Why do women slut-shame?

April 8th, 2009

Everyone I know is familiar with the sexual promiscuity double standard. Men who have sexual experience are studs. Women who have sexual experience are sluts or whores. Of course, the label slut doesn’t have to come from true promiscuity at all. It is just the perception of promiscuity. A girl or woman could be called a slut even if she is a virgin, as long as she dresses provocatively or has large breasts or speaks frankly about sex. She may not even do any of those things, but she may be someone other women look down upon for some reason or other.

I noticed two instances of slut-shaming this past weekend.

On one occasion, it was a social gathering, and one woman remarked that all the “whores” at her school were on the field hockey team. Most likely, they weren’t literally prostitutes. But the remark was intended to shame these women as definitely unlikeable and beneath her, and then vaguely too sexual.

On the other occasion, at church of all places, one church member remarked jokingly called another member a “slut” because of the latter’s shoes (which had been part of a Halloween costume) with stiletto heels. It was a joke, of course, and the recipient took it that way, too, but the joke hints at the truth—the truth being that even if you are a “good Christian,” if you also happen to be wearing certain clothes, you will be stigmatized sexually if you are a woman.

What baffles me most about this slut-shaming is that is often comes from other women, whether it is seriously putting down another group of women or jokingly putting down a close friend. Why do women engage in slut-shaming? Is it for the same reason men engage in wimp-shaming? I know a lot of men who call other men wimps, pussies, faggots, or any other name that denotes the men as “less manly” (manly, in this context, meaning heterosexual and not in any way like a woman, because “of course” the worst thing a man could be is like a woman). Men who do this seem insecure to me. They need to put other men down as less manly so they can appear comparatively more manly.

So is that what women slut-shaming other women is about? Do they worry they themselves might be labeled sluts? Do they want to appear less slutty? I don’t know. That may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. After all, rarely do het men parade around in “gay” outfits and say “Look how gay I look” to other het men unless they want to get beat up. And yet a woman could wear what she considers herself to be a “slutty” outfit and say “Look how slutty I look” to her fellow non-slutty friends and get a couple of laughs and that’s it.

I don’t know what it is. And I’m also not sure if it’s my place to stop it. I’m always a bit wary, as a man, of telling women what is appropriate or inappropriate to do (from a feminist perspective). Any thoughts?

31 Responses to “Why do women slut-shame?”

  1. mc Says:

    I tend to think it’s just part of social dynamics – might even have a biological basis. In a heterosexual relationship, the woman is generally the party that’s more responsible for sexual selection. Being “less picky” (i.e. a “slut”) would be detrimental to the gene pool.

    Maybe the same reason for which men are defensive of their sisters, if it has a biological basis – and generally the way I see it.

    ‘After all, rarely do het men parade around in “gay” outfits and say “Look how gay I look” to other het men unless they want to get beat up.’

    I’ve actually made remarks like this; women seem to have a much larger issue with them than men (but my perspective is skewed; they were both love interests).

  2. mc Says:

    edit: “both test cases were love interests”.

  3. Hilary Says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing happening, women using sexual insults is certainly common.
    I think there is also a sort of ‘reclaiming’ of these derrogative words to an extent, which is also confusing the situation. Some women are trying to recast sexual attractiveness/behavior in a positive way – challenging the idea that sexual behaviour is wrong for women. Certainly i’ve heard slutty used as a purely admiring term for clothes/shoes. I think it has limited success as a tactic though, as its limited to the visual, not actual sexual behaviour. Added to that women not conforming to slutty norms are also become judged.

    its hard to counter – if you call some one on using slut/whore etc. as an insult, its easy to assume that its because you buy into the idea that sexually active or attractive women are dirty or wrong – not because you object to judging women by their sexuality at all.

  4. mysocalledlimbo Says:

    It is a very disturbing pattern amongst women. I think most of it has to do with competitiveness- that sexually confident or expressive women might steal het men from the available pool. I think it is part of a larger dynamic of women turning on one another that I think is due to a larger socialization issue, that we are taught from a very young age to not trust each other. And this socialization leads to a defensiveness- “I’m going to attack you before you attack me.” It continues in other areas as well- academic success, professional success, children, etc., etc.

  5. fearthemoon Says:

    When women refer to each other using sexually derogative terms they are exhibiting their internalized oppression. Men help construct the oppression that women have internalized by using words like ‘pussy’ to denote negative connotations about other men. It will take a joint effort before these groups recognize their internalized oppression and fight back against constructed oppression.

  6. TheAsterisk! Says:

    It’s just a way groups unwittingly force social uniformity combined with the frailty of the American English vernacular. It’s the same idea that motivates politicians to point and cry, “Fascist!” or “Nazi!” when they want to keep someone in line. Also similarly, groups regulate themselves in this way. Nobody from the outside actually forces these conventions.
    As for the confusion over inconsistent societal expectations and practices… don’t tell me you’re surprised? Human beings and their constructions are utterly insane more often than not.
    To raise a similar question: why, in so many places in the Western world, is it socially acceptable for a woman to hit a man while a man who hits a woman is immediately dirt? Why when a woman attacks is she ‘defending her honor’ (or other such inane crap) but a violent man is but a brute? Why can there be no greater recognition that violence is a regrettable human trait and that it’s almost always inappropriate, no matter the parties involved?
    I’ve spent more time than most trying to find sound reasoning or consistent ideologies in everyone’s actions, but it usually comes down to social control, whether administered by an authority or by the group itself. It took me a while to reach that conclusion, but if you watch people like a naturalist might study apes for a while, things become clearer, if not saner. We’re social animals, and being exiled scares the Hell out of most of us, so much so that’s it’s a very effective way to keep people in line.
    If it isn’t socially acceptable to dress or act a certain way, you aren’t told but rather insulted, shamed and scared into pleasing the pack. If you simply say so, people are likely to ask, “Why?” and the answer is just stability, static expectations.
    That’s how most societies seem to work, they just have unique expectations for each unique society.

  7. Chowder Says:

    Yeah, women talk a ridiculous amount of trash about one another. Guys don’t really do that because its pointless. Personally, I don’t mind having a girl with experience. It makes things a lot more fun, hell I might even learn something! All I care about is whether or not a woman is clean.

  8. David Adams Says:

    Women shame other women because promiscuous women monopoloize male attention and allow their sex to be accessed by men with little in return. Think of it like undercutting the competition in terms of sexuality. Let’s say two people own a store and they are both making a product of roughly equal value. Except that one person sells the product for much less than another. The former would put the latter out of business.

    This is basically what happens with promiscous women. They lower the price of sexuality for all women. So lets say a woman wants to wait before marriage to have sex. If most of the women in her peer group are making a similar decision then her chance of finding a good man who will accept her conditions are higher because she will have many more men to choose from who are willing to abide by those constraints. If women in her peer group are not making a similar decision she will have a smaller group of men to choose from who are willing to accept her conditions because they can access sex elsewhere without them. So unless the women’s potential sexual value is above and beyond the other women’s current sexual value, she is at a competitive disadvantage. As a result the chaste women would either have to lower her standards, increase her potential sexual value, or accept a much smaller pool of men to choose from.

  9. Ted Says:

    …or join in castigating the promiscous women, using peer pressure to get them to raise *their* standards. That has an advantage in that those who slut-shame do not have to do any of the other three options presented above.

    So it’s no surprise that it’s so common. What I think is ‘funny’ is that most of these women who slut-shame don’t really know (consciously) why they do it.

  10. sameer Says:

    I recently got my hands over Ubuntu 7.x/8.04/8.10/9.04. i have Realtek Semiconductor Co., Ltd. RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast Ethernet controller (rev 01). i am working on leased line connection. every was allright when i switched to Ubuntu 7.x/8.04.When i migrated to latest versions, i have to restart my system once to get going on internet.
    2. when i leave the system using screensaver, the system hangs.Please help.
    or ubuntu forgets n/w settings.
    sameer

  11. Turts Says:

    David:

    Thank you for explaining why women Slut Shame. That is exactly dead on. It is a part of human evolution and makes perfect sense that women would slut shame way more than men. Sluts cut the price of a valuable product. I know a feminist may have a hard time wrapping her head around it but she should read up on the theories of evolutionary psychology. The reason women value long-term relationships so much is to ensure they will have a man to help them raise their children. That is why women are so much more picky than men in who they sleep with. They must bear the consequences of a pregnancy. When all kinds of women are running around screwing men with no committment demands, the men have less reason to commit to a women who does want commitment. To put it simple, sluts screw up the long-term relationship potential of men. It is a documented and well-researched fact that the more sexually available women act in society, the less men want to commit to a long term relationship, period. Also, the more sexual signals women give off, the more competitive women get with other women. This is why fashion keeps getting sluttier and sluttier.

    Please try to put aside your preconceived feminist ideas and embrace the truth about human nature.

  12. Mark Says:

    The last comment seemed on target to me.

    What we have to understand is that we are animals like any other animal. We have evolved from animals and like it or not we share very many attributes with the higher order mammals.

    Male: disseminate sperm to as many females as possible – thus ensuring genes are propogated. Invest in childcare only when sure that i) it is your child, ii) the female is a good choice for passing on genes.

    Female: For procreation – choose a male who is likely to be succesful at passing on genes (could be a succesful ‘bastard’). For rearing children – choose a male who will assist and be committed. The aforementioned may or may not be the same. Cuckolds, etc.

    It is very much more complicated than that, but feel free to discuss further.

  13. Melissa Says:

    I think that lots of women do it because they wish they could be more confident with their sexuality but since they aren’t they choose to come down on women who they are jealous of.

    I’ve been called a “slut” by women who were much more promiscuous than me because I rarely wear a bra, like skimpy outfits and like to flirt.

  14. willow Says:

    Hi! My friend argued with me over some jokes. They were jokes off the internet. She called me slut and my mother names. It was totally uncalled for. This is a woman that’s had two abortions. I have never been pregnant. I can actually count the number of men I’ve slept with. I think she’s jealous because I’m sober and I am in a happy relationshio after getting out out of a violent one. I think her boyfriend must have left her because she can get so bitchy and bossy.

  15. poke Says:

    Dude, it has nothing to do with genetics, it has everything to do with jealousy. Girls talk sh*it about other girls and don’t like them generally just when they’re jealous. The problem is that they hardly are able to tell apart their jealous feelings from their real anger.

  16. Kat Says:

    Sluts, in pretty much any society are attractive women that found this advantageous. Since sex and desirability is power, these women find that using sex makes them powerful. Instantly, three parties form to stop them: power challenged patriarchal males, less attractive jealous females, and females raised in a patriarchal society believing in an imaginary standard of purity and chastity.

    The issue is mostly centered around women and men whom cannot compete with this new power and as a result recruit others to ostracize their competition through government, social standards and religion. If you really think about it, the concept of virginity is COMPLETELY imaginary. We don’t have a milestone that marks being a kiss virgin, although one could argue its a similar joining of two humans (just doesn’t result in babies).

    I don’t really buy it, to be honest. I know a lot of “sluts” who win in the end by smiling and not paying attention to the other men. Plenty of them defied the concept that you become “damaged goods”. Many are married happily to men, and those men love them just the way they are. Reality? There is someone who will love you no matter what society says, ESPECIALLY if you’re gorgeous (like many “sluts” are) and likely extremely smart.

  17. jenny Says:

    When it comes to the “slut” it’s worth separating the social from biological.

    From the social perspective it can be seen that being called a slut is derogatory, but then so it being “frigid” or whatever the opposite extreme is labeled.

    On a general note being sexually available versus being unattainable (note not “unavailable”) or more correctly the perception of being somewhere between these polarised views (in the eyes of others and oneself)

    Men look for sexually attractive women, a woman closer to the frigid end of the distribution curve (assuming the characteristics are normally distributed) may be seen as a better mate for the longer term than a more readily available woman as one can presume (probably falsely) that she is less likely to promiscuous, but a woman that fails to exhibit enough sexual allure to arouse the desire of their would be suitor may find themselves seen as less desirable.

    It could be argued that getting the right balance between slut and frigid is a continual process in attracting and keeping a mate (some make the argument that attraction and interest can only reduce over time and long term relationships can only be based on non-sexual interest dooming all to celibacy or infidelity!)

    It is also worth noting that it is NOT JUST men who benefit from promiscuity, women do too, given that they can reproduce with a male “above their integer” (or evolutionarily FITTER if you prefer) while have a male commit to raise the children (wittingly or unwittingly) the evolutionary benefit from cheating exists.

    Calling someone a slut can be harmful to that womans social status, but it may also backfire and increase her desirability to males. Women compete (fiercely) for males, not just males for females, add to that the complicated societal customs it is quite complex.

    Generally males that refer to a woman (behind her back) as a slut recoginised that she is trying too hard to be desirable (i.e. faking, bigging herself up beyond her integer with makeup, clothing, behaviour) but she HAS to signal her availability, so you could argue it is a failure in subtlety on her part.

    When women do it, it is more often a recognition of the womans breach of societal norms, i.e. a skirt that is shorter than the length of the day, or alternately a way of reducing the womans status socially in order that their status is proportionally raised.

    The worst thing a woman can do of course is let these defamatory remarks effect her self esteem as that is the worst possible outcome for her as an individual in the competitive society in which we live and as a person. That said if you’re called a slut, you may want to look and see if your sexual signaling isn’t as subtle as you thought!

    One could easily draw a comparison to other distributions of behaviour such as effeminate qualities in males as being much the same type of insult of the opposite gender.

  18. Mary Warren Says:

    Slut shaming happens from guys and girls, just in different ways, but it’s more surprising that it comes from girls I guess because of empathy. I don’t think it’s one shade of colour but squeamishness definitely comes into it. Sluts and nakedness and promiscuity are relatively new with women and I reckon once it’s ‘normal’ etc it’ll be normal.

  19. Ryan Says:

    Guys. Sex is not economics. Please stop using silly economic explanations to explain slut-shaming, because they rely on several misleading assumptions:

    1. That all women are straight and want a male partner
    2. That men choose partners based on how
    “slutty” they dress
    3. That women don’t also enjoy having multiple sexual partners
    4. That not every action men take is motivated by sexual desire (sorry Freud)
    5. That the only way women achieve power is through sex

    Finally, economic explanations ignore that women who are overly frigid or overly plain are also stigmatized. Seriously guys, get your heads out of the 1950s and start treating women as people and not just mindless bitches whose every motivation is guided by pursuit of a mate. Recognize that the logic of evolutionary biology is deterministic and denies any free will.

  20. bobo Says:

    these terms come from women. men are studs because women view promiscuous men as studs and won’t touch the ones that aren’t. since women reward this behavior, it continues. since men don’t marry sluts, this behavior goes unrewarded. in addition to that, women use this word to keep girls from giving it away to easy, thus undercutting the rest. if a girl wants to hold out, the slut is a problem to be overcome….by shaming. all things begin with the women. the men are merely reacting and adjusting.

  21. Tom Says:

    What females who put other women down as sluts don’t realize is that men find that phrase as a description of women to be highly erotic.

    Men are very driven to find sexually receptive partners (f) and as much as they tell their girlfriends or wives that is what they want first, the g/w always doesn’t want to believe it. Men are more honest in what they want than women. My wife (who I love very much and have (3) kids with) is always telling me “why can’t you be happy once in a while with sex”. Yet when we met she was as into sex as I was. The best line I ever heard was “women Marty men hoping they’ll change and menarry women hoping they won’t)

  22. Tom Says:

    “women marry men hoping they’ll change and men marry women hoping they won’t “

  23. Luisa Childs Says:

    It is definitely about women feeling threatened by other women when a woman seeks to shame another woman by calling her a ‘slut’. I made the mistake of talkingly openly about sexuality with some co-workers in a former workplace who used this against me. They began making snide remarks about me and suddenly i felt as though I was thrown back in high school. They perpeptuated this perception of me, which was clearly something to look down upon when in actuality i was not actually ‘promiscuous’ at all. perhaps they thought i was boasting. in any case, some women are insecure about their physical attractiveness and are threatened
    by women (straight women that is)whom men perceive to be attractive. This is why they feel the need to cut them down. however, this ultra-competitiveness ultimately stems from a patriarchal society that measures a woman’s worth primarily by her physical attractiveness. Both men & women evaluate women according to how attractive they are even though the criteria for attractiveness shifts across different cultures. I asked my father the other day: ‘what do you think of Dawn French?’ meaning, do you think she is funny. he responded by saying: ‘she’s fat…i don’t like fat women.’ Yes, i was disheartened.

  24. Luisa Childs Says:

    And Kat, you articulated the phenomenon really well xx

  25. Luisa Childs Says:

    And Ryan too!!

  26. bobsutan Says:

    There’s hardly any real evidence that men slut shame. It’s primarily women who do it:

    http://www.femininebeauty.info/suppression.pdf

    “The view that men suppress female sexuality received hardly any support and is flatly contradicted by some findings. Instead, the evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.”

    In other words slut shaming is something women principally do to each other to minimize competition in the sexual marketplace. When women break this natural imperative they’re viewed as “low quality” because it drives down the value of female sexuality. When other women encounter this they tend to react at a visceral level.

  27. Lara Says:

    So what about all the man-made porn filled with video descriptions about “sluts”? Hmm…

  28. Sophie Says:

    Women who slut-shame tend to be the girls who put a lot of value on virginity, sex, committed relationships, marriage, etc. They don’t like men using women for sex – looking at women like they’re just objects, treating them like they’re blow-up dolls, etc. But sluts and whores don’t just devalue themselves: THEY DEVALUE THE ENTIRE FEMALE RACE. The more sluts and whores there are in the world, the more males will continue to degrade the female race and not see them as equals and not treat them with the respect they deserve.

    I’m a girl (as seen in my name,) and I slut-shame *inside my head* (never to someone’s face, ever.) Why? Not because I have anything wrong with females wanting/needing sex, but because sluts and whores only intensify objectification against our gender. You can enjoy sex without doing it casually!

    But I do hate it when a girl gets called a slut or a whore just for wearing a short skirt, or a tank-top, etc. Being a slut is what you choose to DO with your body, not how you choose to dress it!

  29. Ivy Says:

    I think women slut-shame for one root reason: power. They gossip and gang up against ‘sluts’ forever. A lot of women are ruthlessly judgmental and ostracizing of sluts….forever. Even if the ‘slut’ changes her ways. They can say it’s about economics, which I think is a lousy piece of illogicality. It’s the one thing they seem to justify hating and bullying someone for. I think they conveniently overlook the fact that men and women come from all different walks of life, that men and women can have strong sexual impulses, that both sexes can have an easier or harder time controlling impulses. Also, that members of both sexes can seek out and enjoy multiple sex partners. Really these things are genetic. People are not all the same. Women want to force this sameness in the name of power. They’re aware not all women and men can be just what they require. Really, it’s a police-state way of thinking. It is evil and unfair.

    I am naturally non-judgmental, non-jealous, and intelligent/independent thinker. I have been slut shamed by a whole community of women for 7 years now for sharing minor learning experiences I had 16 years ago.

    I’m now married, faithful, moral and always will be. Women love to gossip and hurt me for one reason: Power.
    Unrighteous, hypocritical, unknowing, and cruel POWER. Don’t blame it on patriarchy or religion. The women LOVE to wield this cruel power. It is THEIR CHOICE 100%. And it is why I do not trust nor do I like most women I know.

  30. Russell Says:

    I find that the worst thing you can do in regards to this subject is calling a woman a slut just because your not the only one have sexual experiences with her. It does not seem mature. Of course it could hurt depending on your position on the matter but allowing your emotions to control your actions is not a wise choose.

  31. Jon Says:

    I thought it was obvious. Women slut shame because they want to control the person they are either jealous of, or want to keep from doing something sexual, because they have some strange belief of purity.

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