The Evolution of Bitchiness

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.

It’s worth noting that women (and men) don’t always consciously shame their rivals in the course of their dating efforts. A 2010 study in the journal Personal Relationships found that there was little difference between the sexes in terms of strategies used to woo a mate. And older women generally aren’t as indirectly aggressive when it comes to romantic situations as those in their 20s are.

“I wouldn't be bothered by someone dressed like that,” Vaillancourt said, referring to the more alluringly clad woman. “But if I was 20, I might be bothered by that.”

***

Slut-shaming is a love-story cornerstone. Hester Prynne had her scarlett A. Anna Karenina tumbled from her perch in society after an affair with a cavalry officer. In an equally important cultural work, 1999’s She’s All That, popular girl Taylor humiliates former ugly duckling Laney at a party after the latter undergoes a miraculous beautification through the removal of her glasses and ponytail. (This is, one will note, perhaps the most apt artistic representation of Vaillancourt’s experiment possible.)

Many of the recent headlines around the research on female indirect aggression purport that women have “evolved” to be this way. But some scholars of indirect aggression argue that just because the slut-shaming Vaillancourt discovered is one of the oldest tricks in the book, doesn’t mean it’s evolutionary or "hard-wired."

Elizabeth I: royal bitch?
(Wikimedia Commons)

“Why are these women doing this? I think there are many ways we could explain that,” Agustin Fuentes, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, told me. “In our society, if you're given the choice between these images, you're going to say, ‘I don't want my guy next to a girl with a short skirt.’ But that's not because, evolutionarily speaking, your guy is more likely to cheat on you with the short-skirt girl.”

He argues that though this and other studies show how important physical appearance is to the way women respond to each other, there’s too much cultural baggage at play to say it all comes from our primate ancestors. The short-skirt-boots combo, for example, is already a “meaning-laden image,” he said.

In her own recent research, Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University in the U.K., argued that young women tend to use indirect aggression to a greater extent than young men, in part because that’s the most socially acceptable way for women to compete.

But even Campbell stresses that it’s hard to tell whether this phenomenon is evolutionarily or culturally driven.

And it's not like men don’t attack each other when competing for scarce resources, too.

Before age 7, Fuentes said, boys and girls are equally directly aggressive. But after childhood it becomes less acceptable for girls to give each other noogies and the like, so women become far more indirectly aggressive (or “bitchy”) while men continue to be plain old directly aggressive. But by the time people reach working-age and beyond, Fuentes said, levels of indirect aggression between the sexes even out.

“At 15, you can engage as a male in direct aggression without too many repercussions,” he said. “But at 25, you're in jail.”

In fact, Buss has found that men “bitch” about their rivals, too—they just tend to insult their lack of money or status, the things women traditionally have valued in mates, rather than their physical appearance. They don’t slut-shame as much, Buss argues, because women will still date male “sluts.”

“Men derogate other men on things that women value [cues to protection and cues to resources and status], and women derogate other women on things that men value [sexual fidelity and physical attractiveness],” he told me.

***

Studies based on undergraduates are often denounced for not being representative of real life, but in this case, the age group is actually quite valid. The news is filled with stories of college and teenaged women feeling shamed after being sexually assaulted or even committing suicide after being called “whores” by their peers.

So, can we do anything about our bitchy tendencies? Despite his skepticism about it reflecting on evolution, Fuentes said the study was interesting because it showed that indirect aggression is very real and can be stimulated with just an image.

“These social constructs are real for us,” Fuentes said, “But we can change it.”

Cattiness is damaging to the self-esteem of the victims, but Vaillancourt argues that by becoming more aware of it, we can try to suppress it. 

“Studies show that if you change cognition, you change behavior,” she said. “This behavior causes harm. People become depressed if they're attacked in this way.”

Buss is not as optimistic, saying that it's not easy to change something that might, whether through evolution or conditioning, have become reflexive.

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

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