Why Women Slut Shame, According to Science

In a controversial article called “The Evolution of Bitchiness” that was published a few years ago but has recently making the rounds across social media, The Atlantic explored what it is about being around skimpily dressed women that drives other women to be, well, bitches.

It turns out that there’s actually quite a fascination with the topic, even among prominent social scientists. From lab studies observing aggressive behavior to data analysis of the cultural suppression of female sexuality, the psychology behind why we slut shame is a hot topic not just on the streets but in the ivory tower. Here’s the gist of their findings:

We want to hold on to the idea of using sex for power. And that means that women need to be in control. If men start thinking we want sex as much as they do, we worry that we’ll lose the benefit of having a high-demand bargaining tool. Because of this, we try to suppress other women’s overt expressions of sexuality in order to keep up the charade that it’s us that have something they want.

We want to tear down our most successful competitors. We can’t stop the guys from going after whoever they want, but we can make it more socially costly for them to do so by indulging in gossip and trash talk. If we can successfully turn “the sexy girl” into “the slutty girl”, we’ve staved off a competitor by making her less desirable, so we often try to equate the two. Some might take being called a “slut” a compliment, but most will be put off by it.

We don’t trust our boyfriends. Hands down, the study participants said that they were much less likely to want to introduce their boyfriends to the same woman when she was more skimpily dressed. Clearly, we’ve got some trust issues to work out.

It’s basic economics. Remember that intro class you took your freshman year of college? When supply is low, prices go up. By policing each other to make sure that other women aren’t giving it away, women are essentially trying to preserve a higher bargaining value for sex, which usually is “paid” in the form of agreeing to long-term commitment.

We’re still dependent on men to take care of us. Let’s face it. Even though it’s 2015, we’re still doing more of the housework and childcare. In return, though, men are still bringing in more of the money. And that gives women a vested interest in making sure that just like we’re tied to them, they’re tied to us. If sex is easily available elsewhere, that tie becomes less strong. Studies found that the less money a woman made, the more incentive she had to engage in slut shaming and competitive behaviors.

We don’t want our man to think that other women might have higher sex drives. Because, frankly, sometimes there are things we’d rather do than have sex. And we don’t want guys to be comparing how much we want it to other women at all. If they see women dressing sexily and wonder if they’re missing out, we worry that they may start questioning their commitment. We’re not cool with that.

We’re just bitchy (sometimes). Of the slut shaming behavior that she observed in the lab, social scientist Tracy Vaillancourt says in the Atlantic article linked above that ““If I ask someone to describe what this [behavior] is, they’d say it’s ‘bitchy.’” Don’t blame me. I didn’t say it. Science did.

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