I was slut-shamed by my Indian-American community

Slut-shaming is a phenomenon that has touched women of all kinds and has become a powerful force of discrimination in our society. We asked women who have experienced it firsthand to share their stories in hopes that it will inspire you reconsider the way you view other’s sex lives—and your own.

Ask any Indian-American, even those from liberal families like myself, what’s expected from us as a society, and we’ll rattle off similar laundry lists: good grades, a respectable job, no dating or drinking as a teen or college student. You’re also somehow supposed to have a spouse, two kids, and a minivan by 32 (crossover SUV acceptable). These guidelines were established when our parents immigrated to America in the 1970s, back when India was a much more conservative place, and they haven’t changed much since.

For the most part, my fellow first-generation friends and I knew which guidelines to abide by (grades, curfew, ambition levels), and which we could toe around (driving our friends home, watching Next’s “Too Close” music video on TRL, and on the very rare occasion, dating). I assumed that my friends and I, as Indian-Americans, were firmly united in the instances we did color outside of the cultural norm lines—that as an entity, we were generally of one mind in how we interacted with the world.

Imagine my surprise when the most judgment I’ve ever felt came not from trying to find my place as a minority in America but from other Indian-Americans—people of my culture, who grew up just like me.

The first time this happened was in high school. Most of my friends had already had boyfriends, who were generally of the same race. I didn’t start dating until my junior year, after I outgrew my awkward phase and unibrow. So when I started dating Jackson, a non-Indian guy from our rival high school, I wasn’t sure if I was more excited to catch up to my friends and their dating dalliances or catch up to what I thought being an American teenager was like: a boyfriend, a prom date, kissing anywhere you can.

It’s not that the people around me weren’t having sex; it was just that I realized for the first time, we weren’t talking about it.

Using the precise teenage formula of “good girls give it up on their six-month anniversary,” Jackson and I clocked into that milestone around that time. It was the right choice at the right time, and there was no anxiety around the choice, or regrets after. (The whole thing could have been an advertisement for how to talk to teens about premarital sex, really.)

Yet when I told my friends about it, recounting the details of Monday afternoon’s milestone at Tuesday morning’s cheerleading practice, things got weird. For all the hours of discussion spent analyzing our fledgling relationship milestones (“He told me on AIM that he loved me, but do you think he like likes me?” and “He kissed me for the first time, but do you think he like likes me?!” were perennial refrains), crossing the penetration barrier suddenly ground conversation to a dead halt. It’s not that the people around me weren’t having sex; it was just that I realized for the first time, we weren’t talking about it.

Things never quite changed after that. Even after more of my friends started to have sex, I was still the harlot who talked about it first. It’s not that no one would talk to me about Jackson, it was just that the conversations were different. More uncomfortable. Hours were spent dissecting whether his ex-girlfriend was making a play for him since they went to the same school, but only minutes on the difficulties of finding a place to hide condoms when we had parents who knew nothing of privacy.

This came up again for me in college. When I went to the University of California, Berkeley, I was immediately entrenched within similar groups of fellow immigrant children, with similar value systems. Once again, we drank, we smoked, we dated, we grew up. And once again, those invisible boundaries existed: Step even a toe out of line and your peers will make sure you quietly know you’re officially on the other side of the fence—even if they never say things to your face.

That’s the gas-lighting part of slut-shaming that can drive anyone insane.

The lesson this time was harsher than high-school isolation—in every meaningful way. I was roofied at a party and woke up bruised in the bed of an an acquaintance who was also part of my Indian community. The act itself was horrible; the apathy and pressure from my Indian friends to sweep it under rug was worse. My friends who would tell me that everything was fine while still ensuring I was aware that we were now at arm’s length.

You know the feeling you get when you know someone is being weird, but if you try to call it on its face, all you get back is a plaintive “What? I’m not being weird. You’re weird.” That was my albatross, both in high school and in college—a constant feeling of otherness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That’s the gas-lighting part of slut-shaming that can drive anyone insane.

For me, and for many other young women, our biggest arbiters of shame aren’t necessarily overt villains, publicly decrying our choices. They’re people within our own circles. People we trust, whose opinions matter. And if those people can’t abide by our choices, can we even abide by our own?

It took me a long time to realize that a shared background doesn’t automatically equal a shared set of beliefs. Insular communities like mine are problematic for that reason. The herd mentality automatically makes you question decisions you make that don’t hold up to the group’s norms. The silent judgment only underscores that.

I’ve excised myself of the people and the pressures that have made me feel I need to conform to a cultural norm, but I still see and hear their disapproval on a daily basis: in comment sections, on the streets, in witnessing my parents get snubbed in the Indian community for an email I once wrote about meeting and spending a night with Quentin Tarantino went viral. (That’s another story altogether.)

There’s no question about how damaging slut-shaming can be, and thankfully these days, there’s no shortage of ways to combat the issue. There are communities, in real life and online, to help women feel less alone when they’re being publicly slut-shamed, like Emily Lindin’s UnSlut Project. Those efforts won’t make matters automatically easier, but it helps to share these stories with a community that gets it.

But what do you do when it’s your own community—one that you rely on the most—that’s doing the shaming? I still haven’t found an answer to that.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a series of essays exploring the consequences of slut-shaming. Share your story at [email protected]

Beejoli Shah

Beejoli Shah

Beejoli Shah is a reporter and editor whose work focuses on entertainment, internet culture, and social justice. Her work has been published in Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Fusion, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and BuzzFeed, among others.