Playing Dirty: How Women Compete With Other Women

Here’s a conundrum: on the one hand, recent studies have shown that not only do women love sex as much as men, they may want it more often and with more partners than men. On the other hand, men are still the primary initiators of sex—charming, cajoling, and begging our way into bed. These two facts provoke the question: what the hell?

A new study published in Philosophical Tractions of the Royal Society might have the answer: women are pressuring other women into being less promiscuous, where “pressuring” in this case means saying nasty things about perceived rivals. Researchers brought pairs of women into a lab at McMaster University for a study ostensibly on the topic of female friendships (because even researchers have a sense of humour). What the participants didn’t know was that they were being recorded, and that the real experiment began when a young woman chosen by the researchers entered the room, asking for one of the researchers.

Said young woman was chosen because she “embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,” which are “a low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts”. Sometimes the woman wore jeans and a t-shirt, and other times she wore a short skirt and a low-cut blouse. When she wore jeans, the women attracted little notice. When she wore the short skirt and low-cut blouse, the participants reacted with hostility, staring her down, rolling their eyes, and reacting verbally; one participant asked, “What the fuck is that?”

More aggression followed after the woman left the room, when the students laughed about her and suggested that she was dressed that way to sleep with a professor.

According to Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, one of the study’s co-authors, the stigma against female promiscuity is mainly enforced by women, not by men.

“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”


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