chart from study

New study suggests that men who harass women online are losers. Literally.

A new study examining the behavior of Halo 3 gamers provides some insights into the dynamics driving online misogynistic harassment. The takeaway? As the headlines trumped with predictable satisfaction, “Men who harass women online are literally losers.” 

chart from studyIn the study, the researchers played 163 plays of the video game and analyzed the comments made by other players when they thought they were playing with a male vs. female teammate. The men who were doing worst at the game made the most hostile comments to women. The Washington Post reports:

As they watched the games play out and tracked the comments that players made to each other, the researchers observed that — no matter their skill level, or how the game went — men tended to be pretty cordial to each other. Male players who were good at the game also tended to pay compliments to other male and female players.

Some male players, however — the ones who were less-skilled at the game, and performing worse relative their peers — made frequent, nasty comments to the female gamers. In other words, sexist dudes are literally losers.

In the more academic words of the researchers: “We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena.” It’s yet more evidence that women often bear the brunt of men’s attempts to reclaim a sense of dominance in the masculine hierarchy: In this case, being mean to female players becomes a way of reasserting their threatened masculinity.

Meanwhile, the male players who were killing it in the game didn’t feel threatened and thus didn’t seem to feel the need to be assholes. In fact, they tended to say more supportive comments to the women than to the men. The researchers suggest that may be because they’re switching to a “mate attraction role,” which I believe is academic-speak for “flirting.” It seems to me, though, it may also be indicative of a more benignly sexist attitude — the condescending chivalrousness of men who don’t consider women capable of being their competitive equals. (Remember: beware of overly friendly men.) After all, while I’m all for everyone being nicer to each other online, the true measure of gender equality isn’t that women are treated well but that we’re treated equally.

Plus, what happens when women get too good? As the researchers wonder in an editorial, “Are these nice guys behaving this way because they have nothing to fear and are applauding a woman’s entry into the field? Or is it because they have nothing to fear, for now. Would they become more aggressive if they felt threatened?”

The researchers suggest that while this is just a small study of one video game, Halo is actually a pretty good proxie for real-world online dynamics: Like in many other spaces on the interwebs — like, say, Reddit — users are anonymous, you only “see” each other in passing a few times, and men outnumber women. In such environments, the researchers explain, an influx of more women disrupts the pre-existing social hierarchy provoking backlash — at least from the losers. (Sound familiar?)

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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