The Hard Truth About Easy Virtue

SHE IS THE vamp, the vixen, the hussy, the tramp with the dark, mesmerizing Theda Bara stare who steals boyfriends, commits depraved carnal acts, and lures men with flashy, trashy, body-hugging skirts, jeans, and halter tops. This is the essence of the "slut," as popular mythology would have it. But who is she really? Why is she the object of such loathing? And what are the repercussions of this contrived image upon her real life?

Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation (Seven Stories) attempts to answer these questions. Tanenbaum, a columnist for Newsday and a writer on women's issues, has a particular interest in the topic: She became the school "slut" after making out with a boy who had previously caught her friend's attention. Starting from this point, Tanenbaum's book unveils the "slut's" essence through a historical perspective, offering an overview of 18th- and 19th-Century American sexual mores; a peek into the Fifties' sexual confusion and the Sixties' sexual revolution; an examination of the rationales behind a woman's ostracism; and a glimpse at the current sociosexual environment, which includes the battle over abstinence education and harassment awareness.

Tanenbaum's personal connection bears on the book's soul: the moving narratives in which "sluts" recount their experiences. The often anguished accounts of selected women appear throughout Slut! There's the story of a Fifties "tramp" from an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, who navigated the era's slippery mores that divided "good" girls from "bad" girls. And there's the tale of a Nineties "slut" who asserts her sexual independence by volunteering to distribute condoms, despite gang threats and abuse. The anecdotes are fascinating in the way they illustrate the collusion of time, place, cultural values, individual choice, and social class.

The stories also illustrate commonalities that lead to the young women's labeling. A "slut" is often an outsider before she is branded, and may become sexually assertive after her peers have identified her as such. She may become a "slut" for reasons as disparate as early development of breasts or rape. She is usually shunned and derided by girls and women and controlled by boys and men. The experience often leads to depression and self-abusive behavior.

While the use of personal narratives offers an evocative way of viewing the phenomenon, the reliance on anecdote is also one of the book's weaknesses. Tanenbaum has the maddening habit of supporting generalizations with brief sentence- and paragraph-sized cases that have the punch of infomercial testimonials. For instance, Tanenbaum buttresses her assertion that students base an assessment of "sluttiness" on a girl's appearance with this comment: "One fifteen-year-old girl, Theresa, from Fall River, Massachusetts, reported to me that 'some girls get reps by wearing short stuff. Sometimes girls look at a girl and are like, "Oh, she's a slut," if she's all dressed up in something tight and short.'" These accounts, lacking context and personal detail, pile up without amounting to a conclusive case.

Although the book may have little to offer readers well-versed in feminism, it does provide useful support for young women in stories like those of 1950s student Alice Denham, who was caught in the bewilderment of an isolating stigma. "They started treating me differently, she recalls. "Some of the guys made catcalls. I felt intense pain. I was fine when I was in my dorm, but when I had to walk past everybody to get to class, I felt like a pariah....Nobody ever said anything directly to me, which made it impossible for me to defend myself. You can't go up to fifty different people on campus and say, 'I don't know what you heard about me, but it's not true.'"

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