Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches

After nearly twenty years of teaching gender studies at a community college, I've got a little saying that elicits knowing smiles whenever I share it around campus: "sisterhood is easier in winter." I'm referring to the reality that when the weather is cold (or as cold as it gets in Southern California) and my students are in sweaters and jeans, there's considerably less intra-female hostility in my classrooms than when the weather turns warm.

I've seen it happen a hundred times. On a hot day, a young woman arrives late to class. She's wearing short shorts or a miniskirt, perhaps with a sleeveless, low-cut top. Students turn to stare as she walks in, and on more than one occasion, I've heard low murmurs of feminine disapproval from the back of the classroom. Sometimes you can catch the sotto voce whispers: "Who does she think she is?" "What a slut." Or my favorite, "This is school, not a nightclub." A few of the male students seem on the verge of drooling. Some students watch me carefully, to see if I'm checking out their scantily-clad classmate. Meanwhile, the object of all the judgment sits stiffly, trying to pretend she's impervious to all the animus coming her way.

A new Canadian study finds that it's not just my students: many young women really are more likely to become judgmental about and hostile towards their female peers when those peers are wearing "sexier" clothing. As reported in the current edition of research journal Aggressive Behavior, researchers — using dozens of Toronto-area female college students as subjects — essentially replicated the experience I see so often in my classroom. When the subjects were exposed to a young conservatively dressed woman, they barely noticed her. But when the researchers' confederate entered the room wearing revealing clothing, she drew intense hostility. The researchers rated the responses on a "bitchiness" scale.

One woman implied that the [woman] was dressed to have sex with one of her professors and another said that the confederate's ‘‘boobs were about to pop out''. Importantly, all comments about the confederate were made after she left the room with one exception. One woman said ‘‘What the fuck is that?'' directly to the [revealingly-dressed woman] after blatantly looking her up and down while showing disgust.

Presumably that last response topped the "bitchy" chart. Of course, a little of the investigators' own "bitchiness" seems to slip through. Writing about the risks of having the subjects figure out that they were taking part in a study, the authors assure us that while other women often "dress provocatively in a university context," serious "research assistants would likely not be dressed in such a sexy manner." In other words: our deception worked because everyone knows only airheads wear miniskirts.

The findings aren't astonishing. What is disturbing (besides the unconscious prejudices of the authors) is the degree to which the researchers minimize men's role in driving "bitchiness" and judgmentalism among young women. They note, for example, that the subjects reported that they were less likely to consider befriending the "sexy" confederate. The reason?

We suspect that women who appear sexually available are not perceived as ‘‘safe'' friends — they are expected to be mate poachers and they likely devalue a person's mate value (guilty by association).

That may accurately describe a perception, but the researchers completely miss the root cause of this intra-female competitiveness: the widespread belief that men lack sexual self-control. Several times in the discussion section of the study, the investigators cite research or repeat their own hypotheses that "women are threatened by, disapprove of, and punish women who appear and/or act promiscuous." But that "threat" only exists because of the nearly-universal acceptance of the idea that men are hardwired for infidelity and will inevitably cheat on their mates if given a chance.

As this study makes clear, women still police other women's sexuality. It reminds us too of what we already know: that policing does tangible damage to women's relationships with other women. Few things do more to fray the already tenuous bonds of sisterhood. But what this study (and so many others before it) miss is the obvious point that this competitive "bitchiness" towards other women rests on the assumption that men are so unreliable that there's no point in trying to "police" their behavior. If women believed that men had the power to resist sexual temptation, if they believed that male infidelity was the result of a choice rather than a biological inevitability, then women wouldn't feel nearly as threatened by cleavage.

This "myth of male weakness" outsources men's sexual self-control to women. For decades now, junk science has foisted the "caveman mystique" onto us, insisting that testosterone, Y chromosomes, and evolution trump the willpower and empathy of even the most well-intentioned dude. We're hardwired to be promiscuous, hardwired to stare at nubile young women, and hardwired to cheat if given half a chance. Ignoring the reality that women have their own libidos (and their own demonstrable propensity to stray), the male myth advises women to accept men for the perpetual adolescents we are. So women need to control those whom the myth promises are within their power to influence: other women. Women learn to slut-shame and ostracize the miniskirt-wearers whom they see as sexual rivals; men get let off the proverbial hook.

Bitchiness (at least as defined by this study) is rooted in the same set of beliefs as the requirement in other parts of the world where women wear burqas. We demand that women cover up to protect men from temptation because we don't believe that men are capable of self-control. We also pressure women to cover up as a sign of solidarity with other women; modesty is, as this research reminds us, promoted as currency for buying female friendship. By that calculus, revealing clothing gets interpreted as a sign of hostility towards other women. The "slut" is hated not just because she attracts male attention, but because she refuses to play by the "rules" that are supposed to keep women safe.

It's not news that women are socialized to be competitive with each other. It's not news that, as my students remind me, sisterhood is easier in winter. And it will continue to be the same old news until we name the real root of the problem: our collective refusal to believe that men are capable of being strong, responsible, reliable adults.


Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Image via Luba V Nel/Shutterstock.