Choose one quote (must be the full quote, not just a phrase) that stands out to you from the following article that is attached. Write one paragraph (about 5 to 10 sentences) on why you chose that quote, how you interpret it, and why it interests you.THE QUOTE MUST BE ABOUT SEXUALITY!Social Psychology Quarterly
2014, Vol. 77(2) 100–122
Ó American Sociological Association 2014
‘‘Good Girls’’: Gender,
Social Class, and Slut
Discourse on Campus
Elizabeth A. Armstrong1, Laura T. Hamilton2,
Elizabeth M. Armstrong1, and J. Lotus Seeley1
Women’s participation in slut shaming is often viewed as internalized oppression: they apply
disadvantageous sexual double standards established by men. This perspective grants women
little agency and neglects their simultaneous location in other social structures. In this article
we synthesize insights from social psychology, gender, and culture to argue that undergraduate women use slut stigma to draw boundaries around status groups linked to social
class—while also regulating sexual behavior and gender performance. High-status women
employ slut discourse to assert class advantage, defining themselves as classy rather than trashy, while low-status women express class resentment—deriding rich, bitchy sluts for their
exclusivity. Slut discourse enables, rather than constrains, sexual experimentation for the
high-status women whose definitions prevail in the dominant social scene. This is a form of
sexual privilege. In contrast, low-status women risk public shaming when they attempt to
enter dominant social worlds.
stigma, status, reputation, gender, class, sexuality, identity, young adulthood, college
women, qualitative methods
Slut shaming, the practice of maligning
women for presumed sexual activity, is
common among young Americans. For
example, Urban Dictionary—a website
documenting youth slang—refers those
interested in the term slut to whore, bitch,
skank, ho, cunt, prostitute, tramp, hooker,
easy, or slug.1 Boys and men are not alone
in using these terms (Wolf 1997; Tanenbaum 1999; White 2002). In our ethnographic and longitudinal study of college
women at a large, moderately selective
‘‘Slut.’’ Urban Dictionary. Retrieved December 18, 2013 (http://www.urbandictionary.com/
university in the Midwest, women labeled
other women and marked their distance
Women’s participation in slut shaming
is often viewed as evidence of internalized
oppression (Ringrose and Renold 2012).
This argument proceeds as follows: slut
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
University of California, Merced, Merced, CA, USA
Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Department of Sociology,
University of Michigan, Room 3001 LSA Building,
500 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.
shaming is based on sexual double standards established and upheld by men, to
women’s disadvantage. Although young
men are expected to desire and pursue
sex regardless of relational and emotional
context, young women are permitted sexual activity only when in committed relationships and ‘‘in love’’ (Crawford and
Popp 2003; Hamilton and Armstrong
2009; Schalet 2011; Bell 2013). Women
are vulnerable to slut stigma when they
violate this sexual standard and consequently experience status loss and discrimination (Phillips 2000; Nack 2002).
Slut shaming is thus about sexual
inequality and reinforces male dominance
and female subordination. Women’s participation works at cross-purposes with
progress toward gender equality.
In this article, we complicate this picture. We are unconvinced that women
would engage so enthusiastically in slut
discourse with nothing to gain. Synthesizing insights from social psychological
research on stigma, gender theory, and
cultural sociology, we argue that women’s
participation in this practice is only indirectly related to judgments about sexual
activity. Instead it is about drawing
class-based moral boundaries that simultaneously organize sexual behavior and
gender presentation. Women’s definitions
of sluttiness revolve around status on
campus, which is largely dictated by class
background. High-status women employ
slut discourse to assert class advantage,
defining their styles of femininity and
approaches to sexuality as classy rather
than trashy. Low-status women express
class resentment—deriding rich, bitchy
sluts for their wealth, exclusivity, and
participation in casual sexual activity.
For high-status women—whose definitions prevail in the dominant social
scene—slut discourse enables, rather
than constrains, sexual experimentation.
In contrast, low-status women are vulnerable to public shaming.
INTERPRETING SLUT DISCOURSE
We outline three explanations of women’s
participation in slut shaming. These
approaches are not mutually exclusive,
in part because the concept of status is
central to all three. We treat status as
the relative positioning of individuals in
a hierarchy based on esteem and respect.
This approach is fundamentally Weberian and consistent with (often implicit)
definitions of the concept in social psychology (see Berger, Ridgeway, and Zelditch 2002; Ridgeway 2011; Lucas and
Phelan 2012). Those with high status
experience esteem and approval; those
with low status are more likely to experience disregard and stigma. While status
systems among adults often focus on occupation, among youth they develop in peer
cultures (e.g., Eder, Evans, and Parker
1995; Milner 2006). Since the publication
of Coleman’s (1961) The Adolescent Society, research on American peer cultures
has found that youth status is informed
by good looks, social skills, popularity
with the other gender, and athleticism—
traits that are loosely linked to social
class (Adler and Adler 1998). In this
case, status is produced and accrued in
the dominant social world on campus—
the largely Greek-controlled party scene
(also see Armstrong and Hamilton 2013).
From a social psychological stigma
approach, sexual labeling is primarily
about distancing the self from a stigmatized, and thus low-status, sexual category. Another approach suggests that
labeling regulates public gender performance. A final, cultural approach suggests that labeling facilitates the drawing
of class boundaries via distinctive styles
of performing gender. Individuals at
both ends of the status hierarchy seek to
apply their definitions of stigma, but
only high-status individuals succeed in
the spaces where status is produced.
Sexuality, Stigma, and Defensive
Social psychologists view the attribution
of negative meaning to a human difference as initiating the stigma process
(see Link and Phelan’s 2001 model; also
Lucas and Phelan 2012). The focus of
most contemporary work in this tradition
is on how individuals cope once a ‘‘social
identity, or membership in some social
category, calls into question his or her
full humanity’’ (Crocker 1999:89; see
also Jones et al. 1984). Research on the
management of stigma offers insight
into how the stigmatized respond to their
situations (Goffman 1963; Major and
O’Brien 2005; Killian and Johnson
2006; Saguy and Ward 2011; Thoits
2011). One strategy involves deflecting
stigma onto others (Blinde and Taub
1992; Pyke and Dang 2003; Payne 2010;
Trautner and Collett 2010). This process,
referred to by Schwalbe and coauthors
(2000) as ‘‘defensive othering,’’ helps
explain women’s participation in slut
stigma. The perspective suggests that
women—as subordinates to men—fear
contamination and thus work to distance
themselves from stigma. This model corresponds with the taken-for-granted
approach described at the start of the
The framework outlined by Schwalbe
et al. (2000) and applied by a variety of
scholars makes several assumptions: subordinates accept the legitimacy of classification while distancing themselves from
the stigmatized category. There is a clear
line between subordinates and oppressors, with some people stably located in
the subordinate category. Distancing is
seldom fully successful; those engaged in
defensive othering do not escape the subordinate position, much as they would
like to. Oppressors define the categories
and the meaning system, while subordinates react ‘‘to an oppressive identity
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
code already imposed by a dominant
group’’ (Schwalbe et al. 2000:425).
In this case, however, the above model
does not fully apply. As we will demonstrate, women’s criteria for applying the
slut label were not widely shared. There
appeared to be no group of women consistently identified as sluts—at least by
women. Everyone succeeded at avoiding
stable classification. Yet slut stigma still
felt very real. Women were convinced
that actual sluts existed and organized
their behaviors to avoid this label. Thus,
an explanation that ends with women’s
attempts to evade slut stigma by deflecting it onto other women is unsatisfying.
We employ a discursive approach to
explain how individual efforts to deflect
stigma reaffirm its salience for all women.
Gender Performance and the
Circulation of Stigma
The ‘‘doing gender’’ tradition suggests
that slut stigma regulates the gender presentations of all girls and women (Eder et
al. 1995; Tanenbaum 1999). The emphasis is on how women are sanctioned for
failing to perform femininity acceptably
(West and Zimmerman 1987). This suggests that slut stigma is more about regulating public gender performance than
regulating private sexual practices.
Taking this approach further, Pascoe
(2007) draws on Foucault (1978) and Butler (1990) to analyze the circulation of the
fag epithet among adolescent boys. She
shows that the ubiquitous threat of being
labeled regulates performances by all
boys, ensuring conformity with hegemonic masculinity. Boys jockey for rank
in peer hierarchies by lobbing the fag
label at each other in a game of ‘‘hot
potato.’’ Fag is not, as Pascoe (2007:54)
notes, ‘‘a static identity attached to a particular (homosexual) boy’’ but rather ‘‘a
discourse with which boys discipline
themselves and each other.’’
Pascoe’s discursive model, when
extended to our case, suggests that slut
discourse serves as a vehicle by which
girls discipline themselves and others. It
does not require the existence of ‘‘real’’
sluts. Just as any boy can temporarily be
a fag, so can any girl provisionally fill
the slut position. Slut discourse may
even circulate more privately than fag
discourse: girls do not need to know they
have been labeled for the discourse to
work. The fag label does not hinge on sexual identity or practices; similarly, the
slut label may have little or nothing to
do with the amount or kinds of sex
women have. In the same way that the
‘‘fluidity of the fag identity’’ makes it
a ‘‘powerful disciplinary mechanism’’
(Pascoe 2007:54), so may the ubiquity of
the slut label.
Just as masculinities are hierarchically organized, femininities are also differentially valued. Labeling women as
‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad’’ is about status—the negotiation of rank among women. Men play
a critical role in establishing this rank
by rewarding particular femininities.
Women confront a double standard that
penalizes them for (even the suggestion
of) sexual behavior normalized for men
(Crawford and Popp 2003; Hamilton and
Armstrong 2009). We emphasize, however, that women also sexually evaluate
and rank each other. Women’s competition is oriented toward both attention
from men and esteem among women. We
challenge literature in which femininities
are seen as wholly derivative of masculinities, where women passively accept criteria established by men.
Status competition among women is in
part about femininity. Yet other dimensions of inequality—particularly class
and race—intersect with gender to inform
sexual evaluation. For example, Patricia
Hill Collins argues that black women
are often stereotyped as ‘‘jezebel, whore,
or ‘hoochie’’’ (2004:89). Class and race
have no necessary connection with sexual
behavior yet are taken as its signifiers.
Performances of femininity are shaped
by class and race and ranked in ways
that benefit women in advantaged categories (McCall 1992). Respectable femininity becomes synonymous with the polite,
accommodating, demure style often performed by the white middle class (Bettie
2003; Jones 2010; Garcia 2012).
This suggests that high-status women
have an interest in applying sexual
stigma to others, thus solidifying their
erotic rank. Such an explanation is partial as it does not account for why other
women engage in slut shaming. We need
a framework that accommodates the
interests of all actors, no matter how subordinate, in deflecting existing negative
Intersectionality, Moral Boundaries,
and the Centrality of Class
A third approach highlights the symbolic
boundaries people draw to affirm the
identities and reputations that set them
apart from others (Lamont 1992). In
some cases, boundaries have a moral
dimension, distinguishing between the
pure and the polluting (Lamont and Molnár 2002; see also Gieryn 1983; Stuber
2006). Individuals in distinct social locations work simultaneously to favorably
differentiate their groups from others.
Lamont’s (1992, 2000) work—which
attends to how people draw class boundaries—suggests that both affluent
and working-class Americans construct
a sense of superiority in relation to each
other. She finds that working-class
Americans often perceive the affluent as
superficial and lacking integrity. Stuber
(2006) extends her work to American college students, showing how classed meanings are situated constructions arising in
interaction. She notes that the class discourse of less affluent students tends to
be more elaborate and emotionally
charged than that of their wealthier
peers. Similarly, Gorman (2000) found
that middle-class and working-class individuals offered negative portrayals of
members of the other social class. The
narratives of the more affluent revealed
contempt, while those of the working
class indicated class injury.
Scholars focusing on class, race, and
intersectionality have observed that
social differences are often partly constituted in the realm of sexuality (Wilkins
2008). Ortner claims that ‘‘class differences are largely represented as sexual differences’’ (1991:178; quoted in Trautner
2005:774, Trautner’s emphasis). Similarly, Bourdieu (1984:102) argues
that ‘‘sexual properties are as inseparable from class properties as the yellowness of a lemon is from its acidity.’’ In
Women Without Class, Bettie (2003)
shows that differences primarily about
class (and race) were interpreted as
exclusively about gender and sexuality.
Teachers saw the ‘‘Chica’’ femininity performed by low-income Latina girls as
revealing sexual promiscuity and the
femininity of middle-class white girls as
indicating sexual restraint. Similarly,
women from marginalized groups often
emphasize sexual difference to mark
class boundaries (Skeggs 1997; Wilkins
This model suggests that women’s
deployment of slut discourse may be
partly about negotiating class differences. It may define moral boundaries
around class that also organize sexual
behavior (i.e., how much and what kinds
of sexual activity women engage in
and with whom) and performances of
femininity. The positions women take,
and the success they experience
when definitions conflict, may be influenced by prior social advantage. This
perspective suggests that no group is
entirely subject to, or in control of, slut
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
discourse: all actively constitute it in
In what follows, we use insights from
all three perspectives to develop a more
complex explanation of women’s slutshaming practices. We argue that women
use sexual stigma to distance themselves
from other women, but not primarily on
the basis of actual sexual activity. Women
use slut discourse to maintain status distinctions that are, in this case, linked
closely to social class. Both low- and
high-status women define their own performances of femininity as exempt from
sexual stigma while labeling other groups
as ‘‘slutty.’’ It is only high-status women,
though, who experience what we refer to
as sexual privilege—the ability to define
acceptable sexuality in high-status
Our awareness of women’s use of slut discourse emerged inductively from a longitudinal ethnographic and interview study
of a cohort of 53 women who began college
in the 2004–2005 academic year at Midwest University.2 We supplement these
data with individual and group interviews conducted outside the residence
Below we describe the ethnographic
and interview procedures, the participants, our relationships with them, and
how we classified them into status groups
aligning closely—but not entirely—with
social class. We also address the social
desirability issues acute in sex research,
most notably women’s underreporting
of sexual behavior (Laumann et al.
1994; Alexander and Fisher 2003). Several aspects of our design allowed us
access to information women often kept
We refer to the university with a pseudonym.
Ethnography and Longitudinal
A research team of nine, including two
authors, occupied a room on a residence
hall floor. When data collection commenced, the first author was an assistant
professor in her late thirties and the second author a graduate student in her
early twenties. The team included
a male graduate student, an undergraduate sorority member, and an undergraduate from a working-class family. Variation in age, approach, and selfpresentation facilitated different types of
relationships with women on the floor
(Erickson and Stull 1998).
The floor we studied was located in one
of several ‘‘party dorms.’’ Affluent students often requested this residence hall
if they were interested in drinking, hooking up, and joining the Greek system. Few
identified as feminist and all presented as
Floor residents were similar in many
ways. They started college together, on
the same floor, at the same school.3 All
were white, a result of low racial diversity
on campus and segregation in campus
housing (see Hurtado et al. 1999). All
but two identified as heterosexual and
only one woman was not born in the
United States. This homogeneity, though
a limitation, allowed us to isolate ways
that social class shaped women’s positions
on campus and moral boundaries they
drew with respect to sexuality and gender
presentation. Assessment of class background was based on parental education
and occupation, student employment during the school year, and student loans (see
Table 1.2 in Armstrong and Hamilton
2013). Of the sample, 54 percent came
from upper-middle or upper-class backgrounds; we refer to these women as
At the start of the study, 51 women were
freshmen, and 2 were sophomores.
affluent. The remainder grew up in working, lower-middle, or middle-class families; we refer to these women as less
Women were told that we were there to
study the college experience, and indeed,
we attended to all facets of their lives.
We observed throughout the academic
year, interacting with participants as
they did with each other (Corsaro 1997).
We let women guide conversations and
tried to avoid revealing our attitudes.
This made it difficult for them to determine what we were studying, which
behaviors interested us, and how we
might judge them—minimizing the
effects of social desirability.
We also conducted five waves of interviews—from women’s first year of college
to the year after most graduated. We
include data from 189 interviews with
the 44 heterosexual women (83 percent
of the floor) who participated in the final
interview. The interviews ranged from
45 minutes to 2.5 hours.
All waves covered a broad range of
topics, including partying, sexuality, relationships, friendships, classes, employment, religion, and relationships with
parents. The first wave included a question about how women might view ‘‘a
girl who is known for having sex with
a lot of guys.’’ This wording reveals our
early assumption that the slut label was
about sexual activity and generated little
discussion when women stayed close to
the prompt. Later we realized that this,
too, provided data. Aware that we were
attempting to ask about ‘‘sluts,’’ many
women offered a definition of a ‘‘real’’
slut, as if to educate us. We also draw
on the frequent, unsolicited use of slut
discourse emerging from discussions of
college sexuality, peers, and partying.
Women were most concerned with
the slut label during the first year of college, as status hierarchies were being
The second author collected most of the
interviews, as women felt more comfortable around her. Some even sought her
out for consultation about private sexual
issues (e.g., assistance with a pregnancy
test that needed to be done outside of
a sorority). When asking about sex, she
always attempted to respond neutrally or
positively. A number of women commented
that it was a relief to talk about sex without
fear of judgment. One noted, ‘‘You are
someone who I feel I can tell anything to
because you have no bias or whatever. It’s
kind of nice. I always look forward to
when I get to talk to you, and [my freshman
year roommate] does too’’ (Morgan Y5).
Despite our efforts, women still seemed
to worry about revealing ‘‘too much’’ sexual activity. For example, one woman,
when asked the number of sexual partners she had in college, was reticent to
Naomi: Roughly . . . this is so embarrassing. Roughly, like, 12?
Second Author: Why is that so
Naomi: It’s, it’s, it’s still a big number up
Her hesitation suggested that she
Classification into Status Groups
We classified women according to participation in the Greek party scene, which
was the most widely accepted signal of
peer status on campus. We categorized 23
women as high status and 21 as low status.
High-status women exhibited a particular style of femininity valued in sororities.
The accomplishment of ‘‘cuteness’’—
a slender but fit, blonde, tan, fashionable
look—required class resources. Women
also gained admission on the basis of
‘‘good personalities’’—indicated by extroversion, interest in high-end fashion,
and familiarity with brand names
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
(see Armstrong and Hamilton 2013 for
more). Sorority membership was almost
a requirement for high status: only four
women managed to pursue alternative
paths into the party scene. One benefited
from her relationship with an athlete,
another from residence in a luxurious
apartment complex with a party reputation, and two capitalized on dense high
Status fell largely, although not
entirely, along class lines: the 23 highstatus women were primarily upper class
and upper middle class, in part because
they had time and money to participate.
Most were from out of state, which corresponded with wealth due to the high cost
of out-of-state tuition. Some middle-class
women who successfully emulated affluent social and sexual styles were also classified as high status.
The remaining 21 women were
excluded from the Greek party scene.
Fifteen lower-middle-class and workingclass women lacked the economic and
cultural resources necessary for regular
participation and were low status by
default. They shared this designation with
six middle-class to upper-class women
who did not join sororities. These women
had few friends on campus and expressed
attitudes critical of the Greek party scene.
They did not perform the gender style
that would have increased their status.
Two identified as lesbian, and the others
viewed themselves as alternative or nerdy.
For these women, compliance would have
been challenging and uncomfortable.
We also analyzed data from four group
interviews (24 women total) and 21
individual interviews. The first author,
usually accompanied by a research assistant, conducted the group interviews
with five to seven intimate friends in
their own homes. Two of these were
among high-status women in sororities,
and two were with low-status groups
(self-identified feminists or senior
women living in off-campus housing).
Supplemental individual interviews with
senior women were, in contrast, as close
to anonymous as possible: the graduate
student interviewer and participants had
no prior relationship, and interviews
occurred only once. Participants, who
were generally more sexually active than
the residence hall sample, selected into
the interview knowing it focused on sex.
Data Analysis and Presentation
We used ATLAS.ti, a qualitative data
analysis program, to organize and process
interview transcripts and ethnographic
notes. We identified patterns and looked
for counterexamples. Group differences,
particularly by status and social class,
were subjected to a rigorous process of
comparison. We developed and tested
hypotheses by writing theoretical memos,
checking them against multiple data sources, and refining theories. The involvement of the third and fourth authors
brought new perspectives and additional
means for ascertaining reliability.
The source of each data piece is identified in the text. FN (for field note) and the
date of the observation mark ethnographic material. All longitudinal interviews are flagged with the interview
wave and a pseudonym assigned to the
participant (e.g., Lydia Y3). We also indicate group interviews where relevant
and use unique numbers to designate
SLUT BOUNDARY WORK
The results are organized in three sections. First, we discuss how women simultaneously produce and evade slut stigma
through interaction and their investment
in this cultural work. We then show that
status on campus, organized largely by
social class, shapes how women define
sluttiness. High- and low-status women
draw moral boundaries consistent with
their own classed styles of femininity,
effectively segregating the groups. As we
discuss in a final section, low-status
women sometimes attempt to enter the
dominant social scene. There they find
themselves classified according to highstatus standards, which places them at
risk of public sexual stigma. In contrast,
high-status women are exempt from public slut shaming. This, we argue, is a form
of sexual privilege.
Producing Slut Stigma Through
Years after high school, two young women
became angry as they revisited instances
when abstinence failed to protect them
from slut stigma:
Woman 1: I was a virgin the first time I
was called a slut.
Woman 2: I was too.
Other Woman: Really?
Woman 1: Yeah, because no one knew [I
was really a virgin].
Woman 2: They all thought I slept with
people. That’s what my volleyball
coach said to all my friends, that I
was the one that was going to be causing trouble when I get older, and now
every one of my friends has had sex
with like a hundred people!
Woman 1: Or are pregnant or have been
Woman 2: Yeah, exactly.
First Author: What were they responding
Woman 1: Like, if masturbation were to
come up . . . I wouldn’t be afraid to
talk about it. I think people got the
wrong idea from that.
Woman 2: In high school, they called
me a cocktease. I didn’t do anything
but . . . I have always been the open
one. (Off-Campus Group)
As was often the case, slut stigma was
disconnected from sexual behavior. Yet
rather than challenge the use of this
label, these women, like others, endorsed
it. They argued that the accusations
were problematic because they were inaccurate. They even suggested that their
friends who had sex with ‘‘like a hundred
people’’ or ‘‘have been pregnant’’ were
more appropriate targets—deflecting
stigma onto someone else.
Conversations in which women discussed and demarcated the line between
good and bad girls—labeling others negatively while positioning themselves favorably—were common. All but three
women, or 93 percent, revealed familiarity with terms like slut, whore, skank, or
ho. Good girl, virgin, or classy were used
to indicate sexual or moral superiority.
Women drew hierarchical distinctions
within groups as well as between ingroup
and outgroup members. Friends were
easy targets, as women believed that
they knew more about their sexual behavior than that of other women. As we discuss later, though, public slut shaming
was commonly directed at members of
the opposing status group.
These cases might be seen as textbook
examples of defensive othering—a common strategy for managing stigma. Yet
aspects of slut stigma differ from what
social psychological models of stigma predict. The criteria for assigning stigma
were unclear and continually constructed
through interaction. Women were both
potential recipients of sexual stigma and
producers of it—simultaneously engaged
in both defensive and oppressive othering. As one insightful woman put it, ‘‘I
feel like you’re more likely to say [slut] if
you maybe feel like you could potentially
be called that’’ (Abby Y1). There was no
stable division between stigmatized and
It was rare for the slut label to stick to
any given woman, a requirement for status loss and persistent discrimination
across situations. Most labeling occurred
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
in private and was directed at targets
unaware of their stigmatization. As one
woman reported about her friend’s sexual
She just keeps going over there
because she wants his attention
because she likes him. That’s disgusting. That to me, if you want to talk
about slutty, that to me is whoring
yourself out. And, I mean, I hate to
say that because she is one of my
best friends, but good God, it’s like
how stupid can you be? (S06)
Often the labeled were women viewed as
sexual competition. As Becky told us,
My boyfriend, girls hit on him all the
time, and during Halloween he told
me this story about a girl who was
wearing practically nothing. . . . She
went up to him [and he asked,]
‘‘What are you supposed to be?’’ And
she said, ‘‘I’m a cherry. Do you want
to pop my cherry?’’ She lifts up her
skirt and she’s wearing a thong that
had a cherry on it. That’s skanky.
That’s so skanky. (Y1)
Whether friends, enemies, or as detailed
below, women in the other status group,
targets served as foils for women’s claims
The labeled woman did not even need
to exist. Women sometimes referred to
others who were so generic, interchangeable, or socially distant as to be apocryphal—the ‘‘mythical slut.’’ For instance,
sorority women in a group interview
explained how serenading, a common
Greek practice, was ‘‘ruined’’ by a ‘‘complete slut’’ who purportedly ‘‘had sex
with a guy in front of everybody.’’ As in
similar stories (Fine 1992), the connection
to the ‘‘slut’’ was tenuous: no one actually
knew her—only of her. Her behavior,
being particularly public in nature, was
used to delimit the acceptable.
Defining the self as a good girl required
ongoing boundary work. An exchange
between Whitney and Mollie, roommates
who completed the first-year interview
together, provides another example:
Whitney: There’s like, some girls that are
Second Author: How do you know if a person’s a slut? What would be the
Whitney: They just go and sleep with a different guy every night. Like this girl.
Anna has sex with a different guy
every single night and every single
weekend. It’s so . . . I don’t understand
how someone could not have any more
respect for themselves. It’s like, you
enjoy this. She’s like whatever . . . I
could never let myself do that.
Mollie: I couldn’t either.
Second Author: How did you know her?
Whitney: I met her through a friend.
She’s cool, but . . .
Mollie: Neither of us are like that, and I
can’t think of any of our high school
friends that are like that either.
Whitney and Mollie achieved a working
definition of the slut, applied the label to
someone else, and evaded stigma by distancing themselves—and their friends—
from her. These processes occurred simultaneously. They built the definition as
they went, attributing improbable actions
(having ‘‘sex with a different guy every
single night and every single weekend’’)
to a conveniently absent target. Anna’s
supposed transgressions defined the stigmatized trait and concurrently categorized Whitney and Mollie as normal.
Although this was a fluid process—
over which women exercised considerable
control—they were deeply invested in it.
Most believed in a real difference between
good and bad girls and regulated their
behavior accordingly. As a participant in
the feminist group stated, ‘‘A lot of it is
socialization. . . . There’s nothing keeping
me from doing it. But emotionally I’m like
. . . good girls don’t do this.’’ Some bargained with themselves, following selfimposed rules meant to preserve good
girl identities. Tara recalled the agony of
waiting until her first serious relationship
seemed official enough to make sex okay,
noting, ‘‘I need to wait 14 more days . . .
then that will be enough time’’ (Y3).
Women feared public exposure as
sluts. Virtually all expressed the desire
to avoid a ‘‘bad reputation. I know that I
wouldn’t want that reputation’’ (Olivia
Y1). At times they seemed to be assuring
us (and themselves) of their virtue. As
one anxiously reported, ‘‘I’m not a fastpaced girl. I’m a good girl’’ (Naomi Y1).
In the context of a feminist group interview, one woman came close to positively
claiming a slut identity: she proclaimed
that she was done with her ‘‘secret life of
being promiscuous’’ and was ‘‘coming out
to people now. . . . I’m promiscuous, dammit!’’ Yet she proceeded to admit that she
was really only ‘‘out’’ to her friends, noting, ‘‘I don’t tell some of my friends—
a lot of my friends. That’s why I really
love my feminist thing. I reserve it, as
people aren’t going to judge me.’’ Even
she feared public censure.
Class and Status Differences in Moral
As noted earlier, high-status women were
largely affluent, from out of state, and—
with few exceptions—sorority members.
In contrast, low-status women were
mostly less affluent, local, and on the
margins of campus life. Class differences
in conceptions of appropriate femininity
were at the heart of women’s sexual and
The high-status view: classy versus trashy. For affluent women, a primary risk
of sex in college was its potential to
derail professional advancement and/or
class-appropriate marriage. Hooking up,
particularly without intercourse, was
viewed as relatively low risk because it
did not require costly commitment (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009). When asked
who hooked up the most on campus, Nicole
responded, ‘‘All . . . the people who came to
college to have a good time and party’’ (Y1).
Women even creatively reframed sexual
exploration as a necessary precondition
for a successful marriage. As Alicia
explained, ‘‘I’m glad that I’ve had my onenight stands . . . because now I know
what it’s supposed to feel like when I’m
with someone that I want to be with. . . .
I feel bad for some of my friends. . . .
They’re still virgins’’ (Y1).
High-status women rejected the view
that all sexual activity outside of relationships was bad. They viewed sexual activity along a continuum, with hooking up
falling conveniently in the middle.
Becky’s nuanced definition of hooking up
is illustrative. She argued that ‘‘kissing
[is] excluded’’—minimizing this favorite
activity of hers in seriousness. As she continued, ‘‘You have kissing over here
[motions to one side] and sex over here
[motions to the other]. . . . Anything
from making out to right before you hit
sex is hooking up. . . . I think sex is in
its own class’’ (Y1).
This view hinged on defining a range of
sexual activities—such as ‘‘hardcore making out, heavy petting’’ (Becky Y1),
mutual masturbation, and oral sex—as
not ‘‘sex.’’ ‘‘Sex,’’ as women defined it,
referred only to vaginal intercourse. Hannah described herself as a virgin to both
researchers and her mother, despite
admitting to oral sex with a hookup partner. She joked with her mother about
a missed period, ‘‘Must be from all the
sex I’ve been having. And she’s like,
uhhhh. . . . I was like, Mom, I’m just kidding. I’m still a virgin’’ (Y2). Hannah was
not alone. Research suggests that many
young Americans do not define oral-genital contact as ‘‘having sex’’ (Backstrom,
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
Armstrong, and Puentes 2012; Vannier
and Byers 2013).4
Vaginal intercourse outside of relationships was viewed as more problematic.
Becky, for example, judged those who
engaged in extrarelational intercourse.
When asked how often she hooked up,
Becky emphasized participation in lowto middle-range activities: ‘‘I mean, I
wasn’t like a slut or anything. There’d
be weekends I wouldn’t want to do anything except make out with someone,
and there’s weekends I wouldn’t want to
do anything, like maybe a little bit of
a kiss’’ (Y1). When the discussion turned
to vaginal intercourse she—like most
women—mentioned only sex with her
Yet having vaginal intercourse in
a hookup was sometimes permissible—
as long as women did not do so ‘‘too
many’’ times or ‘‘too easily.’’ As Tara
claimed, ‘‘I think when people have sex
with a lot of guys that aren’t their boyfriends that’s really a slut’’ (Y1, emphasis
added). She was vague about the number,
unable to articulate whether one, five, or
50 hookups with intercourse made
a woman a slut. Another woman, who
had more sexual partners than her
friends, claimed that the number of partners was irrelevant. She noted, ‘‘Slutty
doesn’t mean how many people [you slept
with]. It just means how easy you are.
Like, if a guy wants it, are you gonna
give it to him?’’ (Abby Y1).
To high-status women, looking ‘‘trashy’’ was more indicative of sluttiness
than any amount of sexual activity.
Women spent hours trying to perfect
a high-status sexy look without crossing
the line into sluttiness. This was often
Sex educators typically treat the defining of
‘‘oral sex’’ as ‘‘not sex’’ as a classification error
in need of correction by better education about
the importance of seeing sex as an entire range
of behaviors (Remez 2000).
a social exercise: women crowded in front
of a mirror, trying on outfits and accessories until everyone assembled approved.
As Blair described, ‘‘A lot of the girls
when we we’re going out . . . they’re asking, ‘I don’t look slutty, do I?’’’ The process
was designed to protect against judgment
by others, although it also provided personal affirmation. For Blair, the fact that
she and her sorority sisters asked these
critical questions signaled that they were
‘‘classier. . . . That’s important’’ (Y1).
Blair was not the only woman to contrast a desirable, classy appearance with
an undesirable, trashy appearance. For
instance, Alicia noted, ‘‘If my house is considered the trashy, slutty house and I
didn’t know that and someone said that
[it] would hurt my feelings. [Especially]
when I’m thinking . . . it’s the classy
house’’ (Y1). Classy denoted sophisticated
style, while trashy suggested exclusion
from the upper rungs of society, as captured in the phrase ‘‘white trash’’ (Kusenbach 2009). They rarely referred to actual
less-affluent women—who, by virtue of
their exclusion from social life, were invisible (see Fiske 2011). Instead, women
used labels to mark gradations of status
in their bounded social world. By closely
aligning economic advantage and moral
purity, women who pulled off a classy
femininity were beyond reproach.
The most successful women were those
who constructed a seamless uppermiddle-class gender presentation. Sororities actively recruited these women. As
Let’s say I’m president of the house or
something and I [want to] keep the
classy [sorority] name that we’ve had
from the previous year then [we
need] more people with that classy
[sorority] look. . . . The preppy, classy,
good girl that likes to have fun and be
friendly. You know, the perfect girl.
Similarly, when asked to define her sorority’s reputation, one sorority woman
responded with a single word, ‘‘classy,’’
on which another focus group member
elaborated: ‘‘I think we would be the girl
The ‘‘perfect girl’’ or ‘‘girl next door’’
indexed the wholesome, demure, and
polite—but fun-loving—interactional style
characteristic of affluent white women
(Bettie 2003; Trautner 2005). Alicia’s use
of the word preppy offered another class
clue: this style originated on elite Eastern
college campuses and was exemplified by
fashion designers like Ralph Lauren,
known for selling not only clothing but
an advantaged lifestyle (Banks and Chapelle 2011). The preppy female student displayed confidence in elite social settings
and could afford the trappings necessary
to make a good impression.
Accomplishing a classy presentation
required considerable resources. Parentfunded credit cards allowed women to signal affluent tastes in clothing and
makeup. Several purchased expensive
MAC-brand purple eye shadow that read
as classy rather than the drugstore
eye shadow worn by at least one working-class woman. As Naomi told us, ‘‘I’m
high maintenance. . . . I like nice things
[laughs]. I guess in a sense, I like things
brand name’’ (Y1). Without jobs, they
had time to go tanning, get their hair
done, do their nails, shop, and keep up
with fashion trends. By college, these
women were well versed in classed interactional styles and bodywork. Many had
cultivated these skills in high-school
peer cultures as cheerleaders, prom
queens, and dance squad members.
High-status women also knew the
nuanced rules of the party scene before
arrival. Most had previous party experience and brought advice from collegesavvy friends and family with them.
Becky described one such rule, about
[Halloween is] the night that girls can
dress skanky. Me and my friends do it.
[And] in the summer, I’m not gonna
lie, I wear itty bitty skirts. . . . Then
there are the sluts that just dress
slutty, and sure they could be actual
sluts. I don’t get girls that go to fraternity parties in the dead of winter
wearing skirts that you can see their
asses in. (Y1)
As she noted, good girls do not wear short
skirts or revealing shirts without social
permission. She was aware that women
who dressed provocatively were not necessarily ‘‘actual sluts,’’ but her language suggested belief in such women’s existence,
necessitating efforts to avoid being placed
in this category. Another woman highlighted ways that dress and deportment
could be played off each other. She noted
that it was acceptable for women to
‘‘have a short skirt on’’ if ‘‘they’re being
cool’’ but ‘‘if they’re dancing really gross
with a short skirt on, then like, oh slut.
You’ve got to have the combination’’ (Lydia
Y1). Women lacking familiarity with these
unstated rules started at a disadvantage.
In general, classy girls did not get in
trouble, draw inappropriate attention, or
do anything ‘‘weird.’’ For instance, one
supposed slut was ‘‘involved with drugs,
and she stole a lot of stuff, and her
parents sent her to boarding school’’ (Nicole Y1). Others were described as having
‘‘problems at home with their families
and stuff’’ (Nicole Y4). In one case, a slut
was remarkable for ‘‘eat[ing] ketchup for
dinner [laughter]. [First Author: Like,
only ketchup?] Right, she has some
issues’’ (Erica and Taylor Y1). These
activities were not sexual. Instead, they
represented failure to successfully perform an affluent femininity, with sexual
stigma applied as the penalty.
The low-status view: nice versus bitchy.
The notion that youth should participate
in hookups was foreign to less-affluent
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
women, whose expectations about appropriate relationship timelines were shaped
by a different social world. Many of their
friends back home were already married
or had children. Amanda, a working-class
woman, recalled, ‘‘I thought I’d get married in college. . . . I wanted to have kids
before I was 25’’ (Y4). Hooking up made
little sense uncoupled from the desire
to postpone commitment. As one lessaffluent woman noted,
Who would be interested in just meeting somebody and then doing something that night? And then never talking to them again? . . . I’m supposed to
do this; I’m supposed to get drunk
every weekend. I’m supposed to go to
parties every weekend . . . and I’m
supposed to enjoy it like everyone
else. But it just doesn’t appeal to me.
Lacking access to classed beliefs supporting sexual exploration, less-affluent
women treated sexual activity outside of
relationships as morally suspect. As
lower-middle-class Olivia explained,
I have really strong feelings about the
whole sex thing. . . . I know that some
people have boyfriends and they’ve
been with them for a long time, and I
understand that. But I listen to some
people when they talk about [hooking
up]. . . . I know that personally for
me, I would rather be a virgin for as
much as I can than go out and do
God knows who and do whatever. (Y1)
As discussed in the Methods section, not
all low-status women lacked class advantage, but even low-status women from
affluent families opposed hooking up. As
upper-middle-class Madison noted, ‘‘I
just don’t [hook up]. . . . I’m not really
into that kinda thing, I guess. I just
don’t like getting with random people’’
(Y1). Similarly, upper-middle-class Linda
described herself as ‘‘very sexually conservative’’ in contrast to her ‘‘liberal’’
floor, in part due to their participation
in hooking up (Y1).
Some low-status women were confused
about hooking up, as they were excluded
from the social networks where the practice made sense. When asked for a definition, Mary, a middle-class woman,
responded, ‘‘Good question. I honestly, I
couldn’t tell you what some of their. . . I
mean I’ve heard them use [the word]
and I’m kind of like, well what does that
mean? Did you have sex with them or did
you just make out with them or . . . ?’’
(Y1). Working-class Megan had not even
heard of hooking up until we asked her
about it. She equated hooking up with an
alleged sorority hazing ritual in which
‘‘they would tie the girls up naked on
a bed and then a guy would come in and
they would have sex with them’’ (Y1).
Without insider cultural knowledge,
low-status women did not make the
same fine-grained distinctions between
types of sexual activity outside of relationships. For these women, the relevant
divide was whether the activity occurred
in a relationship or not. They assumed
that hookups, like most committed relationships, involved vaginal intercourse.
A roommate pair explained:
Heather: A lot of the girls . . . they’re
always like oh you hooked up.
Stacey: We’re not used to that. Hooking
up means you guys fucked. . . . I’d be
like omigod and everyone else’s like
what? And I’m like you guys hooked
up? They’d be like so?
Second Author: You thought everyone
was having random sex?
Stacey: [I felt like saying] you slut.
Heather: At first we were like, what is
this place? (Y1)
These two women would briefly (and
unsuccessfully) attempt to befriend affluent partiers on the floor. This provided
them with more information about the
complexities of hooking up, although
they did not alter their own sexual
Low-status women maintained a distinction between themselves and those
who hooked up. As Olivia noted,
My friends are similar when it comes
to things like [sex]. We don’t think of
it as doing whatever with who knows
who. . . . I’m sure there’s more people
that are like me, but I know there
are people who just do it casually.
They don’t think of it as anything
’cause a lot of them have done it
before. For them it’s different. (Y1)
Her explanation, using us-versus-them
language, divided college women into
two groups and implied her group was
The judgment low-status women
passed on their high-status peers was
about more than sexuality. They often
derided sorority women and those who
attended parties. As Carrie described,
‘‘[My sister] who goes to [private college]
is in [a sorority]. Umm, hello. All those
girls are sluts. Sorry, they were. All they
did was drink and go to parties. She’s
not like that so she deactivated’’ (Y1).
Linda referred to women in the Greek
system as ‘‘the party sluts’’ (Y4).
Underlying this disapproval was a rejection of their partying peers’ interactional
style. Madison, right after she transferred
to a regional college, explained what she
disliked about many women on the floor:
Sorority girls are kinda whorish and
unfriendly and very cliquey. If you
weren’t Greek, then you didn’t really
matter. . . . I feel like most, if not all,
the sorority girls I met at MU were
bitches and stuck up. [In response to
the indignation of a friend from
another school, who was present during this segment of the interview:] I
met [Sasha’s sorority] sisters and
they’re really nice. (Y3)
Madison equated sluttiness with exclusivity—being bitchy, stuck up, cliquey,
and unfriendly. She contrasted this with
the desirable trait, ‘‘niceness,’’ which she
was obligated to attribute to Sasha and
Niceness, also described as being
‘‘friendly,’’ ‘‘laid back,’’ or ‘‘down home,’’
referenced a classed femininity in which
social climbing, expensive consumption
patterns, and efforts to distinguish oneself
as ‘‘better than’’ others were disparaged.
Madison rejected high-status femininity,
despite her own affluence. She explained,
Most of the girls . . . they seem to be
snotty. There were a few girls that
are just like [my friend’s and my]
level, where we aren’t gonna be, oh
we have money, we’re gonna live better than you. But there are a few
that definitely you could tell they
had like an unlimited income. They
went shopping all the time. (Y3)
Similarly, Stacey—who was from a lowermiddle-class family—remarked bitterly,
‘‘There’s a lot of rich bitches in sororities,
and they have everything that their
daddy gives them. . . . I mean, they probably saw on TV we’re the number one
party school, like, four years ago and
they’re like, ‘Daddy, Mommy, I wanna
go there!’’’ (Y3/Y4). Sluttiness and wealth
were often conflated. As Alana reported,
‘‘Some people think [this dorm is where]
the whores are. You know, oh those ‘Macslutts in MacAdams. . . . ’ People think
[it’s] like the rich people. . . . Their stereotypes might be true’’ (Y1).
These women expressed considerable
class and status vulnerability—even animosity. Their private commentary was
pointed, directed at specific high-status
women. As Fiske (2011) suggests, those at
the bottom of a hierarchy tend to be
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
excruciatingly aware of those above them,
whereas those with status attend less to
those below them. Lacking language to
make sense of the class differences that
permeated social life at Midwest University, the slut label did cultural work.
Low-status women conflated unkindness
and perceived promiscuity when they
called high-status women ‘‘slutty.’’ Their
use of the term captured both their reactions to poor treatment and the unfairness of others’ getting away with sexual
behavior they viewed as inappropriate
(and for which they would have been
penalized). Slut discourse was thus
employed in privately waged battles of
class revenge. As we discuss below, this
animosity had few consequences for
Status, Affluence, and Competing Boundaries. Slut discourse helped establish
and maintain boundaries between highand low-status women. Midway through
college there were no friendships crossing
this line, despite the cross-group interactions necessitated by living on the same
floor. Women enforced moral boundaries
on uneven ground. Most cases of conflict
occurred when low-status women—lured
by the promise of fun, status, and belonging—attempted to interact with highstatus women, especially in the party
scene. There was not much movement in
the other direction: high-status women
had little to gain by associating with
Women rarely labeled others publicly.
We recorded only five instances in our
first-year residence hall observations.
None of the women carried a negative
reputation outside the situations where
labeling occurred. These interactions,
however, were among the most explosive
and painful we witnessed. Targets
were low-status—and, in four cases,
less-affluent—women who attempted to
make inroads with high-status women.
High-status women valued a muted,
polite, and demure femininity. This contrasted with the louder, cruder, overtly
sexual femininity exhibited by Stacey
and Heather, a working-class roommate
pair who, early in the year, attempted to
associate with partiers on the floor. As
field notes recount,
Whitney . . . came out into the hall as
Heather and Stacey (applying finishing touches to her tube top) came
out. Both were in tight pants (one
black one brown?) and tight tops.
They had plenty of makeup on (this
was clear from far away) and tall
heels. . . . They were headed for
another dorm to say ‘‘hey’’ to a guy
that Stacey had met. Whitney made
a comment about how dressed up
they were to just say ‘‘hey.’’ [The girls]
laughed it off and very loudly yelled
something about going to ‘‘whore
around.’’ (FN 9-15-04)
In this incident, high-status Whitney
implicitly passed judgment on Heather
and Stacey, whose clothing and demeanor
violated high-status norms of selfpresentation. The two women immediately understood that their behavior was
being coded as sexually deviant. Ironically, their attempt at saving face—by
joking about ‘‘whoring around’’—likely
made Whitney’s comment seem even
more warranted in the eyes of their affluent peers.
Several months after the hallway incident, Stacey was watching a television
show with several high-status women
who lived near her:
One of the characters was hooking up
with somebody new and Stacey said,
‘‘Slut-bag!’’ Chelsea said, ‘‘Stacey?’’ as
if to imply jokingly that she had no
right to call this woman a slut. Stacey
was clearly offended by this and said
indignantly, ‘‘I am NOT a slut.’’ Chelsea, seeing her take it so badly, said
that she really didn’t mean it that
way and that she was joking but Stacey
stormed off anyway. (FN 1-13-05)
Stacey attempted to apply her own definition of slut to the actions of the television
character, calling her out for hooking up.
Chelsea rejected this, turning the label
back on Stacey, who was offended. Later,
a lower-middle-class woman attempted to
defend Stacey. She remarked, ‘‘It’s not
like Stacey sleeps around anyway.’’ The
damage had already been done though.
None of the other women in the room
chimed in to confirm Stacey’s virtue.
In another instance, the ‘‘wrong’’ choice
of an erotic partner landed working-class
Monica a label. As we recorded,
Monica’s really open flirting and sexuality with Heather’s brother was
looked down on by people on the floor.
Many rolled eyes and insinuate[d]
that she was being slutty or inappropriate. This guy (both because he
was someone’s brother and because
he was clearly working-class—not in
a frat or middle-class) was the wrong
object. (FN 2-10-05)
From the perspective of high-status
women, good girls only flirted with affluent men who had high status on campus.
This disadvantaged less-affluent women,
who were often drawn to men sharing
their class background. These men were
not in fraternities or necessarily even in
Monica’s dalliance with Heather’s
brother might have escaped notice had
she not also made brief forays into the
party scene. Monica and her middle-class
roommate Karen—who worked her way
into the high-status group—ended the
year in a vicious battle, flinging the slut
label back and forth behind each other’s
backs. Monica, however, was singled out
for judgment by shared acquaintances.
Prior to their dramatic split, Monica and
Karen often kissed each other at parties—
a form of same-sex eroticism often intended
to appeal to men (Hamilton 2007). Several
floormates decided in conversation that
Monica was ‘‘somewhat weird and ‘slutty’
. . . [while] Karen’s sexuality or sluttiness
never came up. . . . It wasn’t even a question’’ (FN 3-8-05). Monica lacked friends
positioned to spread similar rumors about
Karen. Unexpectedly, Monica left shortly
before the end of the year and did not
return to Midwest University.
Monica’s, Stacey’s, and Heather’s experiences illustrate the challenges women
from less-advantaged backgrounds faced
if they attempted to break into the party
scene. They were also at risk of acquiring
sexual stigma back home, where they
were judged for associating with rich partiers. For instance, Monica’s hometown
acquaintances started a virulent rumor
that she had an abortion while at Midwest
University. This suggests that people in
her hometown shared the construction of
sluttiness we described above, viewing
affluent college girls as sluts in contrast
with down-to-earth, small-town girls.
Monica had been tainted by association.
In contrast, the only affluent woman to
be publicly shamed was from the low-status group. She had angered many of her
floormates with her blatant and public
homophobia. They retaliated by writing
derogatory comments, including the slut
label, on the whiteboard posted on her
door. Aside from this case, affluent
women were virtually exempt from public
shaming by other women, whether at
school or at home, where their friends’
definitions were roughly in sync with
This freedom from stigma is particularly remarkable considering what we
ascertained about women’s sexual activities (see Table 1). All but one high-status
woman hooked up during college in
between committed relationships. Some
low-status women also hooked up, but
usually only once or twice before deciding
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
Table 1. Participation in Hookups and
Relationships by Status Group
Little to no sexual or
but also hookups
Hookups and relationships
it was not for them. Nearly two thirds of
this group did not hook up at all. A few
low-status women left college without
having had vaginal intercourse, but no
high-status women refrained from intercourse entirely. Most low-status women
limited their sexual activity to relationships. Low-status women reported to us,
on average, roughly 1.5 fewer sexual partners (for oral sex or intercourse) during
college than high-status women. These
patterns underscore the disconnect
between vulnerability to slut stigma and
From the perspective of low-status
women, the sexual activities of high-status
peers were riskier than their own strategy
of restricting sex to relationships (or avoiding it altogether)—yet high-status women
evaded the most damaging kind of labeling. As long as they were discreet and did
not, as one put it, ‘‘go bragging about the
guys I’ve hooked up with,’’ high-status
women experienced minimal threat of
judgment by others (Lydia Y1). Uppermiddle-class Rory, who with more than
60 partners was the most sexually active
woman we interviewed, explained, ‘‘I’m
the kind a girl that everybody would
like talk shit about if they knew. . . . I
have this really good image. Hah. And
people don’t think of me that way. They
think I’m like nice and smart, and I’m
like yeah’’ (S07). Casual sexual activity
posed little reputational risk for savvy,
affluent women who maintained a classy
Slut discourse was ubiquitous among the
women we studied. Sexual labels were
exchanged fluidly but rarely became stably attached to particular women. Stigma
was instead produced in interaction, as
women defined their virtue against real
or imagined bad girls. The boundaries
women drew were shaped by status on
campus, which was closely linked to class
background. High-status women considered the performance of a classy femininity—which relied on economic advantage—as proof that one was not trashy.
In contrast, low-status women, mostly
from less-affluent backgrounds, emphasized
niceness and viewed partying as evidence of
Both groups actively reconstituted
the slut label to their advantage. Despite
this, they were not equally situated
to enforce their moral boundaries. Highstatus women operated within a discursive
system allowing greater space for sexual
experimentation. When low-status women
attempted to participate in high-status
social worlds, they risked public slut
shaming. At the same time, their more
restrictive definitions lacked social consequences for higher-status women. This,
as we argue below, is a form of sexual privilege. Low-status women resented the
class and sexual advantages of their affluent peers and unsuccessfully used sexual
stigma in an attempt to level differences.
Class, Race, and Moral Boundaries
The behaviors of women and girls are
often viewed through the lens of sexual
and gender inequality, particularly where
sexual practices are concerned (Bettie
2003; Wilkins 2008). Certainly, sexual
double standards are real and may guide
men’s use of the slut label against women
(Crawford and Popp 2003). But equalizing
sexual standards—while undoubtedly an
important goal—would not necessarily
eliminate slut shaming, which assists
women in drawing class boundaries.
As other scholars have noted, there is
a tendency for women to be viewed as
‘‘without class’’ (Bettie 2003). Women
may themselves interpret their differences as being about sexuality, or gender
style, when they are at root class differences (Bettie 2003; Wilkins 2008). Yet
like men, women on both sides of the
class divide actively construct a sense of
group superiority. Those with limited
resources also nurse—and try to
avenge—class injuries. In this case, slut
discourse conveys intense feelings about
a form of inequality for which there is little other language.
The white women in this study operated in racially homogeneous social
worlds, making it easier for us to see
class-based processes. Race is not absent
from their accounts, however. The notion
of the ‘‘girl next door’’ and even the
‘‘nice’’ down-home girl are both racialized.
Had we also studied the small nonwhite
student population on campus—who,
like less-affluent women, were excluded
from the predominately white Greek system—it is likely that we would have recognized moral boundaries drawn around
race. Indeed, Garcia’s (2012) Latina participants viewed ‘‘sluttiness’’ as primarily
white (also see Espiritu 2001).
Classed resources provided affluent white
women with more room to maneuver sexually. They drew on the notion that young
adulthood should be about exploration to
justify sexual experimentation in noncommitted sexual contexts (Hamilton
and Armstrong 2009). Slut discourse,
rather than constraining their sexual
options, ensured that they could safely
enjoy the sexual opportunities of the
party scene. Those without the time,
money, and knowledge needed to effect
a ‘‘classy’’ appearance lacked similar protections. It is thus unsurprising that
women who hook up on residential college
campuses are more likely to be affluent
and white (Owen et al. 2010; Paula England, personal communication with second author, 2013).5
The definition of sluttiness offered by
the low-status women in our study does,
however, have a place in youth culture.
See, for example, this definition of ‘‘sorostitute’’ (a play on prostitute) from Urban
You can find me on campus in the
SUV my daddy bought for me. . . . I
never leave my sorority house without
my letters somewhere on me. I date
a fratdaddy. I don’t care that he cheats
on me with other sorostitutes because
I cheat on him too. . . . Looks are all
that matter to me. I spent money
that was supposed to be for books on
tanning and manicures. I have had
plastic surgery. I’m always well
dressed. I pop my collar and all of my
handbags—my Louis [Vuitton], my
Kate Spade, my Prada—are real. If I
look like this, frat boys will want me
and other sororities will be jealous. I
look better than you, I act better
than you, I AM better than you.6
The circulation of this term suggests that
our participants are not alone in attempting to label affluent sorority women as
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
Sexual privilege, however, involves the
ability to define acceptable sexuality in
ways that apply in high-status spaces.
High-status women in our study were
deeply embedded in the dominant social
scene on campus. Over the years,
they moved into positions of greater
influence—for instance, later selecting
the women who joined them in elite sorority houses. They did not care what marginalized individuals thought of them as these
opinions were inconsequential both during
college and beyond. As gatekeepers to the
party scene, however, high-status women
had considerable power over low-status
women who wished to belong. It is in this
context that the sexual activity of advantaged women becomes invisible.
This is not to downplay men’s power in
sexualized interactions or deny the gendered sexual double standard faced by
women. Yet we differ from the classic
framework posed by Connell (1987), in
which no femininity holds a position of
power equivalent to that of hegemonic masculinity among men (but see Schippers
2007). We argue that women are actively
invested in slut shaming because they
have something to gain. They are not simply
unwitting victims of men’s sexual dominance. The winners—those whose femininities are valued—enjoy sexual privilege.
This is a benefit also extended to men who
display a hegemonic masculinity (DeSantis
2007; Sweeney 2013). It indicates the importance of attending to dynamics within—not
Stigma at the Discursive Level
Paula England’s Online College Social Life
Survey of 21 four-year colleges and universities
includes maternal education as the measure of
social class. These data indicate that women
whose mothers have either a BA or an advanced
degree report significantly higher numbers of
hookups than those whose mothers have a high
school degree or less. White women also report
significantly greater numbers of hookups than
women in all other racial/ethnic categories.
The questions generally answered by
social psychological research on stigma—
who the labeled and labelers are, how
deviants are labeled and respond to
stigma—are indeed important. A focus
‘‘Sorostitute.’’ Urban Dictionary. Retrieved
December 18, 2013 (http://www.urbandictionary
on the individual level does not, however,
provide a complete picture of stigma processes. Our work, building on that of gender scholars and cultural sociologists,
points to the value of examining how
stigma is constituted and circulated.
A discursive approach suggests that
the social psychological model of ‘‘othering’’ might be constructively reworked
(Jones et al. 1984; Crocker et al. 1998;
Crocker 1999). Subordinates may succeed
in generating alternative public classification systems or subtly reworking dominant ones. For example, the actions of
low-status women are not exclusively
devoted to adapting to meaning systems
established by high-status, socially dominant women on campus. Instead, they
produce their own discursive system
demarcating the line between good and
bad girls in a way that benefits them.
The process of othering may thus provide ongoing opportunities for reclassification, potentially along entirely different
dimensions than designated by oppressors—even if alternative frames are difficult to sustain. Othering may be not only
oppressive or defensive but also confrontational or challenging. Indeed, the example of the sorostitute suggests cultural
resistance to classification systems
exempting affluent, high-status college
women’s sexual behavior from stigma.
To see this process, stigma research
must be explicitly intersectional, looking
at how dominants and subordinates
draw on dimensions of stratification to
define within-group hierarchies. Here,
for instance, women draw on classed
understandings of femininity and acceptable sexuality to deflect sexual stigma
and define themselves as morally superior. Without a classed lens, it is easy to
miss the competition among women that
motivates women’s participation in slut
Attention to how sets of categories are
constructed and organized also generates
questions for future research. We might
ask why and when some discursive systems—not others—are in play. This focus
introduces room for multiple, competing
ways of constituting stigma. It raises
questions of power and status in the successful application of stigma—that is,
whose definitions of deviance are more
influential? At the level of discourse, it
is also easier to see variation across types
of stigma. Why are some forms particularly rigid and likely to stick, while
others—like the slut or fag labels—more
fluid and able to constrain the actions of
all individuals, not just a recognizable
group of deviants? Attention to the discursive level makes it easier to detect additional, subtler bases for stigma and better
ascertain its operation.
These questions may be difficult to
answer in the laboratories where much
social psychological research on stigma
is conducted (Hebl and Dovidio 2005;
Trautner and Collett 2010). An expanded
focus necessitates a parallel openness to
ethnography, interviews, and other qualitative methods, alongside conventional
approaches. Qualitative techniques are
often ideal for studying interactions
within and across social groups and capturing the processes through which discourse is created and circulates.
As we noted in the introduction, some
research—notably Pascoe’s (2007) analysis of the circulation of the fag epithet—
pushes in this direction. Yet research traditions often develop separately, even
when similar concepts are explored. For
example, Pascoe’s research neither cites
nor is cited by scholars studying stigma.
This limits production of knowledge
across subfields—for example, social
psychology, cultural theory, and gender
theory—that would benefit from greater
dialogue. Our research highlights the
potential of cross-fertilization and calls
for more work in this vein.
Social Psychology Quarterly 77(2)
Thanks to the reviewers and editors of the Social
Psychology Quarterly for insightful comments.
Thanks to Pam Jackson and Pam Walters for
assistance in arranging transcription of the material and to Katie Bradley, Teresa Cummings, Oluwatope Fashola, Jennifer Fischer, Aimee Lipkis,
Kat Novotny, Evelyn Perry, Jennifer Puentes,
Brian Sweeney, Amanda Tanner, and Reyna Ulibarri for assistance in data collection.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following
financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: The work was
supported by a National Academy of Education/
Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship,
a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, and a Spencer Foundation Small Grant
awarded to Elizabeth A. Armstrong.
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Elizabeth A. Armstrong is an associate
professor of sociology and organizational
studies at the University of Michigan.
She and Laura T. Hamilton are authors
of Paying for the Party: How College
Maintains Inequality (2013).
Laura T. Hamilton is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of
California, Merced. Her recent work
examines the role that parental investments play in college student performance and completion (‘‘More Is More or
More Is Less?’’ in American Sociological
Elizabeth M. Armstrong is a PhD candidate in social work and sociology at
the University of Michigan. Her research
focuses on the relationship between the
social service systems for intimate partner violence and substance abuse in the
United States since the 1960s.
J. Lotus Seeley is a PhD candidate in
women’s studies and sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses
on gender and work with an emphasis on
interactive support work.
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