In a sobering echo of earlier teen suicides, a 10-year-old Illinois girl took her life Nov. 11 after allegedly experiencing two years of bullying at school. And although Ashlynn Conner was just in fifth grade, her mother says her peers taunted her by calling her a slut.
As nonsensical as the word seems applied to a child, it's a common refrain for young teen and tween bullies, according to psychologist Maureen McHugh of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who studies bullying, sexual harassment, and especially "slut-bashing," the practice of peers labeling other peers as dirty and promiscuous, oftentimes in the absence of any sexual activity at all on the part of the victim.
"Their peers know what kinds of words to use to hurt them," McHugh told LiveScience, adding that sexuality becomes an Achilles heel in the beginning of adolescence.
"Their sexuality is emerging," McHugh said. "It's a kind of vulnerability."
Reports of 10-year-old Connor being called a "slut" echo the story of Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who killed herself in 2010 after also allegedly suffering obscene taunts. Prince, witnesses said, had dated a popular upperclassman, allegedly bringing the wrath of other girls who wanted to put the teen in her place. Among the alleged taunts was the phrase "Irish slut."
Middle-school girls and young teens come under enormous pressure both to flaunt their sexuality and to keep it in bounds, McHugh said. As girls experiment with makeup and sexualized fashion, their peers police them, sometimes brutally.
"There is pressure to adopt a girly identity," McHugh said. "And there's monitoring of people wearing too much makeup or dressing too provocatively, so it's a weird fine line."
If they don't act sexual at all, they might be rejected, but when they act sexual, they get blasted," McHugh said. "And it's not just at that age, but in high school, and even in college."
Often, McHugh said, girls labeled "sluts" aren't even sexually active — bullies simply use the word because they know it works. "Both boys and girls participate and use the term 'slut' as a way of criticizing people they don't like or who they're mad at," she said.