Emily White's 'Fast Girls': the curse of rumor

March 10, 2002|By Pia Nordlinger | Pia Nordlinger,Special to the Sun

Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, by Emily White. Scribner. 219 pages. $22.

In the intricate caste system of the American high school, there is one person deemed absolutely untouchable and yet said to be touched by everyone: the slut. In Fast Girls, Emily White has undertaken a cultural investigation into this notorious teen-age label. How does a girl become known as the class slut? Why do rumors fly that she serviced the football team -- at a party she didn't even attend? What is the basis for whispers of her legendary promiscuity?

White began her research by placing a query in a Seattle alternative newspaper: "Are you or were you the slut of your high school?" She was deluged with phone calls from women and girls bewildered at their high school "reputations" and eager to tell their side of the story.

White found that most girls saddled with this label have some things in common. The slut "narrative" -- a favorite concept of feminists -- usually includes: early puberty, life in a "boring" suburb, a tendency toward extroversion, and / or abuse as a child. It always includes vile, pornographic rumors that cause the girl to be ostracized and mocked.

Fast Girls is a impressionistic, rather than scholarly, look at the slut archetype. There is little in the way of studies, polls or quantitative data, which is understandable, as this is not an everyday area of study. White made up for the lack of hard evidence by conducting plenty of interviews. To fill out this otherwise narrow topic, White explores tangents to the slut persona, such as the very concept of rumors and the idea of the slut among different ethnic groups.

The problem is that White is not sufficiently skeptical. She admits that there is no way to confirm the truth of the testimonies she heard, but she's too affected by the stories to doubt them. She writes, "I was not about to ask, 'Are you sure that happened?' "

That's too bad -- especially considering that White placed her query in Dan Savage's epater le bourgeois sex column "Savage Love." She writes that many of the girls she interviewed were "immersed in the kind of no-holds-barred sexual conversation that Dan Savage represents." How could that fail to affect the stories they tell?

Furthermore, White seems to fashion the slut as an innocent, even when her own research suggests otherwise. The book begins and ends with White's haunting recollection of her own high school's slut, nicknamed "Anna Wanna." In the author's memory, Anna Wanna is faultless; she's whispered about only because she's poor and exotic-looking. In contrast, most of the real-life girls White interviewed admit to being "wild" or sexually active before the rumors circulated. So it's not that much of a surprise, then, that rumors find their way to the girls who have, in fact, been around the block before the rest of the kids.

What makes this book more for feminists (the kind who've read Susan Faludi, Michel Foucault, Carl Jung and so on, whom White makes much use of) than for guidance counselors is an underlying point: even the girls who are slutty shouldn't be tagged as such. As White asserts, the "desire to name girls and thereby tame them ... goes all the way back to Adam." Yes, this book seems to whine: It's society.

Pia Nordlinger has written about sex on college campuses for The Women's Quarterly. She was a member of the New York Post's editorial board and has written for the Weekly Standard, National Review and The Wall Street Journal.

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