Women and Instinctual Aggression

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
–Katharina from Taming of the Shrew – Shakespeare

Libidinal aggression is the driving force behind the formation of the self and the quest for power.

It is also an instinctual trait geared towards self-protection and preservation.

Unlike other mammals, humans surpass the channeling of aggression solely for the purpose of self-protection and self-preservation.

This is behaviorally evidenced by violent perpetration, even when submissive behavior is conveyed by one’s ‘prey.’ Perhaps it is the libidinal quest for power and assertion of self, which fuels this excess.

In spite of the fact that there’s no denying that we are a violent species, discharging aggression is critical to maintaining internal homeostasis and well- being.

When appropriate, cathartic release of aggressive impulses is commensurate with its source. It may paradoxically crystallize moral dictums. If we are allowed to consciously honor the limitations within our humanity, we are more likely going to uphold our higher ideals.

Losing Balance

It is when we repress, deny, minimize, suppress, rationalize and intellectualize aggressive impulses that we run into trouble. We lose perspective and we lose balance.

This imbalance is glaringly obvious when we sort through the endless cultural justifications of mores, that promulgate desensitization and antisocial behavior.

Media violence is a reflection of societal aggression, and further desensitizes and arouses violent impulses. The rampant prevalence of violent content being fed to our youth is normalized in children’s programming on a daily basis. Clearly our cultural and social norms encourage our inherent capacity for unbridled aggression.

The Male Ethos

In the area of gender studies, the cultural norms that spawn power differentials, support the ideology of the male ethos.

The male ethos conveys that aggression and power are the index to masculinity, and passivity and submission are the index to femininity.

Women are to defer to masculine strength and men will ostensibly protect women who defer.

These patriarchal social norms and conventions communicated in the male ethos advocate rigid gender roles and sexism and perpetuate a power-submission paradigm which fuels cultural wounding.

The insidious impact of the male ethos is reflected in the pandemic threat of women being at-risk for domestic violence and rape.

Females from every segment of society, cultural and religious backgrounds, and socio-economic status are susceptible to abuse, oppression, and victimization.

Women who ascribe to the feminine ideal put forth by the male ethos, are acculturated to deny their libidinal urges and are trained to defer to subjugation.

Along with the cultural indoctrination of the male ethos, a woman’s biological inheritance as caregiver can also inhibit the healthy expression of aggression.

Anger in women is viewed as unfeminine and antithetical to the role of nurturer.

The classic whore/Madonna dichotomy purports that women who ‘behave’ saintly and motherly are admirable. Women who are overtly aggressive and not confined to the domestic sphere are debased as whores.

As writer Erica Jong wrote:

Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.”

Demonizing Medusa

The ancient Libyan triple Goddess of female power and wisdom, Medusa, is exemplary of this split. The patriarchy, in their fear of the wise woman of death and of the magical sexual power of the menstruating feminine, demonized Medusa into a monstrous figure of the devouring castrating mother.

Medusa’s face reflects her anger over the ways in which the patriarchal mentality violated, castrated, desexualized, and disempowered her as the Queen of the Serpent Mysteries.

Given acculturation and the aforementioned prohibitions, how does female aggression get sublimated?

Rachel Simmons wrote in “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,” that because females are prohibited to express aggression overtly, it takes an insidious and destructive indirect form of relational aggression.

The culture of female bullying is fueled by what researchers refer to as intrasexual competition. Women are often vying for male attention. Aggression is indirectly channeled in denigrating other women who are perceived as rivals.

Slut Shaming

Slut shaming is endemic and is largely enforced by women. Women’s sexual posturing is entwined with their perceived position of power. One’s physical attractiveness and sexuality gets wrapped up in one’s position of power, inciting eating disorders and the pursuit of cosmetic procedures.

Ironically and sadly, a woman’s quest for power may result in turning one’s aggression on oneself or targeting women deemed a threat.

On the contrary, some women may stagnate in a state of regressive inertia, trapped in a rigid gender construct of femininity, fearful that their libidinal impulses would relegate them to the ruin of fallen women. They conform to a conventional idea of who they should be.

Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Estes wrote:

“Once women remember the origin of their rage, they feel they may never stop grinding their teeth. Ironically, we also feel very anxious to disperse our rage, for it feels distressing and noxious. We wish to hurry up and do away with it. But repressing it will not work. It is like trying to put fire into a burlap bag.”

Clearly, accessing the transformative potential in one’s aggression requires a conscious defiance of traditional societal mandates put forth by the male ethos. To defy this construct may mean being stigmatized as a crazy hysteric, a bitch, a shrew or a whore.

Yet there is no other way. In order to not succumb to a life of servitude, one must ignite one’s inner fire and elevate instinctual aggression to its rightful place. Only then can one actualize the life-affirming power inherent in libidinal aggression.

Angry woman photo available from Shutterstock

Women and Instinctual Aggression

Rev Sheri Heller, LCSW

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC. For more information, visit


APA Reference
Heller, R. (2016). Women and Instinctual Aggression. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 Jan 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Jan 2016
Published on All rights reserved.