The status wars among women are playing out on college campuses today. Men are the instruments, and the principal weapon is shame. In one sense, that is not news. Women have long used men for the fulfillment of their dreams and desires, as the novels of Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert attest. The difference is that nowadays women have ambitions of their own. So where do men fit in?
Peggy Orenstein ( Girls and Sex) describes young women on college campuses—especially white, upper middle class women–as engaging in active sex lives while avoiding “catching feelings.” One girl says, “whenever I get drunk, I hate going home alone. It’s like, I need a boy or a burrito, you know.” (Orenstein, 2016, 126)
The parents of these young women encourage them to postpone commitment. According to Orenstein, “Parents…have urged them to focus on ambition rather than romance. Hookups allow them to do all that while still enjoying an active sex life.” (Orenstein, 2016, 107)
So, young men are the vehicles for sexual experimentation and satisfaction without the need for commitment. But they are more than that. As Lisa Wade also describes in Hookup Culture, the ability to attract a popular male is a measure of one’s status.
The “Grading Pool”
As early as 2004, in I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe described the “walk of shame” that a young woman undergoes when she stumbles home half-dressed after a night of drunken sex at a frat house. He also describes the humiliation of Charlotte Simmons, a young woman from a small town in the hills of western North Carolina—the first of her family to attend college, on a full scholarship.
In the pursuit of admiration from her socially ambitious female peers, she loses her self-respect—along with her virginity and her prospects for a brilliant scientific career– when she suffers shame and depression from being dumped by her date after having first-time sex with him following a drunken fraternity dance.
My point here is not that she is the victim of his manipulations. (Let us not deny her the right to her sense of agency.) It is that she tried to use him as an instrument of her own social ambitions and became the object of ridicule by her peers—other women.
So, if young men are instruments of young women’s social ambitions, the measure of their popularity on campus, why is “slut shaming” so popular among women?
The key, I believe, is insecurity: Young women (and young men too, for that matter) are insecure about their social identities, both present and future. They are thrown into a mix of strangers from different social backgrounds. In that mix, the competition for the “goods” on offer—whether those goods are popularity, grades, graduate school admission or athletic prowess– is fierce. College is a “grading pool,” in which they must sink or swim.
The Pecking Order
College has become the proving ground for establishing the social “pecking order” among women (and, separately, among men).
In the animal kingdom, chickens establish a pecking order very quickly.
“Pecking order rank determines the order in which chickens can access food, water, and dust-bathing areas…The good news is that, at least among a flock of chickens born and raised together, the pecking order is established early on and the birds live in relative harmony, with only minor skirmishes now and then to reinforce who is in charge.” http://modernfarmer.com/2016/03/pecking-order/
Not so on college campuses, where none of these students are born and raised together; and where there is a continual jousting and negotiation for social identity, for ways of validating one’s claim to privilege and dominance in the status hierarchy.
“Standing Out” vs. “Fitting In”
College is a test (and, possibly, a refutation) of the assumptions of equal opportunity, with its mix of cultures and backgrounds. Students scramble, both for acceptance and distinction—for “standing out” and “fitting in.” But while it does create opportunity for smart kids on scholarships, college also represents a formidable challenge to their cultural competence and a substantial risk to their self-esteem. Not surprisingly, minority students and students from working class backgrounds drop out in large numbers.
And for those for whom “fitting in” or being accepted by one’s more privileged peers becomes paramount, sex represents a way of establishing one’s status; and it also contains the possibility for both shaming and being shamed.
Uncertainty and Information
Insecurity is also driven by uncertainty and lack of information. It used to be the case that many, if not most women went to college to get their “MRS.” Now it is not at all clear which paths will most likely lead to success, however defined. The role of college in finding the right path has become increasingly opaque.
Is it a matter of excelling academically, impressing your professors and going on to graduate or professional school (and possibly meeting a life partner there)? Or hanging out /networking with peers of your own status of origin in the hope of making social connections that will be useful later? Or writing that critical article that gets picked up and published in the Washington Post?
Shame and Social Control
Women–driven by insecurity, in the face of uncertainty and the absence of information, in close proximity with strangers all competing for goods perceived as scarce–use shame as a method of social control and manipulation, for the establishment and practice of dominance relations with other women.
Men, of course, have their dominance rituals too; in which attractive young women are used as instruments to gauge their own social success and approval by their peers. But women, until recently (with the exception of a highly privileged few—e.g. Catherine the Great and her ilk) , have not had the freedom and the power to use men as instruments, to be used and discarded, in the same way that men have used women. Campus sex has become a skirmish not only in wars among women, but in the war of all against all.
Did status competition affect your own college experience? In what way? How did you deal with it? If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?
Comment and subscribe below to join and continue the conversation!