Research Shows Slut-Shaming Has Nothing to Do With Sex

The news: A new study by sociologists from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Merced found that slut-shaming has little to do with someone's sexual activity and more to do with their social class. In other words, slut-shaming isn't about being a slut, it's about being poor.

In 2004, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton embedded themselves in a dorm at a Midwestern university and interviewed more than 50 women (all of them white) from the start of their freshman year to shortly after their graduations. Hamilton and Armstrong asked questions about their perceptions of other girls, regarding their sexual and social activities. And as Slate's Amanda Hess writes, "the college women realized that the researchers weren't really asking for their opinions about promiscuous women. They were asking for their thoughts about "sluts" — a campus stigma that had almost nothing to do with students' real sexual experiences, but everything to do with their social class."

High status and low status: After some time, the researchers became more familiar with the girls and saw them naturally divide into what they defined as "high status" — coming from wealthy neighborhoods around the country and rising through the Greek life system — and "low status" — coming from more local middle- and working-class families and joining friend groups outside the sorority system. 

The study, which is titled "'Good Girls': Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus," and appears in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, found that "High-status women employ slut discourse to assert class advantage, defining themselves as classy rather than trashy, while low-status women express class resentment — deriding rich, bitchy sluts for their exclusivity." Being "slutty" had nothing to do with a woman's amount of sexual activity, but whether another girl is part of a different status group. The "low status" girls considered characteristics like materialism and unfriendly cliquishness as slutty, whereas "high status" girls equated sluttiness with being "skanky" or "trashy."

Slut discourse: Unfortunately, this "slut discourse" is employed in increasingly dangerous ways that allow certain women to assert their class advantages and put themselves in a position of social power.

"Viewing women only as victims of men's sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities," Armstrong said in a news 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."

On top of that, the conventional definition of a slut as a sexual promiscuous woman was actually found to the the opposite of how it was being used. "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 in the release. "This finding made little sense until we realized that college women also used the term as a way to police class boundaries."

What does this mean? While Armstrong and Hamilton's discoveries were surprising, they didn't seem at first to be all that alarming. Younger generations are constantly developing new definitions and uses for all sorts of words. However, there's a very dark and dangerous side to slut-shaming.

"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. We suspect that these campaigns are more likely to be successful if they help young people arrive at deeper understandings of the social processes involved in this type of bullying."

While it would be easy to say "girls will be girls," this subtle but piercing form of bullying is poorly understood but potentially life threatening. So though sexual activity certainly plays a factor in the slut-discourse, these findings demonstrate that yet another rift in American life can be blamed on one thing: money. 

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Matt Essert

Matt is the news director at Mic, covering breaking news. He is based in New York and can be reached at matt@mic.com.

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