Science has made it official: Men who harass women online are losers — in the literal sense of the word. A recent study, "Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behavior," published in PLOS ONE, found that men who were less skilled at Halo 3 and performed worse than their peers often made nasty, sexist comments to the females playing the game. In contrast, guys who were good at the game were cordial to male and female players alike.
The Washington Post's Caitlin Dewey argues that using Halo 3 as a representation of the internet at large works pretty well: the game is anonymous, you tend not to run into the same players over and over again, and the ratio of male to female players leans decidedly towards the dudes. It's a fairly similar scenario to what you might find in places like Reddit or 4chan — both male-dominated and notorious for their harassment of women.
“As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status," explain the study authors, "the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy.” In other words, these men are being bullies because they're sad that a woman is doing better than they are. The authors argue that this idea is validated by the fact that high-performing players don't feel threatened by the presence of women or the increase in female participation in the game. Since men are so often taught that losing to a woman (or losing a game in front of women) is more embarrassing than losing to or in front of another man, the researchers suggest the Halo losers are simply pushing to reassert their dominance — you know, with a few shouts of "Dumb bitch!" There is some good news out of this study: The authors say we as a society can combat this sort of sexism and negativity by teaching young men that losing to the opposite sex isn't social suicide. When losing to a woman is considered as "normal" as losing to a man — in video games and beyond — perhaps men won't react so violently to it. The more male-dominated online communities are shifted in favor of gender balance, the more likely this is to occur.