In Fall 2004, 55 women moved into a floor of a dormitory at a large public Midwestern university. Only 53 were students.
The other two were Sociology Prof. Elizabeth Armstrong and then-graduate student Laura Hamilton, now teaching sociology at the University of California-Merced.
The most surprising findings centered on the intersection between affluence and who was slut-shamed — that is, who was made guilty for their sexual activity.
Although Armstrong said all of the girls “slut-shamed” equally, poorer girls were shamed by wealthier girls for their sexual behavior. Although wealthier girls had more hookups than the other girls, poorer women felt that they could not get away with this behavior without being shamed.
Hamilton and Armstrong spent five years studying the attitudes, habits and daily routines of the girls on their floor. They spent extensive time with the women during their first year and interviewed them annually from sophomore year to post-graduation. Their findings concluded with a book published in April 2013, “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality”, and a study published in Social Psychology Quarterly that focused on slut-shaming.
Some of their findings aren't shocking: money-related factors like income, debt, social connections and parental financial assistance hugely altered future success. More surprising was that economic factors skewed how the women interpreted each others' sexual activities and attractiveness, as well as their overall values on sex.
Armstrong and Hamilton found that the three pathways and other financially-related factors influenced the girls’ views on sex and each other. While they asked direct questions and interviewed all of the 53 girls, they also learned through observing arguments, gossip and late-night talks. Economic inequality was often a basis in the ways girls judged each other’s sexual pursuits. Labeling someone a “slut,” which was often combined with accusations of meanness or unattractiveness, seemed to be the worst insult.
Although Armstrong’s research involved dividing the women into two groups of higher and lower income, this seemed to happen naturally because of expensive and divisive social activities like Greek life.
At the unnamed Midwestern university, Greek life was “a really big thing,” Armstrong said. Sorority rush was competitive, based heavily on affluence and appearance, and Greek life was also expensive.
“A girl was in a very good sorority and she said, ‘Yeah, this poor girl got in and was all wrong,’” Armstrong said. “'She deactivated of course because she didn’t fit, and she wasn’t cute, you know? She didn’t belong.’”
A lower-income student told Hamilton and Armstrong, “Sorority girls are kind of whorish and unfriendly and very cliquey. If you weren’t Greek, then you didn’t really matter.”
The study did not find that all affluent women could fit into these worlds – studious, “nerdy” girls didn’t fit in either even if they were from well-off families.
“The social groups were very, very divided by class,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong also noticed differing attitudes between the groups in regards to sex. The wealthier viewed casual sex in a negative light only when it involved vaginal intercourse, yet casual oral sex and kissing outside of a relationship were acceptable behavior.
Less affluent girls equated sluttiness with the materialism and cliquey behavior they thought wealthier students embodied. Women in the lower-income group were unaware that the affluent students’ definition of hooking up excluded vaginal intercourse and believed that sex and hookups belonged only in a steady relationship.
However, the lower-income girls were associated with the very traits that higher-income girls thought were “slutty,” suggesting that, in reality, it was the inability to appear as if they were from a high social class.
Halfway through college, none of the 53 girls in Armstrong’s study had close friendships with those of a different socioeconomic status.
Slut-shaming was everywhere, but no one had concrete definitions of what exactly a slut was, or real evidence of the slutty behavior causing this label to be put upon girls.
“One of the things I think is good that we found is that a slut label didn’t stick in a real kind of long term way,” Armstrong said. “The sexual reputations weren’t very stable. There wasn’t really anyone who got permanently labeled the floor slut or anything like that. Among these women that just didn’t happen.”
Armstrong said for the label to have long-term consequences, it would have to have more permanent implications.
“It was combined together with a lot of other factors related to social class that had pretty major consequences,” Armstrong said.