I was reading a recently published study, “Good Girls: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus,” by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and colleagues in Social Psychology Quarterly.
It was based on a longitudinal study of 53 women who enrolled at a Midwest university in 2004.
“Slut discourse was ubiquitous among the women we studied,” these scholars found, though interestingly they say the label was fluid, shifting around rather than attaching permanently to a particular woman or set of women.
Instead these mostly sexually experienced, typical American college women used “slut discourse” to define “their virtue against real or imagined bad girls.” I am not like one of those girls, in other words. Nonetheless, “women feared public exposure as sluts. Virtually all expressed a desire to avoid a ‘bad reputation.’”
One of the things girls and young women have to negotiate in the way we live now is the pervasiveness of raunch and the absence of rules. Nobody knows how much sex it takes to turn you into a “slut,” a state of affairs that, while it can be anxiety-provoking, also allows women to have quite a lot of it while still retaining their own self-image as good girls.
I thought of that study, and of the anxieties young women navigate, while watching the twin performances at MTV’s Video Music Awards (via YouTube, naturally) of Queen Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
These two have had a curiously entwined history, for performers so different, what with Beyoncé graciously stepping in to share her spotlight with the young Taylor Swift in 2009, after Kanye West dissed Swift for beating out Beyoncé in the best-female-video category.
Camille Paglia actually compared Swift unfavorably to Beyoncé in a 2012 column, which accused Swift’s “bleached out” persona of “ruining women.”
For a woman scarcely a quarter century in age, Swift has been a lightning rod for a remarkable amount of criticism, ranging from the Village Voice’s criticism of her “traditional femininity” to the vile Westboro pretending-to-be-Baptist church’s protests of Taylor Swift as “the whorish face of doomed America.” Her dating life somehow came to be the subject of national gossip, because, well, she would go out with a guy for a year and then break up with him and get another boyfriend, stay with him for a year and break up. She was 22 at the time these shocking accusations started rocketing through cyberspace.
The irony of trying to slut-shame Taylor Swift is that not only is she a fine songwriter and performer, she is the ultimate nice girl.