Shamed-Not-Slut: The Trope of the Virgin “Slut” in Young Adult Media

By: Elise LeSage

Lately, I have seen female protagonists in teen movies and TV shows suffer under the label of “slut.” The story is usually the same. A mean boy will spark a rumor about the sexual activity of some upright, guileless girl. The rumor will snowball until this girl is shunned at her school for her alleged promiscuity. Whether or not this girl’s reputation is recuperated, one fact remains constant across all of this plot’s incarnations: The rumor is a lie. The girl has not and has never done anything to “defile” her status as a virgin.

With only slight variances, the narrative has reverberated across CW’s Riverdale, Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why, and, most recently, the film adaption of Stephen King’s It. Whether they use the expression or not, the issue all of these teen-targeted shows and movies attempt to tackle is slut-shaming: a term that denotes the stigmatization surrounding female sexuality. The anti-slut-shaming movement, therefore, calls out the double standard imposed on women who, unlike men, are not free to own or express their own sexuality. This is typically accomplished by the empowerment of women who engage in and normalize sexual behavior. This is where the budding trope of the slut-shamed virgin becomes problematic: when a narrative is more concerned with preserving a protagonists’ virginity than reclaiming her sexual autonomy, it perpetuates the idea that female sex is a problem.

Implicit in this is the disturbing notion that a female character must be a virgin in order to earn the audience’s sympathy. In Riverdale, female lead Veronica stands in a room full of other girls who have been accused of having sex and challenges a male classmate to “call me, or any of these beautiful, young, strong, intelligent women sluts.” Thus implying that one cannot simultaneously exist as both a slut and any of the items on her list of flattering adjectives. The malice of this trope is not always expressed so evidently. When the male protagonist in It, for example, is confronted by heroine Beverly’s reputation, he consoles her not by affirming that he doesn’t care about her sexual history, but by insisting that he doesn’t believe in it. Here, his complicity in her problem is between the lines.

I am not trying to debase the experiences of real women who have had their reputations put on trial by rumors of their sexual behavior. Scenarios like the ones explored in these shows can happen, and their consequences can be devastating. The damage that these rumors have on a woman’s life, however, is allowed by a larger system of misogyny that deems female sex unacceptable. By perpetuating this idea in their narratives, teen shows and movies engage the rising generation in the same sexist system that they claim to combat. So screenwriters, please, next time you’re trying to be feminist, take a long, hard look at exactly who you are defending.

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