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Interview with Emily Lindin of the UnSlut Project

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Making Love Sustainable was fortunate to have been able to sit down and chat recently with Emily Lindin, founder of theUnSlut Project, author ofUnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir, and director of a recently released documentary,UnSlut. We’d been eager to talk with Emily because of the important work she has been doing to help women and girls speak up about sexual bullying and shaming. We believe this work goes a long way toward creating a culture in which female sexuality is no longer feared, punished, ostracized, shamed, or criticized (all of which it currently is). Through Emily’s project, hundreds of women and girls, including Emily, have been able tospeak out about their experiences with slut shaming and, importantly, be not only heard, but also supported and loved.

Emily graciously answered our questions by phone. We talked about why women in our culture are shamed much more than men for their sexuality, whyObama’s recent move to defund abstinence-only sex ed is so important, why she’s hopeful about the future of gender politics, why she’s grateful to her husband’s past lovers, and more.

The following is part one of our conversation (edited somewhat for clarity and length); look for part two on Thursday.

MLS: I was readingan article by you in the Guardian about slut shaming and about how, I think it was when you were 11, you started to have a reputation as a “slut.” I’m wondering, if you could go back in time and talk to that 11 year old, how would you explain to her what the UnSlut Project is?

Emily: That’s exactly why I made the project, for that girl who I was in middle school. I would tell her — and what Ido tell the girls who are currently suffering and coming to the UnSlut Project — is that it’s a movement of women and it’s a resource for solidarity and support. I think just knowing that she’s not alone, my 11-year-old self would have overcome that type of reputation and the emotional struggle that came with it in much healthier ways. One of the things that came up in my diary, and that I’m not proud of — it’s embarrassing honestly to publish — is how I bullied other girls, as a way I think to divert attention from myself, and in some ways in defense of my reputation as a slut, because that’s all I had — and I think that’s pretty common. I also turned to self harm, cutting my wrist and my arm, and that’s also unfortunately so common. It’s unbelievable to me: almost all the girls I hear from are doing some form of self harm, whether it’s cutting or drug use or sexual activity, to try to grapple with this reputation.

So, really I would just say, Come to this project from wherever you are, with whatever you have going on, and just know that the stories women share here are stories of fulfillment and success and happiness and overcoming, and that you can do it too. I think it would help her just to know that others have gone through this, that it’s not the first time and unfortunately probably won’t be the last time that someone survives this, and that she can be part of that survival story, and share her own story of survival instead of struggling and feeling that she’s isolated.

MLS: I wanted to follow up on something you said. You described the project as a movement for women — I’m wondering how men fit into it, and what your experience was with boys when you were a girl, and now, how are you finding men engage with, or resist, the project?

E: I think the stories are mostly for women. Honestly, slut shaming is a really gendered phenomenon — women have been institutionalized for expressing themselves in ways that are sexual. When I say ‘institutionalized’ I mean thrown into a mental institution, but it’s also an institutionalized phenomenon in that police, universities, and other institutions in our society participate in slut shaming in a way that doesn’t happen to men and boys. Sometimes straight guys will say,I have shame surrounding sex, I’ve been shamed for having too much sex or for having a reputation as kind of a player or Lothario, or whatever you want to call it, and why isn’t that included in this definition of slut shaming? Well first of all, it’s really important to include people of all genders in the movement toward change, and men are definitely included. I think almost 40% of our Twitter followers have male names or identify as male. But, without minimizing their individual struggles or painful experiences, it is important to recognize that it exists outside of this institutionalized slut shaming, this system of oppression that women grow up with and inherit.

MLS: You said that police and universities participate in slut shaming. Could you expand on that and explain how they’re participating?

E: The reason I thought of police and universities when I was speaking just now is that I was thinking about the rape victims who come forward and who are not taken seriously, or who are forced to continue attending class with their rapist. Or women who report a crime to police and are laughed at or questioned or blamed for what’s happened to them. But really I should have included lower education as well as higher education. Often from a really young age, slut shaming is tied up in abstinence-only education, and sometimes teachers and people who ought to be sex educators participate in it as well. I know that my sex education when I was growing up involved a lot of implications that in order to be a serious student or a successful person, a girl needed to remain “pure.” That’s part of our culture that grows out of all kinds of really deeply rooted mythologies and religions. It’s hard to really extricate ourselves from that, and it definitely disproportionately affects women.

MLS: I happened to just see on Reddit before you called that Obama just took away funding for abstinence-only sex education.

E: Yeah! I read that headline but I haven’t read any of the details yet. Do you have them?

MLS: No, I haven’t had a chance to read the article yet, but it seems like good news.

E: Yes! Oh my gosh — moving away from abstinence-only funding is a first step in moving towards comprehensive sex education. When I say “comprehensive sex ed,” I mean like LGBT studies included, and pleasure included, consent included, decision making, things that are way more inclusive than just, “If you have sex you’ll get pregnant. If you have sex you’ll get AIDS.” And the types of simplified and often erroneous messages that are used to kind of scare kids and shame them.

MLS: On this note of positive change and good news: Since you’ve started this project, what sorts of positive changes — in yourself, in the people around you, in the culture more broadly, have you seen? And to follow up on that, what changes have yet to occur that you’d like to see?

E: I feel really hopeful. And that’s something that I think surprises a lot of feminist activists because it can get really easy to be discouraged, because wedo have so much work to do. One of the areas that I would like to see improvements in is comprehensive sex education. The state of sexism in our country is appalling. I mean, just over the past few years that I’ve been traveling and talking and gathering anecdotal evidence, it’s become so clear to me, in a way I never really noticed before, that if we can provide children with age-appropriate sex ed, from a very young age, in schools and also if we can encourage parents to do so at home, then we could solve so many problems, economically as well as societally. Mental health, and emotional and physical health, would improve. It just seems so obvious now, and that’s where I would hope to see changes made. It’s very heartening to hear that Obama made that call, and hopefully more policies state to state will be changed as well.

But the progress that I’ve seen itself has been really heartening. I started posting my diaries online in the fall of 2012, after I heard about Audrey Pott’s death in California. I kind of let it fall away because it was personally difficult for me to revisit that time. And then I heard about Rehtaeh Parson’s death in April of 2013, and that was another kick in the pants for me. I felt obligated to start building this project out of my diary entries because that’s what I had — I had this primary source and I thought I could use it. Around that time, I had never heard the term “slut shaming” — and neither had almost everyone I told about the project. “Wait, wait, what is slut shaming?” In the interviews I was doing for not just mainstream media but also feminist blogs, the first thing they would have to do was describe what slut shaming was, and often they would put the whole term in quotation marks, not just the “slut,” but the “shaming” as well, as if was this thing that we didn’t really believe existed.

A few years later — it’s been almost 3 years — and it’s not a household term yet, but the idea that it’s something we ought to be working to try to ameliorate, is much more widespread and common. When I introduce myself and the project and ask, Does anyone need an explanation of what slut shaming is?, maybe one or two will have heard the term, but most people understand it’s a problem and want to get on board. If they don’t want to get on board with changing it, they’re at least interested in learning more about it. In unrelated [to the UnSlut Project] news stories about celebrities and about different scandals that are going on, it’s no longer so built in and taken for granted that people ought to be ashamed of their sexuality, and that women especially ought to be concerned about their reputation in that way. Instead its as if journalists are very conscious that they don’t want to participate in it, in a way that’s new. I think things really have changed and shifted over the past few years. That’s really heartening. I take a lot of encouragement from that.

MLS: I really loved Jennifer Lawrence’s reaction to that phone hack thing that happened  — 

E: Yeah! —

MLS: That seemed like such a helpful step. To have a powerful woman say, Actually, I didn’t do anything wrong. Screw you all.

E: We actually used a little excerpt from that story in the documentary. That really stuck with me as well. I was so proud of her that she made the point,I didn’t do anything wrong. I have a body, I’m not going to apologize for having a body or sharing it sexually with whomever I choose. The problem is that it was stolen from me and used without my consent. Hopefully other people who are not Jennifer Lawrence, who might not be as privileged or feel as empowered to speak up for themselves, hopefully they’ll be inspired by that.

(Part two of our interview will be posted on Thursday.)