Helen was fourteen when she lost her virginity. Afterwards, she texted a girl friend about the mixed feelings she had about the experience. By the time her suburban high school started the next morning, her friend had already spread a rumor that Helen was a “slut,” forwarding screenshots of their conversation to the freshman class via Facebook. For the next few years, Helen endured a “slutty” reputation, which isolated her from girls, subjected her to harassment from boys, and contributed to her disengagement from school activities. Toni had a different, yet related experience. Long before she came out as a lesbian, Toni had multiple rumors spread by girls about her sexual orientation. By junior year, fed up with girls’ homophobic gossip and harassment, Toni opted to leave her rural high school and pursue a GED instead. Gaby tells me she also was the subject of a sexual rumor, spread by a girl at her urban high school: “That’s how you bully a girl, that’s how you just get her. You get her by spreading a rumor about her…trying to stop bullying is like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands.”
In recent years, we’ve seen far too many tragic reports of girls who have taken their lives in the wake of similar experiences. Yet, we don’t see much coverage of why slut-shaming, homophobic labeling, and sexual rumors spread in the first place, or why young women so frequently take part. Though rumor spreading is the most common form of bullying between girls, scholars empirically know little about the content of girls’ rumors or why they’re invested in sharing them.
My article, “How You Bully a Girl”: Sexual Drama and the Negotiation of Gendered Sexuality in High School explores young women’s experiences with sexual bullying practices, or what they more often call “drama.” I interviewed 54 racially and class-diverse young women, who had recently attended high school in five different regions of the United States. Though these young women grew up in a variety of different contexts, all had experiences with sexual forms of drama in their high schools, and nearly a third had been the subject of a rumor about their own sexual actions and/or orientations.
I find that sexual drama is part of a gendering process that teen girls, across sexual orientations and racial and class backgrounds, often have to negotiate. In interviews, these young women shared over 200 “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “slut” rumors that spread during high school. These rumors operated as case studies that girls used to negotiate and reinforce both sexuality and gender norms. They also offered problematic, yet useful information about how to navigate gendered (hetero)sexuality while avoiding social or physical harm. Further, while many young women described not feeling comfortable talking about their own sexual experiences or curiosities with their high school friends, sexual rumors offered information about girls’ sexualities in a format they could acceptably share. Yet, this was because they had little support to do so in other ways.
It is not a coincidence that young women share these stories in high school. Sexual drama is a powerful social currency that maps onto the closed network structure, limited sex education, homophobic climate, and restrictive sexuality and gender norms present in many U.S. schools. In this context, this currency is a resource girls use to negotiate status while navigating the gendered peer hierarchies that schools themselves often reinforce. Teen girls also engage in these practices as they are routinely sexualized in the media and subjected to the normalized threat of sexual violence. Given these constraints, girls’ use of this kind of conflict is better understood as a reasonable reaction to the often sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic culture that surrounds them.
Trying to stop these practices should not be, as Gaby tells us, “like trying to catch smoke.” Yet, given the institutional and cultural contexts girls inhabit, it currently is an uphill battle. Girls deserve more information as well as more support for sharing positive, diverse and empowered sexual stories. Rather than blaming young women for their conflicts, they will be better served if we critically examine our own roles, as adults, in shaping the contexts that make sexual drama useful to girls- and our capacity to change them.
Sarah A. Miller is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focuses on gender, sexualities, education, and social inequality. She is currently writing her dissertation, which ethnographically explores the varying impacts of youth conflict and anti-bullying initiatives on a high school community in the Northeast. Her article “How You Bully a Girl”: Sexual Drama and the Negotiation of Gendered Sexuality in High School can be found in the October 2016; 30 (5) issue of Gender & Society here.