Intrasexual Competition in Adolescent Girls

This entry was written by Hayley Vassallo as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Indirect aggression and victimization from peers is common in adolescent females between the ages of eleven and sixteen. Evolutionary theory can be used to explain this phenomena by relating it to mating selection and intrasexual competition between female adolescents. Arguably, victimization in adolescent females, such as the spreading of hurtful rumors, is more common in those who view themselves as highly attractive than those that do not. This supports the logic that males prefer more attractive females, with many studies suggesting that men consistently place a higher importance of attractiveness than women do. Therefore the less attractive females are more likely to participate in indirect aggression to potentially lower the competitive value of the more attractive females, in a bid to increase their reproductive success and overall fitness (Fink et al. 2013; White et al. 2010).

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Intrasexual competition

Victimization and other types of bullying are known to be widespread behaviors of adolescent females. The Health Behavior in School Age Students suggests, through a multi-national study, that up to 54% of students in schools are involved in aggressive acts, victimization or both (White et al 2010). This type of bullying has been of interest to educational and developmental psychologists trying to understand why these behaviors arise in children or adolescence. However, recent studies in evolutionary theory suggest that these behaviors should be explored from an evolutionary perspective, to allow understanding of why and how these behavior’s exist amongst peers.

Behaviors associated with intrasexual competition

There is a clear difference in the types of competition adolescent males and females engage in to attract mates. Males commonly engage in direct forms of aggression, including verbal and physical aggression, while females are more likely to engage in indirect aggression towards other members of their sex. It is argued that this difference is due to females having higher parental investment than males, rendering physical aggression less common due to the higher risks associated with such behaviors. Arguably, survivability and remaining relatively uninjured is a higher priority for females to allow their offspring a greater chance at survival, and ultimately their fitness (Vaillancourt 2013).

Behaviors associated with indirect intrasexual competition in adolescent females can range from the extreme scale, such as eating disorders which may be linked to a pursuit of thinness and access mates, to less extreme behaviors such as bullying and victimization. Bullying and victimization are common behaviors in the school environment, and are argued to be a product of intrasexual selection and the attraction of male mates. The two competitive strategies used by females are self-promotion and the degradation of rivals (Vaillancourt 2013).

Among the most common behaviors associated with self-promotion includes displays of physical attractiveness. This encompasses the wearing of makeup to enhance their facial characteristics or wearing sexualized clothing pieces to enhance their physical attractiveness. These behaviors are relevant for attracting a potential mate, and thus aspects of intrasexual competition (Vaillancourt 2013).

Alternatively, degradation of female peers (or rivals) includes a wider range of behaviors associated with indirect aggression. The ultimate goal of degrading other female peers is to make the rival seem less attractive or appealing to potential mates. There are a range of behaviors an individual may engage in to degrade of their rival, including spreading hurtful rumors, specifically regarding the fidelity and promiscuity of the rival, and voicing their negative opinions on the rivals’ looks, personality and otherwise publicly degrading their worth as a potential mate (White et al. 2010; Vaillancourt 2013).


Two studies, Gallup et al. (2009) and Leenaars et al. (2008), have aimed at understanding the indirect aggression, particularly victimization, amongst female peers in view of evolutionary theory.

Gallup et al. (2009) conducted a study which included surveying 65 male and 47 female undergraduates at a university in New York. The survey included questions about the participants earlier social experiences during the years of middle school and high school, such as whether they were victims of physical or verbal aggression, if they were isolated or excluded from their peers and whether they were embarrassed by their peers. The results suggested that 84.69% of respondents stated that they were victimized by members of the same sex. Moreover, the study argues that females who were more frequently victimized and degraded during adolescent stages had more sexual partners, with their first sexual experience occurring at a younger age.

This supports the evolutionary theory that, although it may not have a beneficial fitness outcome for the perpetrator, female peers aim to degrade other, more attractive females in an attempt to increase their mating success (Gallup et al. 2009). Although the study provides evidence to support the idea that females are more involved in indirect aggression and intrasexual competition, due to the nature of surveys and the fact that it was presented to a group of older individuals reflecting on earlier years, there is a high chance of the participants forgetting the real experiences and producing bias within their responses. Further, the small number of participants also acts as a limitation to the study.

A second study by Leenaars et al. (2008) focused on indirect victimization from an evolutionary perspective also, by assessing the connections between indirect victimization and indicators of attractiveness. These indicators include past sexual behavior, dating frequencies and physical appearance. Similar to the previous study, a survey was conducted in order to test these connections with a sample of 2319 participants from 25 separate high schools, with 56% of those female. The results provide evidence to support the evolutionary perspective that more attractive female adolescences, who date frequently and have a high number of sexual partners are generally perceived as rivals and are victimized by their peers engaging in intrasexual competition. Further, females who perceive themselves as very attractive also recounted greater levels of indirect aggression and victimization. Although the study has a large sample size and the participants are of adolescent ages, the limitations of the research are similar to that of the previous, whereby bias and dishonest answers may accumulate throughout the study.


It is clear that intrasexual competition in the form of indirect aggression is more common amongst female adolescents. Degradation of peers and self-promotion are common forms of intrasexual competition and indirect aggression used by females in order to make themselves appear more attractive to potential mates, while attempting to lower the attractiveness of their rivals. This is supported by studies which suggest that females who perceive themselves to be more attractive, or who have had frequent sexual partners, are more likely to be victimized by their peers.

Literature Cited

Fink, B., Klappauf, D., Brewer, G., & Shackelford, T. K. (2014). Female physical characteristics and intra-sexual competition in women. Personality and Individual Differences, 58, 138-141.

Gallup, A. C., O’Brien, D. T., White, D. D., & Wilson, D. S. (2009). Peer victimization in adolescence has different effects on the sexual behavior of male and female college students. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 611-615.

Leenaars, L. S., Dane, A. V., & Marini, Z. A. (2008). Evolutionary Perspective on Indirect Victimization in Adolescence: The Role of Attractiveness, Dating and Sexual Behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 34, 404-415.

White, D. D., Gallup, A. C., & Gallup, G. G. (2010). Indirect Peer Aggression in Adolescence and Reproductive Behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(1), 49-65.

Vaillancourt, T. (2013). Do human females use indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy? Phil Trans R Soc B, 368: 20130080., 1-7.

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