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.’”
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.
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.
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.
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."
“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.
He said curbing the bitchiness is one area in which men can be a help, rather than simply the object of the competition.
“The only way it might change is if men stopped valuing sexual fidelity and physical attractiveness in long-term mates,” he said.
“That’s unlikely to happen,” though, since “these evolved mate preferences in men are as 'hard-wired' as evolved food preferences for stuff rich in fat and sugar.”
Human nature can be such a bitch.