What Women Mean When We Call Each Other “Sluts” And “Whores”

It’s no secret that women use the words “slut” and “whore” to describe other women. Now, a new study of college-aged women sheds more light on just why young women use these slurs. You might be as surprised as I was to find out what’s really at play here: the slur is not meant to directly punish sexuality, but to delineate a broader social standing. And here’s the interesting part: depending on where a young woman landed within the school’s social hierarchy, she used the word “slut” differently to describe her peers. 

The study, “Good Girls’: Gender, Social Class and Slut Discourse on Campus,” is appearing in an upcoming issue of Social Psychology Quarterly. The lead authors, University of Michigan professor Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton from University of California–Merced, followed 53 female students at a campus in the Midwest. They were studied from 2004 to 2008, from their freshman to senior years. The group of young women included both those from more privileged financial backgrounds, who were active in the campus sorority scene, and less privileged upbringings. The study only focused on young white women, so it could isolate class issues specifically without factoring in racial issues as well.

As US News & World Report explains, the researchers found that “slut” is an all-purpose insult. But calling someone a “slut” had more to do with perceptions of another woman’s femininity rather than with her sexuality. In fact, less sexually experienced women were actually called sluts more often, according to the research.  Thanks to the class stratification found on the campus, young women perceived other women from their own social group as the “right” kind of feminine.  As Armstrong explains, “Wealthy women are making a distinction between being classy and trashy, whereas women with less money are equating stuck up and exclusive and not nice to being slutty.” As blogger Amanda Hess put it on the blog Double X, employing the slur “was more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles.” For example, women from wealthier backgrounds were able to afford the beautifying treatments considered by their peer “classy”: wearing department store makeup, getting their nails done, tanning. Young women who can’t afford these services and presented themselves as feminine in other ways were seen as “trashy.”

Interestingly, young women from a lower class background who were trying to socialize with higher-status groups were more likely to be labeled “sluts,” the study found. Armstrong explained that lower-class women risked being called out and humiliated by the higher-class women for their clothes or behavior, which signaled they weren’t welcome in the group. (And not surprisingly further cemented their reputation for being stuck up.) Also interesting, as Double X reports, is how higher-status women were less concerned with how many men that lower-status women had slept with but whether the men themselves were lower status. Higher-class women, it seems, are highly attuned to the subtleties of status-by-association. Yet higher-class women were also (frustratingly) less concerned with what the lower-class women thought of them.

Fascinating stuff, no? This study basically just makes me really annoyed at those unnamed sorority girls. If you’re interested in this topic, author Leora Tanenbaum explored all these themes in her book Slut! Growing Up Female With A Bad Reputation.

[American Sociological Association (PDF)]

[US News & World Report]

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