Bullying is rampant at all levels of childhood and adulthood, and for women, one of the major ways this behavior manifests is in the form of sexual bullying.
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Experts call it “slut discourse” and it is the phrase used to describe when females shame other females for being promiscuous. In an interesting turn of events, however, new research suggests that this form of bullying is actually a way women hide their own sexual freedom.
“Viewing women only as victims of men’s sexual dominance fails to hold women accountable for the roles they play in reproducing social inequalities,” said lead author Elizabeth A. Armstrong to MNT. “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 study, entitled “Good Girls’: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus,” evaluated the behaviors of women in college who shared a dorm for one academic year. What Armstrong and her team discovered was that women of high social standing frequently used slut discourse to hide their own promiscuous behaviors by diverting attention to women considered to be of lower standing.
By setting the standard for what would label a woman a slut, those of higher social standing were able to avoid criticism themselves.
“Fear of being judged often constrains women’s sexual experimentation,” Armstrong said. “However, we found that high-status women worried less than low-status women about being judged negatively. High-status women conveniently defined the criteria of judgment among women in ways that defined the sorts of sexual exploration they sought as acceptable.”
The study indicated that it was often the women who were the least sexually active who received the most slut discourse, primarily because women in the upper social circles used the tactic as a mean of policing social circle boundaries. Any lower-class woman attempting to penetrate the high social circle would immediately be shamed publicly as being a slut.
“One of the ways that high-status women signaled to those trying to break in to their social groups that they did not fit in was by engaging in public ‘slut-shaming,’” Armstrong said. “This often took the form of calling other women out for their dress or deportment, as a way of making it clear that they did not fit in with the high-status group.”
Armstrong explained that slut discourse is sometimes not seen as a form of bullying, but her findings reveal there is far more to the habit than calling someone out about their sexual experimentation. Slut discourse is primarily a way of keeping other women controlled and needs to be addressed as the form of bullying that it is. A number of female suicides have been the result of slut discourse.
“In a few recent cases, ‘slut-shaming’ has played a role in the suicides of girls and young women,” Armstrong said. “We hope that our findings are constructively used in campaigns against bullying. We suspect that these campaigns are more likely to be successful if they help young people arrive at deeper understandings of the social processes involved in this type of bullying.”