The Situationist

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.

* * *

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.’

* * *

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.”

4 Responses to “The Situation of Objectification”

  1. Robert said

    Let’s do a few reality checks. Women in Sweden prance around shirtless, so they must be quite dehumanized. On the other hand, Saudi Arabian women are covered from head to toe, so according to Fiske they’re unlikely to be treated as objects. Dehumanization must also have increased from Victorian times through the sexual revolution as women shed more and more clothing.

    The truth is that throughout history and across cultures, the degree to which females in a society are treated as regular humans always correlates with the amount of skin they show: evidence against the theory.

    I actually wish Fiske’s theory were true. American women want it both ways: to act like sex objects without being treated like sex objects. The logical implication of the theory is that they would have to choose, but unfortunately they don’t since the theory is wrong.

    American women want to sleep around like Bonobos, wear almost nothing in the spring and summer, buy personal vibrators, post suggestive pictures on their Facebook profiles as their photo IDs to the world, and pack cinemas for movies like Sex and the City. Some promiscuous college girls even call each other sluts or whores as casual terms of affection. Essentially 95 percent of women are prostitutes. The ones we call prostitutes just have the lowest prices. That’s why Fiske married an endowed professor but likely never considered any drywallers. Women shouldn’t get to complain about being sexualized as long as they continue to sexualize themselves for pleasure and profit.

  2. Thanks, very interesting.

  3. Sam said

    I think Robert may have shown up just to give us an example of “hostile sexism.”

    That said I was somewhat troubled by the amount of time CNN gave to Raison’s comments suggesting that men’s tendency to objectify sexualized women is “hard-wired” or evolutionarily advantageous. It seems rather dispositionist, in a sense, to favor an explanation that men are naturally inclined toward this type of reaction, instead of looking first to the sexist situation that men and women are raised in. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that this reaction seems to be correlated with men’s attitudes toward women, which (we imagine) are not hard-wired; thus, Raison is favoring hard-wiring as an explanation even when there’s no evidence for it (as opposed to some other cause, like culture) and some evidence against it. Certainly if this were a regular IAT showing that white men are implicitly racist or that wealthy people are implicitly classist, “hard-wiring” or evolution would hardly be any reasonable person’s #1 explanation.

  4. male logic said

    Recently I was looking at the National Geographic website, and saw an article called, “Bikinis Make Men See Women as Objects, Scans Confirm”. Because I am interested in brain scans (and bikinis), I read the article, and was shocked by what I found.

    At first I thought that the article was a joke. I googled the lead researcher, Susan Fiske, and found that she was a real person, a Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. Her research summary begins with “Professor Fiske’s research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power.”

    This was consistent with the subject matter of the article, so I was forced to conclude that this was an attempt at a genuine scientific study.

    I would like to say that I think this is one of the most atrocious pieces of science, that I have ever seen. It is a good example of science perverted by a political agenda. The political agenda in this case , is to promote the political idea that “all men are bastards”.

    I would be happy to provide details of why this study is so unscientific, if people are interested.

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