The Double Edged Sword of Labels

Get RAMMED | Madeline Johnson | April 15, 2016

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“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut! It’s a trap. You want to but you can’t but when you do you wish you didn’t, right?” (The Breakfast Club)

Slut shaming. Virgin shaming. Are you perceived as the prude? Or the whore? Modern millennial women face this classic dichotomy in society when being judged for their sexual activity. It’s impossible to combat the stigmas attached to each side of the coin. We just can’t win. No matter what we do, judgements will be formed, actions will be criticized, and people will be left shamed, regardless. Slut shaming, defined as an act of maligning women for alleged sexual behavior, runs wild across college campuses. As a result of societal pressure and campus culture, this is perpetuated by both men and women. This social phenomenon is incredibly damaging, and it has to stop.

In an attempt to better understand perceptions of fellow women in regard to sexual relations in college, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton spent a semester living in a Midwestern universities dorm amongst college students (to isolate potential variables that could effect a result, all subjects engaged in the study were the same age, and all were white heterosexual cis women). They spent a semester in the midst of these young women, studying their behavior, and intermittently questioning them on their perspectives and opinions regarding their own and their peers sexual behavior.

As the study progressed, Armstrong and Hamilton found that these young women defined “slutty” behavior and slut shaming based on economic class rather than amount of sexual activity. This girl on girl crime was a result of the class divide that was present on campus, strengthened even more by the influence of Greek life. In this small controlled group, two groups formed; “high status” women, typically coming from wealthy homes and active in the Greek system, and “low status” social groups coming from either middle or working class backgrounds.

As long as her Lilly Pulitzer hemline wasn’t too scandalous, a young woman wouldn’t be seen in a negative light.

This study revealed a disturbing class division that fostered resentment on both sides, perpetuating a shame based society in which both groups of women were attempting to justify their own decisions and sexual activity by comparing themselves to each other, both sides placing themselves in a delusional state of superiority. Armstrong explained that by engaging in slut shaming, “Women at the top create more space for their own sexual experimentation, at the cost of women at the bottom of social hierarchies.” This divide amongst women is troubling. It’s impossible grow to if we’re dragging ourselves up in society’s view by pulling another woman down.

While gossiping and discussing other people’s intimate lives is inevitable, we have the power to proactively shift the dialogue. The initial need for the communities formed on college campuses to label their peers unfortunately transcends generations. The condemnation of a person’s choices is damaging the mentality of our society by perpetuating shame and guilt onto young persons lives.

While this specific study was focused upon heterosexual women, being shamed for sexual activity or lack thereof is a universal problem for a wide spectrum of people. On campus dialogue and judgements can seem constricting and unfair to men and women engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual sexual activity. Since I am only able to speak to what I know from my perspective, I enlisted the help of some other Fordham students in order to shed light on their own experiences.

“Are you clean?”

“Sexuality is becoming such a different animal and people are becoming more and more okay with fluidity in general, which is so amazing. Sexuality and having sex are such personal things and the fact that people throw others under the bus for it is, in my opinion, totally wrong. It absolutely happens in the gay community too, and because a lot of stigma with gay sex revolves around “are you clean” etc., it sucks to be slut shamed in the gay community. I think sexuality is its own thing and people have so many different ways of expressing it, and even though sometimes the way it’s expressed can be subjectively ‘wrong’ to some people, we shouldn’t be judged for it.” (Rival Staff Writer Christian Eble)

“It is very much a chest-pounding ritual to express bravado.”

“From a straight man’s perspective, it’s no secret that there’s basically no such thing as slut shaming within a group of men. Instead, sex is idolized and praised, glorified and worshipped. Many men revel in the pride of recounting last night’s sexual happenings. It is very much a chest-pounding ritual to express bravado. In some circles of guys there’s actually a silent form of virgin shaming, a sex for acceptance sort of thing. The biggest problem here is empathy. Guys will sometimes get pissed if a girl won’t give it up, or assumes the worst in a man before getting to know him. That’s a by-product of slut shaming, and guys need to understand that. Sex is fun, straight up, so the first thought for many men is, “why wouldn’t she want to?” You wake up the next morning smirking and reminiscent, when she could very well wake up to face the wrath of a new reputation. Not saying this always happens, but guys should be empathetic towards the possibility.” (Rival Staff Editor Nick Makarov)

“Bad Lesbian”

“Slut shaming is not something that only happens to hetero women…lesbian and bisexual women struggle to move past these stigmatizations as well. Gay women are often spoken to in belittling tones about their past sexual experiences with men, by straight and gay women alike. The first woman I ever dated called me a “bad lesbian” and “tainted” for having had sex with men before I met her. A friend once asked me if my “slutty phase” with men in college was the reason why I “turned gay”, speculating that I had filled my quota of sex with men too quickly. I now find myself feeling guilty or dirty for the relationships and sex that I enjoyed having. Slut shaming has been a prominent and damaging force in the lives of almost every woman I know, no matter their sexual orientation.” (Olivia Korth, Class of 2018)

One thing not mentioned in this study or articles elsewhere is the answer to the question; how is someone supposed to win? How can one be labelled as fun but not trashy, classy but not boring, pure but not prude? There is seemingly no escape to being lumped into the two socially constructed categories; you’re either the virgin, or the whore.

I’m going to reference Amy Poehler’s mantra in regard to encountering a lifestyle different from your own; “Good for them; not for me.” Someone’s not comfortable hooking up unless they’re in a relationship? Good for them! Another person is fine going home with someone they’ve just met and quickly doing the dirty? Good for them! Someone is deeply religious and wants to wait for marriage? Good for them! We should celebrate each other’s choices and reserve negative judgement just because it differs from our own lifestyle.

We are all people. We all should have the freedom to live our lives without a stigmatization attached to them. It is time for some mutual respect, and it starts on campus.

Slut. Prude. Whore.