The UnSlut Project addresses the stigma around the word ‘slut’ and makes it hard for ignorance to turn a blind eye to the traumatising effects of slut-shaming.
by Aisiri Amin
Most women and unfortunately young girls are familiar with the word ‘slut’. When they ooze with confidence or when they are sexually expressive or when they are simply walking down the street – they hear it, loud and clear. The identity of women, regardless of their actions or behaviour, is often caged in a four-lettered word: slut.
Emily Lindin was 11 when she was first slut-shamed in her school and unsurprisingly, for the next few years, she witnessed her entire class turning against her which left her with an isolating feeling that sunk in deep.
Through those distressing years, she kept a diary which went on to become the foundation of the empowering The UnSlut Project which Emily founded in 2013. What started as an online community to share personal stories has now turned into a social movement which has sparked important conversations about sexual bullying, assault and harassment.
She went on to publish her diary as a book under the title Unslut: A Diary and a Memoir and also made a documentary film, UnSlut. Emily Lindin talks to INKLINE about the need to address sexual bullying, to define the word ‘slut’ and the devastating effect slut-shaming can have.
INKLINE: What is the idea behind The UnSlut Project?
Emily Lindin: The UnSlut Project is about revisiting something horrible that you have gone through for the purpose of trying to prevent it from happening to someone else. Starting the Project felt like an obligation because I had become an adult, I had made it through that time, as self-accepting and fulfilled individual and I wanted to share that with the girls who in the moment felt like it couldn’t happen for them.
It started with my story and it grew organically. It is an online community where people of all genders submit their experiences. First of all, for themselves. It is often very healing to explain for the first time, to put in writing, to post publicly what they have gone through. It also helps youngsters to have the validation and the knowledge that they are not alone and they can survive as well.
Another purpose that I see and I’m excited about is that the conversation starting up. I often recommend to teachers, educators, parents and concerned friends to use The UnSlut Project website and the stories there to start conversation with people in their lives who they think might be suffering, and to the skeptical people, people who don’t think slut shaming is a big deal, who don’t understand how widespread sexual assault is, how damaging certain gender norms can be.
I: When you were 11, you were slut-shamed by your peers. Why do you think children as young as that slut-shame others?
E: I think for girls to slut shame other girls, it is about wanting to divert any negative attention towards someone else because we grow up knowing that at any moment it could be us. And it’s not an honourable instinct but it is pretty common to have this reaction that as long as people are bullying someone else, I’m safe.
People develop at a different rate. People when they are 11 or 12, they haven’t gone through puberty yet and the idea about what slut could mean is pretty vague to them but they have consumed media and listened to the way adults talk and they have already in that age picked up on the idea that it is something bad, something disgusting and shameful and they can use it against other kids without really understanding the implications of what it even could mean for an adult woman.
And on the other hand, a lot of straight boys going through puberty some of them adult men use slut as an insult to limit the possibilities for a girl by reducing her to just a slut, to someone who is only defined in this way. By doing this they get to assert control over her identity and they also get to save some face if she has rejected them for a hook-up or doesn’t want to date them. It is used to make it look like there is something wrong with her and not something they need to adjust in themselves.
I: What was the motivation behind The Unslut documentary which highlights the devastating effect of slut-shaming?
E: I realised that my experience is not representative of what’s it is like for everyone to go through this. I am a white woman who comes from an upper-middle-class family who lived in an affluent town and had access to a lot of resources. I had guidance counsellors at my school who were trying to help me, I had parents who were able to pay for extracurricular activities to build my self-esteem.
But a lot of people in the US and a majority in the world don’t have those advantages so for me to say this is my story and everyone can do this is not fair. So, I wanted to make a documentary film that highlighted how it affected other people and make people understand how dangerous slut-shaming is and not just apply it to my case.
I: What do you think is the mindset behind calling someone a slut?
E: Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent being called a slut. It can happen to any of us for any reason, no matter how we dress or how we behave. Slut shaming is a catch-all insult in order to remind women that no matter what they accomplish, no matter what type of life we build for ourselves, at any moment the rug could be pulled from under us, our whole world could be destroyed including our career, relationships and our self-esteem because we are just a girl or just a woman. That’s why it is insidious.
It reduces us to this negative mythology of our bodies and what it means to be proper, an acceptable female. Again, there is really no way on an individual level to avoid it from happening. The only way is to educate people to not slut-shame each other.
I: Social media platforms are often used as a tool to slut-shame people. How prevalent is that practice?
E: When I was in school, before the trend of camera phones, if you were labelled a ‘slut’ at your school, you could move to a different school if you absolutely had to. Now it feels much more permanent because there is a record that follows you. I hate the common term for it but there is something called “revenge porn”. It is when people share your photos and videos without your consent. That spreads so quickly and it is so devastating.
Suddenly strangers around the planet have access to your body and intimate moments that you didn’t consent to sharing. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, people could hurt you because of it. It is incredibly isolating. For a young person, who is still defining who they are, to have that as a part of their identity is distressing. A lot of people can’t overcome this and turn to harmful behaviours such as suicide.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of the journey?
E: Meeting young people. When I visit schools and universities where I often give lectures and conduct workshops, I am so impressed with the students I meet. There is a such a big change. In the way that people view gender differences, in the way people view body acceptance, they don’t normalise cruelty, they don’t use the excuse such as ‘they are just being kids’ or ‘boys will be boys’.
There is still a long way to go because a lot of adults are not on board with this yet. To be honest, a lot of students still enforce negative behaviours for each other but the people I meet who bring me to their campuses, students, who come up after and explain to me that they are starting a club to make sure that what I talked about in my lecture doesn’t fade away after I leave. That is the reason I am able to keep doing what I am doing. It outweighs all the negativity.
I: What advice would you give the people who find it difficult to stand up for themselves, especially those who go through slut-shaming?
E: My advice is to define yourself. Find an activity or a pastime or skill that you really enjoy doing, or you are getting better at or naturally skilled at. Focus on it and let it define you rather than what others tell you and that translates to all different types of bullying and harassment especially when you have peers who are trying to convince you that you are only defined the way they perceive your sexuality.
You get to decide what your life will look like, what your mind will be like and the impact you will have on the world.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).