest privileges was to write up a blog post on any series of photos I could collect. I chose photos of teenage women, women beginning to discover their sexuality, portraits that captured the murky, confusing world of newfound freedoms and desires. The post enraged viewers because the topic is disturbing and uncomfortable. But work like SLUT, though it might be hard to stomach, is important work. The sexuality of an emerging woman isn’t something shameful (it’s natural), and the second we pretend it doesn’t exist is the second it gets taken out of her hands. A woman’s sexuality is hers, and it is precious; if she is assaulted, someone tries to steal it from her.
It’s time that someone tells the world to STOP blaming young women for some of the most disgusting crimes committed against them, and I could not think of a better group of girls to do just that. From the mouths of teen girls comes the disturbing yet important and ultimately empowering battle cry, and I could not be more proud to live in a world where it seems young women are finally being listened to.
What do you think about slut-shaming? Is it more prevalent in teen years than in adulthood? What can we do to end the terrible cycle of victim-blaming?
Thanks to New York Magazine and Broadway World
Image via Broadway World