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'Slut' taunt can damage girls for life

Girls labelled "sluts" by classmates can become locked into a vicious circle of abusive relationships and low self-esteem, a study by US academics shows.

Victims of playground taunts often blame themselves and become easy prey for date rapists because they feel they deserve abuse, the AERA conference heard.

Rumours spread to ruin a girl's reputation at school often have long-term consequences such as alcohol abuse, self-mutilation and risky sexual conduct.

Pupils are often singled out because of the way they dress, because they are considered outsiders or because other girls are jealous of their attractiveness. Yet they are often less sexually active than their peers.

Wendy Walter-Bailey of Franklin college, Indiana and Jesse Goodman of Indiana university examined the experience of women at a centre for high-school drop-outs, many of whom were teenage mothers or pregnant.

They found girls were initially under pressure to abstain from sex and their first experiences were often oral sex - viewed as not "real" sex.

They did this even though they found it "gross", because they thought it was necessary to hang on to boyfriends.

When it got to full sex fear of friends' reactions often contributed to unplanned pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. "These same girls might fear losing the 'love' of the male if they insist on his use of a condom, or fear that false rumours will spread about their planning to have sex, thus unprotected sex becomes a common event," the report said.

Jesse Goodman contrasted the labelling of girls as "sluts" with the way boys were praised as "studs" for similar behaviour.

The authors called for improved sex education and said it was vital teachers create an environment where young people felt comfortable, incuding a system for asking difficult questions anonymously. "No question a child has should be seen as inappropriate," they said.

Exploring the culture of sluthood among adolescents. For details email wwalter-baileyfranklincollege.edu

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