Health

Why do college students 'slut shame'? It's a class thing

May 29, 2014 at 10:43 AM ET

Patrick Kane / AP
Tassels hang from a cap during commencement exercises at Richard Bland College, a two-year branch of The College of William & Mary, on Friday, May 9, 2014 on the campus near Petersburg, Va. (AP Photo/The Progress-Index, Patrick Kane)

Being a well-to-do college woman can come with a lot of perks. Trendy clothes. Expensive purses. Cool cars. And to cement their top-of-food-chain status, the A-listers have also become masters of the egregious practice of slut-shaming, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Michigan studied a group of 53 women who lived on the same college dorm floor in the 2004-2005 academic year and followed them for about five years for the study published in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

What the researchers found is that class warfare, expressed in terms of sexuality, is alive and well. Rich girls, who have more hookups than their less well-to-do female classmates, believe their own sexual escapades are "classy." Their poorer classmates who have the same sexual behaviors are "trashy," or "slutty."

That so-called "classiness" gives the more well-to-do young women license to enjoy sexual exploration without the fear of a derogatory label, explains lead researcher Elizabeth A. Armstrong, associate professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan.

"We were surprised by how willing (these) women were to throw around the word 'slut,' since it's so clearly damaging," says Armstrong, co-author of "Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality."

"Women threw the term around without really understanding that it is a form of bullying, and we know how absolutely devastating bullying can be."

But what really surprised the researchers is that these young women, both rich and not-so-rich, viewed "slut" in terms of economics, rather than in terms of sexual behavior. "Calling someone a slut became a way to pull people down and express hatred," says Armstrong.

The study found that participating in the Greek party scene signaled high-ranking campus status. And this pecking order largely fell along economic lines, with high-status women coming from upper and middle class families and lower-status women coming from middle and working class backgrounds.

This class warfare helped explain why women who engaged in less sexual activity (the have-nots) were more likely to be publicly labeled a slut compared to the upper-crust women who engaged in more sexual activity.

"High-status women can be hooking up, making out, and engaging in oral sex, but since they were from affluence, they defined themselves as classy, and they did it at the expense of other women not in their social circles," Armstrong says.

The less affluent young women had their own definition of "slut," equating it with materialism, exclusivity and shallowness. Their views had little effect on the high-status women.

Although the study was conducted at one university, it may be likely the same sort of hierarchies exist at different universities in various locales across the country.

"Women threw the term around without really understanding that it is a form of bullying, and we know how absolutely devastating bullying can be," Armstrong says.

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