TIME human behavior

When Girls Use the Word ‘Slut’ to Bully Each Other

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A new study finds that girls police social hierarchies by slut-shaming one another

Though hashtag campaigns like #YesAllWomen remind us that women are often the victims of men’s misogyny and sexual aggression, men are not the only culprits. A new study finds that young women are guilty of bullying their peers using degrading sexual language.

Some college-age women maintain their social status by calling other girls “sluts,” according to a study published Wednesday in the Social Psychology Quarterly. Researchers tracked the social lives of 53 women who lived on the same college dorm floor at a Midwestern university during the 2004-05 academic year. The high-status women in that group were primarily from upper-middle class backgrounds and achieved peer status through their participation in the Greek scene.

Those well-off, high-status women were less likely to be “slut-shamed” by their lower-status peers, despite engaging in more sexual behavior than the low-status women, researchers found. “This finding made little sense until we realized that college women also used the term [slut] as a way to police class boundaries,” lead researcher Elizabeth Armstrong said. “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.'”

Slut-shaming can refer to a wide range of behaviors, from telling a woman her outfit is too revealing to accusing her of having sex with too many men to explicitly calling her a “slut” or “whore.” Slut-shaming is an easy way for women to bully each other and put one another down. Whether or not there’s truth to such accusations, publicly criticizing another woman can help a bully to distance herself from the stigma of sexuality while also lowering the status of the girl she’s bullying.

Researchers found that low-status women who tried to enter the high-status scene risked public slut-shaming. The result? The queen bees maintained their social dominance and were more free to participate in the campus “hookup scene.” (Hookups can range from kissing to sex.)

The researchers found that the higher social status you had, the more hookups you would participate in: Of the low-status girls, five had little or no sexual experience, eight had only been in monogamous relationships, one had primarily had relationships but also participated in hookups and seven had participated in both hookups and relationships. By contrast, all of the high-status girls had some sexual experience: One had had only monogamous relationships, three had primarily had relationships but also participated in hookups and 19 women had both hookups and relationships.

These high-status women with more sexual experience tended to define their lifestyle is “classy” rather than “trashy.” However, if lower-status girls tried to mimic that experience, they would immediately be called trashy. The bullying tactic has particularly stinging implications considering those women at the top tended to be upper-middle class white women, and the women with lower social status tended not to be.

Sadly, girl-on-girl fighting usually ends up empowering men. As Tina Fey’s character said in the movie Mean Girls: “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

 

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