Slut-Shaming Isn't Just a "Girl-On-Girl Crime"

What Women Really Think
June 7 2013 5:12 PM

Slut-Shaming Isn't Just a "Girl-On-Girl Crime"

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Women take part in a "slut walk" in London.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/GettyImages

New research into the science of slut-shaming has found that promiscuous women can’t get a break—even from other promiscuous women. For a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers from Cornell University asked college women to read a vignette describing a hypothetical female peer, “Joan,” then rate their feelings about her personality. To one group of women, Joan was described as having two lifetime sexual partners; to another group, she’d bedded 20. The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant than the Joan who’d only boasted two.

Slutty Joan is just another statistic tossed onto the mounting pile of evidence of girl on girl crime, in which sexism is inflicted on women by other women. But lately, the public fascination with female infighting has threatened to let men—and really, the society we all live in—off the hook for hating on ladies who get around.

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Take the press coverage of the Cornell study, which has focused heavily on female attitudes toward promiscuous women while sliding over the male attitudes unearthed in the research. While researchers were quizzing women about Joan, they presented a group of men with identical descriptions of a male peer, “Jim.” In opposition to the female response, the young men actually rated Slutty Jim as more competent and emotionally stable than Prudish Jim. The men did see Slutty Jim as a threat to their own sexual security—what the researchers call “mate guarding”—but that threat didn’t translate into perceiving Jim as a bad person.

That finding could be interpreted as evidence that men engage in social policing of sexual behavior less than women do. But it’s really just that they’re saving their judgment for women like Joan instead of for each other. The Cornell study itself didn’t rate male attitudes about promiscuous women (or vice versa), but as lead author Zhana Vrangalova told Science, that’s partly because “study after study has found that sexually permissive women are discriminated against by potential romantic partners.” And as UCLA sociologist Jessica Carbino recently told Ann Friedman at The Cut, “men and women both agree that men should actively pursue female partners and that women should be passive recipients to their advances,” and that “when women do not adhere to these scripts they are viewed negatively.”  

Lately, whenever I write about social stigma against women who sleep around—from social media shaming in the wake of Steubenville to the science on the social barriers that hold women back from pursuing casual sex—I hear from men who tell me, “Men don’t slut-shame women. We’d love for women to have more casual sex with us.” But liking the fact that a woman wants to have sex doesn’t translate to actually liking the woman herself—especially if she’s mostly interested in doing it with another guy, like Jim. Slut-shaming isn’t just an instance of girl-on-girl crime, much as we love that Mean Girls narrative. It’s everyone against girls.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. Email her at amanda.hess@slate.com, or follow her on Twitter.