A New Study on Slut-Shaming Finds That Rich Girls Are the Worst

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 28 2014 9:32 AM

Are You a Slut? That Depends. Are You Rich?

sluts
On college campuses, a "slut" is a many-splendored thing.

Photo by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton—sociologists at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and the University of California–Merced, respectively—infiltrated a dorm at a Midwestern university in an effort to better understand the female college experience. The researchers interviewed more than 50 women (all of them white) from the start of their freshman year and followed them to shortly after their graduations, asking them questions about, for example, their perceptions of ‘‘a girl who is known for having sex with a lot of guys.’’ That question was an unexpected dud, yielding few thoughts from the young women in their sample. Then 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.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Armstrong and Hamilton’s work culminated in a book called Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, as well as a new study in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly focused squarely on the slut question. As the sociologists got to know these women, they watched as they stratified into what they defined as “high status” and “low status” social groups, with high-status women typically emerging from affluent homes around the country and rising through the Greek system, and low-status ones coming from local middle- and working-class backgrounds and coalescing into friend groups boxed out of sorority life. They found that the groups had different conceptions of what constituted a campus slut, with the low-status women pinning sluttiness on “rich bitches in sororities,” and the high-status women aligning sluttiness with women they perceived as “trashy,” not “classy.”

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This class-based construction of the campus slut allowed both groups to deflect the stigma of “sluttiness” onto other women and away from themselves, establish hierarchies among social groups, and police everyone’s gender performance—including their own—along the way. “Real” sluts didn’t even need to exist for the slut system to work: Some campus sluts who came up in conversation were apocryphal constructions, like the sorority sister who supposedly “had sex with a guy in front of everybody” at a Greek event, a woman who “no one actually knew” but of whom everybody had heard. Another group of students dismissed a woman as a slut who was having ‘‘sex with a different guy every single night and every single weekend’’—a dubious claim that nevertheless allowed them to continue to engage in frequent hookups without earning the designation themselves. One high-status woman told researchers, ‘‘I think when people have sex with a lot of guys that aren’t their boyfriends that’s really a slut,” but she couldn’t define "a lot."

Still, the researchers found, women “were convinced that actual sluts existed and organized their behaviors to avoid this label”—it’s just that the system was more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles than criticizing the notches on their bedposts. And the vagueness and ubiquity of the term “slut” on campus allowed these women to effectively police each other without denying themselves actual sex. The higher-class women defined “respectable femininity” as a “polite, accommodating, demure style often performed by the white middle class,” what one woman described as “the preppy, classy, good girl.” These were women with “parent-funded credit cards” who wore “expensive MAC-brand purple eye shadow” instead of drugstore brands and—instead of working jobs—“had time to go tanning, get their hair done, do their nails, shop, and keep up with fashion trends.” They set arbitrary rules for party behavior (it’s OK for a woman to wear a short skirt, but only if she doesn’t dance suggestively in it, and that rule is suspended on Halloween). And they stigmatized women not on the number of their sexual partners, but on their partners’ own social status. To them, “good girls only flirted with affluent men who had high status on campus. This disadvantaged less-affluent women, who were often drawn to men sharing their class background," Armstrong and Hamilton write. "These men were not in fraternities or necessarily even in college.” For their part, lower-status women defined a “good girl” as a down-to-earth, laid-back, friendly person who stands in opposition to the sorority stereotype, which one student characterized as “whorish,” “unfriendly,” “very cliquey,” and definitely rich.

That’s not to say that slut-shaming was an equal-opportunity sport on this Midwestern campus. While high-status women could successfully establish their “erotic rank” by sexually stigmatizing others, lower-status women had no rank to pull. If a sorority woman called a lower-status woman a slut, it could rise to the level of public stigma (instead of just private sniping, where much of the slut narrative unspooled), but if a lower-status student called a sorority woman a whore, the term came with no social consequences. Even those lower-status women who made a bid at breaking into the upper rungs of the party scene put themselves “at risk of acquiring sexual stigma back home, where they were judged for associating with rich partiers.” Meanwhile, while the specter of trashiness loomed large over the high-status women, real lower-class women on campus were basically “invisible” to them, having been boxed out of Greek life early in their college careers. While “those at the bottom of a hierarchy tend to be excruciatingly aware of those above them,” the high-status women “did not care what marginalized individuals thought of them as these opinions were inconsequential both during college and beyond.” The “trashy” girl was merely a fictional construction against which these women could assert their own moral purity and class status.

The study, which only focuses on female attitudes, leaves a pretty significant gap in understanding how men on campus interact with slut-shaming. But it’s notable that the women in Armstrong and Hamilton’s study—as the researchers present them, at least—have no need to call on men to rank themselves on the slut scale. The good news is that women in the study were less likely to obsess over the nature of sluttiness as their time on campus ticked by; one even began to publicly own her sexual behavior in conversations among friends. The bad news is that, by the time graduation hit, the class hierarchy that had built up behind the “slut” label had been set for good. The slut discourse is just one window into a much larger class issue that's endemic to colleges across America—and a reminder that even as sexual norms create an obvious rift between men and women on campus, money is quietly working to keep all students apart.

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