SOCI_108_DUNN_4

SOCI_108_DUNN_4 - 33 “EVERYONE KNOWS WHO THE SLUTS AR ”...

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Unformatted text preview: 33 “EVERYONE KNOWS WHO THE SLUTS AR ”: HOW YOUNG WOMEN GET AROUND THE STIGMA JENNIFER DUNN When deviance from a group’s expectations is pro- found, the person who violates the norm can come to have what the sociologist Erving Goffman (1963) called a stigma. People with a stigma have a “spoiled” identity, because we have discovered that they are not who they claim to be or they act in ways contrary to how we think people like them should act. Goffinan said that we carry around stereotypes of people, and when people don’t match up—when there is a “discrepancy” between what we expect and what we get—~we look down on the stigmatized person and treat him or her ac— cordingly (1963, p. 5). Not only do we demean such persons, but we treat them as unworthy of our respect and regard, and in this way, Goffman said, “we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce [their] life chances" (1963, p. 5). This article is about how becoming sexually active in the wrong ways can be deeply discredit— ing for young women, and what young women do to avoid or repair the stigma of being a “slut.” It is based on interviews of 22 undergraduate women, individually and in an exploratory focus group, who were asked about their reasons for becoming sexually active or for refraining from sexual activ~ ity. Even though adolescents face a variety of pres— sures to have sex, and almost half (48.4 percent) of teenagers between 15 and 17 are sexually ac— tive (Risman and Schwartz, 2002), girls in partic— Source: Written specifically for this reader. ular are not free to he sexual as often as, or with whomever, they please. Instead, it is common for young women to be ascribed the “slut” identity if they are perceived as becoming active too young, having too many partners, choosing inappropriate partners, or having intercourse under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The young women I interviewed constructed their own “image” and “reputation” by telling me about other despised girls; they adamantly did not want themselves to be seen as a “slut.” All but one of the women spoke in these terms. “Susan” (all of the names I use are pseudonyms), for example, discussed her feelings after an alcohol-induced “one-night fling” this way: [felt as oh my god what’s going to happen to my image. . . before in high school, I was known as Miss Virgin and I dated a lot of guys in high school, but I was never. . . you know how some girls who date a lot ofguys in high school are con— sidered a tease? But I know, ’cause I ’ve talked to some of my ex boyfriends, l was never considered a tease. I was just considered a girl who would never put out. Susan explained about different types of women, describing the valued image of the respected virgin and contrasting it to the more sexual “tease”—an identity that does not fit the “nice girl” stereotype 227 “ '" """f‘$‘WfiL""=‘-M;.wa - 3m .m's. . c .- u . . ZZU PART ElUl-l‘l HI: l'bKUbbKUAL DEVIANCE of virtue and chastity. Susan went on to explain that she was afraid she would be seen as one of the “slutty girls”—that is, “girls who go to parties and then have sex with men they meet there.” Darla was able to describe this other, stig- matized identity in some detail for me. “Sluts” were the girls who were “popular among the guys" for the “wrong reasons,” who called men all the time and were sexually aggressive, and who “forced themselves” on men who, she ex— plained, would rather be left alone. Darla had a friend who would do “anything” to get the ap- proval of men: She ’5 the kind ofperson . . . if she like: some- one, she would call them all the time, do every- thing to get their attention, all the time . . . and it was like she would even have sex with them. just to like, get their attention. “I could never be a person who dates casually and has casual sex,” Susan told me, a remark that re- flected the consensus among the women I inter- viewed. Several of the women I interviewed reported feeling “slutty” as a consequence of a decision to have sex outside the context of a committed rela- tionship. None were more profoundly affected than Valerie, who used the language of stigma to describe the experience with multiple partners she had in high school. After she told me about her self—described decision to trade sex for intimacy, I asked her how she felt about that choice. “I’m still trying to get over that,” she acknowledged, “be- cause it gave me, like, the slut complex. . . [I thought] that maybe it was just an inherent per- sonality trait, that I was just a slut, that I slept around." Valerie took the expectations of her peers, and her deviance from their norms, very seriously. It led her to have intensive counseling, and she claimed to be only just beginning to feel recovered at the time of our interview. Goffman describes shame as a “central possibility” for the person who sees the possession of an attribute as “defiling,” and Valerie was extremely consci0us of how she thought other people saw her (1963, p. 7). Sally said that at her high school, “everyone knows who the sluts are; it gets around," and she was careful to distinguish herself from these women, who were friends but not the people she chose to spend much time with. When I asked her what she meant by “sluts,” she defined them as “people who were easy and just had sex whenever they went on a date.” It appears that pregnancy and sexually trans- mitted diseases are not the only hazards associated with becoming sexually active. Young women also run the risk of acquiring the stigmatized identity of the “slut.” In their concern for their reputations, the women I interviewed Seem to invest sex with what Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs (1986) refer to as “old meanings,” understandings of sex that pre- date the sexual revolution, in which amorous sex is approved and casual sex is condemned. Only one of the women I interviewed spoke of her own plea- sure in any kind of sex; the majority were far more likely to describe their feelings as shamed or val- ued, depending on whether they encountered or avoided the stigma attached to their decisions. Even though the sexual revolution has so changed our thinking about sex that sex divorced from love, marriage, or reproduction has arguably “become a mainstream American value” (Risman and Schwartz, 2002223), these women still take into account traditional values that censure the unin- hibited expression of female sexuality. In this view, sex that is “purely about play and pleasure” (Risman and Schwartz, 2002, p. 22) is something that “sluts,” not girls with “self-respect," engage in. Sex for fun is a deviation from social norms, violating what Goffman (1963) called a “norma- tive expectation” and thus incurring stigma. Is there any way out of this dilemma? After all, almost all American teenagers are sexually ac— tive by the end of their teen years, and our culture is “highly sexualized” (Risman and Schwartz, 2002, p. 22). How can a young woman follow her desires, or conform to significant historical, cul- tural, and peer pressures to have sex, yet still pre- serve her reputation? The contradictory features of 33 DUNN this social structural situation present a dilemma. It is a kind of “identity bind" (Lofland, 1995). How do you face conflicting expectations and still keep from spoiling your image? The answer, it turns out, is to simultaneously avoid a stigmatized, discredited identity and acquire a valued one by being in a “relationship”—taking on a “coupled” identity by having a boyfriend. In— deed, having a boyfriend was tremendously im— portant to the young women in this study. For example, Felicia described how important it was for her friends to have a relationship: “All my friends have said, ‘God, I want a boyfriend.‘ It‘s like, I want a boyfriend so I can feel and have that self—esteem, you know, to feel good about myself.” Valerie, too, was eloquent in her description of her need to be coupled: I was destroyed on a regular basis, and then I had to build myselfup so I could go on with daily liv- ing, but daily living felt like an existence, not, not like I was living, just like I was going through the motions. Until Ifound a man, and then the man kind of made the life thing worthwhile, Tessa said that she and her boyfriend had been “joined at the hip,” meaning always together. She matter-of—factly described herself as “con- sumed with him” and as envisioning herself mar- ried, saying she would have married him unless she had met someone else, This is how she de- scribed being coupled: My whole life just revolved around him, I was al- ways with him. Just completely, any time, any spare time that I had was with him, and there was never time to myself, it was always with him. We were al- ways together We were married, I mean, that was the way we acted, that was the way people;it was never Tessa, it was always Tessa and Kyle [she laughs ]. We were always together For these young women, being in a relation- ship enables them to be sexually active while at the same time avoiding the stigma of the “slut” identity. By carefully choosing their partners and the circumstances of coitus, they conform to the stereotype that most young people are no longer “EVERYONE KNOWS WHO THE SLUTS ARE" 229 virgins by their senior year in high school (in fact, only 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men are still virgins at age 20, according to the survey cited by Risman and Schwartz). Thus, it is “nor- mal” to have sex, but deviant to have “casual” sex, especially if you are female (Risman and Schwartz, 2002). The discrepancies in these ex- pectations, and the possible stigma, are avoided by confining sex to “boyfriends.” Goffman might say that the girlfriend identity manages to meet the normative expectations to be both virtuous and sexual. The interviews support this interpretation. In an adolescent subculture these women understand as valuing sexual experience and chastity, they talk about the importance of forming committed monogamous relationships and what they are willing to do in order to achieve the valued iden- tity attached to such relationships. Susan, for ex- ample, said that her “bad experiences” with men who did not maintain relationships with her after sexual encounters had taught her to appreciate the importance of a relationship: Well, does this guy really care about me, you know? . . . I think ifa person really cares about you, they're not going to even try to sleep with you on the veryfirst night. . . . And I think I’ve learned more of what types of guys to look for, you know, if I went out on a date and a guyjust seemed inter- ested in trying to sleep with me rather than trying to get to know me, then, I would probably never see him again. Because I don ’t want to get in— volved with a person that goes from relationship to relationship. Corinne has also learned about the same thing from the failed relationships in her life. When she meets a new male, she says, “I can sit back now, because of this incident, and say, what is this per— son going to offer me? Ijust go whoa, does he ful- fill all this that I want, and if he doesn’t, then that’s it. I can’t waste my time and risk getting hurt.” TheSe understandings are completely consistent with the idea that women who have casual sex are “sluts” and are stigmatized for sexual behavior in a way that “girlfriends” are not. They support 230 PART EIGHT HETEROSEXUAL DEVIANCE these women’s decisions to form particular types of relationships in order to be sexually active. In today’s world: Teens and adults have sex before, during, and after marriage with a variety of partners over their life course. . . , For mast people, a sexual life begins during adolescence and is likely to include all kinds ofsexual behaviors, including coitus, before people reach the legal age for drinking alcohol. (Risman and Schwartz, 2002, p. 23) In conclusion, as Goffman would have antic- ipated in 1963 (just prior to the sexual revolution), there are normative expectations for young women REFEREN CES today and different ways of violating them, some of which may lead to stigma and, because of it, being treated badly. On the one hand, it is now pretty “normal” for young women to be sexually active even before they graduate from high school. But such women risk being stigmatized as a “slut.” On the other hand, young women who remain as virgins even in their senior year may be afraid of being stigmatized as a “tease.” Thus many tend to be sexually active but get around the “slut” stigma by seeking out relationships to have sex in them. Even so, there is no guarantee the stigma will be avoided, because after all, “Everyone knows who the sluts are." Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs, 1986. REE-making Love: The Feminization of Sex. Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday. Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma. New York: Simon and Sehuster. REVIEW QUESTIONS Lofland, L, 1995. Personal communication. Risman, B., and P. Schwartz. 2002. “After the sexual rev— olution: Gender politics in teen dating.“ Contexts, 1:16—24. 1. How do women get around the stigma of being defined as a slut? 2. Do you agree or disagree with the statement “Everyone knows who the sluts are”? Defend your answer by providing concrete examples in defense of your position. ...
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