Girls With Reputations
I was just reading Chloe Angyal’s excellent Christian Science Monitor piece about ABC’s “What Would Your Do?” episode on domestic violence, the one that I mentioned in passing here. I like Chloe’s writing and I like this piece, so this isn’t a general criticism. However, she wrote one thing that made me catch my breath, and made me remember something, and then another thing, and then another …
Being called a name in high school hurts a girl’s feelings and threatens her reputation, and it’s an experience no one deserves. But once we leave high school, once we take our attitudes about women, sex, and human worth out into the world, the stakes get higher.
Too many women I know didn’t get out of high school before they found out how high the slut-shaming stakes were. [Trigger Warning from here on down; stories about rape in high school.]
I had this on-again, off-again open relationship with a wonderful and beautiful and very damaged woman. We had a falling out, and I don’t know where she is now. (I could fill a book with stories about things I did wrong and ways I was bad for her, or about all the reasons she needed help that she didn’t get, but I won’t.) She was the object of a wave of small-minded suburban slut-shaming, with the usual class components. She said things that made people spray milk out their noses, she wore clothes that got her sent to the principal’s office regularly, and stories made the rounds about her sexual escapades, some true, many exaggerated and a few just made up. All in all, she would have likely topped any list of local slut infamy, which she wore as a badge of pride and I ate up with a spoon.
She liked muscular guys and she liked bad boys and she liked sex (or so she said; I think she would have liked sex a lot more if she had been able to have what she wanted on her terms and not always be positioned as the fulfiller of other people’s desires, including mine, and in truth I suspect she resented most of the sex she had, but craved the approval. What’d I know? I was sixteen). So I set her up on a blind date with a linebacker from the football team that I was good friends with. He had a body like a college football player and would have become one if his impulse control problems hadn’t turned him into a bitter ex-jock. He also had a history of childhood sexual abuse, a bad temper and a knack for getting me into trouble. And I should have seen it coming, but what’d I know? I was sixteen.
The date ended in his van, where she went to be sexual with him; and where she told me she quickly found out that he was a guy who took limits as personal insults. He raped her.
I don’t think he raped her because the whole town thought she was a slut. I think he raped her because he was a rapist; because he stuck his cock into female bodies to kill the memory of the older boy who stuck a cock in him, and basically just because he was a guy with a mean streak who knew a helpless victim when he saw one.
But slut-shaming was the reason she didn’t tell. She told me, and I never spoke to him again. She and I talked about it; she knew she couldn’t tell her mother that she got high and went into a van to fool around with this guy, she couldn’t tell the police, she couldn’t tell her peers because it would be all over the school and the rebellious pride she wore as armor against the slings and arrows would collapse. Because of what they said about her, there was nothing she could do. There was something I could do, but I knew I would get caught and I just wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice.
She sure wasn’t the only one. All through my teens, girls told me that in basements and the backs of cars the writ of “no” did not run. I’d get a call and ask, “so how did your date go?” hoping for a hot story, and I’d hear, “he raped me.”
Slut shaming was the defense in the Haidl case, the Sheriff’s son who orchestrated a gang rape of an unconscious young woman in Orange County, California. They targeted a woman who thought she was their friend, who thought she could be herself around them even apparently she had also been nominated to the list of local slut infamy — which often has zero relationship to actual conduct. And the reputation was their defense. They took video of the crime. She was passed out. Yet the jury hung the first time. For those unfamiliar, I’ll quote this summary:
In July 2002 in Corona del Mar, the defendants got a 16-year-old girl drunk and high, waited for her to pass out and then videotaped themselves raping her. They also repeatedly shoved a Snapple bottle, apple juice can, lit cigarette and a pool cue into the girl’s vagina and anus. The defendants were so proud of their film work they showed it to friends and then lost it. The CD eventually landed in the hands of a police officer who thought the defendants had raped a corpse.
The case was notorious because the defendants claimed the knocked out girl had raped them, one of the defendants–Haidl–is the son of a man who was at the time an assistant sheriff of Orange County, and the defense spent millions of dollars soiling the victim’s reputation in efforts to escape responsibility for their conduct.
(A longer account by the same writer, including defense tactics that should get lawyers sanctioned, is here. It’s grim reading. There was great coverage of this case at Sheelzebub’s Pinko Feminist Hellcat, which is where I first learned of it, but I think that blog is down now.)
The second time, the prosecution realized that what they were up against was not a group of young men and their lawyers, but a social structure. The opening in the second, successful, trial was a ringing attack on slut-shaming. The prosecutors explained to a jury that rape is rape; even when it happens to a porn star, even when it happens to an escort, even when it happens to a slut. The prosecution took on not just the defendants, but the powerful subtext of the defense — the subtext that girls with reputations don’t deserve protection or vindication.
This is not new. At work not long ago, one of my partners who is infuriating and occasionally wonderful stood up when I didn’t expect him to. I was explaining to a guy in his sixties how it was when I was a teenager and he stated with smug certainty that it wasn’t like that when he went to school. My friend, himself over sixty, said, “that’s because they didn’t tell you. I went to four high schools, and it was like that at all of them.” (Some of us are against rape; not just in theory, but in real life. Not just the kind that happens in the afterschool specials, but the kind that happens most often to our friends and neighbors.)
In high school, girls with reputations can’t tell. (And girls who tell become girls with reputations.) Those are the stakes.