Thursday, 21 November 2013

War Between Women

 Don't be fooled by the smiles; we all hate each other...sluts...

A study was recently published in the journal, Aggressive Behaviour, which apparently shows that women will act bitchy towards other women they see as promiscuous. Several websites have reported on the study but, disappointingly, haven't pointed out how epicly flawed it is. In the study, 86 participants were left in a room with another woman (either a friend or a stranger) and told they would be contributing to a study on friendship. Instead they were interrupted by another woman. Half the women encountered a pretty, blonde woman in a blue t-shirt and sensible chinos. The other half encountered the same woman in a hot-pink, low-cut top, mini-skirt and knee-high boots.

The participants' reactions to this interloper were assessed according to a 'bitchiness' score of 1-10.  The authors of the study, Vaillancourt and Sharma, found that the participants were more likely to be bitchy when the 'sexy' woman walked into the room and that their bitchiness was more pronounced when the participants were with friends, rather than strangers. The authors concluded that women stifle each other's sexuality through indirect aggression, bitchiness, because women use sex to negotiate with men and it is therefore in their best interest to punish promiscuous women to maintain a limited supply of sex. Vaillancourt's study is small but supposedly demonstrates slut-shaming in an experimental context.

To me, the first, and most obvious, criticism is the very concept of a 'bitchiness score'. Observing someone's reactions and placing them on a 'scale of bitch' seems preposterously unscientific, even by psychology's standards. Is an eye-roll more bitchy than a laugh? Is a smirk more bitchy than a glare? And facial expressions may not always accurately portray someone's opinions. A participant may have an excellent poker face - that doesn't mean she's not thinking bitchy things. Given psychologists' propensity for questionnaires, why not use a carefully crafted questionnaire to quantify the participants' opinions rather than the far less rigourous method of observation? Of course observation can be an invaluable tool for scientists in experiments but you can't arbitrarily assign numbers to vague observations and then think you can make meaningful conclusions from an analysis of those numbers. 

I also question whether the woman's differing outfits really convey what the authors want them to convey to the participants. 'Sexiness' is an incredibly subjective attribute. I don't think her outfit looks sexy, I think it looks immensely unflattering (hot-pink is no one's friend). And even if we were to decide that there is only one universally recognised standard of 'sexiness', sexy is not coterminous with promiscuous. I can think that someone is sexy and not think of them as a potential home-wrecker.

Even if we were to accept that bitchiness can be objectively measured, and that 'sexiness' and 'promiscuity' were both coterminous and universally recognised, the study still fails to show that women slut-shame other women because it excludes men. Various news sites have picked up on this study to conclude that there exists a war between women. But if men also show this same behaviour against people they perceive to be their sexual rivals, clearly we don't have a war between women but just war between people. Other studies have in fact shown that both men and women display competitive behaviour, using strategies of self-promotion and competitor derogation. This experiment is only half of the story and any conclusions about female behaviour, as separate from human behaviour more generally, are completely unfounded.

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