The Long-Term Effects Of Slut-Shaming
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What exactly is "slut-shaming"? Though one 2011 study found that almost half of all US women have been slut-shamed, it can be difficult to define, especially since it is often mixed with other kinds of sexist shaming and behavior-policing, including body-shaming and victim-blaming in sexual assault cases. Perhaps the best working definition is, as Oxford Living Dictionaries puts it, "shaming a woman for her sexual experiences, real or invented, because of perceived violation of ideas of purity and morality." In its purest form, slut-shaming is an attack on someone's character and reputation, and one that demonizes female sexual agency.

Women across the world are generally taught from birth, implicitly or explicitly, that their sexual behavior defines their worth in the world. And women who violate, or are simply thought to violate, expectations of female sexual behavior — expectations which can include anything from refraining from pre-marital sex to being monogamous to not openly enjoying or being interested in sex — have been considered extremely dangerous by a variety of cultures for centuries (the Romans were dedicated to controlling female sexuality, for example). Such women have incurred steep penalties for just as long — and nowhere is that more obvious than in modern cases of women whose sexual assaults and harassments are excused by observers, and sometimes even law enforcement, because of their own perceived past sexual behavior.  

But despite its heartbreakingly long cultural history, long-term studies of slut-shaming's psychological effects are very thin on the ground. Women often don't want to talk about it, and scientists often aren't interested in studying it, even though conclusions can be easily drawn about how truly devastating it can be. However, there's a bit of science around to show how slut-shaming can rear its head years after it actually happens.

Shame Is An Emotion We Can Only Feel When We're Part Of A Group

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The sensation of shame is linked to our reputation with other people. That's how you distinguish the agony of shame from the pain of guilt: while guilt can exist without other people around, shame is contingent on being shamed, on having your actions perceived as sinful or shameful by the world around you. It's a matter of exposure and public perception. In fact, some ideas about the etymology of the word "shame" trace it back to the concept of "disgrace" in Old English, in which acts brought negative consequences not only to you but to your community.

Unsurprisingly, feeling shamed can be truly psychologically crushing. Slut-shaming is particularly powerful as a psychological weapon because of  the atmosphere of shame and silence that surrounds sex in general in most parts of the modern world; sex itself is seen as shameful, to be a woman who has somehow transgressed sexual mores is more so, and to be publicly seen to do so is essentially a triple shot. Perversely, many societies carry the contradiction of women as both necessarily pure and sexually sacrosanct, and sexually flagrant and sluttish by nature. We're under huge pressure to live up to some vision of virginity — but if we fail, we are thought to play into beliefs about our own gender's weaknesses.

But beyond shame's deep psychological power, what does being slut-shamed it actually do to us?

Slut-Shaming Can Make Women Feel Isolated — But It Doesn't Keep Them From Forming Strong Friendships

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Because shame is basically a reputational threat, it separates people from those around them, marking them out with a version of the "scarlet letter." It's likely to add to a sense of isolation and pervasive distrust; it's also thought that isolation is likely one of the big contributors to the rates of self-harm following slut-shaming behavior.

But surprisingly, one of the most prominent studies about judgement of sexual behavior, conducted in 2015, found that it wasn't as bad as it appeared, at least among college-age women. According to the study, women who had more sexual partners also encountered more shaming behavior, like being talked about behind their backs — but it was also found that they were  more likely to have strong friendship groups and a best friend than those with fewer partners. The scientists behind the study wondered if perhaps the judgement made peoples' social bonds stronger, or gave them more resilience; however, it could also just be that having the social skills to have multiple partners in college also meant that people were more capable of nurturing friendships, as well.

So while slut-shaming often has a severely negative impact on the lives of women who experience it, it doesn't necessarily isolate them.

Slut-Shaming May Lead To Lower Self-Worth

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Even without a lot of studies, we can project that being shamed for something like sexual reputation can have long-term psychological effects. For instance, a 2004 study about shame found that encountering feeling of "low social standing" increased people's cortisol levels and their sensations of low self-worth, as humans are social animals who receive a great deal of their information about themselves from others. The reflected implications of slut-shaming — that the person experiencing it is of low worth and unwanted — can create huge damage to lasting self-esteem levels, and that sort of problem can extend throughout life, which we know from bullying studies; these kinds of behaviors can lead to particularly negative results for women.

Shaming around specific things like clothing can also create social anxiety in the future, as women police themselves to attempt to avoid the punishment of further shaming, and worry themselves into knots about the volatility of other peoples' judgements. There needs to be more research on this topic, of course — but I'd lay a heavy bet that people who encountered damaging slut-shaming likely have a significantly higher risk of developing social anxiety than the general population.

Does Slut-Shaming Make Us Blame Ourselves?

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While we can apply some general research about how people experience shame to the specific problem of slut-shaming, we hit a wall — because most shame-related research focuses on people who have actually done something wrong.

Studies on shame tend to focus on people who've done something genuinely wrong, usually criminals. It's from those studies that we get many of the links between feeling ashamed and, for instance, aggressive and isolating behavior. One study, however, found that there's a distinct difference between people who feel ashamed and genuinely believe they've done something wrong, and those who feel shamed but blame others. In the case of the criminals in the study, those who believed they'd done wrong didn't offend again, while those who thought others were to blame did. In other words, people who felt personally and truly ashamed changed their behavior; those who didn't kept doing the same stuff.

These conclusions are of limited and confusing application to those who have experienced slut-shaming, because victims of slut-shaming have done nothing wrong. Anecdotal evidence shows us that many subjects of slut-shaming genuinely do start seeing themselves and their sexual behavior as "dirty" — but there's also the possibility that subjects of slut-shaming refuse to accept the shame and push back. And that can give us a bit of hope — because if subjects of slut-shaming don't truly believe themselves to be shameful, even if they're unable to prove it to those around them, they might be less likely to "behave" and bow to the shamers.

As The FBomb editor Julie Zeilinger wrote for Mic.com, slut-shaming is essentially about control, and those who manage to get through it without being made to feel unacceptable by outside forces may survive the best.

If you've experienced slut-shaming, professional help might be a good way to help you navigate any long-term effects you've been struggling with. And remember that feeling bad after being slut-shamed doesn't make you weak, or somehow guilty — it just means that you're a human being, dealing with the complex psychological mechanisms that fuel shame.