Do bikinis make men sexist?

A study claims that half-naked pinups lead men to objectify women.

Published February 18, 2009 11:40AM (EST)

Take cover, because I'm about to drop a bomb of scientific discovery: Men see bikini-clad babes as ... sex objects. That revelation comes from a new study that has spawned headlines like "Bikinis Make Men See Women as Objects" and others of the "See, Men Really Are Disgusting Pigs!" variety.

Researchers performed brain scans on 21 heterosexual men and found that such sexy images light up the part of their brains associated with tools or other things that "you manipulate with your hands" (like, boobs!). Lead researcher Susan Fiske of Princeton University said "it's as if they immediately thought to act on theses bodies" and observed, "They're reacting to these women as if they're not fully human." Despite her seeming surprise, Fiske says the results were predicted long ago: "I remember [co-researcher Jennifer Eberhardt] suggested it first about a year ago, and I said, 'Oh, Jennifer, that’s disgusting. I can’t believe you’re predicting that.'"

Disgusting, really? What, are men supposed to think, "Underneath those itsy bitsy triangles of fabric is a three-dimensional thinking and feeling human being with whom I would like to have an emotionally engaging conversation"? Or: "The size of her bosom is impressive, but I would prefer she show off the heft of her cranium"? How puritanical! How unrealistic! How, dare I say it, sexist!

The study doesn't suggest that men philosophically determine all scantily clad women to be "things," treat bikini-wearing women like objects or are incapable of seeing women as both sexual and animate. It simply found that a barely there get-up meant to display the female body tends to trigger in men a simplistic sexual response. Of course it does. Women do it, too, I'm sure; they might be slightly more likely to eroticize certain aspects of a man's persona as opposed to his physicality, but it's hardly any less objectifying (if we have to use that word).

Another of the study's the-sky-is-blue findings is that of the array of images shown to the men -- including shots of fully clothed men and women -- they most remembered the photos of the half-naked women. Also unsurprising, although interesting nonetheless, is that men who were deemed to be "hostile sexists" based on their answers to a questionnaire showed no activity in the region of the brain associated with "social cognition" when viewing snapshots of the beach-ready women. In other words: Men with loads of anger toward the opposite sex "are not thinking about [the women's] minds," said Fiske. Sadly, much of the media coverage I've seen has generalized that finding to suggest that it was generally true for the male subjects.

Fiske concludes that "pornography and sexualized images of women around and in the media ... spill over into how people treat women in general." This is probably true, but I'm not clear on how this study is evidence of that. Instead, it seems to suggest that sexualized images can elicit a strong reptilian response. As I'm discovering in reading Daniel Bergner's "The Other Side of Desire," which I highly recommend, all sorts of socially unacceptable images stir a sexual response in most straight and narrow, law-abiding men, including photos of female children and pubescents. (Women's arousal, as we know, is a much, uh, stickier issue.) But I guess now that we can scan someone's brain while showing them an array of racy images, some expect our sexual responses to be politically correct, not only in action but in thought.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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