Seeing women like objects

Apropos our earlier post regarding what it would be like if every Olympic sport were photographed like beach volleyball, some new findings from social psychology:

‘Local processing underlies the way we think about objects: houses, cars and so on. But global processing should prevent us from that when it comes to people,’ Gervais said. ‘We don’t break people down to their parts — except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed.’

In one experiment, women’s (and not men’s) sexual body parts were actually recognized better when presented in isolation rather than in the context of an entire body.

Science Daily piece here, and study abstract here.

18 thoughts on “Seeing women like objects

  1. I’m struck by about the wording in this quote, which reads a little like “we don’t do this to people generally, but we do it to a small majority of people”

  2. I’ve been wondering how patriarchal rulers around the world dealt with the beach volleyball broadcasts — anyone hear of any bans or censorship in places where the powers that be didn’t want people to see so much skin?

  3. I think I might be an exception to this rule. When watching men’s diving, I kept thinking ‘Why do they keep focusing the camera on the divers’ arses? How unusual to have men sexualised in that way.’ Then I realised that the camera shots weren’t focused on their arses at all, I was just staring whenever there was a shot from behind.

    Well if you’re going to wear Speedos…

  4. Has anyone here read the study itself? Does it suggest that the tendency to process women’s bodies more locally than men’s is biologically hardwired?

  5. @Bryony – I had the same experience, and was wondering just how widespread it was, with women reacting to the male divers like men were reacting to women’s volleyball players.

  6. Since the study found that the gender of the participants made no difference, I would be surprised if biology plays a dominant role. Evolutionary explanations for women to view other women’s bodies this way escape me.

  7. The study itself doesn’t give any indication whether this is rooted in biology or culture (and I’m not sure how it even could, really). Gervais might take the possibility seriously, but I’m not sure what that tells us.

    I’m having a bit of trouble understanding the question though. By that I mean, does it make a moral difference whether or not there’s some roots in biology here? I think we can all agree that objectification has harmful effects (and that study specifically notes, for example, the harm done to intellectual performance), and I would be surprised if we didn’t all also agree that cultural practices can at least exacerbate the phenomena even if they aren’t the cause.

  8. I would think “sizing up the competition” and “hunting up suitable mates” would apply to both sexes – so the asymmetry seems odd.

    But philodaria makes the right point.

  9. It seems that if it is evolutionary, it may be harder to change than if it were brought on by culture. Mass media hasn’t been around for that long a time and objectification in media can be banned.
    Another thing is that if evolution is the cause some people may see that as a good argument for the claim that it is not bad at all, no matter the harmful effects to certain other people.

  10. They’d say ‘it is the way things ought to be’ or ‘there must also be an advantage’….’it serves a purpose’ ….’it is unnatural to fight it’…’women and men can never have equal rights because you see, we are not equal’….’how can we claim that it is morally wrong when nature tells us otherwise’ …..bllllgh

  11. “sexual body part” means waist and hip, not things like breasts.

    In the study, they showed that local processing (like in face perception, where the processing concerns the internal configuration of the facial geometry rather than how the face appears on a body) is used for identifying women, but men are identified via global processing, so that you need to see the sexual body parts in the context of the entire body. This is as measured by relative performance in recognizing the person by the body part in isolation vs. with more of the body.

    The upshot is that, in terms of the richness of internal detail, and in terms of its binding with personal identity processing, women’s sexual body parts are more like faces, and men’s body parts are more like hands.

    The women seen as objects interpretation is a bad one and doesn’t follow. Though another study showed women were processed with premotor and parietal areas (used in action, motor imagery, maybe speech), and this was claimed to be that women are vied “as tools”. People do not think women are tools but tend to process such information using the same mechanisms underlying affordances. It’s the same here: people do not think women are objects, but process their sexual body parts using the same mechanisms that we use in processing shapes and faces.

  12. philodaria, I’m not sure what you mean by asking whether it makes a “moral difference”, but whether it does or not, it wouldn’t appear to reduce the valid interest (particularly to scientists in this field) in understanding the mechanism and origin of this phenomenon.

    Thanks to “A” for the good clarification and critique of the “women seen as objects” interpretation.

  13. Nemo, I meant I wasn’t sure what the force of the question was regarding whether or not it’s rooted in biology. I take it that this is an interesting scientific question, but that as regards our concerns with this data, the more pressing point is what does this mean in effect, what are the consequences, and if it’s problematic, what can we do about it. In the end, it might turn out that the biology question is related to that last point, but in the immediate future it seems that irrespective of causal origination, there are efficacious ways of mitigating negative effects.

    Regarding A’s interpretation–I actually wasn’t clear on what was being argued against. I had thought the quote above was clearly consistent with what A said, and I didn’t take it that the study authors contradicted that in their discussion. That said, I think there’s enough data coming out of studies on objectification theory to think this is problematic. So far as I know, objectification theory doesn’t rely on the notion that any one actually thinks women *are* objects.

  14. People who think there much in the way of gender that is hard wired really should read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. In addition, her essay in Neurofeminism (of which I am one of the editors) really nails Simon Baron Cohen’s work; it should had deeply informed she is.

    She’ll be debating Baron Cohen in England in early March 2013. She’ll also be at the Central Division APA, 2013, and she’ll speak at Rice University in Houston after that.

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