College women: seen as a “slut” if they have sex on a hookup, “bitch” or “prude” if they don’t

How do college women decide whether to have sex on a hookup? We illuminate this question here by an analysis of transcripts of qualitative interviews that one of us (Ford) conducted in 2016 and 2017 with women students at an elite private university. As these college women talked about their experiences with hookups, three stigmatized images of women came up over and over—the “slut,” the “prude,” and the “bitch.” Behind these images, we believe, are norms or expectations that women be fun rather than “prudish,” and accommodating to men sexually rather than “bitchy,” but not “too” interested in casual sex. Sensing that they can be seen in each of these stigmatized ways, women describe walking a tightrope in casual hookup situations: either they have sex and risk being seen as a “slut,” or decline to have sex and risk being seen as a “prude” or a “bitch.” Here we share quotes from the interviews that illustrate how women saw these social pressures.

The study from which we drew these interviews was focused on unwanted sex—everything from sex that students consented to but felt ambivalent about, to sex involving physical coercion. Our interest in this blog post is what we learned from women whose experiences were not physically coercive, but were nonetheless difficult because of their awareness of their vulnerability to these three labels. Participants were recruited by a screening survey in two introductory sociology courses and by recruitment flyers placed around campus. The screening survey asked questions to ascertain if the person had experienced unwanted sex. The flyers read, “Unwanted Sex–Wanna Talk About it?” and specified that the study was looking for 18-25 year olds with an experience of unwanted sex since college began. Interviews were conducted in person with 44 women and lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours. The quotes that follow below are verbatim from these interviews.

Not being a “slut”

The specter of being called a “slut” came up often. Other terms used to convey the same idea include “easy” and “whore.” Here’s what some women said:

Respondent 1: If you’re a girl and you tell your friends you had sex with someone you just met that night you’re supposed to feel like “oh no” but you may have wanted to but there’s this natural “oh that’s kind of slutty”. Women aren’t supposed to have one night stands. I think it’s changed a lot recently with the perspective of women but even I have that natural reaction where if I have a friend who hooks up with tons of guys or has sex with a guy too soon you’re like “he’s not gonna like you.”

Interviewer: What did you worry he would think about you?

Respondent 2: If I had sex with him maybe he would think I was a whore or easy. Or the opposite even, if I said no he would think I didn’t like him as a person or treat me differently. I think more so, if I had sex with him I thought he would think I was easier for him [to sleep with] and stuff like that.

Interviewer: You said you were concerned about how you looked?

Respondent 3: I didn’t wanna appear slutty to him or easy. I didn’t think that what happened was an accurate representation of the way I usually act with guys.

Interviewer: Howd you feel?

Respondent 3: I felt like really – a lot of shame. I think I felt like I was definitely upset and I felt like I was – what I did was really slutty. Not something I would have done normally. Just like, I felt kinda dirty. I remember showering continuously.

Interviewer When you hooked up did yall have sex?

Respondent 4: No… Um, I feel like in high school I developed that whole like whore-slut reputation which I wasn’t really into because like I just I felt like it took away a lot from me. Like, that whole label. It’s like. It’s demeaning and degrading and people see you as like nothing but that. It’s kind of… It’s really hard to kind of build respect for yourself outside the like name and I feel like in college it was just like a time where I could be like, alright, like, how are we? – are you gonna do this? Like, I’m away from the environment but I felt like the situation still followed me, like the name still followed me.

Not being a “prude”

While fear of being seen as a “slut” led women to avoid having sex too readily, fear of being seen as a “prude” was often present, leading women to have sex they didn’t really want.

Respondent 5: I guess as a female in this type of society you’re just obligated to say yes to a guy. Like you’re supposed to make him feel good or whatever.

Interviewer: What do you think that obligation is about?

Respondent 5: Like women are made to serve men or something. You’re supposed to be this submissive little creature and go along with everything. If you stop then you’re being prude, you led him on, he’ll get angry. I don’t want that to happen.

Interviewer: At the house party, were you worried about it being awkward?

Respondent 6: Yeah I was worried about him telling everyone I was a prude – leading him on and playing games. In high school I was worried what guys thought about me a lot – it’s not like that now…but I almost felt bad – because I felt like I was leading him on. But we’re like friends I was gonna see him again – in class and at parties.

Not being a “bitch”

Women dreaded being seen as a “bitch,” and this sometimes leads them to have sex that they clearly didn’t want or that they were ambivalent about. Avoiding being seen as a bitch, and the imperative women felt to take care of men’s needs also led them to focus on men’s rather than their own pleasure.

Interviewer: I’m just curious how it [unwanted sex] happens, how it happens to women?

Respondent 7: Yea. My sentiment is “let’s do this because it’s great for you, get it over with.” I can imagine other women feeling that way.

Interviewer: Like you want to please the man?

Respondent 7: Maybe. So maybe if they’re [women] sober enough to want to say no, but then keep quiet anyway, it’s because they want it to go faster and get it over with. Don’t want to look like a bitch by saying no in the middle of sex.

Interviewer: Were you worried he would think you’re a prude if you didn’t have sex?

Respondent 2: Yea a little bit but I think more [I was worried] that he’d think I led him on or something like that and I was being a bitchy girl to him. I didn’t really want that.

Respondent 8: I don’t think I ever said, no I don’t wanna hookup. It would be like… like when he was trying to get me to lay down in bed. I said, no… that’s ok, I don’t wanna do that. But I don’t think I ever said openly, I do not want to hookup up with you. I felt like at that point, I didn’t think it would add to the situation in anyway. I thought it might make things more hostile.

Respondent 9: Oh another gray area. I kinda wanted to date my best friend Mike. I wanted to try dating. And he always didn’t wanna push me past my boundaries. We did a lot of communicating. He really wanted to get physical. But I didn’t feel romantic. So I personally chose to have sex with him. Even though I wasn’t attracted to him. In the moment, I thought maybe it would spark something. I was feeling like it might be a good thing to try. So I did try to do that [sex with Mike] and it was kinda terrible. I wasn’t doing it for myself but for him. It was selfless. I didn’t get any pleasure from it. I was kinda just wanting for it to end the whole time. Like an hour. And yeah… I wouldn’t say he’s bad, it’s just like, I guess it’s the mentality. It’s more like I wanna get this over with as soon as possible. I did it because I generally wanted to do it for him.

Being afraid of more than one stigma

Often, women were so aware of the kinds of pressures they were balancing that they laid out multiple fears in the same quotes. For example:

Respondent 10: I really don’t know how to say no when a guy wants to have sex, I feel terrible when I say no. I feel like most girls are the same way, want to make guys like them. I just always want people to like me, especially guys. Don’t want them to see me as someone who doesn’t want to have sex. Same time don’t want them to see me as weak.

Interviewer: Are those the things you think women are supposed to be balancing?

Respondent 10: Yea. Having a lot of confidence but also not seeming easy. Cute and sexual but not slutty.

Interviewer: What would you be afraid would be said?

Respondent 11: Will he tell his friends lies about me because he is angry? To stay in the situation, maybe some people don’t realize what is actually wrong in that situation or they think the only way to get out of it is to give in.

Interviewer: Be nice, give him a blowjob?

Respondent 11: Yea.

Interviewer: What is that pressure in social situations about?

Respondent 11: You wanna come off a certain way present yourself as easy going or someone who is cool and down, but at the same time if you are not comfortable with stuff, also balancing that.

Interviewer: Seems like women have to have a balance, being fun and experienced but not too experienced?

Respondent 5: Yea you can’t be slutty, but you can’t be a prude either. Have to be this in-between. You can’t be with all these guys, but if a guy is with all these women, he’s a player, he’s cool. But if a woman is with a lot of guys she is a slut or whore.

Interviewer: You think there’s pressure to be fun?

Respondent 2: Yea. I think a lot of times if you say no or act uninterested they’re like “why are you being mean, so rude, you don’t want to hang out? You’re a prude” and then they tell you to be fun and that is kind of their way of saying you can be a slut. That’s what a “good time” is for men.

Respondent 12: There is a very interesting line to what extent should I say no to not appear too easy and to what extent should I give in so that I don’t appear as a prude.

Conclusion

Our interviews with college women illustrate that women are quite aware of reputational consequences of having or not having sex. We found three distinct pressures that came up over and over again: don’t be a slut, don’t be prude, and don’t be a bitch. Clearly, many women are worried about what men will think of them.

While some women discussed just one of these pressures, many acknowledged worrying about two of them simultaneously. These women see themselves as walking a tightrope, and women often find balancing their need to avoid two images difficult. Sometimes fear of being a “bitch” or a “prude” supersedes their fear of being a “slut” and they go along with sex that they decidedly didn’t want or were ambivalent about. Other times, the dominant fear is of being seen as a “slut,” so women manage to avoid having sex, but thereby risk the “prude” or “bitch” label. Balancing on this tightrope uses emotional energy that women might otherwise use to focus on what they want or don’t want sexually. Of course, we are not suggesting that it is possible or desirable to free sexual interaction from social norms or expectations. And we recognize that in many arenas, one social norm will have to be balanced against another when, in a particular situation, they push one in opposite ways. However, we do believe that it is possible to work toward norms that honor both men’s and women’s sexual agency and pleasure, as well as their right to be respected when they decline sex that they do not want.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *