A content analysis exploring how women’s reputations are presented via anonymous derogatory posts on the gossip website The Dirty showed that when derogating other women, women most often focus on the sexuality and personality of their targets. The study was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.
Humans are social beings and their tendency to gossip is often the heart of their sociality. Analyses indicate that two-thirds of the contents of conversations can be classified as gossip. Gossip may promote social bonding between individuals, and can be key in forming social alliances. It can encourage cooperation within a group, but it can also be a tactic to compete with others.
Study author Maryanne L. Fisher and her colleagues wanted to explore how women share derogatory information about their female rivals. Based on previous studies, they hypothesized that women will be derogated in terms of their sexuality, personality and mothering qualities.
“I have a long-standing research interest in women’s same-sex competition, especially as it pertains to reputations and assessments of mate quality,” explained Fisher, a full professor in psychology at Saint Mary’s University. “A friend told me about the website The Dirty and I was immediately struck by how apparent themes based on sexuality were, along with personality and mothering quality. Evolutionary perspectives of women’s competition very much align with the themes present in the posting on this gossip website.”
Recognizing the need of people for gossip, website The Dirty provides a platform to which users can send photographs of someone in their community “behaving in a questionable manner.” The editor then reads the emails and copies blocks of the text from the email, posting them to the website.
“The Dirty was the first website of its kind and was successful, with 20 million monthly page views by 2013,” the researchers explained. Posts are primarily about presenting contents that damage the reputation of the person they refer to.
For their new study, the researchers trained 4 coders to analyze posts on The Dirty using a “grounded theory” approach. They first tested the approach and trained coders on 15 posts for the town of Halifax and perfected it on posts for Kelowna, both in Canada.
After the training, the researchers collected 250 posts from the 5 most populous cities in Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa) and the USA (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix), 25 posts per city, and had coders analyze their contents.
Results showed that women’s rivalry fell into six primary themes: derogations of sexuality, personality, mothering qualities, resource extraction, mate poaching, and substance use.
“Women are often derogated by other women in very particular domains,” Fisher told PsyPost. “The literature, and our current study, clearly shows that women’s sexuality, personality, and mothering qualities are often the topics of negative gossip, as are whether they are women who try to extract resources (i.e., gold diggers), women who try to poach other women’s mates, or women who engage in the use of substances.”
Having a good reputation is important to people. It translates into being able to “obtain quality resources, including food, mates, and childcare, as compared to having a poor reputation.” This is particularly important among women as studies find that their reputations are more easily tarnished than those of men.
Additionally, studies have shown that women use same-sex social networks to obtain potentially damaging information about their rivals and promote it, while at the same time defending their own reputations.
“The less formal thing that people might want to know is that once a person’s reputation becomes sullied, it is really hard to repair,” Fisher explained. “Websites such as The Dirty are popular because reputations are so very important to us, allowing us to vicariously learn about someone’s likelihood of engaging in cooperation, fairness, or not (for example). However, once one has been targeted on such a website, it is extremely challenging to have the post removed.”
Most common derogations were about women’s sexual conduct and history. These included specifications of women’s extensive sexual history (being called a “slut”, “slore”, “hoe”, “fluzzy”), being called “dirty,” receiving payments for sexual encounters, being unfaithful, sleeping with multiple men, etc. The most common personality derogations of women included calling their honesty into question and dubbing them “fake.”
Warnings were the third most common type of derogations.
“We did not expect that there would be warnings attached to the posts,” Fisher noted. “On The Dirty, a photo is posted along with the gossip. In many cases, the post also contained a warning to avoid or stay away from the target, due to her unsavory behaviours. We still do not understand the reason women posted warnings about the targets; was it to further ostracize the target and cause her harm, or was it a way to better connect with the audience and try to provide credibility to the rest of the post?”
These were followed by derogations focusing on substance use (claims about the use of drugs or alcohol), mate poaching (“homewrecker”) and resource extraction. Derogations focusing on mothering quality of the woman were the least frequent. The researchers also noted that in 14.8% of posts the target woman was called a “bitch,” but they did not classify this into any of the described themes given the multiple possible meanings of the word.
“Insults about women’s sexuality may be especially effective because they are hard to refute and not visibly confirmed or denied. Indeed, the widespread success of The Dirty may rest on the fact that the information is “wickedly entertaining,” and reputations are easily tarnished when the information is ‘completely unverifiable,'” the researchers concluded.
The study sheds light on the functioning of gossip among women, but it also has limitations that should be taken into account. Notably, the identity of people behind the posts was not known and it could not be directly verified that they were indeed women. This was concluded only indirectly from the post contents. Additionally, the material posted to the website was selected by the website editor(s) and it is not known whether he/she was biased towards certain types of contents, publishing them more often, while leaving other types of contents unpublished.
“The biggest challenge to this research is that we do not know the authors of the posts,” Fisher explained. “Based on the language of the posts we analysed, we can safely state that most are written by women. Note that we examined posts from the 5 largest Canadian cities, and 5 largest USA cities. However, we do not know if all posts are written by women.”
“Further, while there has been documentation of the editorial process for the website, there is no information on posts that are not selected. Some information, such as terminal diseases, sexual assault, and business names, are excluded, but are there posts that are not made public, and if so, what are the derogations?”
“This study was really interesting for me because it relied on data that spontaneously occurred, meaning that women were compelled to provide negative information about someone in their community,” Fisher added. “These motives are very interesting to me. Is the primary motive revenge – and if so, for what? Is the information deceptive, and provided in order to decrease a potential mating rival’s value, in order to enhance one’s own status and mate value?”
“We have now also performed an analogous study on the posts about men, to appear very soon in Evolutionary Behavioral Science.”
The study, “She’s a Gold‑Digger, Bad Mom, and Drug‑Using Floozy: Women’s Rivalry Gets “Dirty””, was authored by Maryanne L. Fisher, Mackenzie Zinck, Jaedan Link, Jessica Savoie, and Arianna Conrod.