The Link Between Slut-Shaming, Bullying, & Femininity

by Sarah Miller

Recent reports in both Slate and Time, focus on research (here) that illuminates how young women use slut-shaming to make multi-directional class distinctions. Authors Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton and colleagues find that among white college women, those with low status judge high status peers for being “rich, bitchy sluts,” while high status women claim to be “classy” by designating low status peers “trashy.” Ultimately, while slut slander may appear to be equal opportunity, the outcomes are not: slut-shaming has less of a lasting impact on women with more resources. The research adds insight into why the slut remains a persistent threat in young women’s lives- they have something to gain from using this term against one another. However, slut-shaming does not begin in college (nor with girls themselves), and its’ ramifications can be serious, as the rape victim-blaming that generated Slutwalk, and numerous highly-publicized “bullycide” cases attest. 

Importantly, media coverage of this research links slut-shaming to bullying, much like fag discourse has been among boys. Bullying is a way that youth negotiate status hierarchies, which often involves peer policing of a narrow set of intersecting sexuality and gender norms. Scholars have shown how bullying among girls often involves slut-shaming (here, here and here). This growing conversation indicates how important it is not to minimize slut talk as simply “girls being girls,” but rather to look closely at the meanings that are generated between girls when they engage in this type of aggression- meanings that are compelling to teens because they are reinforced by a culture that values wealth and heteronormative gender conformity, while devaluing girls’ and young women’s sexual autonomy.

My own research contributes to this conversation by focusing on how gender and sexuality operate in young women’s bullying practices- what young people call “drama.” I interviewed 54 late adolescent girls about their experiences with drama in high school and college. Respondents came from a spectrum of class backgrounds, nearly half were racial minorities, and a fifth were sexual minorities. These young women were college students in a variety of settings (university, liberal arts, and community colleges), who had each recently graduated from over fifty different high schools. Across most of these contexts, slut-shaming was commonplace.

Similar to previous research (here, here and here) my respondents used slut talk to make claims about class and race. However, across racial/ethnic and class backgrounds, I find that girls are invested in this process because it offers an opportunity to make claims about what kind of girl they are, through naming what kind of girl they aren’t. Slut-shaming was also not the only form of sexual drama they described: though less common, girls also witnessed and engaged in homophobic judgment and slander against other girls. In any case- be it “sluts,” “lesbians,” or “bisexual whores”- the focus of drama was never just on what a girl does with her body, but on who she is as a girl, while marking the norms of femininity. Drama is thus a powerful tool for girls to make gendered identity claims, claims that are made all the more valuable through their underlying classed, raced, and sexual meanings.

Part of the reason high school girls engage in this process is they don’t have many other acceptable ways to make claims about their own sexualities. Boys benefit from talking publicly about their (hetero) sexual experiences- but the benefits are limited for girls when they do the same. In fact, while many young women described judgmental talk about other girls’ sexual exploits as a socially acceptable bonding ritual, talk about their own sexualities was considered a liability, even among close friends. This is why the spectre of “the bad girl” is needed. Without the cultural and institutional support to talk openly and positively about their sexualities, teen girls are left to talk about what they’re not supposed to do, what “kind of girl” they’re not supposed to be.

Things do change in college. Though slut-shaming and homophobia persist, as sexual activity is normalized, sexual information is more accessible, and social networks expand, the function and ramifications of drama evolves. While scholars may frame this process differently between high school and college- from bullying, to boundary work, and beyond- the outcomes align. As sociologist CJ Pascoe points out (here), we need to start attending “to the way bullying often reflects, reproduces, and prepares young people to accept inequalities embedded in larger social structures.” Unfortunately, given the cultural contexts in which girls grow up in the US- marked by normalized sexual violence, and heteronormative gender norms that problematize girls’ sexual desires while emphasizing their value as sexual objects- it is not surprising that girls are invested in, and benefit from, this process as they come of age. Whatever we call it, bullying is a resource that young people are unlikely to give up any time soon, without significant cultural change.

Sarah Miller is a graduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “The Link Between Slut-Shaming, Bullying, & Femininity

  1. Reblogged this on Myths of Our Time and commented:
    Good clear post that I have reblogged from Gender & Society on the symbolic violence of femininity and its links to bullying. Ties in nicely with a forthcoming podcast I intend to do on links between masculinity, heteronormativity, sexual oppression and symbolic violence.

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