Assignment: Intrasexual Competition Among Women

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Assignment: Intrasexual Competition Among Women

Assignment: Intrasexual Competition Among Women

Volume 37, pages 569–577 (2011)

Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women Tracy Vaillancourt1,2� and Aanchal Sharma2

1Faculty of Education and School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 2Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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Intrasexual competition among males of different species, including humans, is well documented. Among females, far less is known. Recent nonexperimental studies suggest that women are intolerant of attractive females and use indirect aggression to derogate potential rivals. In Study 1, an experimental design was used to test the evolutionary-based hypothesis that women would be intolerant of sexy women and would censure those who seem to make sex too readily available. Results provide strong empirical support for intrasexual competition among women. Using independent raters, blind to condition, we found that almost all women were rated as reacting negatively (‘‘bitchy’’) to an attractive female confederate when she was dressed in a sexually provocative manner. In contrast, when she was dressed conservatively, the same confederate was barely noticed by the participants. In Study 2, an experimental design was used to assess whether the sexy female confederate from Study 1 was viewed as a sexual rival by women. Results indicated that as hypothesized, women did not want to introduce her to their boyfriend, allow him to spend time alone with her, or be friends with her. Findings from both studies are discussed in terms of evolutionary theory. Aggr. Behav. 37:569–577, 2011. r 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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Keywords: intrasexual competition; indirect aggression; women; experimental; design; evolution

Intrasexual competition among males of various species, including humans, is well-documented [Archer, 2009; Daly and Wilson, 1988; Darwin, 1871; Geary, 2010; Wilson and Daly, 1985]. Among females of most mammalian species less is known [Clutton-Brock, 2007]. We do know that competition among nonhuman female primates (and other species) is typically over access to food, and that competition over the attention of males occurs when male parental investment is high or when males provide other valuable and/or limited resources to females [Geary, 2010]. The few non-experimental research studies that have been conducted on sexual selection in human females have focused on two competition strategies used by women: self-promotion (intersexual competi- tion) and the derogation of rivals (intrasexual competi- tion). Self-promotion involves epigamic displays of physical attractiveness such as wearing makeup and form-fitting clothing that are used to attract the attention of males [Barber, 1995; Buss, 1988; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Fisher and Cox, 2009; Schmitt and Buss, 1996; Symons, 1979; Walters and Crawford, 1994]. Derogation of competitors takes the form of indirect aggression [Buss and Dedden, 1990; Campbell,

1995, 1999; Fisher, 2004; Vaillancourt, 2005; Walters and Crawford, 1994] which is a type of aggression that tends to be circuitous in nature and is presumably used to reduce the mate value of a rival [Buss and Dedden, 1990; Campbell, 1995, 1999; Fisher, 2004; Vaillancourt, 2005]. Indirect aggression is used by males and females

[Card et al., 2008] and usually directed at same-sex peers [Gallup and Wilson, 2009]. It includes behaviors such as spreading rumors that question the perceived rival’s fidelity or level of promiscuity, disparaging the competitor’s appearance, excluding the rival from the peer group, giving her the silent

Published online in Wiley Online Library (

DOI: 10.1002/ab.20413

Received 6 May 2011; Revised 29 July 2011; Accepted 16 August


Grant Sponsors: Canadian Institutes of Health Research; Canada

Research Chairs program and the Social Sciences and Humanities

Research Council of Canada.

�Correspondence to: Tracy Vaillancourt, Faculty of Education and School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario,

Canada. E-mail:

r 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

treatment, or using derisive body and facial gestures to make the rival feel badly about herself and thus less willing to compete. Studies have shown that even though indirect aggression is covert, it is nevertheless effective at inflicting harm on targets, particularly female targets, who are able to pick up on the subtle nuances which comprise this form of negative behavior [Vaillancourt, 2005]. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that women are more likely than men to engage in this type of behavior when they face a social threat [e.g., Benenson et al., 2011]. Research on human mate preferences clearly

demonstrates that males show a strong preference for young, attractive females [Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young, 1995]. In reaction to this predilection, females derogate rivals who imbue these qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that females are particularly intolerant of attractive peers, using indirect aggression against them at a greater rate than their less attractive peers [e.g., Leenaars et al., 2008]. Moreover, at times when females are maximally fertile (time of ovulation), they are the most derogating of competitors; rating female faces as less attractive [Fisher, 2004]. In addition to being intolerant of physically

attractive peers, we hypothesize that women are particularly intolerant of sexy attractive peers. According to Baumeister and Twenge [2002], a double standard of sexual morality exists in which women ‘‘stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’’ (p. 166). In their review of relevant literature, Baumeister and Twenge found support for their theory that females, and not males, suppress the sexuality of other females. Females accomplish this by ‘‘punishing’’ other females who seem to make sex too readily available ‘‘through informal sanctions such as ostracism and derogatory gossip’’ (p. 172). In other words, females used indirect aggression to suppress the sexuality of other females. We examined the predication that women would

‘‘punish’’ other women who appear to make sex too readily available by randomly assigning young women in dyads (with a friend or with a stranger) to one of two conditions (Study 1). In the first condition, women were exposed to a conservatively dressed attractive female confederate. In the second condition, they were exposed to the same confederate dressed in sexy clothing. We hypothesized that most, if not all, women would express negative, derogative reactions (indirect aggression) toward the attractive confederate when her appearance emphasized sexually evocative qualities.

We further hypothesized that these negative reactions would be particularly pronounced in the presence of a female friend rather than a stranger. This hypothesis was based on research demonstrat- ing that female friendships are characterized by high intimacy which includes making social comparisons and gossiping about others [Dunbar et al., 1997; Hornstein, 1985]. As well, we expected that women would be more comfortable expressing themselves negatively in the presence of a friend rather than a stranger. We also conducted a manipulation validation

study (Study 2) by randomly assigning women to one of the three conditions in which they indepen- dently rated (1) a photograph of the conservatively dressed confederate from Study 1, (2) a photograph of the provocatively dressed confederate (sexy-thin) from Study 1, or (3) a manipulated photograph of the provocatively dressed confederate from Study 1 in which she appeared overweight (sexy-fat). Con- sistent with the idea that the sexy confederate from Study 1 was in fact viewed as a sexual rival, we hypothesized that women would be less willing to introduce her to their current or future boyfriend(s), or have their current or future boyfriend(s) spend time alone with her than the attractive conservative confederate or the sexy-fat confederate. We also hypothesized that compared to the conservatively dressed confederate, women would not want to introduce their partner or allow him to spend time with the sexy-fat woman because her sexy clothing would be perceived as an indicator of sexual availability and hence would be threatening1 [Abbey et al., 1987]. According to Buss et al. [2000], successful reten-

tion of one’s mate hinges on one’s ability to prevent the partner from defecting or being unfaithful, and fending off rivals who may be interested in mating with that partner. Disparaging a sexy attractive woman (Study 1) or not allowing your partner to meet or spend time with such a woman (Study 2) is mate guarding (i.e., intrasexual competition). Finally, we hypothesized that women would be

less likely to want to have the sexy-thin or the sexy- fat confederate as a friend, compared to the conservatively dressed confederate. This hypothesis was based on the idea that a woman would not want to associate with a woman who appears too sexually available because it would reduce her own

1It has been shown that the presence of an intrasexual competitor

does indeed represent a threat to fidelity [see Arnocky, Sunderani,

Miller, & Vaillancourt, in press; Kenrick, Neuberg, Zierk, & Krones,


570 Vaillancourt and Sharma

Aggr. Behav.

mate-value (she too would be seen as promiscuous). As well, having a sexy woman as a friend might mean that the woman would have to be constantly on guard to ensure that her partner does not cheat on her with this seemingly sexually available person.



Participants. Eighty-six heterosexual women ranging in age from 19 to 23 years (Mean7SE5 20.1470.26) from varying ethnic backgrounds participated in Study 1. The women were recruited from a mid-size university located in southern Ontario, Canada.

Procedure. A two (friendship, stranger) by two (conservative, provocative) experimental design was implemented. Participants were paired together in dyads to create two participant conditions—friendship and stranger dyads, based on having or not having an existing friendship with the woman they were paired with. Participants were then randomly assigned to the two experimental conditions. In the first (conservative) condition (n540; 20 friends and 20 strangers), participants were exposed to an attractive, conservatively dressed 21-year-old Caucasian female confederate (independently rated as attractive by 20 female undergraduate students on a scale from 1 to 10, Mean7SE58.670.25) who embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective [low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts; Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young,

1995] (Fig. 1A). In the second (sexy) condition (n5 46; 23 friends and 23 strangers), the same female confederate was dressed in a sexually provocative manner (Fig. 1B). In both conditions, the confederate’s behavior and

mannerisms were standardized. Each trial was run with the confederate knocking on the door the same number of times, taking the same number of steps across the room and between the dyad (who was waiting for a moderated discussion on how women handle conflict in friendships to begin), and using the same script to ask the dyad the whereabouts of the study’s experimenter. The confederate then left the laboratory with the experimenter, a South Asian woman in her late 20s dressed conservatively across conditions. Before and after the experimenter and confederate exited the room the participants were unknowingly video and audio recorded using equipment that captured their individual reactions of their exposure to the confederate.

Coding of observational data. Video clips of participants’ individual reactions of their exposure to the confederate were randomly presented to 13 primarily Caucasian women (mean age5 23, SE5 0.74) blind to condition, who classified and rated participants on two dependent variables: (1) whether or not they thought the participant was exhibiting bitchy2 behavior (i.e., indirect aggression) and (2) if so, how bitchy her reaction was on a scale from 0 to 10 (0, not bitchy; 10, extremely bitchy).

Fig. 1. Confederate dressed conservatively (A), provocatively (sexy-thin) (B), and provocatively (sexy-fat) (C).

2Because the terms indirect aggression and derogation are scientific

terms we asked participants to rate reactions using the colloquial

term ‘‘bitchy’’ and provided them with a comprehensive list of what

these behaviours entailed (see list provided in main text).

571Intrasexual Competition Among Women

Aggr. Behav.

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