Sex Ed

Study Provides Scientific Evidence That Sexy Women Are Perceived As Objects Instead Of Persons

April 25, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

The use of scantily clad women to sell products is a popular strategy among advertisers hocking everything from beer to floral arrangements to spicy BBQ burgers (click here for just a few examples of such ads). This persistent sexualization of women in the media has led many scientists to wonder what effects this might have on our psychological perception of women in general. A new study suggests that such media portrayals may be quite dangerous and could potentially be contributing to a major difference in how people view and treat women compared to men [1].

The authors of this study predicted that participants would view sexy women as objects, but see sexy men as persons. What do we mean by viewing someone as an “object” versus a “person?” Research suggests that when we view a person, we pay attention to spatial configuration (e.g., when we view a person’s face, we look for all of the spatial relationships that define a face, such as having two eyes above the nose, as well as a nose above the mouth). However, when we view objects, we process them differently and do not account for spatial relationships among the object’s features. One consequence of this is that when an image of a person is inverted (i.e., when it is turned upside down), we have a hard time recognizing it because all of the expected spatial relationships are thrown off. This problem does not arise when we view objects, because our recognition of an object is not based upon spatial configuration—thus, it is just as easy to recognize an object when it is right-side up or upside down. In summary, when we see a person, we should recognize an upright image better than an inverted image; however, when we see an object, we should be equally good a recognizing it regardless of how the image is presented.

In this study, male and female college undergraduates were shown a set of sexualized images. Each image consisted of either a man or a woman in skimpy undergarments. Half of the images were upright, while the other half was inverted. Each image was presented individually on a computer screen for just a fraction of a section. After presenting each image, participants were shown both an upright and inverted version of that image and asked to select the one they had previously seen.

Results indicated that both male and female participants had an easier time recognizing upright images of men as opposed to inverted images. However, when it came to images of women, participants recognized them equally well regardless of how the image was presented. These results suggest that sexy men were more likely to be viewed as persons, while sexy women were more likely to be viewed as objects. These findings also tell us that viewing women as objects is not something that is unique to male psychology because female participants exhibited the same pattern of responses.

Of course, this study does not tell us why we perceive sexy men and women differently, which is really the million dollar question. Although several explanations are possible, the longstanding objectification of the female body in the media would intuitively seem to be a prime contender for changing the way that we think about women.

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[1] Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S., & Klein, O. (in press). Integrating sexual objectification with object versus person recognition: The sexualized-body-inversion hypothesis. Psychological Science.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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