Men, Women, and Aggression
A Sociobiological View
Aggression is a prevalent malady afflicting society today. Chances are, most people will experience one form of aggression or another in their lifetime. Aggression can be experienced by any individual, but mostly it is inflicted upon others by males. Usually, the recipients of this aggression are females. This is what we intend to prove in our study.
Our hypothesis focuses on male aggression. We believe that acts of aggression are focused more on women because of hormonal and socialization differences. We have researched aggression from both a social and hormonal standpoint in lieu of our previous findings that both environmental and hormonal factors have direct effects on aggression. Based upon our reading we will determine whether or not it is true that males tend to be the more aggressive sex, with females being their primary targets. We will discuss both the social and hormonal aspects of aggression and will describe the data that we have gathered from the survey on aggression that we administered to a random sampling of people. We will compare our findings with our research findings and determine whether or not our hypothesis was proven.
In order to gain a better understanding of the text we had found on aggression, we conducted a survey which inquired about the experiences of students with aggression. With our study, we hoped to support our hypothesis that women are more often acted upon aggressively by men and men are not as likely to be acted upon aggressively. We asked 11 questions of each subject and then collected and tallied our data for statistical evaluation. After evaluating our data, we could use only 4 of the question responses for each subject, because either data was insufficient for evaluation, and in one case the data was conclusive and therefore did not require a statistical evaluation, ( the responses for gender were 100% male). We then graphed our variables based on gender to produce two graphs which better illustrate the links of knowledge of who the attackers were and the nature of the crimes based upon gender.
Males and females share many similarities as well as many differences. One of these differences would be a tolerance for aggression. As stated in the book, Hormones and Aggression, “among humans, males are more aggressive than females (p. 564).” This can be attributed to a multitude of reasons ranging from upbringing to social stimuli encountered on a daily basis. In addition to these factors, hormonal differences among males and females also provide an explanation for the difference in aggression levels between the sexes.
Hormones are often seen as factors in the way in which a person behaves. Hormones are often “blamed” for certain bouts of behavior in individuals, but it has been suggested that testosterone is a major factor in the aggressive behavior of males and there is a generous amount of supporting data for this hypothesis. The application as well as the removal of the source of testosterone has an effect on the behavior of individuals, making the latter less aggressive and the former more aggressive. Fluctuations in testosterone levels also have an impact on aggressive tendencies in both humans and primates.
“Several studies have reported positive links between secretion of the sex hormone testosterone and some measures of aggressive and criminal behavior in men (Geen, pp. 15-16).” It is unlikely that males learn aggressive behavior purely due to their encounters with violence in social situations. These stimuli may further the tendencies to aggress, but not cause them. In one article, the author suggests that testosterone may be related to a disposition to aggress, but that external stimuli must be present before aggressive behavior surfaces. In addition to this view, a positive correlation between testosterone level and a lack of tolerance for frustration has been documented.
Tendencies for aggression positively correlate with rising testosterone levels in males. Between the ages of 12 and 20, males experience a rapid rise in testosterone levels.
The beginning of this period is a time of increased dominating
behavior, fighting, and intermale competition similar to the
increased aggression and dominance behavior of male apes
during puberty (Svare, p. 565).
Sensitivity to threat, frustration, and provocation also correlate with testosterone levels among humans. Among primates, increased aggression correlates with heightened testosterone levels which occur during puberty or a mating season.
The removal of testosterone from a subject results in a decrease in aggressive behavior. “In adult males, castration distinctly reduces the frequency of aggression (Karli, p. 146).” Sex criminals with histories of violent crimes who have been castrated show low rates for returning to their prior habits.
On the flip side of this argument, the administration of testosterone to testosterone deprived individuals results in an increase in aggressive behavior. The treatment of castrated males usually leads to a restoration of aggressive tendencies. This doesn’t only apply to human males, though. Females that are exposed to excess testosterone in utero, for whatever reason, are born with various degrees of masculinized genitalia. In a study of 42 females like this, it was concluded that they preferred boys as playmates, rough outdoor play and boys’ games more so than normal girls. Female offspring of rhesus monkeys that are given testosterone during pregnancy show behavior more akin to that of male infant offspring. As adults, these females also show more aggression than normal female monkeys.
Administration of female hormones such as estrogen has been shown to reduce aggression in men. Progesterone also alleviates feelings of hostility and irritability and decreases the likelihood of aggression in man when used to counteract the fluctuating levels of testosterone. The application of Provera, a drug very similar to natural progesterone, has resulted in a decrease of sexual offenses in mature
men and a decrease of sexual activity and aggression in young boys.
Another view on levels of testosterone and aggressive behavior states that testosterone does not specifically cause aggressive behavior in men, but also dominant behavior. One study measured testosterone levels in three different groups of prison inmates. One group was considered to be the “socially dominant” group. These men were unaggressive and in prison for non-violent crimes. The second group, the “chronically aggressive” group, were imprisoned for violent crimes and continued to show aggressive behavior while in prison. The third group was neither dominant nor aggressive. The results showed that both the dominant and aggressive groups had high, but not different in mean testosterone levels, significantly higher than the nondominant and unaggressive group. In another study of prison inmates, it was shown that the men who were currently high in testosterone were also high as adolescents, or they entered maturity earlier than others.
Men are not the only ones whose hormonal levels fluctuate and provide for increased levels of aggressive behavior. Women also have been reported to show higher levels of aggression which correlate with their premenstrual and menstrual days. One study involves the observation of 23 women who were housed in a secure hospital for patients with dangerous and violent propensities. When a patient “acted out” she was confined to her room. Records of both these confinements as well as their menstrual data were kept and it was found that most of the confinements occurred the week before menstruation than any other. This behavior may be attributed to a drop in progesterone, a hormone which usually curbs aggressive tendencies in males.
Overall, anyone and everyone has the capabilities of performing aggressive acts, although many correlations have been found between testosterone levels and aggression. Whereas a portion of these tendencies may be attributed to social stimuli, one cannot rule out the fact that changing levels in hormones also result in aggressive behavior.
There are many similarities found when we study aggression in humans and in primates. The three basic situations in which we find such aggressive behavior is when there is a competition for resources such as food, sexual competition or issues of sexual access, and territoriality.
First, we must look at competition for resources in primates and humans to find a connection between them and the way that they provide themselves and each other with food and other resources. Chimpanzees were once thought to be completely self interested animals when it comes to resource management because they were not seen sharing food. It was thought that when chimpanzees found food or hunted food down, they would eat it on the spot and only those lucky enough to be near and respected would receive the spoils. However, Jane Goodall and her fellow researchers at Gombe found that chimpanzees do share food with each other. There is a picture in Goodall’s book, Through a Window, of one adult male chimp and three female chimps sharing food together. Many times, those who obtain food and other resources are males who are dominant in the social hierarchy such as the alpha male and respected female partners and their young. The distribution is based upon position and relationships within the chimpanzee society.
Resource distribution is very similar in human relationships, as men and women establish their places within the social hierarchy and gain resources such as food, shelter, and money through relationships. Many times this is a reciprocal relationship and those involved are only minimally aware or completely unaware of their give and take situations. Other times, women and men are in destructive relationships which further elucidates their resource distribution situation. This kind of relationship is all too common; it is that in which the woman is battered. The man in this relationship controls the resources, however, the woman is expected to tend to the food and to him and to do this to his liking, or else suffer emotional and/or physical abuse. She can not change her situation easily because she does not have the resources to live without her husband/partner.
The more any woman is denied control over her life, especially
in violent situations where self-assertion is dangerous, the
more difficult change becomes. It is obvious that the women
with the fewest resources tend to stay or return (Schechter, p.
A woman may be enamored with a man and begin a relationship with him. She may also realize that he can gibe her some of the resources that she needs, and this may make him even more appealing. It is only later in the relationship that she realizes she is dependent upon his resources as much as he depends upon her “mothering” and she does not have the access to these resources without him. Often times women in these relationships are brought up to think traditionally about gender roles and be submissive to men. They are also likely to believe that they are responsible for caring for/tending to their male partners and that their place is tending to the home and family rather than in the office. This further inhibits her ability to gain her own resources, especially money, and increases her dependence upon her partner.
Primates are also similar to humans in the way that they
behave aggressively in regards to sexual access. With
Saimiri monkeys, aggressive behaviors are usually minimal,
except before and duringmating season, when males engage
in dominance displays, chases and fights (Baldwin, p. 73).
This is very interesting in and of itself, because of the timing of such aggression against male and female saimiris when normally they are non-aggressive. Goodall found that males showed aggression towards females if the females did not prove initially receptive to sexual advances. In one case, with Evered and Winkle, Winkle was beaten repeatedly each time she wavered in following Evered to where he wished to take her for mating. Each beating was characterized as more brutal than the previous one had been. After these, Evered would attempt to comfort Winkle and coax her to follow him again,
And then, as in the way of male chimpanzees after aggression,
Evered reassured her, grooming her until she relaxed under
the gentle caress of his fingers. Once punishment had been
handed out, then it is time to make amends, to restore social
harmony (Goodall, p. 88).
When they finally reached a destination much further from the other chimps, an area that Winkle did not know and felt vulnerable, they slept, along with Winkle’s son, Wilkie. Winkle was bruised and battered.
The next morning things were very different. Winkle, now
that she had finally moved into unfamiliar territory, was
only too anxious to stay near Evered and, for the most part,
followed him readily whenever he moved on (Goodall, p. 88-89).
Observational study done on primates by Frans de Waal brought about a reconciliation hypothesis for explaining the behavior primates exhibit following an aggressive relational encounter in order to smooth things over. This hypothesis is based upon three criteria: “1. Contact increase- following aggression, the probability of contact between two individuals is higher than usual, 2. Partner specificity- the increase in contact specifically concerns the former adversaries, 3. Behavioral distinctness- reunions between former opponents involve special reassurance behavior rarely observed in other contexts (Silverburg/Gray, p. 51).” This behavior is evident in Evered and Winkle’s situation as well.
These behaviors are also very similar to those exhibited by human men when attempting to gain sexual access to women or to control women in a relationship. Just as Evered exhibited aggressive behavior against Winkle, so many human men beat women in a relationship to wear sown their resolve and isolate them geographically/emotionally from family, friends, and familiar territory. The behavior involved in reconciliation is also easily comparable to that of primate study. Men who batter manipulate a woman’s emotions and her whole world. Once they beat their wife/partner, they realize that there is a possibility that she is thinking of leaving him or is feeling lost in the relationship, so he consoles her, apologizes, is involved in increased contact with her in order to restore order in their relationship. The man is interested in smoothing things over with the woman and making certain that he maintains control of the situation and keeps the relationship running. He depends upon his partner even more than she depends upon his resources. The success of his reconciliation is contingent upon her low self-esteem, just as Evered’s success was contingent upon Winkle’s low self-esteem/submission.
The third area in which primate aggression is well-documented, is that of territoriality, which is the most common source of aggression. Chimpanzees patrol the borders of their territory daily and often come upon chimps of other troupes who have happened to cross over territorial lines. In such a case, displays of aggression, if not aggressive acts themselves will occur. These acts of aggression are more often enacted upon females and their young because they are easier targets,
A female, especially if she is protecting an infant, poses
no danger to her assailants (Goodall, p. 101).
Males, after all, are far more dangerous adversaries,
particularly when they are strangers and their strengths
and weaknesses unknown (Goodall, p. 101).
These territorial attacks are also seen in human acts such as hate crimes in which one group feels that another is infringing upon their territory and resources, therefore they must attempt to eradicate the ‘alien group’ and protect their resources. In the case of primate territorial aggression, Goodall provides a lucid analysis of the motive behind territoriality,
It seems, then, that the attacks are an expression of the
hatred roused in chimpanzees of one community by the sight
of a member of another. Strangers of either sex may trigger
this hostility, but unthreatening females are attacked far
more often (Goodall, Pg. 102).
Human territorial aggression occurs largely against women and minorities. It is evident in the work force, where women are harassed or held back because they are women and they are seen as infringing upon ‘male territory’. This incites hostility often times and makes things uncomfortable and sometimes impossible for many women to perform to their full potential in work situations. Other cases of human territorial hostility occur when minorities move into primarily white neighborhoods and join the work force. It is often thought that this type of hostility and aggression against minority groups is a thing of the past, however, it continues today. This can be explained much in the same way as primate territorial aggression because hostility is incited by the sight of others in one group’s territory who do not look/behave in the same way. They are seen as competition for resources of that territory and so the influx of minority groups into the offices and neighborhoods of mainly white areas tends to incite hostility among many.
There are obviously many similarities between human and primate aggression in the case of resources, sexual access, and territoriality. The question is, Is there any differences between these behaviors? There are obviously many who would contend that the similarities are merely coincidence and that primates are incapable of the complex emotions involved in human aggressive behavior. I would contend, however, at least from Goodall’s accounts of Evered and Winkle, that these chimpanzees did exhibit selection and a complex range of emotions. These two chimpanzees behaved in such a way that if they were described as humans and not primates they would sound exactly like an abusive couple. It is classic abusive reconciliatory behavior.
Our data was done on cricketgraph and statview and will not show up on this web version.
Based upon our data, it is clear that our original hypothesis was correct. Women are acted upon aggressively by men, much more than men are acted upon. Our data was so conclusive in one case that we didn’t even need to graph it, because of all of the violent acts upon women in our survey, men were the perpetrators. Based on this data alone, our hypothesis is correct. Based upon the breakdown of the other statistics we studied from our survey results, the nature of the crimes and the knowledge that the victims had of who their attackers were, can be studied based upon the gender of the victims.
If we look at Graph 2, we see that, not only were more women acted against than men, most of the acts were sexual assaults by men. According to the percent of row totals on Table 1, 84% of the acts against women were sexual assault. The act perpetrated most against men was assault. Therefore, men were most likely to be assaulted by other men, and women were most likely to be sexually assaulted by men. The chi square P-value for the link between gender and the nature of the crime was less than .0001, which tells us that there is almost zero possibility that the link is due to chance. Therefore, the probability that sexual assault will be acted out on females and that assaults and robberies will be acted out on males is extremely high. Almost inevitable. Table 2 is even more telling, because it shows us that 64% of women knew their attackers and only 11% of men knew their attackers. This finding reinforces the fact that most women who are sexually assaulted (molested, raped, beaten) know their attackers. Therefore, violence against women is inextricably linked to issues of power and sexual access within relationships and violence against men tends to be random.
Our survey and research supports our original hypothesis: Women are acted upon violently much more often than men are and men are those who perpetrate these violent acts. Aggressive behavior is sociobiological. We conclude that women are most often attacked because of a combination of biological and social factors which are worked through the men and the effects of which are felt by women. There are such big similarities between human and primate patterns of aggression, because social and biological aspects of life are so similar between the humans and primates. Therefore, although male humans and chimpanzees may be biologically predisposed to aggression at some level, the social stratification and issues of power/sexual/resource access causes male subjects to act out these aggressive acts so much more than females.
Geen, Russell G. Human Aggression. Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., Pacific Grove, CA. 1990.
Karli, Pierre. Animal and Human Aggression. Oxford University Press, New York. 1991.
Renfrew, John W. Aggression and its Causes. Oxford University Press, New York. 1997.
Schechter, Susan. Women and Male Violence, South End Press, Boston. 1982.
Silverburg and Gray. Aggression and Peacefulness in Humans and Other Primates,
Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1992.
Svare, Bruce. Hormones and Aggressive Behavior. Plenum Press, New York. 1983.
Walker, Lenore E.. The Battered Woman. Harper Colophon, New York. 1979. Pg. 23.
Return to the Topic Menu
IMPORTANT: For each Research Response, make sure the title of the response is different than previous titles shown above!