The Evolution of Bitchiness

Women engage in indirect aggression and slut-shaming, even in clinical research studies. Why?

One day in Ontario, 86 straight women were paired off into groups of two—either with a friend or a stranger—and taken to a lab at McMaster University. There, a researcher told them they were about to take part in a study about female friendships. But they were soon interrupted by one of two women.

Half the participants were interrupted by a thin, blond, attractive woman with her hair in a bun, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and khaki pants, whom the researchers called “the conservative confederate."

The other half found themselves in the company of the “sexy confederate,” the same woman, instead wearing a low-cut blouse, a short black skirt, boots, and her hair sexily un-bunned.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa, and a PhD student, Aanchal Sharma, then gauged the women’s reactions as the confederates, both sexy and not, left the room. The metric they used? A “bitchiness" scale, of course.

“Why bitchiness?” I asked Vaillancourt, wondering why she chose to use such a loaded word.

“Bitchiness is the term that people use,” she explained. “If I ask someone to describe what this is, they'd say it’s ‘bitchy.’”

"Conservative" and sexy models (Aggressive Behavior)

The women doing the rating were roughly the same age as the participants, 20 to 25, and watched for signs like eye-rolling, looking the confederate up or down, or laughing sarcastically. In one case, a participant said the sexy confederate was dressed to have sex with the professor. One didn’t wait for the sexy woman to leave the room before exclaiming, “What the fuck is that?!”

“That was a 10 out of 10 as far as bitchiness,” Vaillancourt told me.

What Vaillancourt and Sharma found, according to a study published recently in the journal Aggressive Behavior, was, essentially, that the sexy confederate was not going to be making sorority friends anytime soon. The women were far more likely to be bitchy to the sexy confederate, with the large effect size of 2, and their bitchy reactions were more pronounced when the participants were with friends, rather than strangers.                                            

(Aggressive Behavior)

Vaillancourt had always been interested in bullying and popularity, but to her, this showed that women tend to haze each other simply for looking promiscuous. 

The clinical term for the womens’ bitchiness is “indirect aggression"— essentially, aggression we don’t want to get caught for.

“You tend to do it such that you won't be detected,” she explained. “Or you make an excuse for your behavior, like, ‘I was only joking.’ Direct aggression is just what it is: physical or verbal aggression.”

Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge have also theorized that women, not men, are largely the ones who suppress each others’ sexualities, in part through this sort of indirect aggression.

“The evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage,” they wrote.                                       

Some might argue that it’s only natural for the women in the lab to treat the provocatively-dressed woman poorly. After all, this was a university setting, and in comes an intruder whose, “boobs were about to pop out,” as one participant put it. How untoward!

So Vaillancourt performed another experiment in which she simply showed study participants one of three images: Two featured the conservatively dressed woman and the sexy woman, dressed as described previously. Another showed the sexy woman with her body and face digitally altered so as to appear heavier.

Thin and heavy "sexy" photos (Aggressive Behavior)

She then asked a different group of women whether they’d want to be friends with the woman in the photo, to introduce her to their boyfriend (if they had one), or to let her spend time with their boyfriend alone.

The participants tended to answer “no” to all three questions for both the heavy and thin sexy women. They were nearly three times more likely, for example, to introduce the conservatively dressed woman to their boyfriend than the thin sexy woman.

To Vaillancourt, this showed that women, “are threatened by, disapprove of, and punish women who appear and/or act promiscuous,” regardless of their weight.

Vaillancourt’s is a small study, but it is one of the first to demonstrate slut-shaming in an experimental context. But women don’t come off very well in past research on indirect aggression, either.

Other studies have shown that undergraduate college women are more likely to gossip about someone rumored to have undermined their own reputation. Women are more likely to form social alliances and then manage threats from outsiders through social exclusion, rather than, say, beating each other up. Girls are more likely to ostracize a newcomer or befriend someone for revenge.

In his research in the 1990s, University of Texas psychologist David Buss found that women were more likely than men to “derogate,” or insult, their mating rivals in two ways, as he described to me in an email:

First, the “slut” factor: “spreading gossip that the rival woman is 'easy,' has slept with many partners, and is basically, in my terms, pursuing a short-term mating strategy.”

Second, on physical appearance: “Saying the woman is ugly, has fat thighs, and an astonishing variety of other vicious things about a rival's physical appearance and mode of dress, such as wearing revealing clothing, plunging necklines, or short skirts.”

In his book, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, Buss argues that women do this because, evolutionarily, women who are willing to have casual sex undermine the goals of women who want long-term relationships. "Slutty" women hint to men that it’s okay not to commit because there will always be someone available to give away the milk for free, as it were. Their peers' “derogation” is thus intended to damage the reputation of these free-wheeling females.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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