Recently, the #MeToo movement has shown us that women can support each other by the millions. But that support doesn’t always happen. Often women are in competition with each other. Unlike the violence that men engage in when the demons of their sex take hold, the aggression that women show towards each other is not so easily (and publicly) understood.
I could define for you what female intrasexual competition is, but I have stories instead. These are chosen from my life and are as raw and disturbing as the damage that female (I’m a woman) intrasexual competition can inflict. If you are a woman, you will probably have such stories of your own. But if you are anything like me, you may not realize when female intrasexual competition is occurring. If you are a man, these stories involve you, as well, as women who compete with each other are often doing so for your attention, affection, and gaze.
With that, here are some examples. With each I have disguised identities (using pseudonyms and mixing up the chronology of the events), as my goal isn’t to accuse but to explore the fraught terrain that many women (and men) experience but don’t have words for. I hope you will see the pattern.
“Why are you crying? It’s your fault.”
Long before their Chevron gas station failed, at the height of my father’s achievement, he and my mother fought terribly. Nightly screaming and the shattering of Arcadian doors and the glass to our oven punctuate my memory. My mother wanted his affection, but Dad wasn’t satisfied with his life. I don’t think his dissatisfaction was about her. Rather, I think my father feared his life would never amount to more than running a gas station, an honest way to earn a living but an intellectually deadening endeavor. And my mother provided no source of imaginative comfort, despite ability.
I later learned Dad was having an affair with a bartender, a relationship that corresponded with the timing of my parents’ loudest fights. I think he’d have divorced my mom and sought out new prospects were it not for me and my sister. I was named after him. One day, I heard my mother talking on the phone, probably to her mother. Mom said, “If he and I get a divorce, Charlie will get Charleen. I’ll take Leanne.”
She knew I could hear her, being steps away in the kitchen. And she wasn’t lying about giving me to Dad. I had a bit of his world she didn’t. From the time I could remember, my relationship with him was intellectual. He taught me math before I could read and write. I used to do multiplication in my head to fall asleep (I didn’t just count sheep — I multiplied them). And I’d come to their bedroom at night and sit next to him to watch shows where lions took down gazelles. Dad loved the natural world. Neither my sister nor my mother had this bond with him.
On the night he’d throw me against wall, as his feet raged into my curled up body, my mother and sister watched with what I can image was a perverse sense of justice.
“Why are you crying? It’s your fault,” said my mother, circa 1994. After a few more kicks, my father yelled: “Get out before I kill you. And once you go, you can never come back.” Through the tears and chaos I saw a lightning-fast moment of regret in his chocolate-brown eyes. But I did go. Picked myself up. He wouldn’t let me take anything with me, and so I left the house — shaking, injured, and on foot, and walked aimlessly distraught into the cold desert night. Leanne later told me everything changed once I was gone. She felt like she had (his) attention for the first time.
“… you are naked and wearing red lipstick.”
Once upon a time, a female colleague more senior than me who, like me, at the time, worked in the department her partner ran, had some choice words about my appearance. She said she and others were “shocked” by my chosen public-profile picture, the one I had been using online for virtually everything. I said I loved the photo and chose it because it brought out my best features: my personality and collar bones. In it, I was smiling — a rare event when a camera is pointed at my face. Her response: “I don’t think you know what people are thinking of you (or maybe you do): you are naked and wearing red lipstick.” Regarding her claims, first, I wasn’t naked — the photo was a close-up shot of my shoulders and head, while wearing a sleeveless dress I’d worn to a wedding (out of sight in the photo). Second, my conservative, 1950’s-styled Mormon grandmother wore red lipstick every time she left the house.
Would my more senior female colleague have had the same response if her male partner were not the boss? Did she engage in gossip and the framing of me as a whore (naked and wearing red lipstick) to hurt my chances of social success within the workplace and prevent her mate from desiring me? It seems possible. With her indirect act of (veiled) aggression, she communicated that my character was inferior, worthy of a scarlet letter, disparaging my potential mate-value and reputation as a scientist. Later, this became more apparent when she said “the department does not exist for your career advancement” — another veiled speech act, this time implying it was in my best interest to leave. As a result, I turned down an interview for a grant I had written that would have kept me in the department. I believe my supervisor was pleased; she won the battle for her territory.
All about Sam
Long ago, the then head of the governmental genetics screening program (let’s call him “Sam”) hired me for my mind, despite my not having any formal training in genetics at the time (I had a master’s degree, as did Sam, but neither of us had degrees in genetics). I owe Sam the life I have today; I wouldn’t be a scientist if he hadn’t seen beyond the typical credentials. Naturally, I was fond of him.
Sam had worked for over 20 years with Sarah, who was our genetic specialist. After Sarah made a match between me and a local doctor (someone I was subsequently hung up on for eight self-torturing, emotionally tumultuous years), and after I decided I didn’t want to share the details of my embarrassing sex life with her (and it was humiliating — the man never wanted intercourse), Sarah placed an anonymous advert in my work mail for bipolar medication. She then denied doing it and told Sam I’d framed her. I demanded an internet records search. Reluctantly, Sam instructed IT to do so. The conclusion: the ad was printed from Sarah’s work computer on a day I wasn’t in the office. Sarah was given a letter of reprimand — not from Sam but from a higher-up official in Olympia — saying her behavior was unbecoming of anyone in public health. The letter warned that if she did anything like it again, she would be fired.
I suspect my entry into the department supplanted / threatened the emotional fidelity Sarah had with Sam, a working relationship that was as long and as stable as a marriage that sees babies grow into adults. There were rumors — likely started by Sarah — that I was sleeping with Sam. I wasn’t (just as I wasn’t naked in the online photo and my father beating me wasn’t my fault). The doctor Sarah set me up with — who was friends with Sarah — even asked: “Well, are you sleeping with Sam?”
I remained in touch with Sam after leaving the position to start graduate school, for which Sam was my principal reference. He died from brain cancer while I was completing my doctorate, and I didn’t know. I wrote him after I defended my dissertation, while on a plane to Europe. His wife got the email and kindly wrote back, telling me how proud he would have been.
Would Sarah have done what she did were it not for Sam?
In graduate school, I had three friends (Tom, Milo, and Anita). We all worked for the same institution and would get together for drinks, and, as it was legal, an occasional joint (I mostly refrained, disliking the discombobulating effect). Milo, a handsome man, had a girlfriend in Germany, but that didn’t stop Anita and I from fantasizing about him when Tom and Milo were not around. One evening when the guys had gone home, in her apartment, Anita confided in me that she liked Milo. In other words, “Back off, Charleen; he’s mine.” She said she believed it was only a matter of a few more joints before they’d inevitably hook up. Regarding Milo’s girlfriend, Anita remarked: “She’s not that attractive, and besides, she’s far away.”
Then an evening came when I was alone with the guys. This time in Tom’s apartment. Tom and Milo recounted the events from the night before, a story featuring Anita, her gorgeous curly hair (even I wanted to touch her hair), and her skirt, which had, apparently, gotten her in trouble. The three of them had been in a taxi together, and Anita, having had too much to drink, had been sitting with her legs open enough that the attention of all inside the cab was drawn to what was between them. Milo instructed Anita to cover up, which made Anita angry. When the taxi stopped, their argument escalated into Anita storming off without them, leaving them to stew about her and her skirt.
The next night, the skirt scene was all the guys could talk about. After about an hour of hearing about how free Anita was with (what lay beneath) her skirt, under the guise of being “helpful,” I relayed that Anita had secretly desired Milo and thought his girlfriend was not that pretty. Milo, who was not innocent of flirting with Anita, stopped worrying that he’d done something wrong in telling Anita to cover up. But the emotional tone of the evening completely changed. The sexual tension between Anita and Milo was no longer plausibly denied without embarrassment, and knowing that Anita graded herself as sexier than his girlfriend, Milo took offense, claiming he no longer wanted Anita’s friendship.
My small betrayal, the not-so idle secret I’d shared to “help” Milo understand Anita, ended the friendship we four had as a group. Anita found a job in another state without saying goodbye to us. And I got the men to myself — not unlike my female lipstick-shaming supervisor, my sister and mother, and Sarah.
There is a pattern to these non-fictional tales. Do you see it? Unlike #MeToo, where women all over the world bond together by sharing stories of men acting violently towards them, in the stories I’ve shared, there is a desirable male, a female who is in an emotional (sometimes also sexual) relationship with him, and a “child,” someone whose well-being or career is connected to both the man and the intermediary female. (This holds even with the story of me and my pot-smoking colleagues: I was older than Anita, had the upper hand in terms of maturity, and was not, at the time, an immigrant–she was.)
From Demons to Better Angels
The demons of female intrasexual competition are intractably hard to discuss, since many of us don’t know when we are under their spell. I’m also sure there are other patterns besides the one I keyed in on here. For example, although I’ve used #MeToo to highlight the public face of females commiserating with each other and the power that has, a backlash of #MeToo is that it is now easier for women to trash each other, easier for those bathroom whispers about that one woman’s clothing (you know who she is), who she is talking to, and why. Dark, taboo, and woven into relationships, female intrasexual competition influences who remains within groups, especially workplaces now that women occupy a large fraction of the workforce. Far from being just innocuous, catty chit-chatter, what women say about (and to) each other governs group cohesion and employability and can take the form of sophisticated disguise, with “niceness” as a tool for subterfuge. Unlike with men, women rarely punch their rivals; instead of physical confrontation, women use mental tactics with artfulness that conceals competition. The goal (albeit usually unconscious) is to eliminate the competition — make rivals leave, perhaps thinking they are doing so of their own accord, as I showed in each of my vignettes.
My reason for taking us on such an unseemly and difficult dive into the murky underbelly of what females do to each other is that female intrasexual competition leads to aggression of a sort that is different from other forms of violence. Unlike killing, rape, and war, which have declined, women destroying each other’s opportunities is likely not on the down-and-out. We are becoming more civilized due to the many advances of reason, science, and humanism, as Steve Pinker has documented. But what’s different about female intrasexual competition is that many of us don’t recognize it for what it is (it is plausibly denied in many instances); we slough it off and downplay it as trivial when we are (partially) aware of it, such as when we spot it as the gossip of “mean girls”; and, importantly, because it is so hard to recognize, it is challenging to track and study. We have systems in place to monitor shootings and can collect regional and global data on both gun shots and its outcomes, woundings and deaths. But how do you track something that is part of the social fabric that isn’t so obvious or so blatantly dangerous? The possible kinds of damage wrought by female instrasexual competition — psychological toll, lost employment, and other economic injury — are serious, despite not being bloody, in most cases. I propose this: it behooves us to recognize female intrasexual competition. Until we do, we are subject to its wiles. We can’t choose to act differently if we don’t understand what we are up to.
About that, men are desirable. In our era of pointing to (some) men’s bad behavior, it’s easy to look away from how wonderful it is to have the attention, kindness, friendship, mentoring, and sexual partnership that men bring. As women compete for this, we can easily take each other out, if we don’t see what is motivating our actions. And because we are hard-wired for connection with men (even lesbians, we all have fathers), competition isn’t going away. This also means that our workplaces (and other public and private contexts) become labs for moral goodness, if we can spy how we are caught up in competition. In this sense, female intrasexual competition is also subject to reason, once we see our involvement in it, and can be guided by our better angels. As dark and twisted as its entanglements can be, we can turn female intrasexual competition into an opportunity for good. This starts with knowing about it.