In 2012, Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney kept hearing the word “slut.”
Surrounded by twenty teenage girls at The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company in New York, a group the two formed five years prior, the women began to dissect the word’s duality: “slut” seemed to be the barometer of female sexuality, the ultimate measurement of a woman’s status and self worth. Some girls used the word in attempts to own their behavior, others recalled the humiliation of being “slut-shamed” by their peers for sexual activity — both chosen and without consent — and by adults, around dress codes they felt sexualized and shamed their bodies. Combined with omnipresent pressure from social media — described by McInerney as a “24/7 thing” for modern young people — the girls told their mentors that the shaming felt inescapable once it started. “It never ends,” Cappiello, 35, said. But the phenomenon, they realized, was nothing new — both women had experienced and participated in slut shaming as teenagers, too.
“Meg and I remembered all these rumors that flowed around about girls [while growing up in the 1990s],” Cappiello told Women in the World. “The minute a rumor about any type of sexually deviant thing (which was just pretty much anything, right?) hit the rumor mill, she was a slut.” Through their conversations with the teenagers, it became clear that the word was a symbol — perhaps the symbol — of a derogatory, sexist culture that has perpetually damaged young people, and a failure to understand the complexity of girl and boyhood. “The only way that teenage girls feel they can claim their sexuality, own their sexuality [and] express it, is to label themselves as a slut,” Cappiello said, explaining how even when girls reclaim the word, it can flip and become a slur in a heartbeat. “It’s their right to explore their sexuality … their sexuality is part of who they are and is a part of coming into [themselves]. There’s no room for girls to do that,” McInerney, 33, added.
One year after those initial group chats, SLUT, the play, was born. With research gathered in conversations with dozens of other girls in middle school, high school, and college, Cappiello took to writing a story — one based on real events — that proves familiar to crowds, especially in the wake of Steubenville’s notorious gang rape and the highly covered suicides of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott, victims who were shamed by their communities.
SLUT centers around Joey Del Marco, a smart, independent 16-year-old girl, and her group of teenage friends who proudly call themselves “The Slut Squad.” After pre-gaming for a party, Joey is raped by a group of boys that she considered friends. One boy abstains from the assault, remaining present but silent while Joey is abused. The aftermath of the rape rocks their community, polarizing parents and teenagers alike on whether or not she was “asking for it” – by using “slut” to describe herself, by drinking, by hanging out with the boys, for simply existing. In a dialect that rings true to the modern teenage experience, a young, all-female cast has performed the play in front of sold-out crowds since 2013, raising important questions and creating opportunity for dialogue after the show between men and women, young and old. “It’s neither the girls’ nor theater’s responsibility to be polite, appropriate, or cute,” Cappiello wrote in the play’s introduction. “The goal should be truth, even if the truth makes people uncomfortable.”
Cappiello and McInerney, who met through a mutual friend while both studying at New York University in 2006, used SLUT’s characters to portray the confusion faced when young people engage their sexuality with little guidance about healthy exploration and consent. “All of these acts and dynamics playing out at house parties on the weekends and after school, the unhealthy dynamics, they’re so normalized,” Cappiello explained. For young women coming of age in a misogynistic culture that puts greater value in male pleasure, “it is really hard to tell why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said. One of the play’s greatest successes, she said, is the sense of empathy it creates in the audience, who may then return to their own communities with a better understanding of the confusing circumstances young women face and the effects of their own words and judgments.
Seventeen-year-old Mary Miller, who has starred in the play for two years, sees SLUT as a valuable conversation-starter, one that provides agency to young women. It has also helped her male friends better understand their role in rape culture by forcing them to ask, “what would I do if I were in that situation, if I were one of those boys?”
“Every time boys come see the play, they become allies,” Cappiello said.
A feminist before she joined the cast, Miller sees the work as a “vital” contribution to the fight against patriarchy and slut shaming. In her own life, “powerfully negative” experiences instilled anger that she didn’t know how to place. SLUT has proven cathartic, giving the high school senior and her co-stars a tool kit to work through complex issues.
“It a unique experience for all of us to feel like we’re doing [SLUT] for a very specific reason,” Miller said. “The purpose makes the work that we do even more fun. And we have each other as team — it’s unusual to have a group of teenage girls who are willing to be so honest about themselves.” She sees great merit in the post-performance conversations held between creators, cast and their audience, during which questions are asked, experiences are shared, and consciousness is heightened for all involved. Audience members have included Gloria Steinem, Monica Lewinsky, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and other public figures who have raved in support of the work. Supplemental reading is also in Cappiello’s Slut, the book, which serves as a guide to combating sexism and sexual violence.
From SLUT, StopSlut was formed, bringing global activists together as a coalition to fight rape culture. The play has also been made available for theater companies to perform around the country, bringing the anti-slut shaming message to schools and communities around the country. In New York, SLUT will continue until March 6 — with a double-header performance that includes a showing of Now That We’re Men, a brother play that tackles similar issues from a male point of view — but its message will persist beyond the run of the play. And McInerney and Cappiello, who feel profoundly proud of what they’ve achieved so far, will continue their conversations with The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company.
“We’re not their parents, we’re not their teachers,” Cappiello said. “We’re just outside women who love them so much and support them and believe them and listen to them. And it creates a really incredible dynamic where they can speak so freely and uncensored about their reality, so that then allows for honest conversations to happen.”
Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter.