Slut Shaming Feeds the Sex Trade

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Lobby card for the 1934 film The Scarlet Letter.

Majestic Pictures

Lobby card for the 1934 film The Scarlet Letter.

“You are NOT leaving this house looking like a hooker.”

“Total trash. She’s asking for it.”

“I have a classroom full of teenaged girl who dress like sluts.”

These words are all too familiar. Teens attacking other teens on social media. Parents admonishing their daughter for her clothing choice. Teachers criticizing students.

These words not only reinforce the shaming of a girl’s sexuality, but further degrade girls and women who have been victimized and forced into the sex trade.

So when we label a girl as a ho, hooker or a slut – are we actually thinking about who she is being compared to?

Not what. Who.

15-year-old Bianca is just one of thousands of American children who has been bought and sold for sex across the country.

Most people in prostitution were victims of sexual violence and abuse long before they entered the sex trade. Once ensnared “in the life,” the vast majority are abused by pimps and sex buyers.

“The men who bought me treated me like trash on the street,” said Bianca. After years of being molested by her mother’s boyfriend, Bianca ran away from home at only 11-years-old. On the street, with no one to turn to and aching with hunger, she met Nico. For two weeks, Nico treated her like a princess. Then, he beat her, raped her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t sell sex for money. Bianca was prostituted by Nico and repeatedly raped by buyers for two years before she was arrested – not her trafficker, not the men who bought a child.

We met Bianca during Project Impact, a leadership program run in a residential facility for teen trafficking survivors. All of the girls in our program have been exploited in prostitution, devalued by countless men and forced to live with the stigma imposed by society.

“When people call me a prostitute, a hooker or a ho, I feel awful and ashamed. But I was just a kid who was beaten and raped. So that makes me a whore?” Bianca shared with us as she fought back tears.

Being slut shamed is one of the biggest fears of our girls in Project Impact. In fact, it is one of the biggest fears shared by just about every 15-year-old girl in any high school across America. And for good reason. Slut shaming is a pervasive weapon used against girls to control them, devalue them and keep them afraid. Nothing makes a girl feel more worthless than being slutted.

“When someone calls me a ho or a slut or a THOT, they’re making it so I don’t matter. My opinions no longer mean anything. These words shut girls down and I hate it,” said Eve, a high school sophomore who was raped by a classmate at house party and subsequently publicly shamed by her community after she came forward about the assault. Eve shared this sentiment as a participant in a recent StopSlut workshop. StopSlut is a youth-led movement to combat slut shaming and transform rape culture through creative expression.

Both Bianca and Eve struggle with the same question: “Why do people feel they can treat me this way?”

The sense of entitlement that enables boys to call a girl a THOT during 6th grade recess, grab a girl’s breasts in the high school stairwell or rape an inebriated young woman at a frat party, is the same sense of entitlement that emboldens 50-year-old men to purchase the bodies of 14 year old girls.

“She’s a whore, so I can.” “She’s a slut – she’s asking for it.” “She’s a ho, therefore I’m not bad, she’s bad.” “She’s the morally corrupt person here and I’m just treating her like she deserves (wants, chooses) to be treated.”

Slut equals she isn’t fully human.

Slut shaming paves the way for sexual abuse and exploitation. It diminishes a girl’s sense of her own self-worth leaving her vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, and it stops girls from banding together and fighting back. If you come to the defense of a girl who is being slut shamed, you risk being slut shamed as well.

Our deep-rooted proclivity for this type of labeling results in the dehumanization and silencing of our daughters in school hallways, on SnapChat and Facebook threads – just like it does the teen girls and women bought on backpage.com or on the strip in Hunts Point.

But there’s a campaign being mounted to fight back for our girls and change the culture. Organizations like Sanctuary for Families, StopSlut, The Arts Effect, NOW, and UNICEF USA, are engaging, educating and empowering young people to take control and change culture. On March 15th these organizations are bringing teens, girls and boys, together at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn Heights for Generation FREE, an anti-trafficking conference designed for teens that will not only provide young people with a deeper understanding of the dynamics of human trafficking, but will connect the dots between human trafficking, rape culture and slut shaming.

Through a combination of theater, education, and activism, this program empowers young people with the tools to go back to their schools and challenge their peers to end trafficking, stop slut shaming and transform the culture that allows the buying of bodies and silencing of girls.

We can all be a part of this movement. The next time you feel the urge to tell your daughter, sister, friend, classmate, or student she’s dressed like a prostitute or is acting like a whore, challenge yourself to think about Bianca and Eve.

Remember that the words you use matter.

As Bianca reminds us, “I’m a human being, you know? I deserve to be treated like one.”

* * * *

Katie Cappiello is the co-founder and artistic director of The Arts Effect, and a playwright. Her new publication SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence was recently released by the Feminist Press. Lauren Hersh is director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families and a lecturer on gender violence. Lauren previously served as a prosecutor handling domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking cases. Together, Katie and Lauren were recently honored as New York’s New Abolitionists. They also created Project Impact, a survivor leadership program, and Generation FREE, a teen anti-trafficking movement.

  • Francia Michelle Lainbllert

    No because I was like..reading this…and when I came down to the last few paragraphs I saw the Generation Free event and I was like, “Wait…I’m in that. Wait.” Lmaooo

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  • Robert Riversong

    Girls and women who, on the one hand choose to display their sexuality publicly and ostentatiously, but on the other hand insist that they should not be held responsible for the sometimes unwanted consequences of their overt and sometimes aggressive behavior, are the proverbial children who “want to have their cake and eat it too”.

  • BeautifulGlory

    As I read this article, three things came to my mind.

    1] We have to differentiate between two types of prostitutes; the one who loves it, and the one who hates it. Obviously, the one who loves it chose that life style by choice, but the ones who hate it, do so by force or exploitation of others. We should incriminate the ones who think it is right to live a life of prostitution, but the ones who are not, are actually victims of human trafficking.

    2] A woman who dresses provocatively is not to blame for the rapist’s actions. The rapist did not control his or desire and acted upon it. Even if she is sexually appealing to the man, or wants sex, the rapist has no right to force himself on her because she did not choose to have sex with that man; he is taking away her basic right to choose who she wants to have sex with. She must be able to make the decision in a conscious state of mind with no influence of alcohol or drugs.

    3] There are many reasons why a woman dresses the way she does. She may not know how to dress, or dresses in a similar fashion that she sees in her culture. She may enjoy the power or self-pride she gets from the attention of men and woman, or she may think she is not pretty enough so dressing in a certain way gives her confidence, or she dresses like that because she saw a celebrity or someone with this popular trend. A woman should dress appropriately and decent. However she chooses to dress, we must still respect all humans with dignity.