A new study says sexual harassment from males can damage relationships between females.
Led by the Center for Research in Animal Behavior at the University of Exeter, the study focused on guppies, a popular aquarium fish, in which scientists have previously observed a very high level of sexual harassment from males towards females.
The researchers found that male harassment not only breaks down female social structures but also affects females' ability to recognize one another.
The research provides the first insight into the effect of male sexual harassment on female social networks and social recognition. The findings could have relevance to other species.
"Sexual harassment is a burden that females of many species ranging from insects to primates suffer and the results of our work suggest that this harassment may limit the opportunities for females to form social bonds across a range of species," lead author Dr. Safi Darden of the University of Exeter said.
The research team worked with a population of wild guppies in Trinidad, isolating the females and introducing males to change the sex ratio and examining the effect of males on female social behavior.
They conducted a number of experiments on each group to test the females' ability to recognize their peers and form bonds with other members of the group.
The researchers found that, after experiencing a high level of sexual harassment, females were less able to recognize the other females in the group. They were also more likely to form bonds with new females, introduced from outside their network.
Co-author Dr. Darren Croft of the University of Exeter said: "This is an extremely interesting result as it appears that females that experience sexual harassment actually prefer to avoid other females with whom they associate the negative experience."
Those females that were grouped without males were better able to recognize one another and also showed a preference for females from within, rather than outside, the group.
The researchers do not know exactly why sexual harassment from males has such a marked effect on female social interaction. However, it is possible that the sheer amount of time spent by females dealing with unwanted male attention prevents them from forming relationships with other females.
They believe females from groups with more males may have bonded with females from outside in order to try to establish themselves in a more favorable environment.
The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.