Adolescence. Just reading the word can sink a parent's heart. But that's nothing compared to having to live it. High school is often a cruel place, especially when it comes to ostracizing those who don't fit—like the "fast girl," also known as "ho'" or "slut."
Crossing from the safety of the elementary years, marked by the reassurance of the familiar, into the tough world of adolescence and awakening sexuality means learning the taxonomy of teenagers: Everyone, and every action, seems to be rigidly classified. How does a girl become known as a slut? Are girls more likely than boys to carry a label?
A study that SLC psychology faculty member Linwood Lewis and others are conducting at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University shows that the traditional tendency to place labels on girls may be changing. Even though "a violation of relationship norms is stigmatizing for girls, it can be negotiated," the study says.
What the boys in the study—indeed, most adolescent boys—are doing, says Lewis, is "figuring out sexuality."
"But there's a danger," he explains, "of thinking that only guys place the labels on girls, and not vice versa. All humans tend to use labels to simplify complex and confusing behavior."
As often as not, those labels are used only when speaking in the abstract, Lewis adds. When it comes to how most adolescents really live their lives, the voices in his study offer a ray of light.
"I learned that to have a good relationship, a girl always has to be my friend first," said one 18-year-old boy. "And trust is the biggest thing in a relationship."
Despite the harshness of labels that boys sometimes place on girls, the tough judgments they seem to make—in other words, despite the bravado—what they really want, the study shows, is not "good" girls, but partners who will be there for them.