In contemporary Western society, young women are caught between the competing discourses of the slut/virgin dichotomy and the more recent imperatives of a sexualised culture. Drawing on data from qualitative interviews with young people, I identify a relationship between social class and susceptibility to sexual stigma. The practice of slut-shaming works locally to bolster the social capital of some girls at the expense of others, often those of perceived lower status. I find that middle class women are afforded sexual liberty, particularly if they display agentic practice. In contrast, working class women occupy more precarious positions of sexual respectability which depend on narratives of relationships and love to ameliorate the potential for slut-shaming.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Aapola, S., Gonick, M., & Harris, A. (2005). Young femininity: Girlhood, power and social change. Hampshire: PalgraveMacMillan.
Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L. T., Armstrong, E. M., & Lotus Seeley, J. (2014). ‘Good girls’: Gender, social class and slut discourse on campus. Social Psychology Quarterly, 77(2), 100–122.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2015). The agency line: A neoliberal metric for appraising young women’s sexuality. Sex Roles, 73(7–8), 279–291.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y., & Eliseo-Arras, R. K. (2008). The making of unwanted sex: Gendered and neoliberal norms in college women’s unwanted sexual experiences. The Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 386–397.
Carmody, M., & Ovenden, G. (2013). Putting ethical sex into practice: Sexual negotiation, gender and citizenship in the lives of young women and men. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(6), 792–807.
Chambers, D., Tincknell, E., & Van Loon, J. (2004). Peer regulation of teenage sexual identities. Gender and Education, 16(3), 397–415.
Elley, S. (2013). Understanding sex and relationship education, youth and class: A youth work-led approach. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.
Farvid, P., Braun, V., & Rowney, C. (2017). ‘No girl wants to be called a slut!’: Women, heterosexual casual sex and the sexual double standard. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 544–560.
Fjær, E. G., Pedersen, W., & Sandberg, S. (2015). I’m not one of those girls’: Boundary-work and the sexual double standard in a liberal hookup context. Gender & Society, 29(6), 960–981.
Hamilton, L., & Armstrong, E. A. (2009). Gendered sexuality in young adulthood: Double binds and flawed options. Gender & Society, 23(5), 589–616.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (2004). The male in the head: Young people, heterosexuality and power (2nd ed.). London: The Tufnell Press.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., & Thomson, R. (1996). In the same boat? The gendered (in)experience of first heterosex. In D. Richardson (Ed.), Theorising heterosexuality. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Hollway, W. (1984). Women’s power in heterosexual sex. Women’s Studies International Forum, 7(1), 63–68.
Jackson, S. M., & Cram, F. (2003). Disrupting the double standard: Young women’s talk about heterosexuality. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(1), 113–127.
Kehily, M. J. (2002). Sexuality, gender and schooling: Shifting agendas in social learning. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Lees, S. (1993). Sugar and Spice: Sexuality and the Adolescent Girl. London: Penguin.
Livingston, J. A., Bay-Cheng, L. Y., Hequembourg, A. L., Testa, M., & Downs, J. S. (2013). Mixed drinks and mixed messages: Adolescent girls’ perspectives on alcohol and sexuality. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(1), 38–50.
Maxwell, C., & Aggleton, P. (2012). Bodies and agentic practice in young women’s sexual and intimate relationships. Sociology, 46(2), 306–321.
Maxwell, C., & Aggleton, P. (2013). Middle class young women: Agentic sexual subjects? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(7), 848–865.
May, T. (2001). Social research: Issues, methods and process. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Nayak, A. (2006). Displaced masculinities: Chavs, youth and class in the post-industrial city. Sociology, 40(5), 813–831.
Nayak, A., & Kehily, M. J. (2014). ‘Chavs, chavettes and pramface girls’: Teenage mothers, marginalised young men and the management of stigma. Journal of Youth Studies, 17(10), 1330–1345.
Papadopoulous, L. (2010). Sexualisation of young people review. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/; http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/Sexualisation-of-young-people.html.
Ringrose, J., & Renold, E. (2012). Teen girls, working-class femininity and resistance: Retheorising fantasy and desire in educational contexts of heterosexualised violence. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(4), 461–477.
Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender. London: Sage.
Tanenbaum, L. (2000). Slut: Growing up female with a bad reputation. New York: HarperCollins.
Tolman, D. L., Anderson, S. M., & Belmonte, K. (2015a). Mobilizing metaphor: Considering complexities, contradictions, and contexts in adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual agency. Sex Roles, 73(7–8), 298–310.
Tolman, D. L., Bowman, C. P., & Chmielewski, J. F. (2015b). Anchoring sexualisation: Contextualising and explicating the contribution of psychological research on the sexualisation of girls in the US and beyond. In E. Renold, J. Ringrose, & R. D. Egan (Eds.), Children, sexuality and sexualisation. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Tyler, I. (2008). Chav mum chav scum. Feminist Media Studies, 8(1), 17–34.
Tyler, I. (2011). Pramface girls: The class politics of ‘maternal TV.’ In H. Wood & B. Skeggs (Eds.), Reality television and class. London: PalgraveMacmillan.
Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H., & Melody, J. (2001). Growing up girl: Psychosocial explorations of gender and class. Hampshire: Palgrave.
Wetherell, M., & Edley, N. (1998). Gender practices: Steps in the analysis of men and masculinities. In K. Henwood, C. Griffin, & A. Phoenix (Eds.), Standpoints and differences: Essays in the practice of feminist psychology. London: Sage Publications.
Willett, R. (2008). ‘What you wear tells a lot about you’: Girls dress up online. Gender and Education, 20(5), 421–434.
Jonathan Bradshaw for supportive comments on this draft.
No funding was received in connection with the study.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.
This study was approved by the University of Leeds Ethics Committee.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Williams, H. ‘You Can Spot Them A Mile Off’: Young Women’s Negotiations of Class and the Sexual Culture of Shame. Sexuality & Culture (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-021-09824-x
- Young women