Being a woman takes practice. From an early age, we must learn how to navigate the complicated web of societal expectations and restrictions on female behavior. Deviation from the norm will earn you the scorn of your peers and the hurtful label, like slut, prude, or tease. No matter how a woman behaves, no matter what her background or sexual history, she will get caught in the slut-prude-tease dilemma at some point in her life. This double-bind leaves women feeling suffocated by their constant attempts to avoid being defined by their sexuality and assigned one of these hurtful labels.
Think about your life; I’m sure you can think of a time where your behavior was dictated in some way by these three little words. When I was in sixth grade, a male friend of mine came up to me in the hallway to inform me that I had been the topic of discussion in the baseball locker room last night. The consensus among the team was that I was hot, but I seemed like a prude and they probably wouldn’t get anywhere with me. Keep in mind that at this point I had not yet had my first period; I had never so much as kissed a guy – not even on the cheek! Yet, guys were already discussing how far they could get with me? Although I was young and naïve, I was old enough to know that what they had in mind when they said ‘getting somewhere’ was more than a kiss on the cheek.
This was the moment that I was first exposed to the idea of ‘expectations’, meaning that guys have certain expectations going into a relationship and if they didn’t believe that you were prepared to fulfill those expectations, they probably shouldn’t waste their time. My suspicions were confirmed the next year, when a completely false rumor involving me spread around the middle school. My virginal image was tarnished forever, and the next day I was asked out by two different boys who had never displayed any interest towards me. At the same time, I was trying to reconcile this pressure at school with the advice I received from my mom, who said she did not have sex before marriage because she’s too ‘classy’. So – I was useless to guys as a prude, and I was un-classy in the eyes of my mom if I was anything but. Talk about your mixed signals!
I always believed that being a “tease” was the most important label to be avoided. Basically, a tease is just a prude masquerading as a slut. At least prudes and sluts are being authentic; at least they were owning their lifestyle choices and not misrepresenting themselves, right? All throughout high school, since I was decidedly not ready for a serious sexual relationship, I aired on the side of caution and avoided any behavior that might mislead a guy into thinking that I was attracted to him. After all, guys had certain expectations that I knew I was not prepared to fulfill, so best course of action was to steer clear entirely.
During the first few weeks of college, I met a guy at a party; we started chatting, exchanged numbers and he sent me a few casual text messages over the next few weeks. I would always respond to his texts, but in the same way I would to friend, which is what I thought that our situation was –friends. (Yes, in retrospect, I guess I was still a little naïve.) A few weeks later, I saw him at a party; we played a short game of beer pong, had some more casual conversation – probably spent about a maximum of 20 minutes together the entire evening. Coincidentally, (but not so coincidentally) he happened to be leaving the party at the same time and offered to walk me back to my dorm – a nice gentlemanly gesture right? When we arrive at my door, he leaned in for a hug, which he held much longer than the socially acceptable hug time and asked if he could come upstairs. I said no awkwardly and made up some excuse about my roommate being a light sleeper and that I have to wake early. He continued to hold me in his grip until I said, “I gotta go”.
The following weekend, I was out in the quad hanging out with two of my guy friends when I got a text from this pushy gentleman, asking what I was up to. I responded with a casual – “Not much, chillin on race street lawn, how about you?” I’m not sure why I was caught off guard, but I was surprised to see this young man walking towards me about 10 minutes later. At this point, I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable with his stalker-ish behavior and my friends could feel my tension as he sat down with us. Once again, I tried to head back to my dorm for the night when he leaned in for the extra long hug that he must be well-known for. When I try to pull away and say I’ll see you around, he held me against him and said with a hint of anger in his voice “You’re really going to do this to me again?”
My first thought was, “What exactly am I doing to you?”, but I knew. In his eyes, I was a tease – I spoke to him at that party, I gave him my number, I responded to his texts, I let him walk me home, and I hugged him goodbye. I made him believe I was interested, and now I was holding out on him. I was the worst kind of girl that you can be – I had become the girl I was trying so hard to avoid being since the 6th grade.
I should’ve said, “You’re going to be this to me again? Constantly pressuring me to do something I don’t want to do, something I’m not ready for, is not exactly a turn-on. I hardly even know you; what makes you think you’re entitled to something? I see through your game – you’re holding me against you because you want me to feel like I don’t have a choice. You ‘conveniently’ show up late at night when you know I’ll be walking home? So, yes, I am really going to do this to you again!”
That’s what I should’ve said, but I wasn’t that strong (I’m still probably not that strong). Instead, I stood there frozen, scrambling to make up an excuse so I didn’t seem like such a bitch, trying to avoid eye contact although his face was inches from mine. The real reason why I didn’t call him out for his behavior was because I felt guilty – I believed that his anger was justified. I knew full well about guys expectations; I should’ve known that I would end up in exactly this situation.
He let go of me only after one of my guy friends, called back to me, “You coming?”. If they hadn’t been there, I wonder what his next step would’ve been. How else would he have tried to guilt me into spending the night with him? Today, I know that I was not to blame for this scenario. Responding to his text messages was not ‘implied consent’ and I shouldn’t have felt guilty about my actions. Since that day, I’ve realized that it’s not fair that women are the only ones responsible in these kinds of situations. Somewhere along the line, women became the ‘keepers of sex’. Whether a girl is giving it up too often or not enough, she is solely to blame and will be scorned by men and women alike.
Whether they are trying to avoid being a slut, prude or tease, or struggling with all three at once, women’s lives are controlled by the male gaze, expectation and judgment. If a man gets the impression that a woman is interested, it’s her fault for making him think that, never his fault for getting the wrong impression. Looking back on my life, there are so many moments that my behavior has been dictated by my fear of being a slut/prude/tease. What fulfilling relationships could I have had if I wasn’t terrified of being deemed ‘un-classy”? How less stressful would my teenage years have been if I wasn’t constantly analysing the signals I was sending off? I am hopeful that someday young women’s lives will not be controlled and defined by their sexuality.