Rehtaeh Parsons. Amanda Todd. Audrie Pott.
Three teenage girls who had so much in front of them. Three teenage girls who thought their lives were ruined because of the bullying and alleged sexual assault they experienced. Three girls who were suffering and who saw only one way to make it stop.
Their tragic deaths sparked all manner of discussions about slut-shaming, victim-blaming, rape culture and bullying in an online world. Their stories also inspired American writer Emily Lindin to reach out to those suffering in silence and isolation with a potentially life-saving message: you are not alone.
Lindin knows all too well what it’s like to branded the school slut. The California-based writer decided to publish the diaries she kept during her junior high school years in New England in the late ’90s. They are heartbreaking, and they are heartbreakingly relatable. Many will recognize themselves in the pages of her diary.
Lindin’s annotated diaries served as the basis for The UnSlut Project. Founded in 2013, the website exists to provide a safe space for people to share their stories of sexual bullying, as well as to change cultural attitudes towards female sexuality. After all, the word ‘slut’ remains a powerful weapon in the rape culture arsenal; female sexuality is still considered something that needs to be feared, controlled and policed, while victims of sexual assault are too often shamed and humiliated into silence.
Now, Lindin is raising money to finish Slut: A Documentary Film. Lindin and her co-director Jessica Caimi spent the past year and a half travelling all over North America, conducting interviews with people whose lives have been impacted by sexual bullying — including Rehtaeh Parsons’ family and Samantha Gailey Geimer, who was sexually assaulted by director Roman Polanski at the age of 13 in 1977 and subsequently re-victimized by the media. They also talked to sexologists, academics, advocates and media figures.
The film seeks to answer two crucial questions: why is sexual shaming — particularly the shaming of sexual assault victims — still such a prevalent problem in North America, and what can we do about it?
SIAC caught up with Lindin to learn more about The UnSlut project and her forthcoming film. The documentary team’s funding deadline is this Friday; you can follow the link above to support the project.
SIAC: You have been the victim of sexual bullying, so this issue is a personal one for you. What was it like to revisit those old diaries?
Emily Lindin: It was really strange, because I realized that some things I took for granted about my childhood had actually happened quite differently than I remembered them as an adult. The thing that rattled me the most was reading my diary entry from the day of my sexual encounter that kind of started the whole thing. I had always remembered that interaction in the way it was later spun by my peers: that I had been the seductress, convincing my boyfriend to “hook up” with me. But reading the diary entry from that day, it was clear that he had been the aggressor and that I hadn’t really been an enthusiastic participant in it. It shook me up to realize that I could have warped my memory of such an important event in my life based on what others — who hadn’t even been there — had convinced me was true about myself.
Tell me about the genesis of The UnSlut Project. What made you want to start it?
I had revisited my old diaries on a whim during a visit to my childhood home where my parents still live. I browsed them but didn’t really read them in detail at that time — it was a little too much, still. Around that time, I had been hearing news stories of girls who, after being labeled a “slut” for whatever reason, had taken their own lives. Since I, too, had considered committing suicide at that time in my life, it occurred to me that posting my diary entries online could be helpful — not just to girls who needed to know they weren’t alone in this, but to adults who wanted to help them but had forgotten what it’s like to be going through something so intense at that age. I figured that my experience was by no means unique, but what was rare about it was that I had kept such detailed diaries and that I still had them! I felt obligated to share them. Once I did, women started getting in touch with me, wanting to share their own experiences. The UnSlut Project happened organically in that way: I didn’t solicit submissions, they just came. That made it clear to me how much we need to talk about these issues.
What’s the response been like? I’m struck by how universal and shared this experience is.
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. You’re right that it’s pretty much universal; almost every woman I speak with about this project offers her own personal experience at some point in our conversation, and it’s such a relief for us to get that off our chests! But even though it’s a common experience, we all have individual stories and those stories matter. How we experience “slut” shaming and how we cope with it depends on many factors like socioeconomic status, ethnic background, family structure, mental health… the list goes on. Those details make our stories unique, and that’s what really inspires me daily: hearing the diverse voices coming forward to share personal experiences.
A lot has been written about a feminist reclamation of the word ‘slut.’ What are your thoughts on that?
I get it, but I don’t think it’s the most effective strategy for large-scale cultural change right now. If individual women find it empowering, more power to them! The problem is that for the vast majority of people in this world, that word still has its traditional, harmful meaning. They’re not in on it, so to speak. It’s not like I want to censor the word, though. I just promote critical thinking when it comes to the meanings we pack into it and the impulse behind using it.
I’m always saddened to hear young girls call each other sluts.
Me, too. And that’s coming from someone who used the word “slut” negatively until just a few years ago. (I wrote about it last week here.).
What was it about Rehtaeh Parsons’ story that moved you/inspired you to make Slut: A Documentary Film?
What really got to me about her story was how trapped she must have felt. As a rape victim who was getting no support from the police or school authorities, she transferred high schools multiple times to try to start fresh. But in the age of social media and texting, she could not escape the reputation that followed her. It struck me that for her and other girls going through something similar today, it is so much harder to escape sexual bullying. It follows you on your computer and on your phone, no matter where you are physically. It’s devastating to think that things have actually gotten worse for girls since I was going through this — but, at the same time, we have these tools that can be turned around and used for good. Back in the late 1990s when I was being sexually bullied, I couldn’t turn to The UnSlut Project for solidarity. There was no such thing as crowd-funding, so people who wanted to see change happen couldn’t just pitch in $25 to fund a documentary that could have helped me. So now, I want to use this technology that in a lot of ways has made things worse, to make things better.
You are 67% of the way to your funding goal. How does that feel, to know that so many people are behind this project? (Note: the project is now 81% funded — let’s help it get to 100%!)
It makes me feel really hopeful! We have to get to 80% by March 6 in order to get any of the funds we’ve raised so far, so we’re well on our way. But I really want to stress how much every contribution matters. Not only are you pitching in $10 or whatever you’re able, you’re joining a network of people who care about getting this film out in the world and who want to be a part of this movement. It’s an amazing feeling to realize that if this film happens, it will be because enough of us MADE it happen. We didn’t wait for permission from anyone, we just went for it! That’s the most exciting part of it all.
Lastly, what do you hope to achieve with this project?
It might sound weird, but I want this project to make itself obsolete in a decade or so! It’s my hope that we’ll have made so much progress that the word “slut” won’t make sense as an insult, sexual assault survivors will be able to assume that they’ll be believed and supported, and everyone will have the space and freedom to speak publicly about their personal experiences without fear of sexual shaming.