Ph.D., author of Teenage Wasteland
Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slutby Emily White
Whether viewed as villain or victim, outcast or rebel, the High School Slut remains a figure of fascinationand more than a touch of fear. Full of quirky insights into sexual standards and practices, Fast Girls is a journey into the dark side of the teenage years, a revealing study of American society.See more details below
Whether viewed as villain or victim, outcast or rebel, the High School Slut remains a figure of fascinationand more than a touch of fear. Full of quirky insights into sexual standards and practices, Fast Girls is a journey into the dark side of the teenage years, a revealing study of American society.
Ph.D., author of Teenage Wasteland
author of Weird Like Us
author of Let It Bleed and Resentment
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.58(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Fast GirlsTeenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut
By Emily White
Scribner Book CompanyCopyright © 2002 Emily White
All right reserved.
Maybe this story begins in Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 1980, when Anna Thomas enters Washington High as a freshman. She's one unit in a shipment of 750 freshman girls. She's one name on a list.
Washington is a public school with a population of about five thousand students, mostly upper-middle-class white kids, except for those bused in from minority neighborhoods, or the random few who, through some accident of zoning, have ended up among kids of a different economic tribe. Anna's presence at Washington is part of this accident of zoning. Though she lives with her mom in an apartment in the same zip code as the rich kids, she is by no means a rich kid. She can't afford the clothes most girls at Washington wear. She wears the knockoff versions of designer jeans and she eats government-assisted lunches. In the midst of a predominantly white student body she's half Filipina. She's exotic: her skin vibrates with the color of another world. Add to this the fact that her breasts have developed much quicker than most girls', that her mom is a waitress, that she doesn't have many girlfriends, and Anna's presence is a recipe for scandal.
Kids start spreading rumors about Anna on the first dayof school, and by winter she's infamous. She is now called Anna Wanna. Anna wants every guy she can touch, Anna will do anything, Anna is the biggest slut ever born.
The rumors surrounding Anna are as elaborate and meticulous as fairy tales. Reliable sources claim she has lain down with boys or men in an infinite number of places: graveyards, the empty lot where kids throw keggers on weekends, some guy's basement, some guy's car. Ask her to go into a closet or a bathroom and pull her shirt off and she'll do it -- she'll pull herself apart at the slightest provocation. She'll lie on her back saying, "I love you," no matter who the guy is or where he has come from.
According to what everyone says and writes on the walls, Anna is a monster of desire, a freak of nature, an aberration. No one knows her very well, but the idea of her takes up a lot of space. When she walks down the hall, a murmur takes shape, irrepressible in the throats of all the kids. Sometimes one distinct voice emerges, shouting over the tide of whispers: "Whore! Anna Wanna is a whore!"
For the most part Anna keeps her cool. She continues her progress through the hall, staring straight ahead. Occasionally she swirls around, yells, "Fuck you," and then there's the inevitable comeback: "I already fucked you!" After a confrontation like this her face reddens, and she looks as if she's on the verge -- as if at any moment she might dissolve, her feet might curl up, like the witch killed by the flying house in The Wizard of Oz.
From where I sit her hair seems darker than midnight. I am part of the same army of freshman girls Anna belongs to, but unlike Anna I'm not the kind of girl who attracts attention. Even when you look right at me, it's easy to look past me. I'm a well-behaved, unobtrusive goody-goody: on the honor roll but not too high up, involved in a Save the Whales club, one or two friends, pushing every symptom of rage or desire or wild ambition down past the throat, down past the heart, all the way down into my guts.
I watch Anna swirl around and battle the catcalls and the predators; I find it difficult to take my eyes off her. Maybe because of my particular kind of invisibility, I become fascinated by Anna's infamy -- the stories of sex and abandon and inappropriate kisses. When she's absent, which is often, school is far more boring than usual.
Long after high school has ended, I still dream about her. Like a kid obsessed in the hallway, I can't let go of the question of Anna and her true nature. Through the lens of memory, she becomes representative of a more generalized sense of chaos -- moments when the good, orderly world you thought you knew falls away and a cruel reality begins to manifest itself. Anna and the rumors surrounding her seem to hold a clue to the past: Why did we want to talk this way? Why did we so effortlessly and automatically create a "slut," almost as if she were creating us? And why did we need to banish certain girls, push them out beyond the pale?
Sometimes, in those conversations about high school that people in their twenties and thirties engage in more and more frequently, I'd bring up the question of the slut. Invariably, my Anna stories would be countered by stories of other versions of her: other girls whose alleged insatiable sexual appetites scandalized their school, girls whose bodies had no boundaries.
One friend remembers Donuthole, the girl everyone said had been completely worn out from so much sex. A guy remembers Blow Job Brenda and the way she was supposed to have invited the wrestling team home with her to be serviced. At Thanksgiving, every member of my family has some story about the "loose" girl, with the exception of my sister's quiet boyfriend, who can't bring himself to tell the story. He simply says, "Oh yes, Sharon Suttelmeier," and nods gravely, mysteriously.
Gathering more and more anecdotes, I began to see similarities in the stories of the high school slut. Generally she was remembered by her first and last name and by her nicknames; she was remembered immediately, and often with regret; the stories surrounding her often focused on images of oral sex with multiple partners; and very few who participated in ostracizing her knew what had become of her. Often her fate after high school took on the sheen of stereotype. "I heard she was living in a basement with a coke dealer," one friend told me. Funny, I'd heard almost the exact same story about Anna Wanna.
It became clear to me that the story I had attributed to Anna was actually rooted somewhere in the collective unconscious. Like an urban legend, the slut story proved remarkably similar across time and geography -- a sixty-four-year-old woman and a thirteen-year-old boy I spoke with told virtually the same story of a girl who would give blow jobs for cigarettes. While the girls in the stories had different names and nicknames, and while the rumors often varied in their specifics, the myth of the promiscuous female remained constant. It was as reliable as an old wives' tale, as irrepressible as a cliché. It was a story with a specific cadence, identifiable themes, and a clear moral: Don't end up here. Don't end up in the basement like she did.
I began to see that the promiscuous high school girl, isolated from the kids in the hallway, is actually part of a continuum. Bring her up among people who don't know one another well, and instantly everyone finds themselves on common ground. Bring her up at Thanksgiving dinner, and people break out of their dull weather-talk. "Slut" is a word everyone knows, a word that always provokes a response. The word's provocative power and the continued vitality of the myth behind the word imply that the slut is not a monster but a sign: she's a window into the unconscious, a way of deciphering how the culture dreams of women, even if we've learned civilized people shouldn't have such dreams. Like Dante's Virgil, she's the girl who can lead us into the underworld.
This book first took shape in the late 1990s. I was working for an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, the kind of paper that publishes calendar listings, left-leaning articles about city politics, letters from revolutionary wackos. I had been writing articles for several years about women-oriented topics, and I was racking my mind looking for my next idea.
It was fall, and I'd been having flashbacks of Anna Wanna. Each morning I drove past a big public high school on the way to work and saw kids hovering around one another, bright coats and voices cracking the air apart, like denizens of a parallel world that all of us in cars -- all of us rush hour losers driving past -- could only guess at.
I decided to research an article about a girl who is considered a high school slut, figuring it was a way of getting myself back inside the school's doors so many years later. One of the most read features in the paper was writer Dan Savage's sex column, "Savage Love." It was a raunchy, irreverent discussion of relationship and sex problems that, although written by a gay man, didn't cater specifically to either homosexuals or heterosexuals. It was part of a late-nineties blooming of no-holds-barred sexual discussion, of continuous chattering, twenty-four/seven, in on-line magazines, alternative weeklies, and the MTV chat show Loveline.
"Savage Love" had been syndicated in twenty cities when I placed a query there, asking for girls to call and tell me their stories. The query read: Are you or were you the slut of your high school? Whether you earned the reputation or not, I would like to talk to you for an article I am writing. Confidentiality is guaranteed. Please call me or e-mail me.
On the evening before the query was placed I activated an 800 number in my home. Readers who recognized themselves in my query could call free of charge and tell me their stories. I figured the free number would encourage girls and women to take the opportunity for a free confession, a chance to move the story of their lives a little further out into the open.
Within twenty-four hours, the phone started ringing. The reaction was swift and overwhelming. Within the space of two weeks I had received over ninety-five messages. By the time I had finished researching, I had talked and e-mailed with over 150 girls and women.
The constant ring of the phone took over the space of my office -- an insistent chirp, another girl arriving out of the blue. After a while the ringing was so constant that I became accustomed to it; in fact, I was surprised by silence. Breaks occurred in the very early morning, or in the dead part of the afternoon, but for all intents and purposes the flow of confession was unstoppable, a river of messages:
"My whole past is a cesspool."
"My teenage years are like a violent porno."
"I can't believe this ever happened. It is so fucking unfair."
"I can't believe you are doing an article about this because I have become so, so angry about this very thing and I need to talk about it."
"According to the people I grew up with, I am the biggest whore in the world."
Here were the girls all of us had remembered that night at Thanksgiving dinner; here were the real, live women who had chafed beneath the myth. Ranging in age from thirteen to fifty-five, living in small towns, urban areas, or the same houses where they grew up, these women were by far the most dramatic, urgent, and adamant interview subjects I'd ever encountered as a journalist. They wanted to set the story straight, to put the rumors to rest, to calm the rage that the rumors ignited.
The conversations, letters, notes, and messages I exchanged with these women form the foundation of this book. Suspicious, angry, jokey, drunk, they were interactions that varied widely in their weight and emotional texture, that didn't often yield much insight or understanding, that didn't always come to any reliable conclusion. One girl told me, "You know, I realize I have got to stop talking to you. I need to get past this, and it is not good to talk about it." Seeking the story of the high school slut, I was often on the trail of a story that girls didn't want to waste their time on anymore. In order to get the girls to really open up I had to promise that I would change their names. "You will be anonymous. I'll change your school, your name, and no one will recognize you." It was the promise of anonymity that propelled many girls into their most profound and troubling confessions.
I supplemented in-person, phone, and e-mail interviews with reading and research. I figured that if the slut was a dream the culture was having, I needed to try to trace the dream in literary texts, feminist tracts, scientific studies, women's magazines, and old advertisements. By sifting through the evidence, I thought, I would learn more about how this story came to pass and why it refuses to release its grip. Contemporary feminist-oriented books on topics like sex and sexuality very often take the form of oral histories, but this is not a route I chose. Rather, the interviews and the voices of the girls took the form of threads, weaving and unweaving my various theories. The girls were my guides, but they were also guides I needed to leave behind eventually.
In the course of my research, a cluster of themes emerged that hinted toward a type who became the slut. Many of these girls experienced precocious puberty: breasts and hips when all the other girls were in training bras. Many had also experienced incest or some form of childhood sexual abuse, which resulted in the feeling of being a sexual freak or outcast. Many of them also revealed a tendency toward extroversion: they were not afraid of cussing someone out, talking dirty, or wearing short skirts to school. Often what many girls called "the whole slut thing" began when they departed from what seemed normal within the school's walls -- for example, by transferring in, by being absent for a long period and then suddenly reappearing, by dyeing their hair a wild color.
Their narratives were so similar that at times I believed I knew what a girl was going to say before she said it. The feeling was exhilarating: one story opening up into another, a pattern emerging. And the girls themselves, convinced of their specificity and isolation, were often shocked to hear their story had been echoed by others. They'd never considered themselves part of a continuum, a sisterhood.
Over time I realized the stories sounded so similar in part because the America they were originating from was the same: small-town or suburban white America. Most of the girls who contacted me were rooted in this demographic; the slut story was not something that seemed to have an urban or multiracial backdrop. Instead it occurred largely among kids like the kind of kid I had been, kids who at the time of adolescence didn't have much knowledge of or exposure to the world outside the white American mainstream. The specific power arrangements of this America, and the language and myths kids learn there, delimited my generalizations and theories about what constitutes the slut experience.
Consequently, my conversations with girls who had not grown up in suburban white America tended to undermine what was constant in the slut story. Because I'd read my Foucault and learned that sex and sexuality have everything to do with the dynamics of power, I knew any generalization I made about crossing the threshold into sex and about the boundaries to the body would be destabilized by the experiences of nonwhite women, women who very often have a far different relationship with the basic elements of this story: name-calling, ostracism, the fight for identity itself. In chapter 9, I explore my experiences with the girls outside the limits of the main story, discussing the way their digressions and differences changed my project and made me see myself from the outside: a white girl from a white world.
Feminist theorists have argued that the real history of the world occurs in private spaces. It's an argument for illuminating the domestic sphere, but it's also an argument about the darkness of subjectivity: about how we can really never know one another, how we will always retreat into the isolation of the self at the end of the day. In my interviews, each girl carried with her a personal history. She carried it on her back like a shell, and her particularity, the lilt or tenor or whispery level of her voice, the way her eyes went in and out like lights -- all these physical and physiological and psychological elements undermined my notions of a type, a theory that would always apply.
While I was well aware of the racial and class limits to our interactions, I also encountered limits to the self. I carried a temperament into the interview process, an emotional and spiritual tendency, a past. Like the boys in the back of the car, I was often looking for an answer from the mouth of a girl -- an answer that would not upset my assumptions and that would allow me further and further inside. Inevitably I projected my own disposition onto the encounter. As a person who prefers sad songs and melodramatic movies, I gravitated toward the sad and melodramatic girls. It was not hard, given my subject matter, to find girls who appealed to my own need for drama. The ostracism they had endured or were still enduring often took on a hysterical and cruel edge and worked to drive the girls to desperate acts, so that a black wave of sadness rose up in our conversations rhythmically, fatefully, to the point where I started to anticipate it, perhaps even encouraging it to take form. Certainly I experienced some odd pleasure when the wave finally came.
Maybe all truths are emotional at their core; maybe every intellectual theory begins with something as irrational as a memory of a girl, one lost girl the mind can't shake. I know I couldn't come to any absolute truths here except the truths of memory and its power over the mind -- the truth of flashbacks, moments when the past somehow seems unbearably and suddenly present, flashbacks of kids yelling in the hallway: "Hey, slut! I heard what you did last weekend!"
In sorting out my findings I avoided statistics or graphs, and I'm not proposing any prescriptions. Rather, I hope this book resides somewhere in the space between the kids who made the slut and the girls themselves; I hope to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur.
High school is both a microcosm and a distortion of the social world. The atmosphere of a school reflects the atmosphere of the town and the era in which it's situated. Perennial articles about our troubled teens are evidence of the way the adult world tries to read itself in kids, to see where we might have gone wrong and in which ways we might be threatened. How much trouble we believe the kids are in is a projection of our own anxiety, of our own feeling that the world might be coming apart. "How can we fix the kids?" television anchormen ask, but really the question is about deeper fears.
Many of the scenes in this book are based in a suburban Seattle high school whose name I have changed. I loitered there for a couple of weeks after getting permission from a good-hearted counselor. But when the administration heard about me taking notes in the cafeteria, they kicked me out. As I drove away that day, kicked out of school for the first time in my life, I wondered what it was they did not want me to see.
If high school is quintessentially modern, on the brink of every trend, it's also an ancient place full of impulses that seem to come from outside time. What happens among the kids in the hallways goes way, way back. Indeed, it seems as if it has been happening forever.
Like a tribe in an ancient forest telling stories about the moon, kids tell slut stories because they need an allegory for the mystery of sex itself -- a mystery that lives outside language, that causes numerous storms in the blood, that rips the lining from the mind. In the 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, director Gus Van Sant likened the turning point of orgasm to an image of a barn falling from the sky, crashing to pieces on a deserted highway. It was a beautifully futile attempt to represent an overwhelming physical sensation on-screen.
As adolescents' bodies flood with hormones, rumors become something for them to hold on to. The wordless, crashing power of sex makes teenagers want to name it, control it, find a pattern for it. The slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign, where legions of boys have been lost at sea. She's the place where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast.
Watching Anna in the hallways at Washington when I was a teenager, I could feel the whole churning world of sex knocking against my mind, racking my nerves. I was afraid of what might happen if I gave in, if I moved beyond crushes and teen idols to the realm of nakedness and furious pleasure. I was afraid of sex the same way I was afraid of blackouts, snakes, life itself. So I stood back, sweating in my new shoes. I practiced hard on the piano. I stayed on the map and wasn't a worry to anyone. Looking back, I often wish I had worried someone, at least worried myself. Often I wish I'd had the courage to cross the hall and talk to Anna, to ask her to tell her story. Maybe now, so long after the fact, that is what I'm doing here.
To pin a girl down with a name like "slut," "whore," "skank" is an archaic, irrational compulsion. The desire to name girls and thereby tame them within the garden of the world goes all the way back to Adam. He walked through the garden naming the trees and the beasts, placing all the flying and crawling creatures into categories, pinning the world down with language so it would no longer escape his grasp. He did this in the midst of a million disasters: as Eve came out of his rib and then disappeared with a whispering snake. He named the world not out of love but out of panic.
Although high school is about as far away from the Garden of Eden as you can get, still, in those hallways this urge continues: to name and to grasp one another, to pin one another down as types, as species, as haves and have-nots, as you look warily around at the lush, foreign place in which you find yourself, trying to figure out how to live among these strangers without being exiled.
Copyright © 2002 by Emily White
Excerpted from Fast Girls by Emily White Copyright © 2002 by Emily White. Excerpted by permission.
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