New Study Highlights What Anyone Who's Ever Slut-Shamed Needs to Hear

New Study Highlights What Anyone Who's Ever Slut-Shamed Needs to Hear

Pop culture's portrait of a promiscuous person is one of a lone tragic figure, usually a woman, whose behaviors have made her an undesirable friend, family member and romantic partner.

Thankfully, a new study finds that quite the opposite is true. While seemingly promiscuous people are often the subject of judgment and prejudice, they are far from socially isolated. The image of the marginalized "slut," the legacy of The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne, no longer holds true.

And the reason why is an encouraging lesson: It's much harder to slut-shame someone when you treat them like a real human being.

It's harder to judge someone you actually know: The study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, surveyed 810 undergraduates ages 18 to 23 to determine how victimized and isolated they felt in relation to the number of sex partners they had. 

The researchers found that the greater the number of sexual partners someone had, the more likely they were to have experienced some type of discrimination in their lives, including being the subject of gossip and having friends talk behind their backs. However, these same individuals reported less loneliness, were more likely to have a best friend and had more acquaintances and more relatives they frequently contacted than the less sexually promiscuous.

In short, the most promiscuous in the study were by far the most socially connected. The results held true across genders, as both men and women were equally victimized but less lonely because of their sexual behavior. 

The results of the study can be explained in various ways, Zhana Vrangalova, sex researcher and co-author of the study, told Mic. But a particularly powerful takeaway, as Vrangalova noted on Psychology Today, may be that "people dislike or condemn promiscuity in the abstract, in hypothetical experimental scenarios, or for some distant 'others,' but that they're much more likely to accept it, understand it or excuse it when it concerns themselves or their already close friends."

Pointing fingers from a distance: It seems paradoxical, harshly judging someone as a society but accepting them as a close friend. A 2003 paper found that 55% of women and 35% of men said that when a man or woman hooked up a lot, they lost respect for them. Yet this study indicates they'd still be friends with them. 

That's because knowing someone closely affects how we judge them — and in the case of promiscuity, that may help us cut them slack and judge them less harshly.

On the other hand, it's easy to discriminate and shame people when their behavior is merely an abstract concept. This is all too plain in our culture of slut-shaming, which, far from being a new phenomenon, spans centuries of books, films and now the Internet. So many women, from fictional characters like Prynne and Sex in the City's Samantha Jones to real-life victims such as Amanda Todd, Felicia Garcia and Jessica Logan, provide glimpses of the harm we cause when we judge from a distance.

In a recent TED talk, Monica Lewinsky, who suffered from years of disparaging headlines in the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton, spoke to the isolation of humiliation and judgment. "I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, 'That Woman.' I was seen by many, but actually known by few," she said. "When this happened to me 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now, we call it cyberbullying and online harassment."

Lewinsky makes an important point about slut-shaming that gets lost in the vitriol: At the end of the day, these aren't merely labels, these are people. 

It's about respect: Ultimately, the conversation about slut-shaming is about viewing people for the factoids or statistics we know about them, rather than the living, breathing, multi-dimensional people they are.

This study is reassuring for both men and women who are afraid of expressing themselves sexually or following their desires. Our sexual pasts don't need to be a source of isolation and shame. In fact, our shared stories and experiences might unify us — if only we can strive to view each other as people with feelings, even when we don't truly know each other.

"Not everyone will accept them, for sure, but many of us don't need to be loved and accepted by everyone," Vrangalova said. "Even having one or two supportive friends or partners can be enough to keep our psychological and physical wellbeing intact." 

h/t Psychology Today