Young Women Negotiating Sexual Reputation

Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 18 no. 2, ps. 187-196, 1995.



Glasgow University Media Group, 61 Southpark Avenue. Glasgow G12 SLF, Scotland


Synopsis - "Slag," "tart," "slut" - these are all terms in common currency in 1990s Britain. Feminist researchers have identified how such insults are used by men to oppress women and to deny female desire and sexual agency. But how can we interpret women's own persistent use of such sexual insults? Can this simply be dismissed as evidence of patriarchal brain-washing? This article explores young women's understandings of such terms and identifies three overlapping but distinct ways in which "slag" is defined: slag as "other," slag as "Everywoman," and slag as "she who allows herself to be used." I argue that power, rather than sexual activity per se, is central to the understanding of a "real slag" and that a woman may be "promiscuous" and yet not be perceived as a slag because she is "in control." It is this that accounts for the popularity of figures such as Madonna. Madonna is not a slag because she conveys the message: "I'm sexually attractive but I'm powerful." In fact, Madonna and "slag" occupy the same conceptual space - the gap between being powerful and being sexually available. Terms such as "slag" express that contradiction, whereas Madonna appears to transcend it. Any attempt to challenge young people's concerns about sexual reputation must recognise the multiple levels on which such insults operate, the function of terms such as "slag" in naming exploitation, and the conflicts young women experience in exploring heterosexual relations.




            The AIDS epidemic has led to renewed academic interest in sexual behaviour. In particular there has been a burgeoning of research about heterosexual women's attitudes toward sex and their ability to protect themselves against HIV Such research reveals the persistence of concern about "reputation" (Holland, Ramazanoglu Scott, Sharpe, & Thomson, 1990; Holland, Ramazanoglu, Sharpe, & Thomson, 1992), and health educators have attempted to address this through advertisements which challenge the idea that only "slags" carry condoms. As one health education advertisement states: "I didn’t want to carry condoms because I'd look easy .... That's her excuse What would yours be?".

            But is fear for one's reputation just "ar excuse?" What does it mean to "look easy?' How does a woman obtain "a reputation" and what are the consequences?" The "Reputation Project," based at the Medical Research Council's medical sociology unit, was designed to explore some young women's understandings of such questions.




The research was conducted with a sample of 19- and 20-year-old women in Scotland. Pilot interviews were conducted with 4 University students, and then a further 20 women were selected from the youngest cohort of the Twenty-07 study - a major, longitudinal health study being conducted at the same medical sociology unit (Macintyre et al., 1989). The women selected for interview were drawn from two localities in Glasgow (one in the north-west and one in the south-west) and included women who, according to the survey data, had most and least experience of heterosexual intercourse. With only three refusals to be interviewed, the final sample consisted of all 11 of the women in the localities sample who had had 4 or more male partners and a random sample of 9 women with less than average heterosexual experience (5 of whom were "virgins"). None of them defined themselves as lesbians, they were all White and came from both working-class and middle-class backgrounds.

            Each interview was tape-recorded and lasted between 1 and 4 hours. The interview schedule started with questions about how women learnt about sex, the sort of "sex talk" they had heard at school, and how their ideas had changed over the years. They were also asked to comment on images of women in the media and to talk about what they thought of particular female media stars such as Kylie Minogue and Madonna. In addition, women were invited to describe their own sexual histories and, in particular, to recount their first experience of intercourse, if any. They were asked to talk about the sort of things that people might boast about or keep quiet about when it came to sex and to describe occasions involving different feelings such as embarrassment, regret, pleasure, and pride. The interviewer also directly addressed the issue of reputation through questions such as:


   “What’s the worst thing you've ever been called?"

   "Thinking of words like: slag, prick-teaser, lessie, frigid, fat, bitch, dog . . . which do you think are the most insulting?"


   "What does the term 'slag' mean to you?"




Sexual reputation matters


            Female sexual reputation has been widely documented as an important concern for young men and women (see Canaan, 1984; Cowie & Lees, 1987; Halson, 1991; Herbert, 1991; Holland et al., 1992; Lees, 1993; Wight, 1993; Wood 1984). The project described in this article is a small-scale, Scottish-based study which in many ways echoes the findings of such previous work. There is, for example, a strikingly close correspondence between the way in which the young London women interviewed by Cowie and Lees in the early and mid-1980s talk about reputation and the discourses which were employed by the young Scottish women I interviewed during 1992 (see Lees, 1993). This raises the question of why concerns about reputation are so pervasive and persistent While other work has tended to focus on "the missing discourse of desire" - the absence of any voice for female sexual pleasure (Fine, 1988) - this article argues that the answer may lie more in the “missing discourse of power." I use this phrase to refer to the lack of an easily accessible vocabulary which identifies the routine power relations of heterosexuality but which does not deny female agency.

            Sexual reputation was a major concern for most of the young women in the Scottish study. Although at first women made disclaimers such as "It's a democratic country, it is up to you what you do" or "I don't care what people call me," further exploration uncovered the importance of sexual reputation both to them personally and within their social network in general: both at school and at college and in the work place. Although geographical mobility, class position, and academic achievement may somewhat lessen the importance of sexual reputation for college students, it is by no means redundant. For example, one of the interviewees who was at college commented that a particular young woman had been ostracised because she was a slag and, during a subsequent focus group discussion with students, my question: "What is a slag?" was met with one word: "Paula!". The young women I interviewed also stated that concerns about reputation were still relevant when they entered the world of work:


   "I get teased at work sometimes, called a tart at work, I don't like that."

   "That's what the guys at work call the lasses that are away at the weekends."

   "One of the guys in the motor department, he turned round and said 'I heard all about you, you tart!"'


Some young women also reported being subjected to such abuse on the street:


   "I was really upset one night because all the guys [      ] were walking me home one night, three of them, and the wee lassies at the end of the road were like: 'check that tart hanging about with they guys and all that."'

            Girls appeared to be just as active as boys in commenting on sexual reputation. Some of the interviewees, albeit reluctantly, described their own unquestioning acceptance of the negative reputation of others:


“You'd probably be calling her it and it wasn't true [...] You hear bits here and bits there about her so if her name came up in conversations . . . even if you didn't say it, you would be thinking "oh yeah, she's a slag," without really thinking about it.”


            The common acceptance of these terms of abuse belie the many different meanings embedded in such words. What is a "slag?" What defines her? The interviews revealed three distinct but intertwined ways of talking about "slags." Women worked with overlapping and sometimes competing definitions. First, the interviewees were all able to describe the stereotyped understanding of a slag as "other." However, this familiarity with the stereotype often coexisted with a second definition of a slag as "any woman” and a clear perception that there was a double standard operating against girls. This, in turn, coexisted with a third definition of the slag as "she who allows herself to be used." In this definition a woman could have sex just once and he a "real slag" because she had allowed herself to be exploited, whereas a sexually proactive woman (as personified by Madonna) could have a multitude of sexual encounters and yet not count as a "real slag" because she was "in control." How do each of these three understandings of "slag" operate in women's day-to-day lives? If women have a critique of the double standard, how can terms such as "slag" continue to have so much power? What is the cost of "getting" a reputation? And how do notions of control come to have such importance? Each of these questions and each of the three definitions of "slag" are discussed in the following section.


Slag as other: "I didn't know them personally hut you just knew them. You knew of them."


All of the women had been called a slag, slut, or tart, at one time or another, and most of them said that they knew of someone who was a slag. However, it was rare for a woman to class herself or any of her friends as "slags" in any straightforward way. A slag is always somebody else. The slags were the girls at school who went about “showing their goods off." They turned over the waist-band of their school uniform to display their legs, wore an excessive amount of make-up, and unbuttoned their blouses. Later they graduated to tasteless clothing such as “electric blue leopard skin dresses and white stilettos." These girls were not quite attractive enough to get away with exposing so much of their bodies to public view. As one woman commented: “someone who's slightly overweight and wears a really short skirt and extremely tight top is more likely to be called a slag than somebody who has a nice figure and wears the same outfit." A point reinforced by another woman who simply stated: “You can't really say that [a slag] is some­one that wears short skirts because there are a lot of people that wear short skirts and look great in them." “Unattractive" women are more likely to be sluts because “they're not really great looking [so] [. . . ] maybe they take whatever they can get.” These young women, I was told, had no self-respect, probably came from broken homes, and were just looking for attention.[1] Although there was a grudging admiration for some such women because they "couldn't care less" and because they seemed very "grown up" in their defiance of school rules, ultimately their behaviour was seen as self-destructive.[2] The archetypal slag can only come to a bad end: getting pregnant, having abortions, or ending up with six kids living on a "problem estate" and being beaten up or deserted by her man.

                        To this extent women's concepts of "slags" were very stereotypical and reiterated the traditional "virgin/whore" division. Many of the interviewees appeared to have an investment in labelling others as "cheap" in order to assert their own value within the sexual/marriage market place. The slag's inevitable downward spiral into degradation serves to warn women away from sexual exploration and to encourage women to bargain with their sexual favours. The personae of 'the slag" is in fact so useful in maintaining this heterosexual economy that if she did not exist she would have to be invented (and in a way, of course, she has been). Very few of my interviewees, however, accepted the stereotype as "the whole truth," at least when it came to talking about themselves or their friends. On the contrary, alongside the image of the slag as "other" was an explicit assertion that the slag could be any woman.


Slag as everywoman: "It could happen to any girl"


The day-to-day business of being female is fraught with pitfalls, and these young Scottish women were acutely conscious of the dilemma they face when trying to attract men without "going too far." One interviewee explained how it was possible to appear "tarty" simply in the normal course of being feminine.


“I'm going out with somebody and I'm trying to keep him interested then obviously I'll flirt with him [. . . ] become a bit louder, bubbly, smiley and the eye contact and things like that [. . . ] it's part of being a woman.”


Another discussed the difficulty of "getting the balance" between looking "voluptuously sexy" and “just like a slag":


“If I'm going out I've got this favourite green velvet dress . . . and Ian will say "you look really fabulous" and I'll put my hair up and you ..... . but if I had my hair down with this dress and high heels on and denier tights I think that I'd look like a tart. From my point of view it's trying to get the balance.”


A third interviewee described the precarious tight-rope she walks every day at work where she is expected to "play along" with sexual harassment while at the same time trying to avoid being seen as either a slag or a prick teaser.


“There's a lot of kidding on about sex. There's a lot of them like to try it on as well - and you've got to learn to take it, but not serious. Say if somebody nipped [pinched] your backside or something, you've got to turn round and laugh it off and just kid them back even more. But, as I say, it's hard sometimes to draw the line. Sometimes they take it the wrong way. [ . . . ] they expect you to do something. [and] [ . . . I then you're just a tease [ . . . ] [But] if you were to stop going with it you'd start being called boring. You don't really have any choice.”

            One young woman even extended this understanding of the difficulty of "getting the balance" toward a rival who had "seduced" her boyfriend by "crawling on top of him and flashing herself at him." When I asked "What do you think about women behaving in that way?" she replied "Fair enough - you're trying to get a man to notice you, but I don't believe in trying to steal someone else's."

     Knowing how to flirt, look sexy, play along  with men's sexual comments or "get a man to notice you," these were all seen as a necessary, "fair enough," part of being a woman - a woman who can attract a man, keep him interested, or simply survive within a male-dominated work place.

     Each of these women described the knife-edge they walked between being "sexy" and "tarty," between being what Cowie and Lees call a "drag" or a "slag" (Cowie & Lees, 1987). They exercised considerable caution in "get­ting the balance" and "drawing the line" (see also Lees, 1993). The necessity for such monitoring was presented as a routine and unexceptional part of every woman’s life, and "getting a reputation" was not necessarily seen as totally within a woman's own control. The line between acceptable femininity and unacceptable sluttishness was easily crossed, or a girl might simply "get dumped by a boy after you ve let him have it"; she might sleep with him because he had convinced her that he really loved her and only discover her mistake too late, or she might submit under pressure while drunk.[3] Using this definition, then, women do not unproblematically accept the virgin/whore division. There was a clear perception that being called a slag was not something that just happened to "bad" women and that everyday femininity came perilously close to "tartiness." As one interviewee concluded, "it could happen to any girl."

            Such perceptions did not, however, necessarily help women to resist or reject the stigmatising consequences of "getting a reputation”. In fact the pervasiveness of such insults, and women's common vulnerability, increased women's concerns about being seen as a slag in any way at all. When offered a selection of terms such as slag, prick-tease, frigid, lessie, and fat most women chose slag as the "worst" term. When questioned further some made it clear that they would rather be known as a slag than a lesbian but that they felt vulnerable to the former in a way that they did not to the latter. For a start it was very likely that, at some time or other, someone would accuse them of being a slag, if only as a joke. As Lees points out a constant sliding occurs between slag as a term of joking, as bitchy abuse, as a threat and as a label" (Lees, 1993, p.40), but the flexibility of the terms makes it more rather than less dangerous. Many of the interviews also felt that it was conceivable that they might behave (or be treated) in ways which made them a slag. By contrast they felt that there was no danger at all that they might be a "lessie." It was notable that the only woman to spontaneously indicate that "lessie" was the worst possible insult was one of the two women who described attraction to other women and expressed concern about sex play with other girls during childhood.

            The power of a sexual insult can thus in­crease in direct proportion to women's vulnerability to such labelling. But the power of any accusation also lies in the social consequences of being so labelled. Most of the young women I interviewed were well aware that reputation was a social construction: "Nobody in the world is really a slag. It's just this term has been made up." However, they were quite clear about its social reality. Their day-to-day experience provided them with ample evidence of the price to pay for "getting a reputation."

            A girl who had a reputation would be hassled: "like saying things under their breath as she walked past." She might also find that she was avoided by other women who feared contamination by association: " . . . people just didn't socialise with her . . . because they didn't want to be labelled the same." In fact one young woman had stopped going out with one of her friends in order to protect her own reputation: "a lot of people had stopped talking to her and some other people they would say "how can you go about with her? [. . . ] if she wants to ruin her own life there's no need for her to ruin our reputations as well." Above all, the girl with a reputation is going to be badly treated by boys who will boast and laugh about having "screwed” her. As one young woman commented: "That's how I know I'd hate to be called a slag. The way they [the boys] talk about Susie - as if she's nothing. 'She'll do this for you,' 'she'll do that for you' - 'you can do what you want to her."' A slag is treated "like dirt" and "any normal man" would be

"trying for everything he could get." The woman with a reputation is vulnerable to persistent sexual importuning: purely through thinking "you can try anything with her because you are going to get it" and is unlikely to secure a long-term boyfriend: "she's fine for a screw, but she's nothing else."[4] A central concern running through many of these accounts is that a woman who has a reputation is vulnerable to exploitation. She has no power to negotiate within a sexual encounter   a warning graphically reinforced in the recent headline coverage of a date rape case in which the alleged victim had been voted "slut of the year" by her fellow students. The slag or slut cannot depend on "respect" or "love;" she will, therefore, be treated "as if she's just there to be used, as if she's just a thing."

            The unspoken and unanalysed assumption is that unless a girl is able to enforce respect or to entangle her partner in romantic bondage, then he will treat her as an object to service his sexual desire. These young women's fears about what happened to "slags" were closely echoed by their accounts of some of their own heterosexual encounters. Indeed, "feeling like a slag" was often used as a metaphor to describe negative experiences. Most of these young women knew what it was to be pressurised or tricked into sex: "He was a right patter-merchant, he told me all these lies, I felt really tarty for falling for it." Many of them had felt used as a receptacle in which a man could take his pleasure with a complete disregard for theirs: "I felt dead cheap after it. .... I just lay there and felt dead worthless. [ . . .] just felt like an object. I just felt horrible, I just felt dead empty."

            Some had been cajoled or forced into sexual activities, such as anal sex, that they disliked:

"I was shocked and felt dirty. I found it disgusting"; "I just hated it. It was painful for a start and then it was just . . . I just felt really humiliated, [. . .] really degraded." Others described vaginal intercourse which happened “too soon” or “too fast" or was painful, but made comments such as "it was my fault I shouldn't have started it." Three out of the 20 interviewees also described incidents which they themselves clearly identified as sexual assaults, all of which had resulted in physical injury such as internal bleeding or cracked ribs.

            These young women live in an atmosphere of sexual threat; under siege from unwanted sexual attention whether or not they are also actively enjoying and pursuing sex. They all had some direct or indirect experience of the "continuum of sexual violence" described by Kelly (1988) and documented in other reports of young women's lives (e.g., Holland et al., 1992). They were alert to the potential for exploitation, and it was perhaps this, above all, which led them to uphold the category "slag" and scorn those women who were so labelled.

            Women were "stupid to get a name for them­selves" because a woman with a reputation would be unable to control the pace of a sexual encounter or, indeed, whether or not a night out turned into a sexual encounter. In fact, for some of the women, exploitation was central to their definition of a "real" slag.


The "real slag": "She who allows herself to be used"


            In the course of explaining their understandings of sexual reputation, interviewees often drew distinctions between "a slag" and a "real slag." A "real" slag turned out to be defined in a very specific way. She is not the stereotype of the girl in the white stilettos or, necessarily, the young woman who has missed her step on the tightrope of femininity; the real slag is the woman who "allows" herself to be a victim. This definition excludes the "genuine" rape victim as she had had no choice in the matter. Victims of "real" rape, they said, were not slags, because they had not consented to their own abuse; they had quite simply been held down and assaulted. In fact, one of the rare examples of female solidarity against the label slag (and a rare example of a boy's reputation being ruined) was illustrated by a woman who had been sexually assaulted at a party. The explicitly violent rape attempt was interrupted by her best friend, and the boy was thrown out of the house. When she returned to school some of the other boys called her names, but the girls united behind her - told the boys to shut up and managed to ensure that her attacker was unwelcome at subsequent parties. As she said, "In a way we ruined his reputation." Women could thus be sympathetic to the victim of violent assault but were dismissive of women who failed to defend themselves from everyday exploitation. "Pure tarts," I was told, “just let themselves be used"; they "throw their body about" and "just let anybody use and abuse you, let people get pleasure from you.

            One woman even suggested that a slag must enjoy being used - in a similar way to a woman she'd read about "that loved her husband to beat her up, she felt great afterwards." The real slag does not just undermine the economy of heterosexual relations by being "cheap" and "paying out for free"; she betrays what one woman described as "female dignity" by submitting to exploitation. The slag has literally “been had."[5]

     The central role of exploitation, power, and control in the young women's use of the term "slag" was clarified in discussion of prostitution and when they talked about their attitudes toward Madonna. For example, a "classy" prostitute - "the kind who sits in posh hotels with her mobile phone and a nice hair-do" -was not defined as a slag because she is not "cheap" and "she is using men just as much as vice versa." Similarly, Madonna is also definitely not a slag insofar as she was seen by many of the women as powerful. In talking about Madonna, women's understandings of genuine slagdom were often thrown into sharp relief, and it is the symbolism of this megastar which is discussed in the next section.


Why Madonna is not a slag - sexually attractive but powerful


            Madonna "flaunts her body" and drives through Detroit pulling men into her limousine for random, anonymous, loveless sex, but, women said, she is not a slag because she is getting her own way. "She knows how to use her sex to become successful." Having a reputation suddenly became a positive achievement when some women talked about Madonna: "I admire her guts - she lives up to her reputation" [my emphasis]; "She's made a name for herself- she's got where she wants to get" [My emphasis] Madonna was excluded from the category "slag" because she was to  perceived as "nobody's victim": "She's in control. [. . .] She's not going to let people walk over her"; "She's had more men than I've had hot dinners, but she's always in control, [. . .] she knows what she's doing"; "It's her that is doing the using and not a man for a change." Summing up a central theme in many other women's comments one interviewee concluded that Madonna was not a slag because her message is "I'm sexually attractive

hut I'm powerful."

            It is the "but" in this last sentence that goes to the heart of the issue of "sexual reputation" and it is this contradiction that has been so cleverly captured and apparently transformed by Madonna.[6] Madonna is an oxymoron in the lexicon of sexual imagery - bringing together two apparently incompatible concepts: power and female sexual attractiveness/availability. The popularity of Madonna with many of the interviewees was rooted in the ways in which she addresses and appears to transcend the contradictions facing young women. She draws on a familiar visual sexual vocabulary, plays with traditional sexual roles, swaps persona at will, and apparently emerges triumphant and unscathed. She both mirrors and appears to escape from the constraints of sexual reputation. She is "the triumphant slut who challenged the derogatory meaning of the word" (Lees, 1993, p.287). She "vamps" around in wigs and masks and swaps roles when ever it pleases her - playing now virgin, now whore, behaving like a tart and calling herself "Madonna." She treats such roles as a child might treat a box of dressing up clothes - as something that can be put on and taken off at will. "She is the Teflon idol, nothing sticks to her. The sleaze, the blasphemy, the perversity all slide off [. . .] Madonna only inhabits these positions as if she were modelling a collection of fashions" (Tetzlaff, 1993, p. 259)

                        Where young women must monitor their behaviour and walk a tight-rope of attractive acceptability, Madonna flaunts extremes and refuses to toe the line. She never considers whether she should wear her hair up or down with that green velvet dress or whether a particular shade of lip-stick is "over-the-top." Instead she blatantly dismisses such concerns, revelling in overexaggerated eye-liner and excessive pouting. Where young women are victims of rumour and name-calling, circumscribed by images not of their own making, Madonna insists that she is her own "image-creator": Where young women are in "cultural-bondage" to the meanings imposed on their clothing and their bodies, Madonna seems to be able to disregard or even invert traditional symbols and rip them out of context (whether the symbol is the crucifix, the bodice, or the bra). Where young women, once they have a reputation, cannot escape from it, Madonna is a "self-engineered chameleon" (Mandziuk, 1993, p. 167). Where Madonna emerges unscathed from a variety of sexual adventures, young women in real life are left counting the cost. For women trapped in the world of sexual reputation, such ability to "make her own meanings" (Fiske, 1987, p.278) is simultaneously inspiring and seductive.

                        However, Madonna is a fantasy figure, not a reflection of reality. Several interviewees explicitly stated that they were quite simply not in a position to "make their own meanings," and, while Madonna may "get away with it," they could not.[7] Indeed, one young woman who had thought it was "cool" to dress up as Madonna now feels that that was part and parcel of a "very controlling" relationship with her much older boyfriend. She had gone out with a university student while she was still only 13. She was engaging in anal sex with him and bondage, and they were reading pornography together. He also encouraged her to dress up in boned and lacy underwear "like Madonna": "He wanted me to go out wearing that, he liked me to be sort of portrayed slightly slaggy and he loved it when guys gave me loads of attention." In retrospect she regrets some of these activities. "I was a bit naive" she says, "and let him do it." "He was masterful over everything"; "he always directed the sex," and looking back "he was definitely too much in control."




            The so-called sexual revolution and 20 years of modem feminism may have made these young women critical of the double standard and bashful about admitting their own use of terms such as "slag." However, it has not made such terms redundant. Sexual reputation is still an important criteria by which these young women assess their own and other women’s actions. The pervasiveness and almost casual application of sexual insults is recognised by these women, as is the socially constructed nature of such labels. However, this does not seem to make terms such as "slag" any less powerful. In spite of such understandings the consequences of "getting a reputation" remain.

            The tenaciousness of terms such as "slag" speak, in part, of the continuing absence of a discourse of female desire. Women must not speak about, or act openly in the pursuit of, their own sexual pleasure (Fine, 1988; Holland et al. 1992.) But the tenaciousness of such terms also reflects a much more important absence: the absence of a discourse about power. "Slag" was employed by these women as a metaphor for their own experiences of sexual exploitation and as an explanation for other women's victimisation. As such it is, of course, women-blaming and imprecise. It also obfuscates the mechanisms which disempower women within heterosexuality, but it provides a label for aspects of female existence that these women were struggling to understand and define. Researchers do young women an injustice if they focus exclusively on the idea that "slag" is simply a word used to control sexually assertive women and that, if women themselves use such words, then they are dupes of the patriarchy: "being conned by boys to control girls" (Herbert, 1991, p. 89), engaging in "unconscious collusion" (Lees, 1986), and "absorbing and adopting the values of the abuse, inimical though these are to their freedom, self-esteem, and development" (Watts, 1986). Slag persists as part of many young women's vocabulary because there is something in it for women. "Slag" continues to be a popular term because it is still relevant to women's lives. The world which young women described in interview was a world in which "slag" had very real meaning. The word "slag" has meaning, not just as a powerful term of abuse imposed on women, or even as a term that benefits some women at the expense of others, it has meaning as a descriptor of reality and a metaphor for experiences which, in the absence of an acceptable feminist vocabulary, otherwise remain unnamed.

                        Young women lack a coherent vocabulary for describing the multilayered experiences recounted in this article - terms such as "slag" fill some of those gaps. There is little mainstream public discussion which explores the operation of power within heterosexual relationships in ways which neither ignore social structures nor dismiss women's choices and agency. Young women's magazines, much of the mass media, and certain self-proclaimed feminists or "post-feminists," are currently promoting a simplistic and dichotomised image of feminist theory. They present a caricature of old-fashioned feminism as "victim feminism," which, they say, insists that women are totally powerless in a man's world. The option being marketed as a replacement is "power feminism." "Power feminism" focuses on the endless transformatory possibilities of personal liberation strategies. It attacks "victim feminism" for promoting a female identity "spinning [. . .] around [. . .] passivity and victim-hood" and argues that "instead of learning that men have no right to do these terrible things to us, we should be learning to deal with individuals with strength and confidence" (Roiphe, 1994, pp. 101. 172). Such an emphasis may well undermine the stigmatising power of the stereotyped slut described in the opening section of this article; what it will not do, however, is address young women's rejection and dismissal of women who "allow them-selves to be used." Ultimately, "power feminism" is no more sufficient to explain and transform women's experience than the "victim feminism" that it sets up for attack. Indeed, the individualistic and context-obscuring rhetoric of "power feminism" will only reinforce women's need to insult and distance themselves from those who fall foul of exploitation because such theories ignore all but the most obvious and physical uses of power.

                        When women talk about "slags" and "reputation," they could be talking, instead, about      power and powerlessness, freedom and exploitation, self-determination and oppression. If their admiration for Madonna expresses these young women's hopes and aspirations to transcend the conflicts and contradictions of their heterosexual experience, then their use of the word "slag" expresses cynicism about any such possibility in the real world. If terms such as slag are to be challenged, there is, then, a need to identify and discuss not just sexual desire, but also sexual abuse. The real challenge is to examine the power structures within heterosexuality and address the contradictions  for young women seeking to be self-determining heterosexually active people.





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[1] Such explanations of female promiscuity (in terms of desire for attention or the futile search for love) draw on a well established twentieth century discourse. Such discourses are clearly visible in 1920s social work literature (see Hudson, 1984, p. 47) and psychology texts from the 1970s and 1980s. Reviewing the literature on promiscuity or "female sexual delinquency," I came across numerous reports with titles such as "The Delilah Syndrome" (Gerson, 1974) and "The Perils of  Promiscuity" (Fluker, 1983). which link such "maladaptive behaviour" with negative relationships with fathers, inadequate mothering, depression. and misplaced aggression (Black & Blankensh 1974; Fluker. 1983; Gerson, 1974, 1976; Green, 1986; Jenkins & Boyer. 1970).


[2] There is a contradiction between being a "good girl" and being grown up. Young women who assert blatant (hetero)sexuality in the classroom defy attempts to classify them at children and, as McRobbie points out: one way in which girls combat the class-based and oppressive feature of the school is to assert their "femaleness," to introduce into the classroom their sexuality and their physical maturity in such a way as to force the teachers to take notice. A class instinct finds expression at the level of jettisoning the official ideology for girls in the school (neatness, diligence, femininity, passivity, etc.) and replacing it with a more feminine. even sexual one (McRobbie, 1978; McRobbie quoted in Hudson, 1984, p.41). Asserting a lesbian sexuality in the classroom would, of course, have very different implications with its connotations of immaturity, "a phase" or being male-identified.


[3] This can, of course, also work the other way. One young woman had a "one-night stand" with a bloke she knew. But then she became his girlfriend: "I was relieved when he asked me out - the thought did cross my mind: 'at least I'll not be a pure tart now, I won't get called names, because I'm his girlfriend now."'


[4] Some of the young men in the two focus groups I conducted confirmed that they would not bother to pursue a relationship with a woman who had sex with them on the first night: 'you can't really respect or trust someone who went to bed with you the first night you met them [But] . . . if you meet a girl and she won't go to bed with you the first night then it’s something to go back for isn't it?"


[5] The "sex-positive" aspirations of many health promoters seem rather premature for these women. The idea that women should be encouraged to be sexually assertive in relations with men - talking about sex in advance, having as many partners as they wish, and producing condoms - can carry a heavy price for the individual. Sexual autonomy, such as it existed for many of them, was simply the right to say "yes" or "no" to intercourse or to prolong foreplay as long as possible and avoid penetration until they were ready for it. Yet it is precisely this tenuous "right" which is endangered by the very strategies promoted by some HIV/AIDS advertisements. Such strategies of honest, upfront behaviour and the focus on the "condom solution" both focus on penetration and endanger a girl's reputation and destroy the ambiguity of the sexual encounter - an ambiguity on which women often rely to try to get the kind of sex they want.


[6] There are, of course, other female media figures who combine power and sexuality and say "I'm sexually attractive and I'm powerful," but Madonna may be unique in her focus on the "but" part of the equation. Joan Collins, in "Dynasty," for example, is both sexually attractive and dominating - indeed sexuality is part of her power. But she is bolstered by large shoulder-pads, acute business acumen, and a great deal of wealth and class privilege. Unlike Madonna, you would never see Joan Collins tied to a bed or wearing a peek-a-boo baby-doll night-dress. For young women living in Glasgow in the 1990s Joan Collins is "Out of this world" - the "iron maiden" of female sexual assertiveness. Madonna, on the other hand, negotiates both power and powerlessness and plays with a whole wardrobe of roles far more in keeping with the reality of their lives.


[7] Academics who salivate over Madonna's postmodern inspiration and celebrate her as an "inter-textual conglomerate" (Brown & Schulze, 1990) indulge in dangerous fantasies which prioritise the image at the expense of material reality. Words like "resist," "subvert," and phrases such as "wresting control" litter academic accounts of the "meaning of Madonna" However, as Tetzlaff argues: "Power is, ultimately, a material issue. Feeling empowered and being empowered are not the same thing. For Madonna to be truly empowering to her fans, her recordings and videos would need to do more than help them feel good by allowing them to join the celebration of her successful quest for attention and control. Her work would need to present fans with some sort of blueprint adaptable to their own struggle for self-determination" (Tetzlaff, 1993, p.262).