The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

What's Really Behind Slut Shaming

Women do it at least as much as men. Here's why.

The killing spree near Santa Barbara is just one of a series of disturbing recent incidents that have helped to spark an outcry about the persistence of misogyny. But new research by psychologists in Michigan and California shows that women-hating is not at all an exclusive purview of men.

When four psychologists studied the phenomenon known as “slut shaming"—defaming a woman for the presumed frequency of her sexual activity—they learned the extent to which women shame each other, often for reasons that actually have little to do with promiscuity.

In 2004, at the start of a semester at a Midwestern university, two of the four psychologists took up residence in a reputed “party dorm” housing 53 women. All of the students were white, and almost all were heterosexual.

The scene was decidedly non-feminist.

Since it was mostly a freshman dorm, the students were caught up establishing their place on the social ladder. Eventually, 23 young women were accepted into sororities. All were from relatively advantaged economic backgrounds. They and six other similarly advantaged dorm women grabbed the top rung of the dorm's social ladder. According to the researchers, these women were, primarily, classic “girly girls”—mostly slender, fit, tan, blonde, and fashionably dressed.

And these women liberally used the term “slut” when talking about peers who were not like them—behind their backs and occasionally in public. This usually happened when a lower-status woman tried to join their clique. But the apparently lower-status women were not guilt-free: They often referred to higher-status women as sluts when they felt jealous or picked on. Meanwhile, “slut” was a label that everyone involved wanted to avoid themselves. In private interviews, the women often became uncomfortable when asked how many sexual partners they’d had, and gave the researchers the definite impression that they were “rounding down" in their answers.

What did these young women mean when they used the term “slut?” The answer depended on social class. For higher-status women, it had little to do with serial sexual encounters. They reported feeling free to “hook up”—to have many casual sexual encounters—as long as they reserved actual vaginal intercourse for serious relationships. For most of these sorority women, kissing, groping, or having oral sex with a number of different men wouldn’t necessarily have prompted their "sisters" to call them a slut. But the same behavior would get lower-status women to whisper about each other in such terms, for by and large those women thought all forms of sexual behavior should be reserved for caring relationships.

Which is all to say that sexual mores differed by group. As for the term "slut," sometimes its use had no connection to sexual activity—it was a way to say “I don’t like that person," or, "You’re different from me.” When higher-status women used the term against lower-status women, it often simply meant “low-class” or “trashy.” When a lower-status women used it to refer to a higher-status one, it often meant something more along the lines of “snobby” or “mean.”

And so what’s the news here? What’s so novel about the idea of name-calling in dorms or about an unenlightened passing on by women of the tired idea that it’s wrong for them to enjoy sex? Well, slut shaming has acquired an important but subtle use—for higher status women. For them, calling someone of lower status a slut is actually a sexual liberator: By defining the behavior of lower-status women as immoral, they’ve declared their own, serial hook-up behavior to be good, right, and honest. Night after night after night they can do almost whatever they want with whomever they want. As long as they call what other people do sluttish, they seem to be virtuous themselves.

Slut-shaming is not only misogynistic, it can be creepily self-serving too.

 

Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton, Elizabeth M. Armstrong, J. Lotus Seeley. Good Girls: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus in Social Psychology Quarterly.

 

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific American, Discover, and Vermont Public Radio. By night she is a novelist and humorist. Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story (2014, She Writes Press) got rave reviews from Booklist and LAMDA Literary. 

Photo credit Katie Tegtmeyer http://www.flickr.com/photos/katietegtmeyer/

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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