The Situation of Objectification
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 7, 2009
The Daily Mail’s Fiona Macrae and CNN‘s Elizabeth Landau each had brief articles last week on the fascinating research by Situationist contributor Susan Fiske and her collaborators. We’ve mashed up excerpts of the two articles below.
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It may seem obvious that men perceive women in sexy bathing suits as objects, but now there’s science to back it up.
New research shows that, in men, the brain areas associated with handling tools and the intention to perform actions light up when viewing images of women in bikinis.
At the same time, the region they use to try to tune into another person’s thoughts and feelings tunes down, brain scans showed.
The research was presented this week by [Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske . . . at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The participants, 21 heterosexual male undergraduates at Princeton, took questionnaires to determine whether they harbor “benevolent” sexism, which includes the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, or hostile sexism, a more adversarial viewpoint which includes the belief that women attempt to dominate men.
In the men who scored highest on hostile sexism, the part of the brain associated with analyzing another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions was inactive while viewing scantily clad women, Fiske said.
Overall, the experiments showed that sexy images lead men to think of women as ‘less than human.’
Fiske said: ‘The only other time we have seen this is when people look at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts . . . .” The phenomenon in this case is somewhat different, Fiske said. People have reactions of avoidance toward the homeless and drug addicts, and the opposite for scantily clad women.
“This is just the first study which was focused on the idea that men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if you present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses,” she told CNN.
“They’re not fully conscious responses, and so people don’t know the extent to which they’re being influenced,” Fiske said. “It’s important to recognize the effects.”
A supplementary study on both male and female undergraduates found that men tend to associate bikini-clad women with first-person action verbs such as I “push,” “handle” and “grab” instead of the third-person forms such as she “pushes,” “handles” and “grabs.” They associated fully clothed women, on the other hand, with the third-person forms, indicating these women were perceived as in control of their own actions. The females who took the test did not show this effect, Fiske said.
That goes along with the idea that the man looking at a woman in a bikini sees her as the object of action, Fiske said.
Past studies have also shown that when men view images of highly sexualized women, and then interact with a woman in a separate setting, they are more likely to have sexual words on their minds, she said. They are also more likely to remember the woman’s physical appearance, and sit closer to her — for instance, at a job interview.
Fiske said the effect could spill over into the workplace, with girlie calendars leading men to sexualise their colleagues.
She said: ‘I am not saying there should be censorship but people need to know of the associations people have in their minds.’
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We would add that this research might provide some pause to those employers who encourage or require their employees to dress provocatively (see, for example, the article here).
For related Situationist posts, see “Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22,” “The Color of Sex Appeal,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Survival of the Cutest,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” and “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes.”