TORONTO — You hear the vicious word uttered between women: ‘slut.’ But what exactly do girls mean when they throw that word around? After spending a few years studying a dormitory floor of college girls, scientists learned that the use of the word “slut” was all about social class and had nothing to do with promiscuity.
Turns out, even women who weren’t sleeping around were given the “slut” label. So who were the victims and who were the perpetrators of this shaming? The study suggests that it was affluent college girls who called their less fortunate peers “sluts.” And if the rich girls got around, the social context it happened in made it more appropriate and less “trashy.”
“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 explained.
It sounds like a Hollywood movie plot: the University of Michigan sociologist studied 53 women — all of them white — who lived together on a dorm room floor. She followed the freshmen girls right into graduation.
What she and her co-author, University of California’s Dr. Laura Hamilton, learned was that there were clear economic lines drawn in the sand.
The girls with high status came from upper- and middle-class backgrounds — they were popular and had access to frat parties. Lower-middle-class and working-class girls were at the bottom of the food chain — even if they tried to climb the social ladder they risked being humiliated by their peers.
“Surprisingly, women who engaged in less sexual activity were more likely to be publicly labelled 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. High-status women, who were from affluent families, defined themselves as classy compared to other women whom they viewed as trashy or slutty,” she said.
Women without such status called their richer peers “sluts” based on their materialism and shallowness, the study said, and their affluent classmates “barely recognized the existence” of their peers.
Dr. Oren Amitay, a Canadian registered psychologist, isn’t surprised by the findings.
“This is nothing new. This has been going on forever. The thing that’s changed is they’ve latched onto this word. It’s not even talking about sexual behaviour – by calling women ‘sluts,’ it’s just a negative connotation,” Amitay said.
He says that in the past, shaming had to do with physical strength, and then who you were related to (remember those jabs about your parents?).
“In virtually every culture, social status plays a role and one of the most prominent ways to gain social status is through money,” Amitay explained, and putting down others to cement your own high status is part of the game.
He also noted that people have a tendency to look for faults in others that they may see in themselves.
Armstrong noted that in her study, too.
The girls didn’t want to have a “slut” reputation, but they threw around stories of their peers who allegedly slept with the entire sports team or were easy to get into bed. That “bad girl” made the college girls feel better about what they were doing behind closed doors, Armstrong told U.S. outlets.
The study is based on findings from a single university, but the researchers say similar hierarchies could exist on other campuses.
What troubled them most was that the girls didn’t acknowledge just how damaging their words could be.
“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 told NBC News.
Her findings were published this week in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.