Some New Research Offering A Deeper Look At “Objectification”

One of the common critiques of sexual imagery, including porn, is that it objectifies its subjects, especially women. While there’s been some research on those mechanisms, a recent paper from Yale University is offering a more nuanced look at how our perceptions of people change when we see them nude or in sexual poses.

In More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification, (currently in press), the researchers ran a series of six experiments to test how what people thought of the folks in various pictures changed, depending on how much clothing or what kinds of poses were featured. What they found was that rather than seeing the people in the images as objects, when the person’s body was seen as more prominent (such as when there’s more skin showing), viewers considered them as being less capable of self control, planning and acting morally, which the researchers called agency. At the same time, they also saw them as was being more capable of feeling fear, feeling desire and feeling pleasure, which the researchers called experience.

Interestingly, this pattern held true regardless of the gender of the viewer or the subject of the photos:

Objectification is often discussed in terms of men objectifying
women (e.g., Gervais et al., 2011; Nussbaum, 1995), but we found that both men and women strip agency and confer experience to both men and women when a bodily-focus is induced. Of course, in real life, such a bodily-focus is more likely to be spontaneously applied to women (Archer et al., 1983; Moradi & Huang, 2008), and hence women are ultimately more likely to be the target of the redistribution of mind. (p. 20)

In this article, one of the authors discusses how this offers insight on the effects of porn. His interpretation is that rather than leading men to see women as objects, it seems to lead them to treat “a woman as though she lacks the capacity for complex thinking and reasoning, but at the same time, treating her as though she was even more capable of having strong feelings and emotional responses.” It isn’t clear how long these effects last, or what factors might reinforce or hinder them.

Given the long history of privileging the intellect, masculinity, and reason over emotions, femininity, and feeling, this certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no harm being done here. But it does offer a deeper insight into the mechanisms at work, which makes it much easier to address them. In reality, almost everyone has the capacity for both agency and experience. The problem is that when we ascribe agency to men and experience to women, and when we privilege one over the other, we reinforce all sorts of injustice and inequality.

This research makes me think about the ways in which, for example, women consistently wear more revealing clothing than men do. Just go to a club and compare how much skin women show compared to men. How does that reflect and reinforce the idea that women feel and men do? What about the clothing choices women make in the business world? If they wear something “too revealing” (whatever that means), how does that change other people’s perception of her agency and her experience. And when we see men showing off skin (other than at a beach or other setting in which it’s expected), why are they so often assumed to be gay? Is it that we ascribe skin to feelings, feelings to femininity, and femininity to homosexuality?

In that light, this quote seems especially relevant:

People who seem especially embodied are not treated as mere physical objects, but instead like non-human animals, as beings who are less capable of thinking or reasoning but who may be even more capable of desires, sensations, emotions and passions. (p. 21)

Since this is the first research along these lines, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. But it does seem like a compelling direction to go and I hope some other folks follow up with it.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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