Culture
Michelle Lepianka Carter/AP

Slut-shaming has little to do with sex, study finds

Sociologists say affluent university women use slut-shaming to show poorer women they are ‘trashy’ and don’t belong

A new study of college women and their attitudes about so-called sluttiness found that slut-shaming — calling out a woman for her supposedly promiscuous sexual behavior — actually had more to do with a woman’s social class than it did with sexual activity.

Sociologists from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Merced occupied a dorm room in a large Midwestern university, regularly interacting with and interviewing 53 women about their attitudes on school, friends, partying and sexuality from the time they moved in as freshman and following up for the next five years.

The researchers discovered that definitions of "slutty" behavior and the act of slut-shaming was largely determined along class lines rather than based on actual sexual behavior. What's more, they found the more affluent women were able to engage in more sexual experimentation without being slut-shamed, while the less-affluent women were ridiculed as sluts for being “trashy” or “not classy,” even though they engaged in less sexual behavior.

"Viewing women only as victims of men's sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities," Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology and organizational studies professor at the University of Michigan, said in a release. "By engaging in 'slut-shaming' — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies."

Armstrong and then-graduate student Laura Hamilton, who is now a sociology professor at the UC-Merced, used the findings from their five-year longitudinal study in their book "Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality."

The authors say they hope their study, which was published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly, will shed light on the fact that slut-shaming is in fact a form of bullying. "In a few recent cases, 'slut-shaming' has played a role in the suicides of girls and young women," Armstrong said. "We hope that our findings are constructively used in campaigns against bullying.”

Armstrong and her team had originally viewed slut-shaming as based on “sexual double standards established and upheld by men, to women’s disadvantage,” they wrote in the study, which was published Wednesday. They thought that, due to societal expectations that men should seek out lots of sexual activity but that women could only do so while in a committed relationship, the women are “vulnerable to slut stigma when they violate this sexual standard and consequently experience status loss and discrimination,” they wrote.

At this particular university, which they declined to name, participation in the Greek system was “the most widely accepted signal of peer status on campus.” And as it turned out, the 23 women who were in sororities were from upper- and upper-middle-class backgrounds, likely because they had the time and money to participate in Greek life. The remaining women did not, as they came from working-, lower-middle- and middle-class backgrounds, the authors said.

The sociologists discovered through interviews and passing conversations with the women through the years that the affluent sorority girls viewed themselves as displaying femininity in a “classy” way, but that they felt the way the less-affluent women did so was “trashy.” For example, one of the affluent women said “good girls” would never wear a short skirt or a revealing top, but if she did, she wouldn’t dance seductively in that outfit at a party. But the less affluent women did, and therefore were considered "skanky."

On the other hand, the less-affluent women equated sluttiness with what they viewed as the materialism and the unfriendly, cliquey nature of women in the Greek system. One of them told the researchers that “sorority girls are kinda whorish and unfriendly and very cliquey. If you weren’t Greek, then you didn’t really matter,” they wrote.

"Surprisingly, women who engaged in less sexual activity were more likely to be publicly labeled a slut than women who engaged in more sexual activity," Armstrong said. "This finding made little sense until we realized that college women also used the term as a way to police class boundaries."

The authors discovered that the affluent women participating in sororities in fact worried less about being judged as a slut than did the less affluent women, even though they would engage in more sexual activity. That was because they kept that activity quiet and conveniently seemed to define the accepted standards surrounding sexual behavior.

But when the less affluent women tried to befriend them, the affluent women would publicly slut-shame them as a way to convey that they didn’t fit in.

"This often took the form of calling other women out for their dress or deportment, as a way of making it clear that they did not fit in with the high-status group,” Armstrong said.

 

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