Stopping “Slut” Once and For All

When Brooklyn teenager Winnifred Bonjean-Alpart told her father that she would be portraying Joey del Marco, the notoriously promiscuous rape victim in Katie Cappiello’s play, “SLUT,” he responded by asking, “Can’t you just, like, do ‘Annie’ or something?”

His apprehension makes sense—as we’ve been raised to believe, girlhood is supposed to light and sugary-sweet, like a cloud of cotton candy, whose perfect oblong shape has yet to be disfigured by hot saliva and sticky fingers. Annie is cute as a button; Joey has a taste for vodka, uses expletives liberally, and describes, in graphic detail, the experience of being sexually assaulted by a group of boys. She even abandons the delicate femininity of her given name, “Joanna.”

“SLUT,” which was put together by Evenstar Productions and The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company, follows Joey as she goes from being an inexperienced, but confident and self-identified “slut” to a humbled survivor of gang rape, reporting her harrowing experience to the police. The people around her are unapologetically skeptical, inspired by, as it exists in our society, a systemic denial of sexual violence in the high school setting. “SLUT” is vulgar and unsettling—but in a way that is entirely necessary, as the play addresses issues that are equally vulgar and equally unsettling.

The play’s dealings with teenage rape culture have sparked all sorts of reactions at its performances in locations ranging from New York to Los Angeles to Fargo, North Dakota (yes, like the movie.) At one performance, a man told the company that the play was inappropriate, and should no longer be performed. At another, an 80-year-old woman began to cry, because seeing “SLUT” enabled her to identify a childhood experience as molestation.

In fact, the play has stimulated something of a national conversation. The Feminist Press recently published an eponymous book of responses to “SLUT” in the form of essays and poems by students, activists, and student activists. The work in Slut shares a common theme of denouncing rape culture, and advocating for the elimination of “slut” from the adolescent vocabulary as a way to eliminate the harmful, dehumanizing stereotypes the word connotes.

In his essay, “You Watch Porn,” Fred, a 13-year-old boy, discusses his experiences watching pornography. Speaking of his first encounter with porn, he says:

I wasn’t shocked because the videos contained breasts, vaginas, and penises. I expected that. I was shocked by the realization that these porn videos seemed to take place in their own world. […] I had entered a world where every girl is recorded saying she “wants it.” […] It was a strange world, and even then I knew I disagreed with most of it. But I still continued to watch.

As the story progresses, Fred realizes that the world where women are portrayed as objects that “want it” isn’t all that different from the one he lives in, with one major exception. “The women-are-sluts-here-for-your-pleasure mentality does not stay within the confines of a video; it does not fade away like a porn video,” he says. “Permanent harm is done.” Fred arrives at this conclusion after hearing about a horrendous incident in which a girl who went to his middle school was harassed by one of her classmates, but no action was taken and no sympathy was felt because the common (and toxic) notion that “she wanted it.”

“You Watch Porn,” and other essays and poems, like “No, You Can’t ‘Join Us For a Little Girl-on-Girl’” and “Best Friend, No Slut,” all of which were written by real, live teenagers, are so compelling because of their just-barely-pubescent candor. You are presented with imperfect kids and their encounters with the seedy underbelly of adolescent sexuality, along with the ubiquitous presence of sexism in the media. Slut’s chorus of unique and genuinely concerned voices reveals just how messed up the teenaged conception of sex is, but also how effective the play, “SLUT” has been in leading students to speak up about the incidents they’ve seen and experienced.

In addition to the teenagers’ takes on rape culture, we hear from adults, too. Farah Tanis’s “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk” makes the point that having a successful protest with the word “slut” in its name is impossible, because the word just carries too much weight. In the same way that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t appropriate the n-word, explains Tanis, she refuses to appropriate “slut.” In “Slut on the Latina Body,” Veronica Arreola talks about teaching her daughter about consent, or, “body autonomy,” as she refers to it. “As a Latino family, we have a culture of piercing our daughters’ ears as young as possible. I did not,” she writes. “I chose, instead, to keep her ears intact so she can make that decision for herself.”

This conversation in response to “SLUT” has been expanded upon by several coalitions under the name of “StopSlut.” Aided by the handbook included toward the end of Slut, teenagers nationwide have started their own StopSlut chapters to facilitate meaningful and uncensored discussions regarding feminist issues. Through these discussions, teenagers have been able to navigate the ugliness of their own situations, and have the resources to educate others in an effort to put an end to rape culture in high schools.

Stuyvesant is no different from the rest of the nation. The word “slut” is not a stranger to casual hallway conversation; it weaves its way into jokingly self-deprecating comments about lipstick shades, casual remarks about girls who are, for whatever reason, notorious for wearing shirts that don’t cover their bellybuttons. Even “Slutty Wednesday,” which did not make headlines too long ago, boldly wore the word in its title for the ultimately feminist cause of ridiculing the discriminatory measures Stuyvesant took to enforce its dress code. In retrospect, “Slutty Wednesday” appears to have been a scoff-inducing stunt, easily laughed off as a demonstration of the student body’s strange attachment to short shorts. Slut seems to be suggesting that if the student body decided not to propagate the use of a word with so much problematic baggage, “Slutty Wednesday” would have been considered seriously.

We’ve all seen its toxicity play out in our own community; and everyone can, and needs to work to StopSlut. As Executive Director of the Feminist Press Jennifer Baumgardner wrote in Slut’s introduction, “We owe it to ourselves to make this work.”

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