'Slut-shaming': When women sling the word, it’s often about status, not sex

While girls learn early how hurtful and damaging the term can be, often it's women who wield the weaponry of 'slut-shaming,' though for complex reasons, a new study says.

By , Staff writer

Girls learn early on that they really want to avoid the label “slut.” It condemns them as promiscuous, and it enforces a double standard compared with what’s acceptable for men.

Often it’s women who wield the weaponry of “slut-shaming.”

But when women use the word “slut” – and terms like “trashy” or “whore” – there’s something more complicated going on than just complicity in male hierarchy. College women with high social status actually use these terms to their advantage at times, to justify their own sexual behavior as “classy,” in contrast to the low-status women they label negatively, says a new study in Social Psychology Quarterly.

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“A very high-status young woman who manages to get at the top of a feminine sexual hierarchy, she derives a lot of goodies from that: She derives a lot of deference from men … deference from women; she can exchange that for all kinds of social and even economic benefits,” says lead author Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan.

For people to better understand the way class advantage is being asserted in “slut discourse” can lead to better interventions to try to reduce this form of bullying, she says.

The ethnographic study of 53 women in a “party dorm” at a Midwest university included interviews over the course of five years, and the young women were not told the specific topic of the study but were asked about many aspects of college life.

The high-status women were more affluent and quickly joined the Greek system, which was the dominant social scene on campus. Some of the high-status women defined sex only as intercourse, while they saw “hooking up,” including oral sex, as a low-risk way to experiment sexually and even prepare for a successful marriage. They often labeled the low-status women as sluts on the basis of their appearance – looking “trashy” – rather than on actual sexual activity.

By contrast, many of the low-status women came from backgrounds where people married younger, and they didn’t understand the hooking-up culture or find it appealing. They labeled the high-status women as sluts also – along with terms like “rich” and “exclusive,” expressing class-based resentment.

But because high-status women had the social power, they weren’t as vulnerable to being hurt by the label as were the low-status women. The dynamics and degree of slut-shaming could very well be different in various alternative dorms or at schools where the mainstream party culture doesn’t hold as much sway, and future studies can explore that, Professor Armstrong says.

All of them were “so uncritical of the term ‘slut’ that they took it for granted that this was an OK way to make distinctions among each other,” Armstrong says. “The notion that it’s not really about what sexual activities people are having … can be really important in potentially having young people understand how incredibly ambiguous and vague this term is – so that they maybe don’t derive too much meaning if it’s applied to them, and maybe they can be more careful in what they say.”

The sting of the label can be especially strong for younger students, in middle school and high school, anti-bullying experts say. Elements of “slut-shaming” have been among the complicated factors surrounding a number of young women’s suicides in recent years.

“If you are attacking someone who is lower-class or a different ethnic background, you don’t call them poor or black, but a slut. That sticks,” says Parry Aftab, a New Jersey-based cyber-bullying expert and executive director of WiredSafety.org.

Younger boys tend to believe the label is a sign of someone’s sexual easiness, and “those labels often turn into aggressive sexual situations,” with 13-year-old boys soliciting or even assaulting girls, Ms. Aftab says. “Those solicitations follow [the girl] from school to school; it’s a powerful word.”

By the later teen years, many students are beginning to realize that people use the word to try to make themselves more powerful or liked, says Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.

Ms. Englander is currently analyzing responses from 423 18-year-olds who were asked about “slut-shaming.” Just over a quarter of the students (a higher percentage among the boys) said it was used because it’s wrong for girls to have sex or casual sex. But the rest saw something else going on: One-third said it makes the person doing the labeling feel as if they are better; 21 percent said the person is seeking status, often trying to shame someone who is dating a popular boy; and 17 percent said the person using the word feels hurt or left behind.

To reach students who see it as enforcing a value system, you need to “start a conversation about whether or not believing something is wrong justifies abusiveness,” Englander says. For those who see it as a status issue, “you want to disable it…. That dynamic only works if no one talks about it, but once people are aware that [someone] is only doing it for status, it’s going to be less effective.”

Teens won’t stop seeking status, Englander says, but it’s important to direct that into less hurtful channels. Teens trying to understand sexuality are already vulnerable to confusion and less-than-pleasurable experimentation, and then “if peers heap abuse on you for it, that can be a very traumatic experience,” she says.

At the college level, the study about slut discourse also ties into a growing understanding of class polarization in society. “As 18-year-olds, undergrads are not arriving with any kind of language or awareness that they are cogs in this class-reproduction machine,” says Armstrong, who co-authored “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.”

She recalls the daughter of a wealthy chief financial officer and the daughter of a mechanic who didn’t get along in the dorm she studied, but who did not identify their differences as having anything to do with their class background. The wealthy girl thought she tried to include the other girl, but didn’t think about the fact that not everyone could afford to go out to eat and party the way she could, for instance.

Universities are increasingly grappling with how to make their campuses more inclusive and welcoming to all, Armstrong says. Meanwhile, some campuses are finding that by giving students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds more awareness of the culture-shift they might experience, and tips from other students like them about how to navigate, these students will be less likely to blame themselves when problems arise, and more likely to persist toward earning their degrees.

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