The science of objectification

The common wisdom is that naked women are seen as objects, but new research says it's more complicated than that

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Pornography,

The science of objectification (Credit: iStockphoto/hidesy/mo64)

When Sharon Bialek stepped before the press this week, she wore a demure, long-sleeved black dress. The 50-year-old single mom also made sure to detail exactly what she wore when she was allegedly sexually harassed by Herman Cain. This is because she and her bulldog lawyer well know that women are judged by what, and how little, they wear.

A new study attempts to explain exactly how that judgment works and why our perceptions of people rely on the amount of skin they show. It’s a question at the heart of contentious debates about everything from objectification in pornography to work-appropriate attire. Typically it’s been assumed that this is something that happens when men perceive women — the infamous “male gaze” — and that it involves, as one of the study’s researchers, Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland, put it, “the wholesale stripping away of mind” (in other words, viewing someone as a mindless sex object). “This study challenges all of those ideas,” he told me by phone.

As a red-blooded woman, I don’t find it at all surprising that men aren’t the only ones capable of some level of objectification, nor is it unexpected that we perceive a person in their birthday suit as having less agency than, say, someone in a business suit. More intriguing, though, is that the data suggests that despite all that, our perception of naked people doesn’t involve the aforementioned “wholesale stripping of mind.” Nakedness does change how we perceive a person, but it tends to make us see them as more sensitive, vulnerable and emotional, the researchers say. Gray explains, “People perceive minds along two dimensions and not along one. So instead of seeing them as an object versus a person, we see them as two kinds of people. An agent and an experiencer.”

The study, “More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification,” is actually composed of several smaller studies, some of which asked participants to come to conclusions about naked and clothed porn stars pictured in photographs. In one exercise, images were featured from the book “XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits,” which contrasts high-quality portraits of stars like Jenna Jameson wearing regular street clothes with images of the same performers standing stark naked but, importantly, without any come-hither posturing. In another study, they had participants evaluate male and female models in photographs showing just their face, or their face and upper torso, in an attempt to see how perceptions change when the focus is on a person’s body and not his or her face.

The study itself argues that people with exposed flesh are seen as “beings who are less capable of thinking or reasoning but who may be even more capable of desires, sensations, emotions, and passions.” This may not be the most humanizing view, but the authors note that being perceived as such can actually be a good thing in certain situations — like when you’re complaining to your doctor about a pain. In that case, it might be beneficial to be seen as a feeling body instead of a mind. Gray adds, “If you’re with your partner then you might want to think of them as a body,” he says. “If you want to make love, you want to be thinking about their experience and not, like, ‘Oh, are we planning on submitting these mortgage payments on time?’” It’s useful for our perceptions of people to change, depending on the context. Sometimes the outcome is positive, sometimes it’s negative, but Gray argues, “Psychological phenomena aren’t intrinsically good or bad.”

It’s important to note that although the research positions itself in part as a response to debates over objectification and pornography, it didn’t look at actual X-rated movies or anything of the sort — even the naked images shown to participants were partially censored. So it would be a stretch to say that this study reveals anything about how we perceive porn stars in porn, although it might inform further research on the subject. The study does legitimately raise the possibility that sexual objectification is a more complicated process than is usually suggested, but what it most strongly establishes is that naked flesh alone isn’t enough to make us entirely discount a person’s humanity.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>