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'Slut list' adds dangerous sexual overtone to hazing

Girl-on-girl bullying or hazing is old news by now, for anyone who has seen Mean Girls or Heathers or Gossip Girl: popular girls organize a perfectly coiffed and designer-clothed gang; fringe girl is targeted; bullies use their meanness and power to further marginalize fringe girl and reassert their status.

But news of a "slut list" at a top-ranked New Jersey high school last week highlighted two disturbing points: the increasingly explicit and sexual nature of the taunts, magnified by the Internet. And, in another twist, the perception that allegations of promiscuity — however fictional — are a badge of honor, a way into the cool group, and not a cause for shame.

The result is a 180-degree reversal of what a "slut list" might have meant, especially when the parents of these girls were growing up.

That the list and other hazing went on for more than 10 years at Millburn High School in New Jersey was only half the shock to parents and the national news media who set up cameras outside the school, which includes students from the affluent Essex County towns of Millburn and Short Hills. The repercussions to officials for allowing it to go on, only lightly checked over that time, are still playing out.

More surprising to many was the cachet that seemed to come to those on the list — even though it accuses the anointed girls of sleeping around, lap dancing and lusting after their own brothers.

The list makes unsettling links between a girl's power and popularity and what she allegedly will do with a boy. Or seven of them.

And yet students, recent graduates and even the principal (who, with other administrators, was recently sent for sensitivity training) said a spot on the "slut list," which spread on Facebook, has been the way popular and athletic ninth-grade girls have been tapped by their older counterparts to possibly take their place.

So the whiff of sexual prowess actually raises the status of girls on the forbidden list among their high school peers. It's a celebration of machismo, but for girls only.

Experts say adults should be concerned when sex becomes a theme for meanness, in part because girls have powerful tools like cell phone cameras and the Internet to carry out their schemes.

Rosalind Wiseman, an expert on adolescent female behavior, is planning a new edition of her book Queen Bees and Wannabes because the 2002 version quickly became outdated. "There was not enough information on hazing, technology and the more graphic sexual stuff," she said. "It's like a generation passed in the past five years." She mentioned cases of college girls who hazed younger ones by compelling them to have sex with or give oral sex to certain boys on campus.

More cause for alarm, experts say, is that such behavior is taking hold with younger and younger students — the girls on the slut list at Millburn High were as young as 14, and problems arise among girls in grade school as well. "They're being conditioned, taught, parented and expected in the schools to be older, more sexualized, snippy and adolescent," Wiseman said.

If it weren't so insidious in its own right, the kind of childhood bullying that inspired Mattel to add a new American Girl doll this year — Chrissa, who moves to a new school and is immediately targeted by three girls in her class — would almost seem quaint.

While any form of bullying or hazing is bad, experts, school officials and most parents agree, the added element of not just sexuality but promiscuity has many of them particularly concerned.

"I think girls target each other in the most demeaning way possible," said Lauren Parsekian, a documentary filmmaker and president of the Kind Campaign, based in Los Angeles. "That's what I've seen, with the types of words they call each other, rumors they like to spread about each other. It's definitely a theme we've seen because it's an embarrassing thing, to say someone's doing things with other guys, rumors that aren't true."

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said the language of the slut list borrows from the objectifying way men have often talked to other men about women. It not only makes it okay now for boys to continue to do this, she said, but it confuses girls.

"I think it really undermines a person's ability to define their own sexuality, to discover and really own their own sexuality," O'Neill said.

She added, "you're just continuing to create a world in which women in fact cannot participate in equal footing in the life of their community."

'Slut list' adds dangerous sexual overtone to hazing 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 5:30am]

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