New Study Proves That Men Don’t Slut Shame, Rich Women Do

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“By engaging in ‘slut-shaming’ — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.”

The common narrative is that slut shaming is primarily a result of men seeking to assert power over women by shaming them for engaging in sexual activities that these same men have engaged in or want to engage in without a single disapproving word from society. It can take the form of calling a woman a slut because of what she wears, what language she uses, who she sleeps with and how many, the variety of and opportunity for slut-shaming, it seems, are boundless. Most often, slut-shaming is seen to be primarily about sex and power and is framed as being between men and women.

But what if it’s not the case that men are the only or even the primary bringers of sexual shame? What if slut-shaming isn’t even about sex and isn’t even primarily between men and women but about class and therefore focused primarily on resources and social status?

One study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, both Phd’ed Sociologists makes just such a claim and goes so far as to categorize slut-shaming as a form of bullying. Here’s the abstract from the study entitled “Good Girls” Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus (emphasis added):

Women’s participation in slut shaming is often viewed as internalized oppression: they apply disadvantageous sexual double standards established by men. This perspective grants women little agency and neglects their simultaneous location in other social structures. In this article we synthesize insights from social psychology, gender, and culture to argue that undergraduate women use slut stigma to draw boundaries around status groups linked to social class—while also regulating sexual behavior and gender performance. High-status women employ slut discourse to assert class advantage, defining themselves as classy rather than trashy, while low-status women express class resentment—deriding rich, bitchy sluts for their exclusivity. Slut discourse enables, rather than constrains, sexual experimentation for the high-status women whose definitions prevail in the dominant social scene. This is a form of sexual privilege. In contrast, low-status women risk public shaming when they attempt to enter dominant social worlds.

While, certainly, one could make an argument that this tendency is a product of a patriarchal society’s embedded dynamics that in no way explains the overwhelming presence of class in the study, a social dynamic far stronger and longer lived than any concept of patriarchy in that class grants resources and overwhelming advantage. Money is, after all, power and privilege. As Dr. Alexander explains:

“Surprisingly, women who engaged in less sexual activity were more likely to be publicly labeled a slut than women who engaged in more sexual activity,” Armstrong said. “This finding made little sense until we realized that college women also used the term as a way to police class boundaries.”

The authors discovered that the affluent women participating in sororities in fact worried less about being judged as a slut than did the less affluent women, even though they would engage in more sexual activity. That was because they kept that activity quiet and conveniently seemed to define the accepted standards surrounding sexual behavior.

But when the less affluent women tried to befriend them, the affluent women would publicly slut-shame them as a way to convey that they didn’t fit in.

We see this kind of have and have-not dynamic in other areas of society as well. The wealthy shaming the poor and unemployed for being lazy (whether they worked for their money or not) and we see these class distinctions crop up in issues of race where some poor Whites differentiate themselves poor Blacks in order to maintain an internal idea of class structure. It’s an extremely common phenomenon. In those cases, the differentiation is created in order to preserve advantage for those at the top of the social order. In the case of slut-shaming among these women, the purpose was exactly the same and upper class women were able to turn the sexual dynamic of slut-shaming on its head.

“Viewing women only as victims of men’s sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities,” Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology and organizational studies professor at the University of Michigan, said in a release. “By engaging in ‘slut-shaming’ — the practice of maligning women for presumed sexual activity — women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.”

We all gather our social mores from our peer groups and, more often than not, our peer groups are people of our gender meaning socialization is largely derived from those of our own gender. I’m generally a proponent of the concept that says social structures are always more informed by issues of class than they are issues of gender or race. Certainly, there’s cross-pollination, but if you look at each of these social issues individually they are all about access to resources whether that’s money, community security, influence, or any number of other things. They’re all ultimately resource issues and that makes them class issues.

To extend the argument, since upper class women are able to control the circumstances and discussion around their sexuality, they are granted more agency than poorer women. They aren’t called sluts and they’re able to exercise as much sexual freedom as they want while seeking to deny that freedom to those who are poorer and less powerful than they are.

This is “above the system” level stuff where the concept of patriarchy loses meaning and these women are able to rise above such a dynamic in what is a simple search for pure personal advantage. To make another analogy, they get a golden parachute but you lose your house. TC mark

featured image – Flickr – Andrey Desyatov

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