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by Emily White
Scribner, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 20th 2002

Fast Girls

In Fast Girls, Emily White investigates how some girls in junior high and high schools acquire the label of slut, how it affects them at the time, and what consequences it has for them in the rest of their lives.  Central to the creation of the label is the relentless rumor-mongering that children indulge in; stories of girls being ready to do anything with anyone, doing it with the whole football team, giving oral sex for cigarettes, outrageous behavior at parties, and worse.  Rarely are these stories true, although sometimes they might be based on a half-truth.  But many girls are sexually active, and only a few of them acquire the label of slut.  There’s generally some reason why some girls get labeled while others do not.  White explains how potent rumors are once they are released; they can change a girl’s life almost overnight, and a girl is often powerless to fight the rumor. 

Sometimes the girls who get labeled are those who reach puberty early.  When girls as young as 10 or 11 show obvious physical signs of sexual development, they become singled out by their peers.  Often the label sticks with them all the way through their school careers.  Making someone an outcast from a group can help to make those in the group feel more secure; indeed, some have argued that the creation of an “Other” is necessary for the identity of a group.  (Sartre argued this in “Anti-Semite and Jew.”)  Once a girl is labeled as a slut, she may be harassed, assaulted, and rejected by people who were formerly her friends.  It’s not surprising that many girls who received this treatment became extremely bitter.  White interviewed a number of women as research for this book, and the she weaves their stories into her investigation. 

White is struck by the how the myth of the slut appears in a wide variety of schools, all around the country, rich and poor.  She even finds it useful to refer to Jung’s idea of an archetype to explain the universality of the myth.  Yet later in the book she discusses how the patterns she describes are not really found in African-American culture; even if a black girl gets a reputation as sexually active or promiscuous, her female friends do not spurn her.  White discusses why the myth of the slut is so powerful, and relates it to the idea of purity, the alternatives available to girls of being either virgins or whores, the double standard for girls that does not apply to boys.  Clearly the notion of slut is related to popular conceptions of male and female sexuality, and White discusses movies (Scream, Splendor in the Grass) and talk radio (Dr. Laura) as a way of trying to understand how we think about sluts.  But she never really formulates any clear theories or comes to any solid conclusions.  Fast Girls is more of a meditation on a theme than a rigorous analysis. 

The book does contain interesting observations.  White briefly discusses how by writing the book she is also spreading stories about sluts, and she seems to feel some liberal guilt about this.  She discusses how some girls fight against the label of slut by embracing it; Kathleen Hanna of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill would often appear on stage in the early 1990s with many words and messages scrawled on her body, including “Slut.”  Sometimes girls who are labeled as sluts will deliberately dress in a provocative way to induce anger and fear in others, aiming to use the power of the label to their own advantage.  But more often White finds that the women labeled as sluts were the ones who were vulnerable, and very often the women she interviewed said that they had suffered sexual assault at home.  Packs of children can often sense the weaknesses in others, and will single out those who will suffer most from being picked on.  It never ceases to be shocking how cruel children can be to each other. 

Overall, Fast Girls is an engaging and interesting book.  White refers to a number of psychological theories and is clearly influenced by feminist thought, but this is certainly not an academic work.  Her conversational style, mixing in her discussions with interviewees with reflections on her own life with observations about our culture, should appeal to a wide readership.  Given that so many girls who are labeled as sluts feel as if it only happened to them, Fast Girls could help to get the label of slut in perspective and to feel less in the grip of the myth. 

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.