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Are Women Just as Aggressive as Men?

New research casts doubt on old theories about the trait.

Key points

  • Many theories hold that males are naturally more aggressive than females.
  • Several studies now show that women tend to be more aggressive than men, at least online.
  • It may be time to re-think whether aggression is a biological trait or a social one.

New research into cyberaggression suggests women are more aggressive than would be believed from research conducted in the real world1,2. Any genderised discussion of aggression is always sensitive, as this issue engenders strong views and is highly politicised. In fact, the politicisation of aggression and violence may be an indicator of one of its roles and causes in society3. Yet discussion of aggression, even cyberaggression, is often built on a foundation focused on males as archetypal perpetrators4-6. However, a study of female digital aggression casts doubts on assertions that aggression is programmed, and more commonly emitted by males. Rather, digital behaviour suggests women are not programmed to be passive, but are just as actively aggressive as men, and, in some circumstances, more so.

Given the topic’s sensitivity, it is important to clear up potential misunderstandings. Aggression is not to be confused with physical violence; not all physical violence is aggression (some is self-defence), and not all aggression is physically violent. In fact, there are three types of aggression: direct physical; direct verbal; and indirect, often involving the manipulation of others (including gaslighting)7.

Physical violence occurs only in the real world, and, in most countries, intergender physical violence is more often perpetrated by those identifying as male; in the context of domestic abuse, the general truth is that victims are mainly women8,9. In the U.K., 1.6 out of 33.9 million women (4.7%), compared to 0.78 out of 33.1 million men (2.3%), report domestic abuse8. Adjusted by reporting tendencies (80% of women, and 50% of men, report incidents9), these percentages become 6% of women and 4% of men. Of course, who is abused does not necessarily suggest anything about the perpetrators, as domestic abuse also occurs in the LGBTQ+ community10. There are also qualitative differences in domestic abuse; over 80% of repeatedly victimised individuals are heterosexual women abused by men—meaning most reports by women cover more than one incident9, and women are more likely to be seriously hurt or killed than men8.

What has never been known is why aggression and violence happen; although, discounting demonic possession as a theory, the cause has to be biological or cultural. Many theories have been developed to account for the existence of aggression and cyberagression4-6,11. Many of these hold the assumption (explicitly or implicitly) that, as males perpetrate aggression more often than females11, this gives a clue to its nature, focusing theories on the evolutionary role of aggression4-6, and its androcentric physiology11. However, evidence from digital contexts has thrown new light on this debate1,2,11—highlighting existing doubts over these claims12,13 and challenging the notion that, save for physical violence and domestic abuse, males are more aggressive, and revealing some rather uncomfortable issues for the digital age2,14.

Several studies have demonstrated that cyberaggression is often emitted at higher rates by females than by males1,2,14,15. Again, this is not to deny that females experience extremely serious instances of cyberaggression5,14, including cyberstalking and cyberbullying, and that this often impacts them more intensely than similar experiences impact males6. However, overall levels of female digital aggression are high, giving strong challenge to any explanation of aggression premised on the view that it is essentially a male phenomenon, with only a few masculinised females demonstrating the trait, and then mainly for mating purposes2,14.

Two recent studies show the ways in which female cyberaggression can happen. One study1 noted that the primary self-presentational strategy associated with female selfie posting was aggressive intimidation. This was a much stronger association for females than for males, who had a wider range of reasons for selfie posting. In another study2, females with high levels of intimidation as their primary self-presentation strategy were found to be most likely to post selfies. It may be that, online, females allow their aggressive personality factors to drive their behaviours much more than in the real world, and much more than males. This suggestion relates to other recent studies of young females’ selfie posting, which have found strong links with aggression, and even narcissisim15.

In fact, examination of the real-world research suggests high levels of female aggression, such as seen in digital behaviours, have long been known about16. Beyond domestic abuse and physical violence, females have been found to emit greater levels of verbal, and indirect, aggression than males7,17. Girls and adolescent females use verbal and indirect aggression (social manipulation to harm a target) more than boys. This is often achieved by malicious gossip, or by manipulating social networks to reduce the target’s social status7. Such findings are mirrored in several studies of cyberaggression2,14.

A study from Ghana13 found that low-level domestic abuse patterns between genders are changing; males reported more domestic victimisation than females, including greater amounts of indirect, verbal, and physical aggression. Females were also found to be more likely to be perpetrators of physical, indirect, verbal, and cyberaggression13. Lest we feel that this may be the product of a particular culture at a particular time, searches of court records in the U.K.18 reveal that low-level domestic abuse was a very common charge against women in the 19th century (certainly, among those from lower socio-economic groups).

Other reversals of ‘traditional’ and oft-claimed aggression patterns in the real world are also apparent. A study focusing on older individuals (55-89 years old)17 noted that, far from using physical aggression in the real world, older males become adept at using indirect aggression, more so than females, a finding also seen in the digital world13 and consistent with the higher use of ingratiating strategies by males in terms of their selfie postings1.

These results are not easily characterised by traditional views of aggression2 and suggest that androcentric views of aggression need to be altered. Thinking of female aggression as the result of some slightly male-like physiology in those females simply will not do. Rather, the emerging pattern of results suggests that, when traditional societal restrictions are lifted, as they can be online, and the threat of physical reprisal is removed, females are as aggressive as males—allowing these traits to drive high levels of verbal and indirect aggression14. This suggests that culture and context play a role in the level and type of aggression emitted.

The recognition of female aggression as a normal part of behaviour is important for developing theories of aggression that do not suggest different reasons for aggression in males and females. It is time we stopped thinking that females are only aggressive (and to other females, at that) when masculinised or in want of a mate (usually meaning a man). It re-raises the question, for the digital age, of why results from the real world showing female aggression are often not considered in psychological theories. Could it be that such results simply do not feed into dominant androcentric narratives on aggression? This suggestion is not new, but digital research may allow an idea whose time has come to be re-evaluated.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


1. Reed, P., & Saunders, J. (2020). Sex differences in online assertive self-presentation strategies. Personality and Individual Differences, 166, 110214.

2. Galbraith, L., Reed, P., & Saunders, J. (2023). Intimidatory assertive self-presentation in selfie posting is greater in females than males. The Journal of Social Media in Society.

3. Brownmiller, S. (2005). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975).

4. Campbell, A. (1995). A few good men: Evolutionary psychology and female adolescent aggression. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16(2), 99-123.

5. Wang, P., Wang, X., & Lei, L. (2021). Gender differences between student–student relationship and cyberbullying perpetration: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(19-20), 9187-9207.

6. Wyckoff, J.P., Buss, D.M., & Markman, A.B. (2019). Sex differences in victimization and consequences of cyber aggression: An evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 13(3), 254–264.

7. Björkqvist, K. Lagerspetz, K.M.J., & Kaukiainen, A. (1992). Do girls manipulate and boys fight? Developmental trends in regard to direct and indirect aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 18, 117-127.

8. Office for National Statistics (ONS). (2020). Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2020. Published online: ONS.

9. Walby, S., & Towers, J. (2017). Measuring violence to end violence: mainstreaming gender. Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 1.

10. Denysschen, I., & Evans, R. (2022). Effects of intimate Partner Violence in the LGBTQ Community: a systematic review. Queering Criminology in Theory and Praxis, 111-128.

11. Muñoz-Reyes, J.A., Polo, P., Valenzuela, N., Pavez, P., Ramírez-Herrera, O., Figueroa, O., ... & Pita, M. (2020). The Male Warrior Hypothesis: testosterone-related cooperation and Aggression in the context of Intergroup Conflict. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 375.

12. Geniole, S.N., Bird, B.M., McVittie, J.S., Purcell, R.B., Archer, J., & Carré, J.M. (2020). Is testosterone linked to human aggression? A meta-analytic examination of the relationship between baseline, dynamic, and manipulated testosterone on human aggression. Hormones and Behavior, 123, 104644.

13. Darko, G., Björkqvist, K., & Österman, K. (2019). Low intensity intimate partner aggression in Ghana: Support for the revised gender symmetry theory in an African country. Aggressive Behavior, 45(1), 52-61.

14. Wright, M.F. (2020). The role of technologies, behaviors, gender, and gender stereotype traits in adolescents’ cyber aggression. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 35(7-8), 1719-1738.

15. Stuart, J., & Kurek, A. (2019). Looking hot in selfies: Narcissistic beginnings, aggressive outcomes?. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 43(6), 500-506.

16. Lewontin, R.C., Rose, S., & Kamin, L.J. (1984). Not in our genes: Biology, ideology, and human nature.

17. Walker, S., Richardson, D.S., & Green, L.R. (2000). Aggression among older adults: The relationship of interaction networks and gender role to direct and indirect responses. Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression, 26(2), 145-154.

18. Turner, J. (2019). A shocking state of domestic unhappiness’: male victims of female violence and the courts in late nineteenth century Stafford. Societies, 9(2), 40.

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