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More than just young adult "drama," slut-shaming is a phenomenon worthy of further study. (Dee Photography / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Slut-Shaming Hurts Every Woman—Including Mean Girls

Disguising sexist harassment as infighting among young women obscures issues of their safety and agency.

BY Shira Tarrant

Armstrong and Hamilton’s research does nothing to interrupt the patterns of cultural shame and blame women often experience as a result of consensual sexual interest. Worse, it encourages the public to focus on the mean-spirited actions among girls and women, while ignoring the roles of men, boys and cultural ideology.

Slut-shaming, in which people are bullied or harassed for their supposed sexual behavior, is a pervasive part of young adult culture—and some get slammed harder by it than others. But despite its moniker, slut-shaming has little to do with actual sexual activity. Rather, it is largely a function of gossip, cliques and social control. And though it might be tempting to dismiss the topic as the stuff of pubescent drama, in reality, the practice has hefty political import.

The prevalence of slut-shaming and its effects on women would come as no surprise to most teenagers, but researchers are beginning to formally tackle the subject, too. Leora Tanenbaum, author of the forthcoming book, I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet (HarperCollins), says the attention is a welcome development. 

“Slut-shaming has now permeated our milieu quite deeply,” Tanenbaum says. “It operates to police and contain female sexuality, and even poses barriers to women seeking reproductive healthcare”—all reasons, she explains, why scientists should commit to making sense of the motivations among those who punish their peers for perceived or hypothetical sexual transgressions.

Perhaps because of the relative rarity of studies about slut-shaming compared to the term’s prevalence in the cultural zeitgeist, what little research that exists has generated immense media attention. For the past few weeks, mainstream outlets have buzzed with commentary on an article published in the June 2014 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly titled “‘Good Girls’: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus,” in which a team led by sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton concluded that women’s use of slut discourse is partly about creating distinctions among socioeconomic groups. The piece was the culmination of a five-year longitudinal study of college students at a public Midwestern university; it argued that calling someone a slut “may define moral boundaries around class,” place judgments on sexual behavior, and create stigma in order for some women to distance themselves from others.

Armstrong and Hamilton found that only high-status women experience sexual privilege, meaning the rich girls get to decide what is sexually acceptable behavior in fancy social settings. In other words, what may be “slutty” among working-class women may be perfectly acceptable for those with higher socioeconomic status. As the lead authors explain (along with their co-authors, Elizabeth M. Armstrong and J. Lotus Seeley), “High-status women employ slut discourse to assert class advantage, defining [themselves] as classy rather than trashy.” By contrast, the authors claim, “low-status women express class resentment—deriding rich, bitchy sluts for their exclusivity.” 

Much of the attention Armstrong and Hamilton’s work garnered was positive, suggesting that the public is thirsty for information about an understudied yet crucial subject. Unfortunately, their research betrays a weakness that may lead to further misunderstandings of slut-shaming rather than clarity. Their focus on slut-shaming as gatekeeping into the cool clique is a class-based revision of Mean Girls for the Selfie Era. The concept of young women being cruel to each other, after all, is not particularly new. The problem is that these recent findings about so-called slutty mean girls” obscure important issues regarding sexual safety and female agency. Though feminist critics have long understood women’s participation in slut-shaming as evidence of internalized oppression—meaning that the people in question are reproducing patriarchal expectations of female “purity,” often without realizing it—Armstrong and Hamilton’s team argues that this position is wrong. Rather, slinging mud at each other has a payoff for the college women studied: By judging sexual behavior and gender presentation, they claim, college women create class-based moral boundaries that benefit themselves.

Thus, the research reinforces stereotypes about sexuality and female infighting as it emphasizes backbiting and discord among college women. As for their method, a team of nine researchers occupied one room in a “party dorm” for five years. They established relationships with dorm residents, conducted five waves of interviews and used a participant-observer research style. The team did not set out to study slut-shaming, but were interested in a number of aspects of college life among women, such as relationships, classes, employment, religion and sex. Only later did they realize that their initial questions about sexual activity missed the mark: Ultimately, the discourse surrounding slut-shaming and class status emerged as a salient aspect of this much larger project. 

What’s more, the scientists' very definitions of status and protocol are tendentious. In one instance, for example, the authors refer to low-status women as “self-identified feminists or senior women living in off-campus housing.” 

Attention to class politics in higher education is certainly called for. It is concerning, however, that in a study that purports to draw conclusions about slut-shaming and class status, Armstrong and Hamilton dangerously gloss over key variables and entire groups of people.

For one thing, women of color are totally missing. The researchers’ depictions of “high-class” drew from observations of—and assumptions about—sorority girls. These women, who “exhibited a particular style of femininity valued in sororities” were cute, slender, fit, tan and blonde. In a word: white. And again, there are certainly issues worthy of empirical investigation regarding race, cliques, the Greek system, and the presumption of class status. But this oversight ignores the distinct impact of slut-shaming on women of color. The authors write, “Had we also studied the small nonwhite student population on campus … it is likely that we would have recognized moral boundaries drawn around race.” But they didn’t. So they can’t.

By the authors’ own account, this limited analysis is the result of the racially homogenous research pool at a largely white college campus. While the authors acknowledge that their interviewees are all white “as a result of low racial diversity on campus and segregation in campus housing,” they fail to mention how this limitation could be methodologically remedied.

Regardless, the omission of input by women of color is an egregious one, especially considering that they are all-too-often presumed to be sluts by virtue of skin tone. Such bigotry goes beyond college campuses, and it can extend from name-calling and cliques to racialized criminalization. In the forthcoming anthology 21st Century Sex: Contemporary Issues in Pleasure and Safety (Routledge), writer and activist Aura Bogado explains using research from Trymaine Lee that “black, poor, and transgender women are being disproportionately and systematically branded as criminal ‘sex offenders’ on an online database for engaging in ‘survival sex’ in New Orleans. Under the cover of an obscure, slave-era legal term called ‘crimes against nature,’ police officers target those who engage in oral or anal sex-for-money. Those targeted for a second time are charged as felons (vaginal sex-for-money, meanwhile, is considered misdemeanor prostitution). Forty percent of those who appear on the sexual predator database in NOLA are there because they were accused of committing a ‘crime against nature;’ more than 80 percent of those are black women.

Emily Lindin, creator of the The Unslut Project and director of Slut: A Documentary Film, agrees that the exclusion of women of color is a serious flaw in Armstrong and Hamilton’s work. “It strikes me that this study’s weakness is its limited sample,” Lindin says. “According to their own admission, the researchers only interviewed upper-middle-class, white, sorority women at one college.”

Additionally, Lindin adds, another major issue is the sociologists’ conclusion that women actively participate in slut-shaming because they have something to gain. In doing so, Armstrong and Hamilton suggest that women are “not simply unwitting victims of men’s sexual dominance.”

Again, the authors’ “conclusion that women from wealthy backgrounds use slut-shaming as a way to disparage women from poorer backgrounds” is important to consider, Lindin says. But that doesn’t mean that the arbiters of said shaming are somehow safe from gender biases that give cultural permission for men to be sexually adventurous while condemning women for doing the same. It isn’t hard, after all, to find examples of sorority women blamed for being sluts: A quick web search of the terms “sorority” and “slut” yields no shortage of links to disparaging Internet sites. Suggesting, as the researchers do, that high-class women have turned slut-shaming into a wholly beneficial practice is a fallacy. “The findings of this study add depth to the issue of slut-shaming,” Lindin comments. However, these findings certainly ought not replace our current understanding of how sexism permeates the phenomenon.

At its heart, this is a female-centric slur. And while it impacts various groups differently, no women are immune. This sort of moral panic over how women dress, move, or speak is nothing new: Working-class women in late-1800s New York City could be arrested for drinking in dance halls because they were considered morally unfit. Flappers in the 1920s were thought to be loose women for their outrageous shimmies and bobs. Not even Rihanna, who recently came under public attack for the outfit she wore at the 2014 CFDA fashion awards, could evade scrutiny and judgment.

Then there is the matter of how slut-shaming obscures the problem of sexual assault. Again, slut-shaming, as the “Good Girls” research notes (and most girls older than of 12 can tell you) has little to do with actual sexual activity. Even so, it can be used as a vernacular slur to stigmatize sexual acts, leaving victims of sexual assault—which Pediatrics reported as a serious risk to girls in their early teens—unprotected and subject to torment rather than support. While female sexuality is relentlessly highlighted and judged, male sexuality is applauded or evades scrutiny altogether. Too often, this extends to matters of nonconsensual sexual assault.

Amanda Todd and Audrie Pott were only 15 at the time of their suicides, while Rehtaeh Parsons was just 17. Each of these teens was sexually assaulted; unlike their male attackers, these girls faced unbearable slut-shaming from peers and strangers, including harassment on social media.

These girls had yet to finish high school. But even for those who make it to college, the risk of sexual assault continues. As David J. Leonard, associate professor of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, points out in an article for The Feminist Wire, “A staggering 20 percent of women experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while attending a college or university; about 6 percent of men have experienced sexual violence, with half of trans college students experiencing sexual violence while attending one of America’s liberal institutions of higher learning.” Armstrong and Hamilton’s research does nothing to interrupt the patterns of cultural shame and blame women often experience as a result of consensual sexual interest. Worse, it encourages the public to focus on the mean-spirited actions among girls and women, while ignoring the roles of men, boys and cultural ideology. This detracts from effectively preventing male violence and sexual assault.

In extreme cases, slut-shaming has been used as justification for violence itself. Before his mass-murder rampage in Isla Vista, California, in May 2014, Elliot Rodger ranted that “blond sorority sluts” must die and vowed on what he termed “the day of retribution,” that he would enter the “hottest sorority house” of the University of California, Santa Barbara and “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut” he saw inside there.

The causes of harassment, suicide, and murder cannot be reduced solely to slut-shaming as a unicausal variable. However, it is unmistakably a component. These tragic examples cut across the lines of race and class. On some level, it is understandable that scientists such as Armstrong and Hamilton would aim toward new discovery. In this instance, though, their interest is misdirected, their methods are questionable and the unintended consequences are serious. Creating a straw slut that pits sorority women against the working class (and presumes the two are mutually exclusive) distracts us from imminent concerns regarding sexual politics and sexual safety. Slut-shaming is, for some, a form of daily microaggression. For others, it is an overt precision attack. This takes its toll in innumerable ways, but more precise, nuanced research might help prevent both men and women from slut-shaming while bolstering young women against those ramifications. And it is imperative that progress happens sooner rather than later, because the stakes are high—and some pay the ultimate price.

Shira Tarrant, PhD is associate professor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach. She is the author and editor of several books including Men and Feminism (Seal Press) and 21st Century Sex: Contemporary Issues in Pleasure and Safety (Routledge, forthcoming). Read more at ShiraTarrant.com.

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