Slut-Shaming Hurts Every Woman—Including Mean Girls

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

Shira Tarrant June 23, 2014

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

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.

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.

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 Shi​raTar​rant​.com.
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