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It’s 2024 and slut-shaming is worse than ever – especially if you’re working class

It's 2024 and slut-shaming is worse than ever – especially if you're working class

“We see the slut-shaming of working-class women in pop culture all the time.”

It's 2024 and slut-shaming is worse than ever – especially if you're working class

Molly Jameson

I grew up living in a council flat. Whenever I’ve had sex, I can honestly say I’ve never thought about this flat, or the jobs my family worked, how much money they had, or what school I went to. I’m usually focusing on orgasming, I won’t lie.

But our social class, and all those parts of our lives that our class influences actually have a lot to do with how we have sex, how we talk about it and who we choose to do it with.

Research has found that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have sex for the first time at an earlier age than those from middle or upper-class backgrounds, for example. This is, partly, because they typically mature earlier.

Dr Hannah Charnock, a lecturer in British history at the University of Bristol who researches the historical context behind sexual behaviours, also adds that working-class or poor parents will generally have much less control over their children’s dating lives when they grow up; rich parents are more likely to give their children criteria that their romantic partners must meet.

It has also been found that working-class parents are more likely to have sex-positive households, where they allow their children to explore, letting them have partners stay the night and being more open and forthcoming about sex education and sharing information. This might be why the working class are more likely to be sexually expressive and have multiple sexual partners.

‌This might also explain why so many of my university pals, namely the posh ones, were horrified, and even a little judgemental at times, when I’d immediately call my mum after a drunken one- night stand or when I needed dating advice. They couldn’t believe I was able to do this without ‘getting into trouble’.

Charnock tells me that in a lot of working-class communities, early sexual debut can be a marker of social status, whereas the opposite is true in a lot of middle-class bubbles. However, she notes that, of course, these are generalisations.

There are always going to be middle-class and working-class people who don’t fit these prescriptions. Though most of this research tells us that working-class people are more likely to be sex-positive and non-judgmental, it looks different from the outside, and working-class women face a very particular, harmful type of slutshaming.

It goes without saying that these statistics don’t mean that everyone from a working-class background is having sex one way and middle-class people are having sex another. None of this is to say that posh people are doomed to unexciting sex lives, or that working-class women are always free. Someone’s social background, of course, doesn’t speak for everything.

We see the slut-shaming of working-class women in pop culture all the time. Netflix’s Sex Education was a show which ran from 2019 to 2023 about two students who start their own sex ed clinic at school. One of the main characters is a working-class schoolgirl called Maeve Wiley. She is significantly poorer than her peers and lives in a caravan, struggling to make rent after being abandoned by her family. And she is routinely slutshamed. Every comment, rumour and aggression sent her way is loaded with undertones aimed at her social class and her sexual expression.

‌Take, for instance, the scene when we meet Maeve as she passes the popular crowd. ‘What a slag, look at that greasy hair. Maybe she can’t afford shampoo,’ is one of the first things we hear about her from another character, Ruby. ‘I heard she sucked off twelve guys in ten minutes for a dare. She’s basically a nympho,’ another character, Eric, iterates.

‌Maeve’s class is continually used against her as she’s slutshamed throughout Sex Education’s very first episode. Though other richer girls become victims of slutshaming, including when Ruby’s nudes are sent around the school, it is always for sexual behaviour they have actually participated in and the slutshaming eventually disappears. The rumours about Maeve, however, stick around for the duration of the show, and they are always untrue. They are simply assumed because of her clothes, her living situation and her family dynamic. Basically, because she is poor.

‌A serious problem with this stereotype is that it can affect working-class women’s sexual health and safety.

The research paper ‘Prevalence and Correlates of “Sexual Competence” at First Heterosexual Intercourse Among Young People’ found that many young working-class women have sex before reaching the legal age of consent, just like I did, and are less likely than middle-class people to have access to the resources, information or sex education to ask for what they want and protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy.

It’s not a coincidence that the poor woman in this TV show is the only one to be routinely slutshamed. It is an accurate representation of the experiences of working-class women in real life.

Working-class women are also, according to another research paper, ‘Rape and Respectability: Ideas about Sexual Violence and Social Class’, more likely to be sexually assaulted than middle- to upper-class people, which is a strong case for why more sex education, and conversations about class and its impact on sex, are so important.

Instead of fixating on harmful stereotypes based on people’s social status, we should be having meaningful conversations about how we can all enjoy freedom and safety in our sex lives.

Extracted from Sluts: The Truth About Slutshaming & What We Can Do To Fight It by Beth Ashley, published 9 May.