The Power to Stop Slutting

Conversations Offline Prevent Shaming Online

By Katie Cappiello & Lauren Hersh

Grand Theft Auto

You dead a** need to learn to laugh. It’s just the killing of hookers and it’s supposed to be funny.

This was one of over 250 comments made on 15-year-oldEleanor’s Facebook wall after she praised Target for removing Grand Theft Auto 5 from the store’s shelves earlier this month, following massive public outrage over its violent and misogynic content. For the uninitiated, Grand Theft Auto awards points to players who pay women in prostitution for sex, then beat and kill them.

What happened that Wednesday night online should be wake-up call to every parent and educator. Within minutes, Eleanor was met with backlash from her male peers who sprang to the defense of the game.

The exchange began pretty harmlessly, one boy stating that the game is an outlet for stress and simply a source of entertainment. Eleanor argued back: But it perpetuates the idea that the lives of women who are being prostituted or trafficked don’t matter? Can’t you play a different game if you want a release?

It quickly snowballed: It’s hookers and strippers at a bar. This is legal. Not sex slavery. You give singles and s**t to the girls and then you just kill them — these are girls who work for strip clubs not pimps. I’m definitely against sex slavery in like India and stuff but that’s not what this is.

At that point, Eleanor and two of her friends, Nina and Abbie, reached out to us for guidance. As the co-founder and artistic director of The Arts Effect, and the Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy for Sanctuary for Families, we mentor these girls and dozens of teens across the city in their activism efforts. So, we tuned in, and helped the girls with their response.

Guys, strip clubs are actually hotbeds for sex trafficking. This s**t is happening all around you not just in India. Why do you assume the manager of the strip club isn’t also a pimp?

The girls (whose real names are not being used) were primed for this debate.

Do you know how many underage girls are exploited right here in this city? In real life, so many of these girls are actually just girls, they’re our age, guys. And, honestly, no matter what, why is it ok to buy a person?

As members of The Arts Effect, they have spent the last two years performing their original plays: A Day In The Life, which sheds light on the commercial sex trade here in the United States, and SLUT, which tackles sexual shaming and violence. The 25-girl ensemble travels the country performing these pieces and stands alongside survivors to lobby lawmakers and advocate for change.

So they were not shocked when the video game supporters dropped into the default mode of sexual shaming, lashing out to silence not only Eleanor but every girl on the thread: Yo, if you guys are all for women’s empowerment then stop dressing like whores in your pics.

A heated but important dialogue devolved into something poisonous and personal, cemented with slut shaming for the sole purpose of discrediting the girls.

We stepped in to redirect the chat. Within moments, we too were targeted: Come on, grow-up. 40-year-old virgins literally! Don’t you have husbands and kids to take care of?

Much like the game they were defending, this performative degradation of girls and women garnered the boys points! Real world points. Facebook likes, affirmation from other males on the thread. word. nice bro. justice! And the power to call Eleanor a “dyke” in a crowded high school hallway the next morning.

This chain of events is about much more than Grand Theft Auto. This is about the glamorized sexism and normalized violence against women and girls. This is about the habitual silencing of girls and young women the moment they speak up for themselves. This is about the pressure to man-up, be hard, that weighs heavily on boys and young men.

This Facebook thread, more than anything, demonstrated the dire need for education and facilitated conversation among young people about sex, sexuality and violence.

It’s starting to occur. We have worked with schools who recognize the value of taking these conversations offline and moving them into the classroom where students are provided with accurate information, access to adult mentorship, and the encouragement to have thoughtful dialogue.

Last month, an independent girls’ school in New York City held a human trafficking conference for over 100 male and female students, giving teens a chance to hear from experts, survivors, and, most importantly, ask frank questions. And two weeks ago, 160 students from 10 local high schools attended a StopSlut workshop, where they engaged in uncensored storytelling, discussion, and action planning around slutting and rape in their school communities.

Events like this can really transform attitudes and culture.

As educators, parents, and activists, we have a responsibility to go beyond simply monitoring our young people — we must give them the tools to navigate these complex issues. We owe this to not only Eleanor, Abbie, and Nina, but to every boy on that thread.

Katie Cappiello is the co-founder and artistic director ofThe Arts Effect, and a playwright. Her new publication SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence will be released in 2015 by the Feminist Press.

Lauren Hersh is director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at Sanctuary for Families and a lecturer on gender violence. Lauren previously served as a prosecutor handling domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking cases.

Originally published at