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Our Grandmothers’ Legacy: Challenges Faced by Female Ancestors Leave Traces in Modern Women’s Same-Sex Relationships



Investigations of women’s same-sex relationships present a paradoxical pattern, with women generally disliking competition, yet also exhibiting signs of intrasexual rivalry. The current article leverages the historical challenges faced by female ancestors to understand modern women’s same-sex relationships. Across history, women were largely denied independent access to resources, often depending on male partners’ provisioning to support themselves and their children. Same-sex peers thus became women’s primary romantic rivals in competing to attract and retain relationships with the limited partners able and willing to invest. Modern women show signs of this competition, disliking and aggressing against those who threaten their romantic prospects, targeting especially physically attractive and sexually uninhibited peers. However, women also rely on one another for aid, information, and support. As most social groups were patrilocal across history, upon marriage, women left their families to reside with their husbands. Female ancestors likely used reciprocal altruism or mutualism to facilitate cooperative relationships with nearby unrelated women. To sustain these mutually beneficial cooperative exchange relationships, women may avoid competitive and status-striving peers, instead preferring kind, humble, and loyal allies. Ancestral women who managed to simultaneously compete for romantic partners while forming cooperative female friendships would have been especially successful. Women may therefore have developed strategies to achieve both competitive and cooperative goals, such as guising their intrasexual competition as prosociality or vulnerability. These historical challenges make sense of the seemingly paradoxical pattern of female aversion to competition, relational aggression, and valuation of loyal friends, offering insight into possible opportunities for intervention.
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Archives of Sexual Behavior
The Official Publication of the
International Academy of Sex Research
ISSN 0004-0002
Arch Sex Behav
DOI 10.1007/s10508-020-01768-x
Our Grandmothers’ Legacy: Challenges
Faced by Female Ancestors Leave Traces in
Modern Women’s Same-Sex Relationships
Tania A.Reynolds
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Archives of Sexual Behavior
Our Grandmothers’ Legacy: Challenges Faced byFemale Ancestors
Leave Traces inModern Women’s Same‑Sex Relationships
Received: 5 June 2019 / Revised: 5 June 2020 / Accepted: 8 June 2020
© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2021
Investigations of women’s same-sex relationships present a paradoxical pattern, with women generally disliking competition, yet
also exhibiting signs of intrasexual rivalry. The current article leverages the historical challenges faced by female ancestors to
understand modern women’s same-sex relationships. Across history, women were largely denied independent access to resources,
often depending on male partners’ provisioning to support themselves and their children. Same-sex peers thus became women’s
primary romantic rivals in competing to attract and retain relationships with the limited partners able and willing to invest. Modern
women show signs of this competition, disliking and aggressing against those who threaten their romantic prospects, targeting
especially physically attractive and sexually uninhibited peers. However, women also rely on one another for aid, information, and
support. As most social groups were patrilocal across history, upon marriage, women left their families to reside with their hus-
bands. Female ancestors likely used reciprocal altruism or mutualism to facilitate cooperative relationships with nearby unrelated
women. To sustain these mutually beneficial cooperative exchange relationships, women may avoid competitive and status-striving
peers, instead preferring kind, humble, and loyal allies. Ancestral women who managed to simultaneously compete for romantic
partners while forming cooperative female friendships would have been especially successful. Women may therefore have devel-
oped strategies to achieve both competitive and cooperative goals, such as guising their intrasexual competition as prosociality
or vulnerability. These historical challenges make sense of the seemingly paradoxical pattern of female aversion to competition,
relational aggression, and valuation of loyal friends, offering insight into possible opportunities for intervention.
Keywords Female intrasexual competition· Relational aggression· Female cooperation· Female friendships· Self-
In 1998, Linda Tripp exposed Monica Lewinsky’s sexual dal-
liances with President Bill Clinton to Kenneth Starr’s federal
investigative team. Tripp had become Lewinsky’s confidant
and encouraged her not to dry clean the infamous dress, as
well as to preserve records of the affair. Tripp later turned over
audio recordings of her private conversations with Lewinsky
to FBI officials.
Was Linda Tripp’s disclosure an act of patriotism as she
ardently professed (Andrews-Dryer, 2018)? Was Tripp an advo-
cate for women’s welfare, a precursor to the recent #MeToo
movement, exposing male abuse of power? Or was she acting
competitively, to undermine a woman leveraging her sexual
appeal to gain male attention and resources? After interroga-
tion, Monica Lewinsky was asked if she had any final words
for the grand jurors, to which she replied, “I hate Linda Tripp.
Across history, women have been stereotyped as the passive,
less competitive sex. Alice Eagly and colleagues have docu-
mented the “women are wonderful” effect, whereby women are
socially prescribed to be and contingently rewarded for being
warm, but not agentic (Eagly & Mladinic, 1994). Large-scale
cross-cultural investigations reveal women are indeed much
less physically aggressive than men, with robust discrepan-
cies in violent crimes, most notably homicide (Archer, 2004;
2009; Daly & Wilson, 1988). Across 36 countries and 25,000
individuals, women report enjoying competition less than do
* Tania A. Reynolds
1 Department ofPsychology, University ofNew Mexico,
Logan Hall, MSC03-2220, 1 University of New Mexico,
Albuquerque, NM87131-0001, USA
2 The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington,
Bloomington, IN, USA
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men (d = .36, Bönte, 2015). When measured either explicitly
or implicitly, women hold more favorable attitudes toward their
female counterparts than do men toward their same-sex peers
(Rudman & Goodwin, 2004). These findings grant some sup-
port to gender stereotypes, suggesting that compared to men,
women are less ardently motivated to compete with or aggress
against same-sex peers.
However, other research paints a quite different picture,
hinting that women are not the passive and yielding creatures
society prescribes them to be. Large meta-analyses of eco-
nomic behavior reveal that although women behaved more
cooperatively than men in mixed-sex interactions (d = − .22),
they behaved more competitively in same-sex interactions
(d = .16; Balliet, Li, Macfarlan, & Van Vugt, 2011). This pat-
tern is mirrored in the anthropological literature. When Bur-
bank (1987) surveyed 137 societies, she found women were
the targets of female aggression in 91% of the societies, often
because they were one another’s polygamously married co-
wives. These findings suggest that despite women’s favora-
ble implicit and explicit attitudes toward one another, they
can, under some circumstances, perceive same-sex peers as
rivals and aggressively compete against them. Far away from
the constraints of polygyny, these competitive behaviors also
manifest in modern industrialized contexts. Organizational
researchers have documented and lamented the “Queen Bee”
phenomenon, whereby female leaders occasionally fail to sup-
port or actively thwart female subordinates (Ellemers, Van den
Heuvel, De Gilder, Maass, & Bonvini, 2004). Other data reveal
women may prefer male over female bosses (Eagly, Makhi-
jani, & Klonsky, 1992), suggesting female–female competition
manifests bidirectionally across status discrepancies.
At first glance, these patterns appear paradoxical. How is
it that women are both reluctant to compete, yet exhibit signs
of intrasexual competition? The current article leverages
ancestral women’s historical challenges to shed light onto
modern female same-sex relationships. Throughout most of
human history, women were relegated to caretaking roles and
denied independent access to cultural resources. Forced to
rely on men’s provisioning to support themselves and their
children, women had to compete for the romantic partners
most likely to acquire resources and commit long-term to
provisioning those resources. With their children’s lives on
the line, women had no choice but to compete to attract and
retain these investing romantic partners, turning same-sex
peers into their primary competitors (Wilson & Daly, 1996).
Although some social groups are matrilocal, many
throughout human history were patrilocal, meaning women
often left their own kin to reside with their husbands’ (e.g.,
Lippold etal., 2014, see “Patrilocality and Warfare” section).
Under these social arrangements, women were surrounded by
unrelated individuals, further increasing dependence on their
romantic partners and their partners’ families for resource
access. Absent shared genetic interests with surrounding
women, ancestral women had to actively maintain and foster
their cooperative same-sex relationships. Such cooperation
was likely upheld through reciprocal altruism (Geary, 2002),
characterized by dyadic relationships and vigilant monitoring
of signs of symmetry, altruism, and commitment. Such con-
ditions have likely left traces in modern female friendships.
The countervailing pressures for women to both compete
with same-sex peers for high-quality romantic partners as
well as to cooperate may have favored unique behavioral
strategies that simultaneously achieve both goals. One such
strategy may involve guising one’s intrasexual competition
as prosociality. By understanding the situational and dispo-
sitional predictors of women’s competition and cooperation
with same-sex peers, we can better predict how competi-
tion will vary across contexts. A nuanced understanding of
competitive incentives, their manifested behaviors, as well
as cultural variation in the strength of these forces will allow
for more effective design and targeting of interventions to
enhance female cooperation and friendships. At minimum,
shedding light onto the patterns and predictors of female
intrasexual cooperation and competition will allow women
to reach informed decisions about their desired treatment of
same-sex peers.
Historical Obstacles
Throughout much of human history, marriage was leveraged
strategically to form family alliances and consolidate power
and resources (Anderson, 2007; Coontz, 2006). Arranged
marriages still occur in many non-Industrialized populations,
such as contemporary hunter-gatherers (Rodseth, Wrangham,
Harrigan, & Smuts, 1991). To foster these alliances, women
often are exchanged in a transactional fashion as wives and
as the reproductive vehicles by which to propagate male line-
ages (Levi-Strauss, 1969). Across history, these reproductive
and caretaking roles hindered women’s ability to contribute
to family subsistence, thus forcing them to depend, at least to
some degree, on men’s provisioning (Hurtado, Hawkes, Hill,
& Kaplan, 1985). This dependence on male provisioning was
further exacerbated in colder climates, such as those of the
Inuit, where male hunting and fishing were often the primary
means of subsistence (Lee, 1968). The advent of agriculture
and animal husbandry increased the value placed on male for-
midability for plowing, and women were less able to contrib-
ute to subsistence, intensifying their economic dependence on
men (Iversen & Rosenbluth, 2010; Lemer, 1986). Men often
leveraged their financial power to oppress women sexually and
physically. Across cultures, as men contribute more heavily
to family resources, rape and wife beating are more prevalent
(Levinson, 1989; Schlegel & Barry, 1986). Thus, throughout
most of human history, women’s financial, physical, and sexual
independence were repressed or denied.
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This historical dependence on male provisioning constrained
women’s autonomy to support themselves and their children.
With limited access to educational and employment opportu-
nities, women were often obligated to rely on male partners
income and investment. Even within relatively industrialized
and egalitarian environments, such as the United States and
Europe, divorce harms women’s financial security and increases
their vulnerability to impoverishment (Aassve, Betti, Mazzuco,
& Mencarini, 2007; Smock, Manning, & Gupta, 1999). Across
history and still today, male income substantially shapes chil-
dren’s outcomes, such that the children of high-earning and
high-investing fathers fare better than those born to impecuni-
ous or absent ones (Geary, 2000). Among Australians from
1857–1900, for example, the absence of a father’s financial sup-
port strongly predicted infant mortality (McCalman, Morley,
& Mishra, 2008). In 19th century Sweden, infants were more
likely to die when their mother remarried or was married to a
low-earning peasant farmer compared to when she remained
in her first marriage or married a higher-earning professional
(Edvinsson, Brändström, Rogers, & Broström, 2005). Among
the modern forest dwelling Ache, children are substantially
more likely to die when their father is deceased or divorced
from their mothers, compared to when he is present and invest-
ing (Hurtado & Hill, 1992). A similar pattern emerges in sub-
Saharan Africa: children are more likely to die if their mothers
never marry or are divorced from their fathers compared to
when their mothers remain married to their fathers (Clark &
Hamplová, 2013). Even among intact marriages, child mortal-
ity rates increase when marriages are polygynous compared to
monogamous (Omariba & Boyle, 2007), suggesting dilution of
household resources across co-wives harms children’s survival.
Taken together, this cross-cultural pattern reveals that invest-
ing male partners critically enhanced survivorship of women’s
children. Tragically, women not able to secure male romantic
partners’ commitment or resources risked not only poverty, but
the lives of their children.
Female Intrasexual Competition Over
Given the grave consequences of male investment, women who
hoped to avoid poverty or enhance their children’s outcomes
were forced to compete for the limited pool of men who secured
sufficient resources (i.e., were higher income), were likely to
invest those resources in their children, and were inclined
toward commitment. All else equal, the women who secured
the commitment from men who were willing and able to invest
would have been more likely to watch their children survive and
flourish than women paired with men who were impoverished
or reluctant to commit.
Thus, competing to obtain and secure the investment from
male romantic partners became one critical domain of female
intrasexual competition across human history (Campbell, 2004;
Gaulin & Boster, 1990). Although many women voluntarily
abstained from marriage and child-bearing, most either had
no choice or desired families of their own. To succeed in this
romantic competition, women had to appeal to the roman-
tic preferences of men or men’s families. Women who more
strongly matched these preferences faced better chances at
pairing with men capable and willing to invest. Thus, relative
differences among women in the domains men (or their fami-
lies) most valued became quite consequential, shaping women’s
romantic prospects, and ultimately, their ability to protect their
children from peril.
Although men’s mating preferences certainly vary across
cultures and individuals, large cross-cultural investigations
reveal men often prioritize physical attractiveness in roman-
tic partners (Buss, 1989; Lippa, 2007; Walter etal., 2020). In
lonely hearts advertisements, men are more likely to seek physi-
cally attractive partners and women are more likely to advertise
their appearance (Greenless & McGrew, 1994). In online dating
profiles, women underreport their weight and modify their pho-
tos (Hancock, Toma & Ellison, 2007; Hancock & Toma, 2009),
implicating a conscious awareness of and deliberate strategies
to meet male appearance expectations (Li, 2007). High-earning
men especially prioritize female beauty (Fales etal., 2016),
indicating that women who hope to pair with these resource-
yielding men are met with heightened appearance expectations.
Parents also more strongly prioritize physical attractiveness in
daughters-in-law than sons-in-law, suggesting that even in con-
texts where marriages are arranged, physically alluring women
would be advantaged (Apostolou, 2008).
Supporting these explicit preferences, women deemed more
conventionally attractive are more likely to have children, to
marry, and to marry husbands who are highly educated or
higher earning (Jokela, 2009; Udry & Eckland, 1984). In
modern dating contexts, thinner and more physically attractive
women receive greater romantic interest from potential partners
(Kurzban & Weeden, 2005; Pawlowski & Koziel, 2002). This
male preference for attractiveness extends not only to partner
selection but also to relationship satisfaction; husbands tend to
be more satisfied and behave more positively toward their wives
when their wives are relatively more (versus less) physically
attractive than themselves (McNulty, Neff, & Karney, 2008;
Meltzer, McNulty, Jackson, & Karney, 2014). These prefer-
ences, pairings, and relationship outcomes suggest female
physical appearance substantially dictates women’s romantic
If ancestral women who were more, compared to less,
physically attractive were preferentially chosen as romantic
partners, then physical beauty should have formed one criti-
cal arena of female competition. That is, relative discrepancies
among women in physical appeal could have made the differ-
ence between pairing with partners able and willing to provi-
sion over those who lacked resources or interest in long-term
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commitment. And indeed, although men and women report
feeling equally competitive with same-sex peers, women
feel especially competitive about looking attractive (Cash-
dan, 1998). Moreover, women report drawing attention to or
enhancing their appearance to attract mates, such as by applying
makeup (Buss, 1988; Fisher & Cox, 2010; Walters & Crawford,
1994). Large-scale national and cross-cultural research reveals
women augment their beautification efforts and self-sexualiza-
tion with higher levels of income inequality, suggesting that in
highly stratified societies, women draw more attention to their
physical appearance and sexuality to compete for the limited
partners at the top of the income distribution (Blake, Bastian,
Denson, Grosjean, & Brooks, 2018).
If success in romantic competition hinged upon relative
discrepancies in appearance, women may feel threatened by
and jealous of physically attractive same-sex peers. Indeed,
women perceive those with feminine faces, large breasts and
a low waist-to-hip ratio (i.e., hourglass figure) as particularly
threatening (Fink, Klappauf, Brewer, & Shackelford, 2014).
Cross-cultural investigations confirm that compared to men,
women experience more jealousy and distress about relatively
more attractive same-sex rivals (Buss, Shackelford, Choe,
Buunk, & Dijkstra, 2000; Dijkstra & Buunk, 2002; Pollet &
Saxton, 2020). Women experience heightened jealousy even
when exposed implicitly to conventionally attractive women
or female body features (Massar & Buunk, 2009), but espe-
cially when primed with the threat of infidelity (Maner, Miller,
Rouby, & Gailliot, 2009). This low-level automatic vigilance
occurs before explicit processing, providing robust support
that attractive women are registered as threatening romantic
rivals. When selecting same-sex friends, women generally
favor those with relatively better attributes, but physical attrac-
tiveness is one exception (Vigil, 2007). That is, women do not
prefer to be surrounded by friends who surpass them in physi-
cal appearance, a pattern also found among adolescent girls
(Benenson & Benarroch, 1998). Among female friend pairs,
the less physically attractive friend reports heightened roman-
tic rivalry within the friendship (Bleske-Rechek & Lighthall,
2010). Women report a greater willingness to deceive more
(compared to less) physically attractive women about romantic
opportunities (Russell, Babcock, Lewis, Ta, & Ickes, 2018). As
a consequence, physically attractive women show a heightened
preference for gay male friends, in part because they perceive
gay men as more likely to provide honest and helpful romantic
advice than other women (Russell etal., 2018). Altogether,
these patterns suggest romantic rivalry and relative discrepan-
cies in appearance color women’s interactions with one another.
This threat response toward physically attractive same-
sex peers manifests in contexts removed from overt romantic
rivalry. When making hiring and scholarship award decisions,
women more negatively evaluate highly (versus less) attrac-
tive female applicants (Agthe, Spörrle, & Maner, 2010; Luxen
& Van De Vijver, 2006). Women who deliberately enhance
their appearance, such as through the application of makeup
are especially disliked by other women, who interpret these
beautification efforts as cues of untrustworthiness (DelPriore,
Bradshaw, & Hill, 2018). Indeed, women are less willing to
befriend or promote the career advancement of women who
apply makeup, compared to those who do not modify their
facial attractiveness. Even in highly gender egalitarian con-
texts, such as modern-day Finland, women are more likely than
men to disapprove of women who capitalize on their physical
appearance to gain social relationships or job opportunities
(Kukkonen, Åberg, Sarpila, & Pajunen, 2018). Supporting
the relative nature of this competition, less attractive women
are especially likely to exhibit this double standard, penaliz-
ing women, but not men, who leverage their appearance for
personal gains. These patterns suggest women are not only
threatened by attractive women, but also penalize those who
deliberately enhance and capitalize on their physical appeal.
Researchers further contend that incentives to be rela-
tively more attractive than one’s same-sex romantic rivals
contributes to the prevalence of female body dissatisfaction
and disordered eating (Abed, 1998; Ferguson, Winegard,
& Winegard, 2011; Mealey, 2000). Although preferences
for female thinness vary across cultures, in Westernized
and urban contexts, both men and women tend to value a
relatively thin female figure (Swami etal., 2010). Indeed, in
these societies, thinner women are more likely to get married
(Averett, Sikora, & Argys, 2008) and marry highly educated
or earning husbands (Conley & Glauber, 2005; Oreffice &
Quintana-Domeque, 2010). Although higher-earning men
especially prefer thin romantic partners (Fales etal., 2016),
men generally avoid obese women as partners (Chen &
Brown, 2005). Women are aware of these male preferences,
evidenced by their underreporting weight in dating profiles
(Hancock etal., 2007). Women who perceive their bodies
to be discrepant from men’s ideal experience body dissatis-
faction and engage in dysregulated eating (Fallon & Rozin,
1985; Tantleff-Dunn & Thompson, 1995). Moreover, com-
pared to partnered women, single women experience stronger
motivations to be thin and engage in more intense dieting or
bulimic behaviors (Keel, Baxter, Heatherton, & Joiner, 2007;
Vogeltanz-Holm etal., 2000), suggesting women may diet,
in part, to attract romantic partners.
Not only does this male preference for thinness affect
how women feel about themselves, it also influences how
they respond to one another. Women explicitly report com-
peting with one another based on weight (Fisher, Dunn, &
Thompson, 2002). In experimental settings, those who inter-
acted with a thin, compared to average weight, female con-
federate felt less satisfied with their bodies, supporting that
appearance comparisons are relative (Krones, Stice, Batres,
& Orjada, 2005). Furthermore, women who are especially
competitive in romantic domains are particularly vulnerable
to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating (Abed etal.,
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2012; Faer, Hendriks, Abed, & Figueredo, 2005), hinting
that the behavioral manifestations of body dissatisfaction are
at least partially rooted in a motivation to outcompete same-
sex peers for high-quality romantic partnerships. Moreover,
environments characterized by relatively more women than
men, indicating heightened competition for mates, amplify
women’s mating competitiveness and exacerbate their body
dissatisfaction and dieting inclinations (Bould etal., 2016;
Reynolds etal., 2020a). That is, when women perceive their
mating pool to be female-skewed, or saturated with more
same-sex competitors relative to potential mates, they expe-
rience body dissatisfaction and heightened motivations to
lose weight.
Taken as a whole, these findings support the contention
that women compete with one another to be relatively more
physically attractive, which not only impairs their self-image,
but also their responses to alluring same-sex peers. The rela-
tive nature of this competition is demonstrable in women’s
romantic outcomes, with physically appealing or thin women
attracting educated and high-earning partners. If throughout
history, women were denied independent access to education
and resources, relative discrepancies in women’s appearance
likely often translated to greater provisioning, protection,
and support for their children. Given the immense conse-
quences of securing high-earning and investing partners, it
is perhaps unsurprising that women feel competitive toward
physically attractive same-sex peers. However, traces of this
appearance-centered romantic rivalry manifest in Western-
ized contexts, ostensibly unrelated to mating (e.g., organiza-
tions), revealing that this intrasexual romantic competition
may constitute a pervasive undertone to women’s same-sex
Female Intrasexual Competition Over
Beyond the male preference for physically attractive romantic
partners, cross-cultural analyses reveal men often prioritize sex-
ual chastity in romantic partners (Buss, 1989). Among arranged
marriages throughout history, female virginity was typically
expected (Apostolou, 2012). Across cultures, female virginity is
especially emphasized when marriages are transactional, such
as when dowry or bride price is exchanged between families
(Anderson, 2007; Schlegel, 1991). In pre-industrialized socie-
ties, parents prioritize the sexual chastity of prospective daugh-
ters-in-law (Apostolou, 2010). Even parents in industrialized
cultures strategically curtail their daughters’ sexual behavior
and feel more distressed when their daughters, compared to
their sons, are sexually active (Perilloux, Fleischman, & Buss,
2008). Moreover, across 14 countries, being a virgin bolstered
women’s status, whereas having premarital sex harmed it (Buss
etal., 2020), revealing female chastity is still valued and con-
sequential today.
To be sure, this preference for female sexual chastity has
loosened over history (Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, &
Larsen, 2001), perhaps because parental influence over mating
has waned. Indeed, Chinese parents and in-laws more strongly
value a potential spouse’s sexual chastity than do their children
(Apostolou & Wang, 2018). Likewise, both Argentinian and
Japanese individuals perceive a potential partner’s chastity as
more important to their parents than to themselves (Buunk &
Solano, 2010; Dubbs, Buunk, & Taniguchi, 2013). Moreover,
female sexual chastity may be less strongly emphasized due
to the advent of birth control, which disrupts the link between
sexual behavior and reproduction. Indeed, in modern West-
ernized contexts, men’s interest in a woman is less strongly
predicted by her previous sexual behavior than whether she has
a dependent child in her care (Honey & Fillion, 2017). This pat-
tern suggests men and their families valued female sexual chas-
tity across history partially because it correlated with women’s
extant reproductive investments.
Men’s valuation of female chastity likely stemmed, at least to
some degree, from concerns over women’s potential infidelity,
and hence, whether men would biologically father resultant
children. Because pregnancy occurs within the female body,
men can never have perfect certainty children are their genetic
offspring (Trivers, 1972). This paternity uncertainty also under-
lies male sexual jealousy (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmel-
roth, 1992). That is, male ancestors who were vigilant about
their female partners’ sexual activity were less vulnerable to
cuckoldry, or investing in another man’s offspring, favoring psy-
chological mechanisms that reduce such risk (Buss & Schmitt,
1993). Across diverse cultures, female infidelity was the most
frequent reason husbands divorced their wives, whereas divorce
over male infidelity was much rarer (Apostolou, 2012; Betzig,
1989). Moreover, punishments to unfaithful wives tend to be
more extreme than those to unfaithful husbands, sometimes
resulting in death (Apostolou, 2012). Indeed, one of the pri-
mary predictors of uxoricide, or wife-killing, is a wife’s pre-
sumed infidelity (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Cultural restrictions
on female sexuality may have been leveraged strategically to
augment men’s confidence in their paternity status and thus,
encourage fathers’ investment in children (Gaulin & Schlegel,
1980). Indeed, men’s willingness to invest in children is to some
degree, contingent upon their confidence in their biological
paternity (Anderson, Kaplan, & Lancaster, 2007; Huber &
Breedlove, 2007), informed by cues such as shared resemblance
(Volk & Quinsey, 2007). In contexts where women depend
more heavily on male financial support, proscriptions against
female promiscuity are intensified (Price, Pound, & Scott,
2014). Such patterns suggest concerns over male investment
in potentially unrelated offspring contribute to motivations to
restrict women’s sexuality. Thus, modern access to paternity
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tests may also partially explain recent declines in men’s valua-
tion of female sexual chastity.
If, across history, women’s relative sexual chastity influ-
enced their likelihood of securing or retaining desirable roman-
tic partners, whether relationships endured, and women’s own
safety, then this too should have become a critical domain of
female intrasexual competition. With such important outcomes
at stake, women who more convincingly displayed their sexual
restraint may have attracted higher quality partners or expe-
rienced longer lasting and more harmonious partnerships.
Indeed, in response to sexualized female targets, men espouse
hostile sexism, characterized by beliefs that women are trying
to seek special favors and fail to appreciate all that men do for
them (Sibley & Wilson, 2004). However, in response to sexu-
ally chaste female targets, men express more protective beliefs,
for example, that women are morally pure, and should therefore
be cherished. Men tend to perceive women as less desirable
romantic partners when women are surrounded by other men
(Hill & Buss, 2008), suggesting that subtle cues to women’s
sexual involvement may diminish male romantic interest. These
patterns suggest that women who advertised their sexual chas-
tity (versus promiscuity) were likely more readily preferred as
long-term romantic partners (Buss & Schmitt, 1993).
Such a male preference would incentivize female intrasexual
competition to demonstrate chastity. The relative nature of this
competition may at least partially explain women’s intolerance
of promiscuity. That is, one way to display one’s own sexual
restraint is to condemn those who are sexually uninhibited.
Compared to men, women perceive those who engage in casual
sex as more immoral and disgusting (Woerner & Abbey, 2017)
and more readily derogate those who participate in threesomes
(Jonason & Marks, 2009). Some evidence suggests sex differ-
ences in sexual disgust are quite large, with women experi-
encing substantially stronger sexual disgust than men (d = 1.4;
Al-Shawaf, Lewis, Ghossainy, & Buss, 2019). Although it is
possible that some portion of this heightened disgust functions
to reduce women’s vulnerability to sexual assault, female same-
sex competition to display sexual restraint may also contribute
to women’s disapproval of promiscuous sexuality (Al-Shawaf,
Lewis, & Buss, 2018). Indeed, in cultures characterized by
female-skewed sex ratios, such that there are relatively more
women competing for fewer romantic partners, women more
strongly diverge from men in their purity concerns (Atari, Lai,
& Dehghani, 2020). This pattern suggests conditions of height-
ened intrasexual romantic rivalry exacerbate female displays of
purity, and perhaps, sexual chastity specifically.
To the degree that women are competing to display relative
sexual chastity to attract and retain investing romantic partners,
then this female disapproval of promiscuity may especially
penalize sexually unrestrained women. Indeed, women are less
accepting of female promiscuity than are men (Baumeister &
Twenge, 2002; Digidiki & Baka, 2017; Price etal., 2014). Com-
pared to men, women are less willing to befriend promiscuous
same-sex peers (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001). Sexually experi-
enced female adolescents are often less accepted by their peers,
whereas sexually experienced male adolescents experience
heightened peer acceptance (Kreager & Staff, 2009). In eco-
nomic games, both men and women distrust sexually available
women, but only women willingly incur costs to punish them
(Muggleton, Tarran, & Fincher, 2018). Qualitative interviews
with sexually open women support this pattern; they report that
although their relationships with men are often comfortable,
other women respond to them with judgment, accusations, bul-
lying, and rejection (Blumberg, 2003; Simmons, 2002; Tanen-
baum, 1999).
Taken together, this body of findings suggests women’s
intrasexual romantic competition may exacerbate the sexual
double standard, whereby women are penalized for the same
sexual behaviors that men are more readily permitted (Craw-
ford & Popp, 2003; Endendijk, van Baar, & Deković, 2020).
That is, a historical emphasis on female sexual purity in the
formation and stability of romantic partnerships may have
incentivized women to display their own sexual restraint and
publicly condemn or ostracize sexually uninhibited peers.
Mate Guarding
To be sure, another explanation for women’s intolerance of
female promiscuity is the threat other women posed to women’s
established partnerships. Around the globe, men are more open
to casual sex than are women (Schmitt, 2005). Men’s greater
sexual openness increases their likelihood of committing infi-
delity, thereby opening the possibility for female rivals to lure
them away from committed partnerships. Indeed, across cul-
tures, men are more likely than women to succumb to casual
affairs and to replace their long-term partners (Schmitt, 2004).
Numerous investigations reveal men are more likely than
women to commit extramarital infidelity (Treas & Geisen,
2000; Martins etal., 2016; Zhang, Parish, Huang, & Pan, 2012).
This proclivity opens the possibility for women to poach one
another’s partners. Indeed, some data suggest single women
are more interested in pursuing partnered than single men as
romantic partners (Parker & Burkley, 2009). Moreover, women
find men more desirable when surrounded by women than
when alone or surrounded by other men (Hill & Buss, 2008).
These patterns reveal female interlopers pose a viable threat to
women’s established partnerships.
Such a risk might suggest that women in established relation-
ships should be especially vigilant and aggressive to threatening
same-sex peers. Although one investigation found partnered
women were more willing to aggress against same-sex rivals
than single women (Fisher & Cox, 2010), other research found
no difference in women’s intrasexual aggression based on rela-
tionship status (Reynolds, Baumeister, & Maner, 2018). The
cost of losing a partnership to an interloper may be especially
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heightened for women with children. Some data suggest moth-
ers are especially aggressive against same-sex rivals (Barbaro,
Shackelford, & Weekes-Shackelford, 2016). Such a tendency
makes sense if sustained partner provisioning predicted child
survival across history. Moreover, mothers may be less able to
secure subsequent romantic partnerships following relationship
dissolution than women without children (Bramlett & Mosher,
2002; Honey & Fillion, 2017). Future research is needed to
adjudicate whether women’s intrasexual competitiveness and
aggression is contingent upon their relationship or motherhood
If some women are successful in leveraging casual sex to
form long-term relationships with already-partnered men, this
threat may explain why women feel motivated to avoid (Bleske
& Shackelford, 2001) and punish sexually open women (Mug-
gleton etal., 2018). Moreover, the costs of losing a resource
provisioning partner may also contribute to women’s stronger
opposition to infidelity (Dugan, 2015; Treas & Giesen, 2000)
and prostitution (Digidiki & Baka, 2017) than men’s. Although
women pursue casual sex for a variety of reasons, some research
suggests women are more likely than men to engage in casual
sex as a route to establishing long-term relationships (Sur-
bey & Conohan, 2000). Following casual sex, women report
more thoughts of marriage and a future family than do men
(Townsend & Wasserman, 2011). These findings highlight that
there are numerous routes through which women pursue roman-
tic partnerships. Although highlighting one’s sexual chastity
may increase men’s motivation to form committed partnerships,
women might also leverage their sexuality to attract partners,
including those already in ongoing romantic relationships.
Indeed, despite their preference for sexually chaste long-term
romantic partners, men lower their expectations of chastity for
short-term sexual partners (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Thus, short-
term sexual encounters (e.g., casual sex, extra-dyadic sex, sex
work) may offer opportunities for women to secure desirable
The viability of these mate attraction strategies may depend
upon women’s own traits. Cross-cultural evidence reveals that
women who are most successful at mate poaching are those
who are physically attractive, sexually unrestricted, and erot-
ophilic (Schmitt, 2004). Thus, the female romantic rivals who
most threaten women’s ongoing relationships are those who
are both physically attractive and sexually open. These patterns
suggest physically alluring and sexually expressive women con-
stitute the most formidable rivals to established partnerships
and should therefore evoke consternation from other women.
Empirical evidence supports that women find those who
are attractive and signal sexual openness especially threaten-
ing. For example, people assume provocatively dressed women
will evoke aggression from other women (Krems, Rankin, &
Northover, 2019). These expectations are borne out; in one
creative lab study, female participants exposed to an attractive
female confederate responded with greater hostility and rude
comments when she was dressed provocatively compared to
conservatively (Vaillancourt & Sharma, 2011). Female par-
ticipants also reported they would be less willing to introduce
her to their boyfriends when she was sexily clad, supporting
that women recognize those who are both physically attractive
and exhibit cues of sexual openness are threats to established
partnerships. Indeed, women, but attractive women in particu-
lar, strategically select more modest clothing when interacting
with other women (versus both men and women), suggesting
they anticipate costs to displaying sexuality to same-sex peers
(Krems etal., 2019). Women’s perceptual biases lend further
credulity to these contentions: physically attractive and sexually
unrestrained women assume more hostility in neutral female
faces, suggesting they realize (at some level) they are the fre-
quent targets of other women’s scorn (Krems, Neuberg, Filip-
Crawford, & Kenrick, 2015). Women’s intrasexual competitive
responses can even be evoked by media depictions of sexual-
ized women. When women are exposed to attractive fashion
models who assume flirtatious and sexually open postures, they
experience heightened jealousy about their relationships and
feel compelled to derogate and ostracize those models (Borau
& Bonnefon, 2019). That women experience jealousy and
aggressive responses to mere depictions of sexualized attractive
female targets suggests female psychology is well designed to
detect and thwart threatening same-sex rivals from undermin-
ing their partnerships.
Taken together, these patterns suggest women encounter
multiple incentives to derogate sexually unrestrained same-sex
peers: (1) they might signal their own relative sexual chastity
to enhance their appeal to potential long-term romantic part-
ners and (2) they might discourage potential interlopers from
jeopardizing their ongoing relationships. Given the historical
costs of losing male investment for women’s and their chil-
dren’s access to resources and survival, it follows that sexually
unrestrained women would be the favored targets of female
scorn. Such an incentive structure would suggest that a sub-
stantial portion of the condemnation of open expressions of
female sexuality are leveraged by other women, a pattern less
frequently acknowledged among investigations of the sexual
double standard, sexual assault victim blaming, or slut shaming.
Tactics ofFemale Intrasexual Competition
Despite incentives to compete fiercely for the limited pool of
resource-yielding and commitment-inclined romantic partners,
women’s overt aggression carried costs throughout history.
Because women around the globe are the primary caregivers of
children (Geary, 2010; Hrdy, 1999), women’s physical violence
risked not only their own lives, but the lives of their dependent
offspring (Campbell, 1999). Supporting Campbell’s arguments,
across cultures, children are substantially more likely to perish
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when their mothers are deceased rather than living (Hill & Hur-
tado, 1996; Moucheraud etal., 2015; Sear, Mace, & McGregor,
2000). Thus, women who competed with romantic rivals using
physical aggression not only jeopardized their own lives, but
also their children’s lives.
To minimize the risk of retaliation and escalation to vio-
lence, women’s aggression instead more often manifests in
indirect and social tactics, such that perpetration and culpabil-
ity are difficult to ascertain and easier to deny (Benenson, 2014;
Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992). Termed indirect
or relational aggression, perpetrators attempt to disrupt victims’
social relationships and standing using tactics such as spreading
rumors, disclosing secrets, and ostracism (Archer & Coyne,
2005; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). These covert tactics reduce
the likelihood of retaliation because perpetrators can deny cul-
pability and intentional harm. Moreover, rumors and gossip
are effective at impairing victims’ social opportunities; peo-
ple dislike and ostracize those about whom they have learned
negative information (Gawronski & Walther, 2008; Gawronski,
Walther, & Blank, 2005; Sommerfeld, Krambeck, Semmann,
& Milinski, 2007). Men evaluate women as less attractive and
less as desirable romantic partners when they learn negative
reputational information about them, supporting that gossip can
effectively impair women’s romantic prospects (Fisher & Cox,
2009; Reynolds etal., 2018). If gossip is reiterated by multiple
independent sources, it is believed as more credible, providing
an incentive for women to transmit defamatory gossip about
romantic rivals, even when they lack first-hand confirmation
of the gossip’s veracity (Hess & Hagen, 2006a).
A wide body of evidence suggests women rely on these cov-
ert, indirect, and social tactics to aggress against one another.
Across ages and cultures, girls and women are much less physi-
cally aggressive than boys and men, but equally if not more
likely to engage in indirect or relational aggression (Archer,
2004, 2009; Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008; Crick &
Nelson, 2002; Cullerton-Sen & Crick, 2005). Both female chil-
dren and adults more often form exclusionary alliances than do
males (Benenson, Antonellis, Cotton, Noddin, & Campbell,
2008; Benenson, Markovits, Thompson, & Wrangham, 2011).
Adult women, compared to adult men, not only report more
frequent victimization by social exclusion, but also experience
heightened physiological distress in response to it (Benenson
etal., 2013).
Compared to male adolescents, females report observing
more instances of gossip (Coyne, Archer, & Eslea, 2006). Girls
and women report greater victimization by online rumors and
female-perpetrated cyberbullying (Guo, 2016; Marcum, Hig-
gins, Freiburger, & Ricketts, 2014; Mishna, Cook, Gadalla,
Daciuk, & Solomon, 2010; Sourander etal., 2010). Although
a recent meta-analysis suggests males are more likely than
females to be both perpetrators and victims of cyberbullying
(Smith, López-Castro, Robinson, & Görzig, 2019), this exam-
ination did not break down prevalence rates by perpetrator/
victim gender and thus, additional research is needed to adju-
dicate whether females preferentially target females online.
Across cultures, women report being more inclined to gos-
sip than men, but particularly about social topics and physi-
cal appearance (Davis, Dufort, Desrochers, Vaillancourt, &
Arnocky, 2018; Eckhaus & Ben-Hador, 2019; Nevo, Nevo,
& Derech-Zehavi, 1993; Watson, 2012). Compared to men,
women feel more compelled to respond to bothersome behavior
with retaliatory gossip (Hess & Hagen 2006b) and are more
willing to share gossip with same-sex peers (McAndrew, Bell,
& Garcia, 2007). These patterns support that indirect and rela-
tional tactics are not only effective at undermining women’s
social standing, but also are well-worn tools in the female com-
petitive arsenal.
Evidence suggests women’s use of indirect aggression is
rooted in romantic competition (Vaillancourt, 2013). In experi-
mental studies, women are more willing to engage in indirect
aggression (e.g., spreading a rumor) when romantic motivations
are made salient (Griskevicius etal., 2009) and when prospects
for finding romantic partners are constrained (Arnocky, Ribout,
Mirza, & Knack, 2014). Women who are more romantically
competitive or make more frequent appearance comparisons
with other women are especially inclined to use indirect aggres-
sion against their peers (Arnocky, Sunderani, Miller, & Vaillan-
court, 2012; Davis etal., 2018; Reynolds etal., 2018). Younger
women, who are more frequently engaged in competition for
romantic partners than older women, are especially willing to
derogate women who flirt with their prospective partners (Mas-
sar, Buunk, & Rempt, 2012). Women are more likely to trans-
mit reputation-damaging and withhold reputation-enhancing
information about same-sex peers who flirt with their roman-
tic partners, are physically attractive, or provocatively dressed
(Reynolds etal., 2018), supporting that reputational harm is
leveraged discriminately toward threatening romantic rivals.
Similar patterns emerge in ethnographies of American female
adolescents, with reputational victimization following threats
to perpetrators’ romantic relationships (Simmons, 2002; Wise-
man, 2009). One testimonial aptly conveys the romantic rivalry
underscoring female reputational defamation: “There’s one par-
ticular girl that I don’t like because she messed around with my
ex-boyfriend while I was dating him. When she walks near me
I say ‘slut’” (Tanenbaum, 1999, p. 113).
Hess (2006) and Campbell (1999) have argued that an addi-
tional reason women rely on gossip to harm same-sex peers
is that a larger portion of the attributes contributing to female
romantic appeal are less overtly demonstrable than those con-
tributing to male romantic appeal. For example, if women’s sex-
ual chastity strongly influenced their ability to attract and retain
romantic relationships, then it should constitute a relatively
substantial portion of the gossip hurled against female roman-
tic rivals. Sexual chastity, importantly, is a negative state—the
absence of a behavior—and is therefore impossible to ascertain
or confirm. Campbell (1999) forwarded the following example:
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if a man were labeled a chicken, wuss, or weak, he could easily
undermine the accusation with a display of physical strength
or bravery. Indeed, when men’s masculinity is threatened, they
increase their aggressiveness (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford,
Weaver, & Arzu Wasti, 2009). However, if a woman were
labeled promiscuous, there is no equivalent display to contra-
dict the claim. This inability to counteract claims of promiscu-
ity may impair women’s social and romantic opportunities, as
evidenced by the finding that women described as promiscuous,
acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, or previously com-
mitting infidelity are evaluated as immoral, and undesirable
friends and romantic partners (Reynolds etal., 2018). Thus,
accusations of sexual openness, irrespective of their veracity,
may be especially effective at curtailing women’s social and
romantic opportunities (Endendijk etal., 2020).
A wide body of research supports that sexuality compro-
mises a substantial portion of women’s competitive gossip.
Women are especially interested in information about the
sexual promiscuity and infidelity of their same-sex peers
(McAndrew & Milenkovic, 2002). Compared to men, women
are more willing to derogate same-sex romantic rivals as
promiscuous to undermine their romantic appeal (Buss &
Dedden, 1990). Observations of middle school girls confirm
that a substantial portion of female teasing and gossip focuses
on other girls’ sexual behaviors, with labels such as “slut”
instilling fear and curtailing female sexuality (Eder, 1993;
Wiseman, 2009). One female victim described her experi-
ences to Tanenbaum (1999), “In the space of a few hours, I
had become a ‘slut.’ I had obtained a reputation that followed
me for my remaining three and a half years of high school,
and probably follows me still in the minds of some of my
former classmates: I was a loose girl who had fooled around
with some random guy and was therefore worthy of scorn
and ridicule” (p. 34). Victimization investigations support
this pattern: women who were sexually active at an earlier
age and acquired more sexual partners during adolescence
reported more frequent victimization by indirect aggression
(Gallup, O’Brien, White, & Wilson, 2009; Leenaars, Dane,
& Marini, 2008). Experimental paradigms further reveal
women transmit reputation-damaging sexual information in
particular to undermine threatening romantic rivals (Reyn-
olds etal., 2018).
If women were relegated to rely on indirect rather than
physical aggression due to maternal obligations, then wom-
en’s interests and perceptual abilities may have been honed
to maximize success in this form of intrasexual competition.
Indeed, women show stronger interests in same-sex peers’
social information than do men (McAndrew etal., 2007).
Beyond a heightened interest in this information, free-recall
tasks reveal women are better able to remember same-sex
peers’ information compared to men, suggesting the infor-
mation is more valuable and thus more readily encoded in
women’s memories (De Backer, Nelissen, & Fisher, 2007).
Across cultures and ages, women demonstrate better episodic
memory than do men (Herlitz & Rehnman, 2008), perhaps
indicating a female advantage in mentally documenting inter-
personal events that can later be leveraged as defamatory
gossip. Girls and women also outperform boys and men in
remembering faces, but female faces in particular (Herlitz
& Lovén, 2013). Compared to men, women more accurately
discern other women’s openness to casual sex from thin slice
videos, revealing a female perceptual acumen in identify-
ing threatening romantic rivals (Stillman & Maner, 2009).
Women also outperform men in language ability, including
verbal fluency (McCarrey, An, Kitner-Triolo, Ferrucci, &
Resnick, 2016; Schipolowski, Wilhelm, & Schroeders, 2014),
possibly indicating a female advantage in the production and
tactful dissemination of gossip. These gender discrepancies
suggest women’s interests and capacities are well-suited for
acquiring, retaining, and disseminating social information
about same-sex peers, a pattern consistent with a long history
of intrasexual reputational competition.
To the extent that female intrasexual competition mani-
fests as reputational attacks, then women might also employ
social strategies to reduce the likelihood of their own repu-
tational ruin. Compared to men, women are more willing to
end a friendship with someone who spread a rumor about
them, disclosed a personal secret, or failed to publicly defend
their reputations (Felmlee & Muraco, 2009; Felmlee, Sweet,
& Sinclair, 2012; Vigil, 2007). As Merten (1999) noted,
“Secrecy and friendship were so inextricably intertwined
among [junior high school] girls that when they contemplated
what made someone a desirable friend, the ability to keep a
secret was near the top of the list” (p. 116). Even among non-
industrialized societies, women perceived as gossips are rela-
tively undesired as social partners (Rucas etal., 2006). Such
intolerance for peers’ reputational violations may indicate
women’s friendship preferences serve as defensive strategies
against those who could tarnish their own reputations and
social opportunities. Indeed, although both men and women
dislike gossipers who spread negative information, women
are especially hostile to female gossipers, suggesting women
can envision themselves as victims and are thus motivated
to eschew them as friends (Fisher, Shaw, Worth, Smith, &
Reeve, 2010). Ethnographic reports suggest adolescent girls
also threaten to disclose friends’ personal information to
deter those friends from divulging their own information
(Merten, 1999, p. 119; Owens, Shute, & Slee, 2000, p. 80).
These patterns suggest women use various social tactics to
insulate their reputations from defamation.
However, a wide array of evidence suggests women may
most ardently protect their sexual reputations. For example,
women are more likely than men to deceive same-sex friends
about their sexual activity to appear less promiscuous, reveal-
ing that women understand the risks in disclosing sexual
exploits with female peers and thus strategically withhold this
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information (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001). Indeed, although
women are generally more likely to self-disclose than men,
one exception is sexual experiences, whereby women more
closely guard these personal details (Consedine, Sabag-
Cohen, & Krivoshekova, 2007). Throughout history, when
women pursued legal action for slander and defamation,
nearly all of these cases sought recompense for damage to
their sexual reputations (Borden, 1997; Gowing, 1993; Lene-
man, 2000). These patterns support that information about
sexual activity is highly consequential and thus steadfastly
guarded in women’s reputational competition.
Taken together, these patterns suggest female psychol-
ogy has been shaped to succeed in reputational competition,
from the acquisition of damaging personal information, to
the strategic dissemination of same-sex peers’ compromis-
ing information, and to preemptive defense strategies against
one’s own reputational tarnish. Not only do these findings
hint that gossip has been an efficacious strategy in female
intrasexual rivalry for quite some time, but they also under-
mine stereotypes of women as the less competitive sex.
Female Cooperation
Although women are one another’s primary romantic rivals,
they are also sources of support, childcare, information,
resources, and friendship. To conclude that women only behave
antagonistically toward one another would be premature and an
incomplete depiction of female sociality. Rather, girls highly
value their friendships, strongly desire intimacy in their peer
relationships, and experience high levels of worry and distress
about potential friendship abandonment or replacement (Rose
& Rudolph, 2006). The intensity of these emotions underscores
the value females place on their same-sex relationships. Indeed,
a meta-analysis revealed females were more strongly attached
to their peers than were males (d = .51) and reported higher lev-
els of trust (d = .36) and communication (d = .70) within their
friendships (Gorrese & Ruggieri, 2012). Across history into
modernity, cooperative female relationships have undoubtedly
buffered women against a host of existential and interpersonal
threats (Taylor etal., 2000).
The benefits to accruing sources of social support are varied
and tangible. A large body of evidence reveals social support is
strongly linked to better health and increased longevity (Liu &
Newschaffer, 2011; Tilvis etal., 2012). Indeed, the presence of
social ties more strongly reduces individuals’ disease risk than
many other critical health predictors, such as obesity or physi-
cal exercise (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). These
patterns suggest those who secure cooperative social relation-
ships receive aid and resources, generating strong incentives for
women to collaborate with same-sex peers (Taylor etal., 2000).
However, models of friendship suggest individuals do
not form friendships solely based on explicit tracking of
benefits exchanged (Fiske, 1991). Beyond providing immedi-
ate resources and benefits, friendships can also serve as alli-
ances during conflict. Indeed, individuals preferentially rank
their friends based on assumptions about friends’ valuations
of themselves (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). Such a tendency
reveals individuals assess which friends would likely take their
side in future conflict. If so, women who successfully form
female friendships may more often emerge triumphant in
interpersonal conflicts. To the degree that women’s intrasexual
competition often manifests as reputational smears, then those
who secure female allies may enjoy better protection of their
own reputations. Empirical evidence supports that women’s
reputational competition has a coalitional component. Women
were less likely to spread negative gossip about a same-sex
peer when she had a friend present compared to when she did
not (Hess & Hagen, 2002), suggesting the presence of known
allies can buffer women against harmful gossip. Moreover,
gossip is assumed as more credible when it is repeated by mul-
tiple sources (Hess & Hagen, 2006a), revealing that women
can more effectively undermine rivals when they have allies to
repeat their gossip.
Social network analyses reveal individuals preferentially
form same-sex over opposite-sex friendships, further sug-
gesting that other women are critical sources of support to
one another (Roberts, Wilson, Fedurek, & Dunbar, 2008).
Conversational patterns confirm this preference, finding that
women generally prefer conversations with other women,
even more than men prefer conversations with same-sex
peers (Dunbar, 2016). These patterns reveal women prior-
itize cultivating cooperative relationships with their same-sex
peers, which are perhaps especially beneficial in reputational
Hrdy (2009) argued the caregiving provided by female
friends and kin allowed women to increase their fertility
and promote child survivorship across human history. Giv-
ing birth is an incredibly vulnerable and dangerous time for
women; around the globe, countless rely on the aid of female
kin and midwives during childbirth (Rosenberg & Treva-
than, 2002). Among the non-industrialized Tsimane, women
more well-liked by their female peers have more surviving
children than women less liked (Rucas, 2017). Although
only correlational, these data suggest female social status
and support translate into child survival. Research among
the Hadza hunter-gatherers confirms that unrelated women
help one another with childcare responsibilities (Crittenden
& Marlowe, 2008). Among the Aka foragers, non-maternal
caregivers significantly reduce mothers’ energy expenditure
(Meehan, Quinlan, & Malcom, 2013), suggesting, at mini-
mum, mothers’ social support lessens their workload, offer-
ing more time for other fitness enhancing activities.
If, as these patterns suggest, women who fostered coop-
erative relationships with same-sex peers were more likely
to survive and reproduce successfully across human history,
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then women’s psychologies should also be well-equipped to
cultivate such beneficial partnerships. All else held equal,
women who jeopardized their same-sex relationships for
romantic rivalry would have experienced worse outcomes
than those who competed for romantic partners and simulta-
neously fostered cooperative female friendships.
Patrilocality andWarfare
Although both men and women stood to gain from cultivating
cooperative relationships with same-sex peers, the historical
pattern of warfare and social arrangements likely generated
divergent pressures on ancestral men’s and women’s same-sex
alliance formation. Genetic analyses offer a novel approach
to understanding historical social arrangements. Because
the Y chromosome is inherited directly by sons from fathers,
and mitochondrial DNA is inherited directly from mothers
(both without recombination), genealogical histories can be
constructed relatively reliably by analyzing variance in these
genetic loci (Seielstad, Minch, & Cavalli-Sforza, 1998; Wilkins,
2006). Although contemporary foragers and hunter-gatherers
show mixed residency patterns (Dyble etal., 2015) and low-
land horticulturalists show uxorilocal tendencies (Walker etal.,
2013), genetic analyses suggest food-producing groups (e.g.,
agricultural) were largely patrilocal (Szécsényi-Nagy etal.,
2015; Wilkins, 2006). Under patrilocality, women leave their
families to reside with their husbands’. Genetic analyses relying
on both African and worldwide populations are congruent with
a human history predominately characterized by patrilocality,
despite substantial cultural variation in social arrangements
(Jorde etal., 2000; Lippold etal., 2014; Seielstad etal., 1998).
Anthropological evidence supports this pattern, with a larger
proportion of societies exhibiting patrilocal than matrilocal
residence patterns (Burton, Moore, Whiting, & Romney, 1996).
Isotope analyses of early hominin fossils yield similar results,
suggesting patrilocality may have extended quite far back into
human phylogenetic history (Copeland etal., 2011).
One possible explanation for this predominate social
arrangement is that patrilocality ensured men were surrounded
by their genetic kin, facilitating male bonds that were advanta-
geous in warfare (Hamilton, 1964; Kaplan, Hill, Lancaster, &
Hurtado, 2000). Although the historical record suggests some
notable female warriors, most of human warfare involved
groups of men fighting other groups of men (Baumeister, 2010;
Chagnon, 1988; Geary, 2010; Keeley, 1996). Genetic evidence
demonstrates the immense consequences of these coalition-
ary battles: groups of men who dominated on the battlefield
replaced losing groups of men in the gene pool (Carvajal-Car-
mona etal., 2000; Underhill etal., 2001). In other words, groups
of men who succeeded in warfare not only lived, but also often
reproduced with local women.
Given the immense survival and reproductive consequences
of this coalitionary competition, male sociality and friendship
preferences have undoubtedly been shaped to enhance the like-
lihood of group success on the battlefield (Benenson, 2014;
Geary, 2010; Geary, Byrd-Craven, Hoard, Vigil, & Numtee,
2003; McDonald, Navarrete, & Van Vugt, 2012). For example,
in public goods games, men contribute more to their group
when competing against another group, whereas women’s con-
tributions are less contingent on intergroup competition (Bailey,
Winegard, Oxford, & Geary, 2012; Van Vugt, Cremer, & Jans-
sen, 2007). Modern men also tend to defer to same-sex peers
possessing traits that were historically beneficial in intergroup-
warfare, such as courage, dominance, pain tolerance, and physi-
cal strength (Eisenbruch, Grillot, Maestripieri, & Roney, 2016;
Winegard, Reynolds, Baumeister, & Plant, 2016; Winegard,
Winegard, & Geary, 2014). Compared to women, men are more
willing to befriend same-sex peers and less likely to dissolve
same-sex friendships, tendencies which likely allowed men to
form large groups, thereby gaining numerical advantages in
historical conflicts (Benenson, 1990, 2014; Benenson etal.,
2009; Vigil, 2007).
Female Friendships
Just as men’s ancestral history shaped the traits they value in
same-sex peers, so too has women’s. Because a substantial
portion of human social groups were partrilocal, many female
ancestors were surrounded by unrelated individuals upon mar-
riage (Geary, 2002). When wives moved to reside with their
husbands’ families, they lived among individuals whom they
may not have known, and who had few genetic interests in their
well-being, aside from the children they produced. Relation-
ships with unrelated individuals are especially vulnerable to
defection and dissolution, compared to kin-based relationships
(Dunbar & Machin, 2014; Roberts & Dunbar, 2015). In modern
American contexts, qualitative investigations lend credence to
commonly held stereotypes of relationships with in-laws as
challenging (Rittenour & Soliz, 2009), and quantitative analy-
ses suggest the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship
is especially fraught with conflict (Willson, Shuey, & Elder,
2003). Daughters-in-law frequently complain of their mothers-
in-law’s negative traits and use of exclusionary behaviors, such
as making overt demarcations between the wife and the larger
family (Rittenour & Soliz, 2009; p. 79). Among the Zinacan-
teco of Mexico, parents-in-law perceived daughters-in-law as
reputational threats: “A new bride, introduced to her husband’s
household, represents a serious breach of confidentiality; her in-
laws begrudge her to even occasional visits to her own mother,
where she can leak out family secrets and gossip about her new
household to an outsider” (p. 188; Haviland, 1977). If these
patterns are representative of the in-law relationships historical
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women endured, then these ties may have been particularly
tense, with wives living away from their families, heavily
dependent on the aid and support of their husbands’ kin.
Not only were women often surrounded by unrelated indi-
viduals throughout history, these same-sex relationships were
not buttressed by the demands of warfare to the same degree
as men’s same-sex alliances. That is, a larger proportion of our
male than female ancestors were forced to rely on one another
during intergroup conflict, generating strong incentives to
appreciate one another’s coalitionary-benefitting traits and
preserve intragroup harmony (Winegard etal., 2014, 2016).
Within-group conflict could hinder the coalition’s coordina-
tion, and thus, ancestral men would have encountered strong
pressures to maintain relative peace with their same-sex group
members (Geary etal., 2003). If a larger portion of ancestral
men than ancestral women were forced to defend their groups
on battlefields across history, then modern same-sex relation-
ships may show evidence of these asymmetric pressures.
Absent shared genetic interests and the pressures of warfare
to maintain cooperative bonds with nearby women, ancestral
females likely had to actively cultivate and monitor their same-
sex cooperative relationships. Geary (2002) contended that
women upheld these bonds using reciprocal altruism, whereby
benefits are exchanged in a tit-for-tat manner. Consistent with
these arguments, relative to boys and men, girls and women
preferentially form dyadic friendships over larger groups (Ben-
enson, 1990; Benenson, Apostoleris, & Parnass, 1997; David-
Barrett etal., 2015; Fabes, Martin, & Hanish, 2003; Vigil,
2007). Such a dyadic preference makes sense, given that ben-
efits exchanged are easier to monitor among two-person rela-
tionships than among complex and larger groups. Moreover,
evidence from behavioral economic paradigms suggest wom-
en’s cooperation more strongly follows a tit-for-tat exchange
pattern than men’s, with women more closely tracking and
positively rewarding amounts offered by partners (Ben-Ner,
Putterman, Kong, & Magan, 2004; Dohmen, Falk, Huffman, &
Sunde, 2008). Furthermore, in same-sex interactions, women’s
cooperation degrades more quickly over time than does men’s,
suggesting defection is likely to be met with defection among
pairs of women (Balliet etal., 2011). These behavioral pat-
terns support Geary’s (2002) arguments that women’s same-
sex cooperation is upheld by tracking and matching exchanges.
Female Aversion toInequality
If women upheld their same-sex relationships through recipro-
cal exchanges, then threats to this symmetrical reciprocity may
undermine prolonged cooperation. In the presence of sufficient
asymmetry, mutualism devolves into parasitism or exploita-
tion (Johnstone & Bshary, 2002). As partners increasingly
deviate in resources, status, or power, the possibility of goal
confluence corrodes, and mutually beneficial coordination
becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. To provide a cari-
catural example, imagine a famous celebrity entered a coop-
erative relationship with a homeless person. The immense
discrepancy in resources and status would diminish the pos-
sibility of mutually beneficial exchanges, such that over time,
the celebrity would either exploit the homeless person or the
homeless person would unidirectionally extract resources
from the celebrity. With such asymmetries in needs and goals,
long-term cooperation is difficult to sustain because mutual
benefit is unlikely. Although an extreme example, this thought
experiment exemplifies how discrepancies in partner status can
undermine iterated cooperation. If, as Geary (2002) suggests,
women throughout history largely cooperated using reciprocal
exchange, then asymmetries between partners in resources or
power should undermine female coordination and cooperation.
A plethora of data indicate that relative to men, women more
strongly prefer equal distributions of resources and power over
unequal or equitable (i.e., merit-based) distributions (Almås,
Cappelen, Sørensen, & Tungodden, 2010; Berdahl & Ander-
son, 2005; Carlsson, Daruvala, & Johansson-Stenman, 2005;
Dufwenberg & Muren, 2006; Saad & Gill, 2001; Scott, Mat-
land, Michelbach, & Bornstein, 2001). It is possible that this
equality preference also functions as a risk-management strat-
egy, whereby women reduce the likelihood they are left with
few or no resources. Indeed, women tend to be less than risk-
accepting than men on average (Charness & Gneezy, 2012).
Regardless of the underlying motivation, such preferences
reveal women are relatively averse to distribution schemes that
would generate asymmetries in power.
This female preference for symmetry and equality may cor-
rode female–female relationships characterized by an asym-
metry in power, resources, or status between partners. Among
children, girls are more uncomfortable than boys when select-
ing group leaders and competing overtly, suggesting an early
relative aversion to conditions that produce status discrepancies
(Benenson etal., 2002). Among adolescents, girls are more dis-
tressed than boys by a friend’s surpassing them in popularity or
close friendships (Benenson & Benarroch, 1998). Qualitative
and observational investigations of female adolescents reveal
girls are often disliked, ridiculed, and ostracized when they are
popular or presumed to be acting superior to others (Eder, 1993;
Goodwin, 2002; Simmons, 2002). As Merten (1997) noted,
A friend’s aspiration for achievement of greater popularity
was attacked in terms of her alleged expression of superior-
ity” (p. 186). Longitudinal analyses support that adolescent
girls’ popularity puts them at risk of victimization by relational
aggression (Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). In her qualitative
interviews with adult women, Tannenbaum (2002) found many
women feared their female friends’ admiration would turn to
envy or resentment, so they minimized successes to avoid com-
ing across as proud or boastful. Empirical evidence supports
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that minimizing status discrepancies may help women ingrati-
ate themselves with same-sex peers. Women are more likely
to assume same-sex peers with distinguished attributes (e.g.,
highly physically attractive, highly educated) are unlikely to
desire them as friends (Vigil, 2007). This pattern parallels that
found among female adolescents: those who are relatively more
successful or popular are assumed to be entitled or unwilling to
cooperate with others.
This relatively stronger female than male aversion to ine-
quality also manifests in modern organizations, where power
discrepancies are legitimized and overt. Among over 60,000
employees, female employees judged their female managers as
less competent (d = .08) and reported less close relationships
with them (d = .15) compared to female employees reporting
to male managers (Elsesser & Lever, 2011). Meta-analysis
supported this pattern, finding that women (as well as men)
preferred male over female leaders (d = .10; Eagly etal., 1992;
but see Paustian-Underdahl, Walker, & Woehr, 2014; d = − .06).
In a Spanish sample, women expected a female leadership can-
didate to perform worse at her future job (d = .86) and be less
likely to be promoted (d = .78) than a male leadership candidate,
and these gendered assumptions were much more discrepant
than those estimated by men (d = .47, 29, respectively; Garcia-
Retamero, & López-Zafra, 2006). These negative assumptions
about female managers not only undermine female workplace
relationships, but also harm women’s well-being. Among over
11,600 employees, female workers were less satisfied with their
jobs when they reported to a female than male boss, whereas
male employees showed no difference in satisfaction as a func-
tion of their boss’ gender (Artz & Taengnoi, 2016). Thus, pat-
terns among women in modern workforces mirror those found
among adolescents, such that there is a relative dislike of those
who achieve higher status.
This disapproval of women with discrepant power appears
to cut both ways, as evidenced by the “Queen Bee Syndrome,”
whereby female superiors distance themselves from, thwart, or
fail to help female subordinates. In a sample of 1700 employees,
minority women reported more support from their male than
female supervisors, as well as more optimism about their poten-
tial for promotion (Maume, 2011). Low-performing female
employees who switched from a male boss to a high-performing
female boss earned 30% less than similarly low-performing
male employees who made an identical switch (Srivastava &
Sherman, 2015). This pattern suggests low-performing female
(but not male) subordinates were penalized financially by their
accomplished female superiors. A qualitative investigation of
South African female leaders suggests this pattern may emerge
cross-culturally; as one interviewee noted, “It is more difficult
for a woman to lead or manage another woman” (Johnson &
Mathur-Helm, 2011, p. 51). However, this reluctance to help
subordinate women is lessened in the presence of other women,
compared to when female superiors are the “token female” of a
group, suggesting other women may curtail female intrasexual
competition against subordinates (Duguid, 2011). This “Queen
Bee” pattern may also manifest in academia. Female university
faculty members evaluated their female doctoral students as
less committed to their careers than male doctoral students,
whereas male faculty showed no significant gender bias in their
evaluations (Ellemers etal., 2004; Faniko, Ellemers, & Derks,
2020). Likewise, senior female researchers were less likely to
co-author publications with same-sex junior faculty than male
senior researchers (Benenson etal., 2014).
Taken together, these data suggest status discrepancies cor-
rode female same-sex cooperative relationships, both inside
and outside the workplace (Benenson etal., 2014; Hypothesis
1, see Table1). It is possible that this inequality aversion arises
because asymmetries in status or resources among partners
destabilize goal confluence and exchange relationships. That
is, if one partner holds relatively greater power or resources,
then mutually beneficial cooperation becomes unlikely due to
divergent interests among partners (Johnstone & Bshary, 2002).
This equality preference may have helped our female ances-
tors sustain cooperative same-sex relationships via reciprocal
altruism or mutualism, but in modern contexts where status
discrepancies abound, undermines female cooperation.
Beyond clear demarcations of status discrepancies, women
might also exhibit aversions to traits that predict a preference for
unequal resource distributions or eventual status disparities. If,
for example, one female exchange partner believes she is enti-
tled to a disproportionate share of resources because she is com-
petitive or status-striving, then she might retain a disproportion-
ate amount of resources for herself or abandon her exchange
partner for another offering more profitable exchanges. Indeed,
among the non-industrialized Bolivian tribe, another woman’s
failure to reciprocate was the strongest predictor of female con-
flict (Rucas, Gurven, Winking, & Kaplan, 2012). Thus, cues
suggesting a reduced likelihood of reciprocation, such as com-
petitiveness or status-striving, may be perceived as threatening
or undesirable, further undermining female cooperation.
A wide body of evidence suggests competitiveness more
strongly corrodes female than male cooperative relationships.
From an early age, girls show a relatively stronger aversion
to competition than do boys (Benenson etal., 2002; Sutter
& Glätzle-Rützler, 2015) which extends into female friend-
ship patterns in adolescence (Schneider, Woodburn, del Toro,
& Udvari, 2005) and to adult women’s self-reported prefer-
ences (d = .36; Bönte, 2015) and enjoyment of competition
(Kivikangas, Kätsyri, Järvelä, & Ravaja, 2014). Despite this
relative distaste for competition, behavioral economics experi-
ments reveal female–female pairs become progressively less
cooperative over time, compared to male–male pairs (ds = .13,
.38, and .63 for 100, 200, and 300 iterations respectively, Bal-
liet etal., 2011), suggesting defection more easily corrodes
female–female interactions. Across multiple cultures, compe-
tition more strongly predicted conflict and dissolution among
female than male friendships (Schneider etal., 2005). Female
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adolescents who competed “to win” had fewer and less close
friendships than their less competitive counterparts (Hibbard
& Buhrmester, 2010). Even competing “to excel,” perhaps the
more prosocial manifestation of competitiveness, was less con-
ducive to female friendships compared to male friendships.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, women experience greater distress
than men about competition within their friendships (McGuire
& Leaper, 2016). In experimental settings, female friends are
less likely than male friends to engage in affiliative behaviors
following a competition (Benenson etal., 2018), suggesting
women may find it challenging to return to cooperation fol-
lowing competition. Even within sports, where competition is
the explicit goal, female athletes show less positive or friendly
behaviors toward the opposing team following a match than do
male athletes (Benenson & Wrangham, 2016). These patterns
suggest competition and competitiveness are relatively corro-
sive to female cooperative endeavors.
A similar pattern emerges in the workplace: compared to
men, women report competition with their same-sex (but not
opposite-sex) colleagues as less desirable and acceptable (Lee,
Kesebir, & Pillutla, 2016). Moreover, competition leads female
(but not male) employees to dislike their same-sex more than
opposite-sex colleagues, suggesting competition particularly
undermines female–female workplace relationships. In experi-
mental settings, women are no more likely to compete with
a same-sex peer compared to an opposite-sex peer, whereas
men are more willing to compete with same-sex peers (Datta
Gupta, Poulsen, & Villeval, 2013), further indicating a stronger
aversion to same-sex competition among women. Even among
managers and supervisors, women are still found to be less
competitive than men (Robinson & Lipman-Blumen, 2017).
This pattern suggests that even powerful and high-status women
realize the costs of engaging in competition. However, the sex
difference in competitiveness is eliminated when the competi-
tion is framed as against oneself (Apicella, Demiral, & Moller-
strom, 2017), suggesting women’s aversion to competition is
specific to other-directed, but not self-directed, competition.
That is, women may not be less competitive than men over-
all, but the costs of female–female competition to cooperative
relationships may contribute to women’s reluctance to compete
overtly with others.
This relative distaste for competition may contribute to
women’s low initiation rates within negotiations (Kugler, Reif,
Kaschner, & Brodbeck, 2018). That is, negotiation requires
a certain level of assertiveness, which like competitiveness,
may corrode female cooperation. A wide body of evidence
suggests women are penalized when they violate prescriptive
gender stereotypes of communality, such as when they behave
assertively, competitively, or self-interestedly, known as the
“backlash effect” (Rudman, 1998; Rudman & Glick, 1999).
Although both men and women penalize assertive women
(Bowles, Babcock, & Lai, 2007; Okimoto & Brescoli, 2010;
Table 1 Hypotheses and directions for future research
Hypothesis 1 Demarcations in power/status are less conducive to female cooperation than equivalency in power/status (Benenson etal.,
Hypothesis 2 Expressions of vulnerability will enhance interpersonal liking among women and strengthen friendship closeness more than
will expressions of confidence, success, or status-striving.
Hypothesis 3 Girls’/women’s personal disclosures to same-sex peers function (at least partially) to evoke peers’ personal disclosures.
H3a: Girls/women will dislike when a same-sex peer fails to disclose personal information following their own personal
H3b: Girls/women will feel compelled to disclose personal information when a same-sex peer reveals personal information.
Hypothesis 4 Co-rumination will enhance girls’/women’s willingness to leverage reputational attacks on behalf of co-rumination partners.
H4a: Co-rumination will enhance perceptions that co-rumination partners share rivals.
Hypothesis 5 Efficacious female friendship/cooperation interventions will promote forgiveness of same-sex friends’ previous defections and
emphasize friends’ prior demonstrations of loyalty.
Hypothesis 6 Girls/women will dislike same-sex peers who display cues of competitiveness in romantic domains (i.e., a willingness to com-
pete for romantic partners).
Hypothesis 7 Women will hold less conscious awareness of motivations that would harm unrelated women’s likelihood of cooperating with
them (e.g., competitiveness, status-striving, malice, sexual openness, inclinations toward infidelity). That is, sex differences
will be larger, such that women’s engagement is underestimated, when using self-reports compared to direct observation, oth-
ers’ reports, implicit measures, etc.
Hypothesis 8 When women’s reproductive success is highly (versus less) dependent on unrelated same-sex peers, female competition will
manifest in more indirect and covert tactics (e.g., professions of concern, self-deception).
Hypothesis 9 Female-biased (versus male-biased) sex ratios will predict heightened manifestations of female intrasexual competition (e.g.,
defamatory gossip, condemnation of female sexuality, appearance enhancement).
Hypothesis 10 Cultures characterized by a heavy historical female reliance on male provisioning will demonstrate heightened levels of female
intrasexual competition (e.g., defamatory gossip, condemnation of female sexuality, appearance enhancement).
Hypothesis 11 The well-documented pattern of victim/offender overlap found in the criminology literature extends to women’s relational
aggression and intrasexual romantic rivalry, such that perpetrators are more likely to also be victims and vice versa.
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Phelan, Moss-Racusin, & Rudman, 2008), some data suggest
this pattern is especially pronounced among female evalua-
tors, such that they avidly dislike self-promoting and assertive
women (Rudman, 1998). Indeed, although female employees
report more workplace incivility from their female than male
co-workers overall, agentic women report the highest levels of
victimization (Gabriel, Butts, Yuan, Rosen, & Sliter, 2017).
This finding suggests agentic women are the favored targets
of female workplace hostility. Experimental evidence reveals
women penalize successful women to preserve their own
self-image, suggesting that this dislike of assertive women is
rooted, at least partially, in unfavorable and painful self-other
comparisons (Parks-Stamm, Heilman, & Hearns, 2008). How-
ever, women negotiating on behalf of others, rather than for
themselves, anticipate less backlash and ultimately secure more
favorable negotiations (Amanatullah & Morris, 2010; Bowles,
Babcock, & McGinn, 2005), indicating women’s aversion to
competitiveness and assertiveness does not extend to altruistic
forms. This allowance of prosocial manifestations of female
assertiveness suggests women are not penalized when their
agentic behavior is perceived as kind, a point explored further
in the following section.
The backlash agentic and competitive women receive from
their same-sex peers may also contribute to well-documented
pattern of co-rumination within female friendships. Co-rumi-
nation is characterized by excessive discussions and rehashing
of problems, speculation about the sources of the issues, and
mutual expression of negative emotions, often in dyadic con-
texts (Rose, 2002). A wide body of evidence reveals co-rumi-
nation is much more characteristic of female than male friend-
ships (Calmes & Roberts, 2008; Rose, 2002; Rose, Carlson, &
Waller, 2007; Stone, Hankin, Gibb, & Abela, 2011). Given the
pattern of female aversion to same-sex peers’ self-promotion
and assertiveness, it is possible these types of problem-focused
discussions serve to signal one is not a threat, not status-striving,
and not excelling. Indeed, Vigil (2009) argued women use vul-
nerability displays to signal affiliation rather than threat. That is,
women may co-ruminate to emphasize their failures, problems,
and shortcomings to one another, thereby minimizing feelings
of competition within their friendships. If so, women should
prefer female expressions of vulnerability over expressions of
confidence, competitiveness, or success (Hypothesis 2, see
Table1). Although this prediction has yet to be tested directly,
research reveals co-rumination is associated with increased
friendship closeness and satisfaction (Calmes & Roberts, 2008;
Rose, 2002), which is the opposite pattern of overt competitive-
ness (Schneider etal., 2005; Hibbard & Buhrmester, 2010).
This pattern provides indirect support that emphasizing one’s
setbacks rather than successes enhances female friendships.
Indeed, in Rudman’s (1998) investigation, women especially
preferred the female self-effacer over the self-promoter. Such
a preference for self-effacement may also explain the notable
sex difference in self-entitlement and narcissism, whereby men
are continually found to be more entitled and narcissistic than
women (Grijalva etal., 2015; Stronge, Milojev, & Sibley, 2018).
Of note, meta-analyses reveal men and women do not differ in
vulnerable narcissism, characterized by feelings of shame and
inadequacy, leading to defensive responses toward and a self-
indulgent disregard for others (Grijalva etal., 2015). Although
men generally score higher in narcissism than women, this sex
difference is eliminated with this insecure and neurotic form.
That women score just as high as men in vulnerable narcis-
sism, but not grandiose narcissism, is consistent with the pattern
of female encouragement of expressions of vulnerability and
negative emotions, but not superiority.
Taken as a whole, these findings reveal women may penal-
ize one another for their successes, assertiveness, and com-
petition, while possibly encouraging expressions of failure or
vulnerability. Such a pattern is worth taking seriously for those
attempting to explain sex differences in competitiveness, asser-
tiveness, entitlement, leadership styles, or negotiation. Many
scholars have attributed these discrepancies to men’s sexism or
patriarchal values, with much less attention paid to same-sex
peers. It is possible that our female ancestors’ journey to secure
long-term reciprocal exchange partnerships has shaped modern
same-sex relationships, leading women to prefer humility and
equality over competition and status disparities.
Female Preference forKindness
If our female ancestors, often surrounded by non-kin, hoped to
secure ongoing cooperative relationships with other women,
one cue they might have prioritized in potential partners is altru-
ism or kindness. An aversion to competitiveness might help
women avoid selfish exchange partners, but an active preference
for kindness would motivate women to secure relationships
with generous reciprocators. All things held equal, a kind or
altruistic individual is more likely to engage in fair or generous
exchanges and more likely to forgive defections than a cruel
or selfish individual (Axelrod, 1984; Gintis, 2000). Although
kindness would certainly be relevant to the generosity and suc-
cess of male relationships as well, ancestral men may have more
strongly prioritized other traits (e.g., courage, strength, domi-
nance) in their same-sex peers if they were often involved in
aggressive coalitionary warfare (Vandello, Cohen, & Ransom,
2008; Winegard etal., 2016). Thus, one might predict the sex
difference in the prioritization of same-sex friends’ kindness is
a matter of degree, rather than kind.
Voluminous data suggest women strongly prioritize kind-
ness in their same-sex friendships. Women list kindness as the
trait most desirable in a same-sex friend (Vigil, 2007). Com-
pared to boys and men, girls and women hold higher expec-
tations of their friends overall, but especially for trust and
empathic understanding (Hall, 2011; MacEvoy, Papadakis,
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Fedigan, & Ash, 2016). This pattern emerges early in develop-
ment, with girls more strongly attending to and preferentially
forming friendships based on kindness than boys (Benenson,
1990). Young girls reported a stronger desire than boys to pro-
vide prosocial support and reassurance to a hypothetical friend
in need (Rose & Asher, 2004). Moreover, girls’ endorsement
of these supportive goals was associated with actual friend-
ship patterns, such that girls who reported they would blame
or ignore a struggling peer had fewer friends than girls who
espoused prosocial goals (Rose & Asher, 2004). Indeed, antiso-
cial girls cultivate fewer same-sex friendships than kinder girls,
a pattern less pronounced among boys (Poulin & Pedersen,
2007). In an ethnography of high schoolers, Merten (1997)
noted how the standards for kindness are especially high for
popular girls, who might otherwise be perceived as threats:
“Popular girls enhanced their chances for continued popularity
by being nice… however…a girl could not be nice only when
she felt like it or when it served her purpose, she had to be con-
sistently nice to everyone—supernice” (p. 188).
This female preference for kindness is supported by data
showing that across the lifespan, females are less tolerant than
males of friendship transgressions (Dunbar & Machin, 2014;
Felmlee & Muraco, 2009; Felmlee etal., 2012; MacEvoy &
Asher, 2012; Vigil, 2007). This intolerance for transgressions
may at least partially explain why women, compared to men,
are more likely to offer apologies for their own misdeeds and
perceive their misdeeds as more harmful (Schumann & Ross,
2010). That is, these apologies may help women assuage
assumptions that their transgressions signal cruelty. Altogether,
these data suggest women show a robust preference for kind
same-sex friends, a pattern consistent with women’s need to
discern generous and forgiving exchange partners.
Although a woman’s kindness would generally predict
whether she is a generous and forgiving exchange partner over-
all, possessing this trait does not necessarily indicate to whom
she is generous or forgiving (Barakzai & Shaw, 2018). Rather,
interpersonal commitment and loyalty more reliably signal the
direction and endurance of one’s altruism (Tooby & Cosmides,
1996). If ancestral women were often surrounded by unrelated
individuals, including their husbands’ family, then they may
have needed to ascertain which individuals were loyal to them
personally to predict with whom to form cooperative endeavors
(Vigil, 2009). For example, a woman who is generally kind
to family members does not necessarily translate to kindness
toward unrelated women. Indeed, as noted above, mothers-in-
law often make demarcations between their biological kin and
their daughters-in-law (Rittenour & Soliz, 2009). Thus, women
may prioritize cues of interpersonal loyalty when establishing
same-sex friendships because across history, female ancestors
needed to discern which of the local unrelated women would
prove to be fair, generous, and enduring exchange partners.
To the extent that our male ancestors were often surrounded
by kin (whom they could more readily trust) and often involved
in intergroup conflict, men may instead prioritize same-sex
peers’ loyalty to the entire in-group as opposed to loyalty to
a particular dyadic relationship (Krems, Williams, Kenrick,
& Aktipis, 2020). Men’s success on the battlefield was likely
less strongly predicted by whether men formed strong dyadic
commitments to one another than their loyalty to the group as a
whole. For example, if a man were not particularly committed
to one particular group member, his ambivalence would less
strongly risk the entire group’s defeat than if he committed
treason and revealed the group’s strategy to an enemy tribe.
A man unwilling to fight on behalf of his group or guard the
group’s strategies risked death for every group member. Inter-
personal distrust among individual group members may have
been disruptive, but did not risk defeat to the extent treason did.
Thus, a same-sex peer’s disloyalty to the larger coalition was
relatively more consequential to our male versus female ances-
tors’ survival and inclusive fitness across history.
Alternatively, interpersonal defection by a female peer
may have been quite costly for our female ancestors. Con-
sider reputational competition as one example. If a female
peer exposed a woman’s sexual infidelity, this disclosure may
have cost the adulterous woman her relationship, support for
her children, or even her life (Apostolou, 2012; Betzig, 1989).
If male (versus female) infidelity was less strongly penalized
across history, then such a disclosure may have less severely
compromised ancestral men’s relationships, resource access,
or survival, compared to ancestral women. Another demon-
strative example of the costs of female interpersonal defection
is childcare. To the degree that women assisted one another in
rearing children, then one defection, in the form of negligence
or vengeful spite may have severely jeopardized the health or
life of a woman’s child. For example, among the Dogon peo-
ple, “In addition to accusations of neglect and mistreatment, it
was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each
other’s children” (Strassmann, 1997, p. 693). These claims
suggest female romantic rivalry can, in some cases, translate
into children’s suffering. Although extreme, these examples
convey the immensely harmful consequences faced by female
ancestors who failed to secure same-sex peers’ loyalty. Beyond
predicting the likelihood of ongoing cooperative exchanges,
attending vigilantly to cues of loyalty may have spared women
from reputational defamation, relationship dissolution, or harm
to their children.
To ward off the potentially severe costs imposed by female
peers’ defection, women may strive to ascertain cues of one
another’s interpersonal loyalty or devotion when forming same-
sex alliances. Although women show higher overall expecta-
tions for their friendships than do men, women especially
prioritize trust, loyalty, and commitment (Hall, 2011). When
faced with a tradeoff between friendship quantity and intimacy,
women are more likely than men to prioritize intimacy with a
few friends (Vigil, 2007). Among adolescents, girls have more
reciprocated friendships than do boys (Hawley, Little, & Card,
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2007). Trust even plays a role in online relationships; female
bloggers’ information sharing is more strongly predicted by
trust than male bloggers’ information sharing (Chai, Das, &
Rao, 2011). Indeed, women are more likely than men to ques-
tion a friendship when a same-sex peer fails to display signs of
devotion (Reynolds & Palmer-hague, 2020). Compared to men,
women are more disapproving of a friend who cancels plans
with them, fails to stand up for them, or discloses their secrets
(Felmlee etal., 2012), suggesting a heightened vigilance to cues
of disloyalty. Moreover, women are more willing than men to
end a friendship with someone who spread a rumor about them
(Vigil, 2007), supporting that ascertaining loyalty is especially
consequential for female reputational competition.
This need to ascertain peers’ loyalty may help explain wom-
en’s greater disclosure of their vulnerabilities and personal infor-
mation within their friendships (Vigil, 2007). These intimate dis-
closures may function as commitment-ensuring devices because
they increase one’s vulnerability to the disclosure partner, thereby
raising the costs of future defection (Hess, 2006; Shackelford &
Buss, 1996). As exemplified in one ethnography of Australian
female adolescents, “Much was invested in terms of personal
intimacies and now each party to a disagreement has a consider-
able amount of ‘dirt’ on the other, ready to be shared with peers”
(Owens etal., 2000, p. 80). With such reputational risks imposed
on disclosers, expressing one’s personal information may hon-
estly signal loyalty to listeners (Zahavi, 1975).
Supporting that female disclosures signal interpersonal com-
mitment, compared to men, women attribute more disloyalty
to friends unwilling to divulge personal information (Felmlee
etal., 2012; Shackelford & Buss, 1996). Such a pattern may sug-
gest women rely on intimate disclosures, perhaps particularly
reputation-harming ones, as indices of female friends’ devotion
to the friendship. All else equal, the more intimate the disclo-
sure, the higher the costs of future defection (Zahavi, 1975).
Thus, intimate disclosures in female friendships may serve
multiple purposes. First, they may signal one’s commitment
to the friendship by raising the costs of defection (Hess, 2006).
Second, they may be used as an offering to induce a friend’s
disclosure, thereby indirectly assessing a friend’s commitment
to the friendship. Whether women disclose personal informa-
tion strategically to evoke similar disclosures from same-sex
friends is an open question for future research (Hypothesis
3, see Table1). If disclosures function in this commitment-
ensuring manner, women should feel distressed when a same-
sex friend fails to match their own disclosure with an equally
personal one (Hypothesis 3a). Likewise, women might also
feel compelled to self-disclose following a friend’s disclosure,
but particularly those that are quite personal (Hypothesis 3b).
This logic may also be leveraged toward further understand-
ing girls’ and women’s tendency to engage in co-rumination
(Rose, 2002). As noted above, these conversations emphasize
one’s issues or vulnerabilities and are more common among
female than male friendships (e.g., Rose etal., 2007). Although
such discussions may effectively signal one is not especially
competitive or status-striving, they may also deepen feelings
of commitment between female partners. Indeed, female friend
pairs engaging in co-rumination show alignment of their hor-
monal stress response systems, suggesting expressions of vul-
nerabilities increases physiological coordination among women
(Rankin, Swearingen-Stanborough, Granger, & Byrd-Craven,
2018). That is, a woman’s suffering is experienced physiologi-
cally by her co-rumination partner, honestly signaling empa-
thy and interest alignment. Whether this co-rumination also
enhances female friends’ coordination of competitive behav-
iors, such as leveraging reputational attacks or provisioning of
reputational defense, is an open question for future research
(Hypothesis 4, see Table1).
Perhaps the most manifest evidence of women’s concern
with friends’ interpersonal loyalty is the pattern of friendship
jealousy. Compared to male children and adolescents, girls
report stronger jealousy over their friends’ relationships with
others along with heightened monitoring of their friendships
(Culotta & Goldstein, 2008; Deutz, Lansu, & Cillessen, 2015;
Lavallee & Parker, 2009; Parker, Low, Walker, & Gamm,
2005). A similar pattern is observed among adults, with women
feeling immense jealousy about their best friends’ forming a
new, and potentially more intimate relationship with a same-
sex peer (Krems etal., 2020). These concerns are to some
degree rational given that female friendships are characterized
by mutual intimate disclosure. A friend’s abandonment could
result in one’s personal secrets being divulged and possible rep-
utational ruin. Indeed, Merten (1999) observed among female
adolescents, “Socially ambitious girls were not only inclined to
leave current friends for more popular girls but also often used a
previous friend’s secrets as ‘gifts’ to their new friends” (p. 123).
Taken together, this body of work suggests female friend-
ship formation centers heavily around cues of kindness and
interpersonal commitment. Women preferentially form and
maintain cooperative relationships with same-sex peers who
exhibit cues of kindness and personal devotion to themselves
(Reynolds & Palmer-hague, 2020). Such heightened prefer-
ences for prosociality and loyalty suggest interpersonal defec-
tion may have been especially costly to our female, compared
to male, ancestors. These patterns also suggest presumptions
of interpersonal defection may corrode female friendships, per-
haps contributing to the greater vulnerability of female (ver-
sus male) friendships to dissolution (Benenson etal., 2009;
Benenson & Christakos, 2003). If so, then interventions aimed
at promoting female cooperation and friendship may strategi-
cally emphasize forgiveness or directing attention to the many
ways a female ally has demonstrated commitment and loyalty,
instead of tracking the various ways she has signaled defection
(Hypothesis 5, see Table1).
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Integration ofCompetitive andCooperative
The high priority women place on kindness, commitment, and
humility when evaluating same-sex peers presents a dilemma
for those competing for high-quality romantic partners.
Although the benefits to securing resource-holding, investing,
and committed romantic partners are highly consequential
for women’s own and children’s life outcomes (Geary, 2000),
women who display overt cues of competitiveness, status-striv-
ing, or aggression are likely met with hostility or ostracism from
same-sex peers. Manifestly competitive women may form few
same-sex alliances and thus, fall vulnerable to women’s reputa-
tional attacks (Hess & Hagen, 2002), as well as the vicissitudes
of life (Taylor etal., 2000). Thus, the advantages accrued from
overt female intrasexual mating rivalry could be severely under-
mined by same-sex peers’ ostracism or harassment (Hypothesis
6, see Table1).
The confluence of these incentives to both compete with
other women for high-quality romantic partners and to cooper-
ate may have generated female behavioral patterns that achieve
both goals simultaneously. Although the goals of same-sex
cooperation and competition appear superficially oppositional,
women who enacted strategies that achieved both would reap
the benefits of male investment and provisioning along with
female cooperation and support.
One way to compete intrasexually without harming per-
ceptions of one’s kindness is to guise one’s competition as
prosociality. This could be achieved, for example, by the fram-
ing of one’s gossip. As outlined above, women use gossip to
undermine romantic rivals’ reputations, selectively transmitting
information that harms their desirability as social and romantic
partners (Reynolds etal., 2018). However, many individuals,
but women especially, disapprove of gossip, and particularly
gossip that is overtly negative, self-serving, or competitively
motivated (Farley, 2011; Fisher etal., 2010; Hess & Hagen,
2006b; Turner, Mazur, Wendel, & Winslow, 2003). This aver-
sion reveals substantial social costs to women who appear
explicitly malicious when gossiping about rivals.
Female gossipers who instead manage to appear kind, how-
ever, might transmit effectively the same reputation-harming
information about rivals without incurring the penalties of
engaging in gossip (Reynolds, 2018). As Nicholson (2001)
aptly stated, “To be good at malicious gossip requires a high
degree of subtlety and skill. The trick is to appear to be sym-
pathetic to the victim while holding [her] under the waterline
with implicit denigration” (p. 44). As this quote suggests, per-
haps women who appear concerned about gossip targets are
inoculated from the social penalties of expressing competition
or scorn. Consider the following example. One woman (A)
approaches her colleague with information about their mutual
friend, Tammy: “I am so worried about Tammy. She has been
drinking a decent amount lately and I am concerned men might
take advantage of her.” Now assume another women (B) also
approaches her colleague with information about Tammy,
“Tammy has been a drunken fool lately. I am not going to be
surprised when men take advantage of her.” What is noteworthy
about these two statements is they convey identical information
about Tammy. From both, the listener learns Tammy’s alco-
hol consumption is placing her at risk of sexual victimization.
Despite identical content, the framing of each statement likely
drastically shapes perceptions of the two colleagues’ respective
prosociality. This example suggests women who phrase their
gossip as concern or with prosocial motivations may evade
the penalties of appearing competitive or status-striving during
reputational competition. Empirical findings support this asser-
tion; third parties evaluate female gossipers who phrase their
gossip with concern as more trustworthy and more desirable
social or romantic partners, compared to gossipers who convey
the identical information neutrally or with malice (Reynolds,
Although there are social incentives to phrasing gossip with
concern, these sentiments are likely difficult to convey in the
absence of the corresponding emotions (Frank, 1988). That
is, if women experience animosity toward their gossip targets,
expressions of prosocial concern may appear forced, artificial,
or disingenuous. To the extent that female gossip is leveraged to
undermine conspecifics who threaten one’s romantic prospects,
proclamations of concern about these romantic rivals would be
especially challenging to deliver. Indeed, female children and
adults alike are quite sensitive to female gossipers’ competitive
motivations, being more likely than males to attribute speakers
motivations to envy (Hess & Hagen, 2006a; Kuttler, Parker,
& La Greca, 2002). Such skepticism among women suggests
gossipers who feign prosocial concern in the absence of truly
prosocial motivations risk discovery and ostracism.
To best disguise one’s nefarious motivations, one cannot
hold conscious awareness of them altogether (Von Hippel &
Trivers, 2011). That is, a woman who earnestly believes she
is concerned about the welfare of her gossip targets will bet-
ter convince social partners of her beneficence than a woman
who artificially guises her animus as concern. Researchers have
postulated that self-deception functions as the human public
relations system, allowing individuals to convince social part-
ners of their favorable qualities and motivations because the
individuals do not hold conscious awareness of countervailing
information (Krebs & Denton, 1997; Trivers, 2011; Von Hippel
& Trivers, 2011). Self-deception may similarly benefit female
gossipers by allowing them to earnestly couch their gossip in
prosocial terms, without emitting traces of envy, malice, or
competition to listeners.
A wide body of evidence suggests women may be self-
deceived about their competitive or aggressive behaviors and
motivations. In examinations of relational aggression, larger
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sex differences emerge, such that women are more relation-
ally aggressive than men, when using observer reports com-
pared to self-reports (Archer, 2004; Card etal., 2008). This
discrepancy suggests observers more readily detect women’s
relational aggression than do female perpetrators themselves.
Supporting this denial of aggression, Tracy (1991) found in
her qualitative interviews that many women reported victimi-
zation by one another’s competition and gossip, but denied
their own perpetration. This ignorance of one’s aggressive
and competitive motivations may be especially advantageous
during gossip to allow speakers to convey prosocial motiva-
tions. And indeed, compared to men, women report their
gossip conversations are more strongly motivated by concern
rather than reputation defamation (Lyons & Hughes, 2015;
Reynolds, 2018). Such a pattern suggests women may be
unaware of their involvement in gossip and relational aggres-
sion because they earnestly believe they are speaking out of
concern for their targets.
A denial or lack of awareness of nefarious motivations
may be a particularly viable strategy for women, compared to
men. People more readily associate women with victimhood
than perpetration, whereas they show the reverse tendency for
men (Reynolds etal., 2020a). Such a bias suggests it is cog-
nitively easier to detect women’s suffering than intentional
malevolence. This tendency to typecast women as victims
might offer another mechanism by which women can propa-
gate competitive gossip without detection. As noted above,
women are more sensitive than men to same-sex peers’ lack
of cruelty or commitment (Reynolds & Palmer-hague, 2020).
Of note, these violations entail a victim, such that one person
is worse off as a result of another’s actions. Compared to
men, women are more inclined to disclose their victimization
by same-sex friends’ cruelty and commitment violations to
others (Reynolds & Palmer-hague, 2020). Moreover, when
women disclose their victimization to same-sex peers’ vio-
lations (e.g., “Mary insulted me in front of others”), they
transmit reputation-harming information about same-sex
peers without being recognized as overt gossips. That is,
statements divulging another’s victimization (e.g., “Mary
insulted Amanda in front of others”) are more easily recog-
nized as gossip than divulgences of one’s own victimization,
offering a mechanism to reveal peers’ flaws without detec-
tion. These findings suggest women’s sensitivity to same-sex
friends’ transgressions may be doubly advantageous by (1)
avoiding untrustworthy or unreciprocating exchange part-
ners and (2) facilitating statements that effectively malign
rivals without communicating a conscious desire to deni-
grate them. If people more readily recognize women than
men as victims and feel more sympathy for their suffering
(Reynolds etal., 2020a), sharing these first-person victim-
hood narratives should be an especially viable competitive
strategy for women.
However, research suggests women’s self-deception
about their nefarious motivations may extend well beyond
the narrow confines of gossip. In a large meta-analysis of
ethical decision-making, women rated themselves a more
ethical than men, but this sex difference was eliminated when
social desirability bias was controlled (Yang, Ming, Wang,
& Adams, 2017). Across a variety of studies and settings,
compared to men, women show stronger social desirability
biases (Dalton & Ortegren, 2011; Kowalski, Rogoza, Vernon,
& Schermer, 2018; Surbey & McNally, 1997), indicating
a female reluctance to acknowledge antisocial inclinations.
If self-deception helped ancestral women evade the scorn
of same-sex peers, then women should hold less explicit
awareness of motivations that would have harmed unrelated
women’s desires to cooperate with them (Hypothesis 7, see
Table1). For example, in one study, women reported more
favorable explicit attitudes toward female leaders than men,
but held equally negative feelings toward female leaders as
men when measured implicitly (Rudman & Kilianski, 2000).
If discrepancies in status undermined female dyadic coopera-
tion across history, then perhaps women’s negative responses
toward powerful or status-striving peers are not espoused
consciously. The pressures to appear prosocial to secure
same-sex alliances may make sense of this concealment. By
not endorsing these beliefs explicitly, women might avoid
disadvantageous exchange partnerships without emitting
cues they dislike such women.
Other research finds women are more likely than men to
underreport their interest in sexually explicit material (De
Jong, Pieters, & Fox, 2010). If female chastity was highly
valued across history, and if women preferentially disclose
same-sex peers’ sexual information to harm their reputations
(Reynolds etal., 2018), women might hold less conscious
awareness of their sexual desires. Indeed, women’s reports of
their own sexual arousal are only weakly correlated with their
physiological responses (e.g., vaginal blood flow; Chivers,
Seto, Lalumière, Laan, & Grimbos, 2010). Moreover, women
report more regret following casual sex than do men, and
some portion of this regret is due to women’s reputational
concerns (Kennair, Bendixen, & Buss, 2016). This discord-
ance suggests the motivational states promoting women’s
engagement in casual sex diverge from those following the
encounters. Such a disconnect might be useful in protecting
one’s reputation against accusations of promiscuity. These
patterns tentatively support the hypothesis that women will
hold less explicit awareness of motivations that if known,
would harm other women’s cooperative inclinations toward
These arguments suggest sex differences in competitive-
ness, malice, or sexual desire may be overstated in the extant
literature, such that women’s levels have been underestimated.
Future investigations of prurient or antisocial inclinations
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would be wise to corroborate self-report data with behavioral
or physiological measures, incentivized choice, observational
data, and public versus private experimental manipulations.
Altogether, these findings suggest women may guise their
intrasexual competitiveness as prosociality or vulnerability
to evade the social penalties of appearing cruel or competi-
tive. That is, if ancestral women encountered strong incen-
tives to compete for both provisioning and committed mates
as well as advantageous cooperative female allies, women
may have developed strategies, perhaps non-conscious ones,
that facilitated both competitive and cooperative goals. If
self-deception granted women an advantage in securing the
support of same-sex peers because they better concealed anti-
social or competitive inclinations and instead advertised their
prosociality or vulnerability, then self-deception may be an
important characteristic of female intrasexual competition.
That is, the women most likely to outcompete their same-sex
peers for valuable mates, resources, and social partners may
have been the ones who did not realize consciously they were
competing in the first place.
Variation inFemale Intrasexual Competition
Thus far, the current review has presented an overly generalized
picture of female same-sex relationships, relying largely on doc-
umented gender differences to understand female psychology
and behavior. However, ecological context certainly influences
levels of competition, with some environments more likely to
evoke female intrasexual rivalry than others. By understand-
ing the situational predictors of female same-sex competition
(e.g., romantic rivalry, status disparities), hypotheses can be
forwarded to predict the circumstances under which female
intrasexual competition is most likely to manifest. Moreover,
women will not respond monolithically to such contextual fac-
tors, and thus, individual dispositional differences will also
undoubtedly contribute to women’s enactment of competitive
or aggressive strategies. An understanding of this situational
and personological nuance is important both for curtailing over-
generalized gender stereotypes as well as for targeting effica-
cious interventions.
Sex differences in competitiveness vary tremendously across
cultures with disparities ranging from d = .13–.63 (Bönte,
2015). Congruent with the contention that patrilocality con-
strained overt female competition, comparisons of patrilineal
and matrilineal societies suggest women are less competitive
than men in patrilineal contexts, but equally if not more com-
petitive in matrilineal ones (Andersen, Ertac, Gneezy, List, &
Maximiano, 2013; Gneezy, Leonard, & List, 2009). Future
research might therefore examine whether women from socie-
ties characterized by patrilocality rely more heavily on covert
competitive strategies and perhaps exhibit greater self-decep-
tion than women from societies characterized by matrilocal
legacies. To be sure, research from China suggests recent mar-
riage reforms enhancing women’s autonomy (e.g., to divorce
their husbands, participate in the labor force) have augmented
women’s competitiveness (Zhang, 2018). These shifts sug-
gest women’s competition may respond facultatively to cues
of dependency on unrelated women’s approval. That is, when
women can secure resources without reliance on their hus-
band’s families, women may engage in more overt competition.
It is possible that a dependency on same-sex peers for access
to resources or mates may serve as one proximate mechanism
regulating the intensity and overt nature of women’s same-sex
competition. That is, when women’s status or reproductive suc-
cess is highly dependent on the approval of unrelated same-sex
peers, female competition should manifest in more indirect and
covert tactics compared to when women’s status or reproductive
success is relatively unconstrained by same-sex peer approval
(Hypothesis 8, see Table1).
To the extent that female intrasexual competition across his-
tory often centered around securing and preserving romantic
relationships to provide protection and resources to offspring,
then environments characterized by relatively more same-sex
competitors should more strongly evoke competitive impulses
than those characterized by relatively more potential mates.
The operational sex ratio, or the ratio of reproductively viable
women to men, predicts the intensity of female intrasexual
rivalry because it signifies the relative number of competitors
to mates in one’s immediate ecology (Emlen & Oring, 1977).
Indeed, in environments characterized by a higher proportion
of women, women are less likely to secure committed relation-
ships, more likely to divorce, and more likely to be single par-
ents (Gunentag & Secord, 1983; Kruger, Fitzgerald, & Peter-
son, 2010; Kruger, Aiyer, Caldwell, & Zimmerman, 2014). A
similar pattern emerges on college campuses, such that women
in female-skewed (versus male-skewed) campuses perceive
greater difficulty finding desirable romantic partners and feel
more pressured to engage in sex to secure relationships (Uecker
& Regnerus, 2010). This pattern of heightened sexuality is also
manifest around the globe, with female-skewed sex ratios asso-
ciated with heightened levels of casual sex (Schmitt, 2005).
These trends of augmented sexuality and divorce suggest
that when men are in the minority, they can leverage their
dyadic power to gain sexual access without obligations of
commitment or investment. When men do select partners in
these female-biased contexts, they exhibit higher standards,
suggesting few women are likely to possess the attributes to
be selected (Stone, Shackelford, & Buss, 2007). Under such
unfavorable conditions, women’s prospects of securing invest-
ing romantic partners are diminished, intensifying competition
for the few partners inclined toward provisioning. Indeed, in
female-biased sex ratios, women are more likely to poach one
another’s partners, suggesting even established pair bonds are
vulnerable to dissolution (Schmitt, 2004). Given the intensity
of romantic competition when the sex ratio is skewed toward
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women, it is likely that manifestations of female intrasexual
rivalry are also heightened in these contexts, compared to those
in which men are more plentiful. Experimental investigations
support this prediction, such that women behave more aggres-
sively toward physically alluring same-sex peers when they
believe their environments are characterized by relatively more
versus fewer women (Arnocky etal., 2014; Moss & Maner,
2016). Future investigations may therefore examine whether
the operational sex ratios in schools, organizations, and cities
predict the intensity of female competition and the prevalence
of associated tactics, such as defamatory gossip, derogation of
female sexuality, and appearance enhancement (Hypothesis 9,
see Table1).
To the degree that female reliance on male provision-
ing and support is intensified in contexts where men more
strongly contribute to subsistence, then it is possible that
greater male contributions to family income also heighten
intrasexual female rivalry. That is, when women have dimin-
ished access to education, employment, or resources, they
may more vigorously compete for high-earning and com-
mitted partners. This pattern was perhaps especially likely in
colder climates, such as the Inuit, where male meat provision-
ing was often prioritized, intensifying competition among
women for men who were successful hunters (Alexander,
Hoogland, Howard, Noonan, & Sherman, 1979; Lee, 1968).
Supporting these contentions in modernized contexts, disap-
proval of female promiscuity is augmented in settings where
women depend heavily on men financially (Price etal., 2014).
Future research might profit from examining whether cultures
characterized by a heavy historical (or current) female reli-
ance on male provisioning demonstrate heightened levels of
female intrasexual competition, gossip, or body image con-
cerns (Hypothesis 10, see Table1).
Beyond these ecological predictors, dispositional differ-
ences among women also contribute to their intrasexual com-
petition. Highly competitive women report being more likely
to besmirch the reputation of their same-sex peers (Reynolds
etal., 2018). Women inclined toward Machiavellianism take
delight in their same-sex peers’ failure in appearance or roman-
tic domains (Abell & Brewer, 2018). Women who are sexually
open, have strong libidos, and who engage in social compari-
sons are especially intrasexually competitive (Buunk & Fisher,
2009; Semenyna, Vasey, & Honey, 2019). Intriguingly, these
patterns suggest the women most likely to be victimized by
other women’s scorn and gossip—sexualized, competitive, or
malicious women— may also be the ones most inclined to
respond with reputational denigration and competition. Future
research may therefore examine whether the well-documented
pattern of victim/offender overlap found in the criminology
literature (e.g., Barnes & Beaver, 2012) extends to women’s
relational aggression and intrasexual romantic rivalry, such
that perpetrators are more likely to also be victims and vice
versa (Hypothesis 11, see Table1).
Limitations andFuture Directions
The current review focused nearly entirely on heterosexual
women, for whom the patterns of romantic rivalry are most
straightforward. However, it would be worthwhile to examine
how non-heterosexual women respond to one another, given
that same-sex peers are both romantic rivals and potential
mates. Preliminary studies suggest that compared to heterosex-
ual women, lesbians report lower levels of female-typical intra-
sexual competition and mate retention behaviors (Semenyna
etal., 2019; VanderLaan & Vasey, 2008), but also heightened
jealousy toward attractive romantic rivals (Dijsktra & Buunk,
2002). These patterns are somewhat paradoxical, suggesting
more work is needed to understand the predictors and mani-
festations of lesbian women’s romantic rivalry. Intriguingly,
some evidence suggests the women most inclined toward intra-
sexual rivalry are “mostly” rather than exclusively heterosex-
ual (Semenyna etal., 2019), raising the possibility that these
slightly ambiphilic women may also be the preferred targets
of other women’s scorn, ostracism, and gossip. The ultimate
explanation behind moderately bisexual women’s heightened
intrasexual competitiveness has yet to be fully understood and
warrants further examination.
This review is also limited by its emphasis on women’s com-
petition to attract and secure romantic relationships (as well as
advantageous female allies). Understanding whether and how
women compete following the birth of their first child is a rich
and open area for future study (Fisher & Moule, 2013). It is
possible that following reproduction, women compete with one
another through their children, or on behalf of their children’s
interests. Indeed, if some portion of women’s competition is
aimed at obtaining desirable partnerships, then variation in off-
spring quality may be one consequential outcome of this com-
petition (Stockley & Bro-Jørgensen, 2011). For example, dur-
ing the Ottoman Empire, women could dramatically enhance
both their own and their children’s life circumstances by siring
the son of a sultan (Peirce, 1993), suggesting large payoffs to
reproducing with high-status partners. Thus, a multi-generation
approach may be required to appreciate fully the reproductive
consequences of women’s competitive efforts.
Supporting that women compete on behalf of their children,
experiments reveal women become equally competitive as men
when the prospective rewards benefit one’s children (Cassar,
Wordofa, & Zhang, 2016). Cross-cultural investigations sug-
gest this form of competition is common among co-wives,
who compete for their children to receive disproportionate
allotments of husbands’ resources and attention (Jankowiak,
Sudakov, & Wilreker, 2005). Heightened oxytocin levels during
breastfeeding may exacerbate women’s aggressive tendencies
(Hahn-Holbrook, Holt-Lunstad, Holbrook, Coyne, & Lawson,
2011), perhaps to facilitate protection of children during espe-
cially vulnerable life stages. Other evidence suggests children’s
interests shape mothers’ condemnation of female sexuality.
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Muslim mothers with a higher number of sons more strongly
support female veiling for all women (Blake, Fourati, & Brooks,
2018). This tendency suggests mothers become more restrictive
toward female sexuality when they have more sons to consider,
including those sons’ paternity concerns. Similarly, among the
Tsimane, an indigenous Bolivian group, mothers compete to
ensure children marry desirable partners (Rucas etal., 2012).
Indirect evidence tentatively suggests women may also
compete to advertise their children’s relative need. For exam-
ple, the highly skewed sex ratio (97% female) in Munchausen
syndrome by proxy, a psychiatric disorder whereby indi-
viduals—most often mothers—feign the illness of a child,
excessively seek medical treatment, and enjoy praise for their
martyrdom (Yates & Bass, 2017), suggests this mental illness
may represent an extreme and pathological manifestation of
otherwise adaptive female tendencies (Brüne, 2002). If so,
then mothers, even absent this pathology, may compete to
advertise the relative need of their children to extract sym-
pathy and resources, or perhaps, to signal how much they
have sacrificed on behalf of their children. These behaviors
may not be recognized as competitive if women are more
tolerant of seemingly altruistic forms of female competition
(Amanatullah & Morris, 2010; Bowles etal., 2005). Alto-
gether, these findings seductively hint that the dynamics of
maternal intrasexual competition are likely to be a fruitful
area of future study.
A large body of research, both empirical and qualitative,
unveils a coherent pattern of female same-sex competition.
The challenges faced by our female ancestors, who were
forced to rely on male provisioning to support and protect
their children, leave traces in modern-day female relation-
ships. Women distrust and defame those who infringe upon
their romantic prospects, leading to the denigration and mis-
treatment of those who are sexually unrestrained or physi-
cally attractive. Romantic competition not only shapes how
women respond to one another, but also how they feel about
themselves, exacerbating body image concerns. However,
women also selectively cooperate and form intimate bonds
with same-sex peers who displays signs of kindness, humil-
ity, and interpersonal commitment, perhaps because patrilo-
cal traditions incentivized female ancestors to actively foster
and maintain cooperative relationships with nearby unre-
lated women. The confluence of these historical pressures
for women to both compete and cooperate with one another
may have favored strategies that facilitate both goals, such as
the concealment of nefarious and competitive motivations,
perhaps even from women themselves.
If one’s goal is to promote female cooperation or reduce
manifestations of female competition (e.g., bullying, Queen
Bee Syndrome, dislike of female leaders), a careful consid-
eration of the particular obstacles recurrently encountered
by our female ancestors may be illuminative. The patterns
uncovered here suggest efficacious interventions will target
competitive women, who are likely both the perpetrators and
victims of intrasexual relational aggression. To reduce feel-
ings of female rivalry, interventions might minimize cues of
romantic threat such as through deemphasizing the pursuit of
romantic partnerships, exposing women to male-biased sex
ratios, or limiting exposure to physically attractive and sexu-
ally open female peers from social media. To promote female
friendships, it might be helpful to encourage forgiveness of
friends’ presumed defections by recalling past displays of
loyalty. To reduce the prevalence of gossip, interventions
might highlight that gossip does not need to be maliciously
motivated to defame targets and thereby encourage women to
reflect on whether their disclosures truly benefit their targets.
At minimum, a nuanced understanding of the predictors and
manifestations of female intrasexual competition and coop-
eration allows women to make informed decisions about their
treatment of same-sex peers.
This review opened with Linda Tripp’s disclosure of
Monica Lewinski’s sexual dalliances to FBI officials. Linda
earnestly protested that her revelations were patriotically
rather than maliciously motivated (Andrews-Dryer, 2018).
However, her transmission of Monica’s reputation-damaging
information followed a strikingly similar pattern to that emer-
gent throughout the female competition and victimization
literature. This body of work suggests women selectively
divulge same-sex peers’ damaging, but especially sexual,
information particularly when those peers leverage their
physical attractiveness or sexuality to gain male attention or
status. Nonetheless, the patterns of heightened female social
desirability and endorsement of benevolent gossip motiva-
tions also suggest Linda may have earnestly believed she was
concerned about Monica’s welfare. Monica’s final procla-
mation to the grand jurors, “I hate Linda Tripp,” serves as a
powerful reminder that the benevolent intentions of female
gossipers are no recompense to their victims, who must suffer
the resultant reputational tarnish.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest The author declares that she has no conflict of in-
Ethical Approval This article does not contain any studies with human
participants or animals performed by any of the authors.
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