But a new study published in the June issue of Social Psychology Quarterly has revealed that when a particular group of women call each other "sluts," it has little to do with perceived or actual promiscuity, and everything to do with social class.
Solciology researchers Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton spent five years interviewing a group of 53 white female undergraduates as they went through their college careers at a Midwestern university. They found that the women who came from upper-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds -- a group they referred to as the "affluent" students -- used the term "slut" differently than the "less affluent" women from working-class, lower-middle or middle-class families.
Armstrong told The Huffington Post that for both groups, the term "slut" had relatively little to do with a woman's sexual experience or activities.
"The more affluent women tended to make a distinction between being 'classy' and 'trashy,' and that was very much about appearance" -- for example, "having the money to have fancy clothes, the right hairstyle, the right tan, handbags [and] jewelry," Armstrong told HuffPost. "If you looked 'classy,' you wouldn't be seen as a slut. You couldn't be 'trashy' if you looked right."
Armstrong explained that the women in her study tended to value different things, depending on which group they were associated with. Among the less affluent women, she said, it was generally more important to be down-to-earth and easy to get along with, while the more affluent women put a higher value on social climbing and participation in Greek life.
The less affluent women associated "sluttiness" with being stuck-up, snobby and exclusive, Armstrong said. They considered the affluent women who went to a lot of parties and "hooked up" (an activity that, in this study, did not necessarily involve penetrative sex) to be "slutty."
Armstrong found that only the less affluent women at this college were publicly slut-shamed by their female peers. The more affluent women, she said, held to a complex code of conduct that wasn't easy for outsiders to imitate.
"You looked hot, but not slutty. You looked classy, not trashy," said Armstrong. "You hooked up just the right amount, but not too much. You engaged in the 'appropriate' amount of sexual activity. You selected men who were hot, not men who were jerks, from the right fraternities, not the wrong fraternities."
"You had to indicate that you were deserving of status," she continued. "So the women who failed at that were of course the less affluent ones for whom the behavior was not easy, obvious or natural."
Armstrong told HuffPost that the researchers found little correlation between the "slut" label and any woman's specific sexual behavior, although she said she suspects the college students were not entirely honest with either their peers or the researchers about the specifics of their sex lives.
"We grew skeptical about what they were telling us about their sexual activities," Armstrong told HuffPost. "We figured out that one of the ways in which women avoid slut stigma is to lie about their sexual behavior."
None of the women interviewed wanted a reputation of being sexually promiscuous, and stories abounded about a mythical "slut" who had sex with entire sports teams, or engaged in public group sex. This nonexistent "bad girl" made the college women feel better about whatever they were doing in their private lives, said Armstrong.
Due to the small sample size and the homogeneity of the participants, it would probably be a mistake to draw society-wide conclusions from the research. But learning how one particular group uses the word "slut" as a marker of class helped the researchers to understand slut stigma and fear of a "bad reputation" in a more nuanced way.
"If you want to make a young woman feel bad, pulling out the term 'slut' is a surefire way to do it," Armstrong told The Atlantic. "It’s 'she isn't one of us, we don't like her and she's different.'"
As for the phenomenon of women calling each other sluts, Armstrong suspects that the practice will continue as long as women are taught to value sexual purity.
"You can't be good unless someone else is bad," she told HuffPost.