Status And Sluttiness

Amanda Hess peruses a sociological study showing that slut-shaming has little to do with actual sexual behavior:

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. …

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.” 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.

Olga Khazan’s takeaway is that sluts, like hipsters, are basically anyone you don’t like:

One of the most striking things [sociologist Elizabeth] Armstrong learned was that, despite the pervasiveness of slut-shaming, there was no cogent definition of sluttiness, or of girls who were slutty, or even evidence that the supposedly slutty behavior had transpired. In the study, she notes that though “women were convinced that sluts exist” and worked to avoid the label, some of their descriptions of sluttiness were so imprecise (‘‘had sex with a guy in front of everybody”) that they seemed to be referring to some sort of apocrypha—“a mythical slut.”

“The term is so vague and slippery that no one knows what a slut was or no one knows what you have to do to be that,” she told me. “It circulated around, though, so everyone could worry about it being attached to them.”