For many years, the word aggression was only applied to the males of our species, expressed in physical action and captured in words like hitting, pushing, punching and beating. It’s only in the last decade or so that aggression by the female — in the form of social or relational aggression — has been recognized.
The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations — with an escalation of bullying in response to any attempt by the victim to defend herself.
Comparison between male and female aggression shows strong and obvious similarities, except for how the aggression is expressed. Motivation for both groups usually includes: a desire for power, for control, for achieving greater social status and popularity, jealousy, fear and derailing competition. Aggressive behavior for both male and female children can be found as early as preschool age, is most prevalent in adolescence and can continue well into adulthood. Both sexes form social structures that lead different members to assume specific roles and characteristics. For example, in the female dynamic, the one with the power is like the “Queen Bee” with a contingent of followers. Her friends do what she wants, she is charming when she wants to be, she’s manipulatively affectionate, she takes no responsibility for hurting another’s feelings, and defines right and wrong by the loyalty or disloyalty shown to her. She is usually the one who decides who should be the victim. The Queen Bee’s followers feel helpless to help the victim because of their need to not stir the anger of the Queen Bee and become alienated from the group.
The effects of social aggression can be longer lasting and more damaging than physical aggression. Since the “weapons” have a stealth nature to them, there is less possibility of anticipating the specifics of an attack and fewer actions to defend against an attack. This negative effect is particularly damaging during adolescence when the importance of acceptance in a peer group is maximized. Adding to the pain inflicted on the victim is the lack of support by teachers and other adults who view the bully — often a popular and charismatic young woman — as innocent of such negative behavior. Thus the strong positive reputation of the bully makes it difficult for a victim to get validation of the bullying and causes a victim to suffer the additional pain of not being believed and not getting any support.
Relational aggression negatively impacts “mirroring” – a peer group’s reflected reaction to an individual. Caught in the web of punishing aggression by peers, a young person’s internal sense of self becomes diminished and felt as being “a loser” – “a reject” and “not as good”. Self-esteem is low and feelings of insecurity may persist throughout life. What is also affected is the ability to trust as an adult and to be free to be open to close relationships.
In recent years, the introduction of new technologies has changed the nature of aggression, with the vast communication power of the internet being used as a weapon of covert aggression by both sexes. I’ll discuss this in my next blog.