The slut redeemed
Author Emily White looks into the soul of 'fast girls'
Most high schools in America had one.
Her name was whispered in assembly halls and muttered under the breath in hallways and cafeterias. Her acts were the stuff of legend.
Now Emily White has written about her. White's first book, 'Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut,' arrives in bookstores next month.
White, 34, is a Portland native who graduated from Catlin Gabel School. A resident of Seattle since 1990, she started research for her book while editor of Seattle's The Stranger newspaper.
White placed a query in Dan Savage's column, 'Savage Love,' asking: 'Are you or were you the slut of your high school? If you were, then I would like to interview you.'
'I heard back immediately,' White said recently. 'I wound up interviewing six or seven girls in the Seattle area at first.'
She later traveled to other states to gather stories from women and girls who could lay claim to this unfortunate fame.
'Fast Girls' is written in a style that combines reporting, memoir and a hefty dose of Jungian and feminist theory. It investigates the archetype of the female slut and the culture that created it.
'The interviews were just so intense and so full of things that I've never talked about with anyone Ñ and things that they had never talked about with anyone before, either,' White said. 'It was just like I stumbled into something. And the stories they were telling were just so similar that it was almost like an urban legend that had taken over their lives.'
As told to White, the stories are painful and raw. The women's voices come through in tones alternately angry, defiant, sad and tough. Needless to say, none of the women interviewed for White's book had fond memories of high school.
Many of the women felt it was useless to resist their label in the face of overwhelming outside pressure. Some chose to do things to reinforce their notoriety. But the so-called slut's sexual doings, she discovered, were mostly fictional and existed in the murky realm of rumor and innuendo.
White's book shows how gossip and storytelling are powerful trading cards in the microcosm of high school. The girl pigeonholed as the school slut fulfills a group need to imagine and to create archetypes, she argues.
For teens, most especially teen-age girls, the slut is someone to talk, think and fantasize about. Aggressive girls may take it a step further, singling out, ostracizing and expelling the slut.
For the author, there came a point came when she had to distance herself from the women's stories and look at the patterns. Many of the girls called sluts, she found, were early developers, and many had been sexually abused. Often, they had transferred to their schools from someplace outside the immediate neighborhood.
'Fast Girls' is generating a lot of buzz for the author. The New York Times Magazine adapted an excerpt from 'Fast Girls' in advance of its release. And a recent cover story in the same magazine, 'Mean Girls and the New Movement to Tame Them,' also mentioned 'Fast Girls.'
White's thinking differs from feminist writers such as Naomi Wolf who preceded her. In a chapter called 'The Cruelty of Girls,' White writes that women and girls are as bad Ñ if not worse Ñ than boys in their behavior toward their peers.
Do girls have a special talent for this kind of behavior?
White thinks so. 'Girls engage in this kind of imagining about others more than anyone else,' she said. 'You remember the way that girls can retell a story to each other, and in the course of a whole evening together, they can give it all Ñ every detail?
'Generally, Wolf's feminism relies on an idea of 'we' as women,' White said. 'And a lot of the stories I heard were much more about us versus them among women. Wolf tends to portray women as very innocent, and I was hoping to show the way that women have as much to do with this phenomenon as men do.'
She referred to Wolf's book, 'Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,' saying: 'Wolf writes that all women have what she calls an inner slut. My point was that for these women, they didn't have any choice. They didn't get to have an inner slut. That came from outside.'