A pair of studies published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences shed light on how intrasexual competition may impact women’s judgments of other women. Female participants judged a woman more negatively when she was pictured in revealing compared to non-revealing clothing — and this was driven by perceptions that the provocatively-dressed woman was more likely to have one-night stands.
The authors of the studies, Jessica D. Ayers and Aaron T. Goetz, were investigating a new explanation for why women are often disparaged for wearing provocative clothing. The researchers proposed that female competition for mates leads women to collectively criticize women who they deem sexually permissive. Since revealing clothing serves as a cue to promiscuity, women are motivated to criticize other women who dress in revealing ways.
The researchers’ hypothesis was partly inspired by Sexual Economics Theory, which maintains that sexual interactions can be compared to a marketplace. Men are buyers looking to acquire sex, and women are the suppliers who provide it. Like a marketplace, competition between suppliers can lower or raise the cost of this resource. To maintain their bargaining power, women may coordinate to condemn other women who lower the cost of sex through promiscuity.
“I became interested in this line of research at the end of my undergraduate education when I noticed that most of the literature on intrasexual competition focused on men’s intrasexual competition,” explained Ayers, an incoming assistant professor at Boise State University. “When I started reading up more on the topic, I noticed that this was because most researchers subscribed to the interpretation of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection where males of a species are viewed as the competing sex and females of a species as the coy and choosy sex.”
“While there is a robust body of literature looking at predictions derived from this framework, it struck me as odd that very few researchers had investigated how women may still compete while remaining the choosier sex of the human species — especially if women are competing/ aggressing over actions and behaviors that seem to be outside of the immediate mating domain. I started thinking about how women are often condemned by other women (but not by men) for their clothing choice and thought that studying this phenomenon would be an interesting place to begin investigating one aspect of women’s competition.”
Ayers and Goetz conducted a pair of experimental studies, the first one involving 712 female participants who were recruited from a university in Southern California and were an average age of 25. Without revealing the true nature of the study, the participants were shown one of two pictures of an unknown woman and asked to rate the woman based on eight characteristics. For roughly half the participants, the woman was pictured displaying obvious cleavage. For the other half, the same image was shown but with a modesty panel superimposed so that no cleavage was shown.
Compared to the modestly-dressed woman, the woman showing cleavage was judged as more likely to cheat on her boyfriend, cheat with someone else’s boyfriend, have one-night stands, cheat on tests, and “not play by the rules.” She was also judged as less intelligent and less likely to be included in a study group. Further analysis suggested that these negative judgments were driven by the perception that the woman showing cleavage was more likely to have one-night stands.
“The main take-home message from this study is that there appears to be a bias in women’s perception of other women,” Ayers told PsyPost. “Specifically, if a woman chooses to wear clothing that is more revealing or provocative, then other women are more likely to ascribe negative traits and behaviors to her even if the characteristics they are asked to judge have nothing to do with clothing choice or sexual permissiveness.”
A second study had 346 female subjects with an average age of 22 read a vignette describing a woman at a bar talking and laughing with the subject’s partner. The vignette was accompanied by a photo of a woman whose appearance included cues of sexual permissiveness (e.g., tattoos, piercings, provocative clothing). Depending on the condition, the vignette either described the woman as the subject’s close friend, the subject’s partner’s sister, or an unknown woman. After reading the scenario, the participants rated the woman based on several characteristics and also indicated how they thought other men and women would rate her.
In general, participants felt that they would rate the woman more favorably than other men or women would — regardless of whether she was described as a friend, stranger, or their partner’s sister. In other words, participants felt they would be less judgmental of the woman than others would, regardless of whether or not she served as a threat to their romantic relationships.
Interestingly, the participants reported that other women would judge the target more harshly than men would. The study authors say this suggests that “women mentally represent the judgments of others, allowing for coordinated condemnation of undesirable behavior.”
“Our results from these studies provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that women coordinate to condemn potentially sexually permissive women,” Ayers and Goetz write. “Our results also indicate that women seem to be aware of and motivated to maintain their bargaining power in relationships by punishing others who appear to be sexually permissive.
The findings may have been affected by self-presentation bias, as respondents may not have wished to appear competitive against other women. “One major caveat is that there appears to be a bias in women’s reporting of these perceptions,” Ayers explained. “While women do report these negative judgments, they are more likely to say that other women will perceive a provocative target more negatively than they themselves do. Since we hypothesized that coordinated condemnation happens to signal to third part others that they (the participant) disapprove of a potentially permissive behavior, women need to be aware and able to accurately detect the perceptions and reactions of other women in response to a permissive other.”
“As a result, this need for accurate detection may provide women with a way to signal that clothing choices or behaviors may be the cause of potential aggression without ever aggressing against a potential competitor themselves (‘I think your top looks great, but that girl over there doesn’t like it because she thinks it shows too much cleavage – maybe you should change so she doesn’t give you dirty looks or start rumors about you’).”
“The study of women’s intrasexual competition is still relatively new,” Ayers added. “Campbell’s (1999) Staying alive paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences was one of the first investigations into how women compete against each other. While that was only 23 short years ago, the area of study has been rapidly increasing as more researchers become interested in some of the basic psychological processes that underlie women’s competition. With that being said, there is still a lot we don’t know about how women compete with same-sex rivals.”
“I would say the biggest open questions in this area are what are other instances of coordinated condemnation? Are there specific strategies for signaling disapproval of behaviors? How accurate are women in detecting these signals?”
The study, “Coordinated condemnation in women’s intrasexual competition”, was authored by Jessica D. Ayers and Aaron T. Goetz.