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Harassment Of Women Comes From Evolution -- And Men's Insecurity

07/21/2015 03:43 EDT | Updated 07/21/2015 06:59 EDT

The fact that women regularly face harassment, online and 'in real life,' is no secret.

A Pew study released last year showed that young women between the ages of 18 and 24 endure a more severe variety of harassment on the Internet, from stalking, to sexual comments and sustained harassment.

And while this kind of behaviour may make people wonder who would ever do such a thing, a study out of the University of New South Wales and Miami University may shed some light on why it happens. It examined the behaviour of male gamer participants, and found that men who harass women tend to be literal losers who specifically react negatively to females.

Researchers Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff carried out their work by watching subjects play 163 games of "Halo 3," a popular shooting game that allows players to compete with and message each other over the Internet.

They analyzed players' conversations and found that poor performing male players were nastier to female-voiced competitors than they were to other men. They were less nasty as their performances improved.

Conversely, men were generally polite to each other despite their skills in the game, although those who were better at it were "less negative."

The study's results supported an "evolutionary argument for why low-status, low-performing males are hostile towards female competitors."

"Dominance is tightly linked to fitness through offspring number and resource availability," the authors wrote. "As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status, the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female's performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank."

They went on to say that high status women pose a "secondary threat" to lower status men, adding that, "as women are attracted to dominance, a high-status female is less likely to find lower-status males attractive."

Being hostile toward a woman is meant to reduce her self-worth and confidence, the authors said, while at the same time lifting their attackers' perceptions of their own dominance.

"Higher-skilled (i.e. more dominant) males do not behave in this manner as there is no need for them to reinforce their dominance to maintain their attractiveness," they wrote.

This is far from the first research to find an evolutionary link to online harassment.

Evolutionary anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson compared the men watching leaks of nude celebrity photos last year to "bitter baboons" in an article for Slate.

He noted that baboons live in patriarchal social arrangements in which high-ranking males dominate lower ones.

Male baboons, he noted, are also known to show aggressive sexual behaviour toward females, and to attack those who reject them. But these animals' behaviours have been known to change when more aggressive elements are removed.

He said that in the 1980s, aggressive male members of a troop of olive baboons died out due to tuberculosis, doubling the proportion of females to males.

Over the next two decades, "the brutal hierarchy that was common among male baboons disappeared, and the amount of affiliative behaviours — such as males and females grooming one another — increased markedly," he wrote.

Johnson thus argued that patriarchal environments can be harmful to men and women, and that even males would be served by taking on harassment and misogyny online.

"A supportive environment would go hand-in-hand with increasing the number of women in those spaces currently dominated by bitter baboons," he said.

"If baboon societies are able to change the interaction between males and females based on the influence of culture, surely we can too."

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