Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal (HURJ).
Everyone knows that sex sells—but is capitalizing on this actually problematic? For many years, feminists have stirred up a storm regarding the way that women are portrayed by the mass media—especially in commercial advertising. Women, exponentially more often than men, are sexualized and objectified, becoming not just objects of desire and affection, but products that can be sold and bought. Consequently, when presented this way, females are looked at in terms of their body parts rather than their personalities—an essentially dehumanizing process. Many assert that objectifying women in order to sell products can impact the way that women are perceived outside of the commercial arena. It is argued that the practice contributes to a wide array of problems including not only personal struggles with self-esteem and psychological illness, but also social traumas like sexual violence. Jean Kilbourne, a pioneer of the movement to raise awareness of objectifying processes in advertising, asserts that “turning a human being into a ‘thing’ is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”1
Kilbourne’s allegations are not without consequences; thus, it is important to ask whether her assumptions have any factual basis. Are sexualized women actually perceived as objects?
Since object recognition is a cognitive process that takes place on a subconscious level over which we have little control, this question must be addressed by cognitive science. A recent study has found evidence that the answer is, yes—on a basic cognitive level, we perceive sexualized females as objects, not persons.2
According to cognitive psychology, the process of recognizing our fellow human beings differs greatly from that of recognizing non-human objects. Person-recognition is achieved through configural processing, which involves perceiving configurations between the primary parts of a stimulus. In contrast, object-recognition is achieved through analytic processing, which does not involve spatial relations between components of a stimulus. An important indicator of the difference between these two methods of perception is the inversion effect, by which it is much more challenging to identify inverted stimuli than to recognize their upright counterparts. Because the inversion effect occurs only with human stimuli—but not with non-human objects—it can be utilized to determine which recognition process is being used for a certain stimulus.
A recent study aimed to use this understanding of the inversion effect in order to assess the impact of female and male sexualization on human perception. The researchers Bernard, Gervais, Allen, Campomizzi, and Klein formed the novel sexualized-body-inversion hypothesis: If sexualized women are viewed as objects and sexualized men are viewed as persons, then sexualized female bodies will be recognized equally well when inverted as when upright (object-like recognition), whereas sexualized male bodies will be recognized better when upright than when inverted (person-like recognition).
Simply put: if female sexualization does cause women to be seen as objects, then it should be just as easy to recognize ‘sexy’ women when their photos are inverted as when they are upright; if male sexualization does not cause men to be seen as objects, then it should be much harder to recognize ‘sexy’ men when their photos are inverted than when they are upright.
In this study, 78 university students—41 of whom were men and 37 of whom were women—were presented 48 photos of sexualized males and females, pictured in swimwear or underwear and showing neutral facial expressions. 24 of these photos depicted men and 24 depicted women; 12 photos in each gender set were inverted and the other 12 were left upright. Each photo was presented to the participants for 250 milliseconds, followed by a blank screen for one second. The participants were then presented with two images and asked to identify which of the two was the photo that they had seen immediately preceding the blank screen. These two images consisted of the original photo and a horizontal mirror image of the original photo. The researchers calculated the percentage of correct identifications for female upright bodies, female inverted bodies, male upright bodies, and male inverted bodies.
Not surprisingly, the results of this experiment supported the hypothesis. The participants had much more difficulty recognizing inverted men than upright men—85% of identifications were correct for upright photos of men while only 73% were correct for the inverted photos—with a p-value less than 0.001, meaning that there is a less than 0.1% probability that this result was due to chance. However, this was not the case when recognizing women; the participants recognized inverted pictures of women just about as easily as upright pictures of women, with recognition rates of about 86% and 83% respectively (as shown by Figure 1)—and the p-value was 0.17, reflecting a much higher probability that even this small difference in numbers only resulted due to chance. Also, when comparing the percentage correctly identified for inverted photos of men (73%) to inverted photos of women (83%), it is clear that the participants faced more difficulty in recognizing inverted men than inverted women—again, with a p-value less than 0.001, making it very unlikely that this large 10% disparity resulted out of chance.
In summary, the researchers found that the inversion effect occurred with photos of sexualized males but not with photos of sexualized females, indicating that, at a basic cognitive level, we perceive sexualized men as human beings and sexualized women as objects. These same effects were observed among both the male and female participants in the study. Even when comparing sexualized men directly to sexualized women, the resulting numbers show a disparity large enough to conclude that sexualized men and sexualized women are processed very differently, and it isn’t just due to chance.
What does this mean? The experiment must be replicated and more research must be done before anything can be declared with certainty. However, the study makes an important development by providing scientific evidence for a widely circulated theory. Portraying women in a sexual manner is associated with viewing women as objects—and the same doesn’t apply to men. The cause of this phenomenon is sure to be debated, but one can suspect that it is largely a result of the types of images with which the media bombards us. It is difficult to separate such social phenomena from the environment in which humans are socialized. More research must be done to reveal the extent to which this impacts non-sexualized women, women in reality rather than in photos, and other relevant scenarios. But for now, it seems there is truth in the premise of the argument that the way women are portrayed objectifies them.
1.Kilbourne, J. (Producer), & Jhally, S. (Director). (2002).Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women [Motion picture]. Northampton, Massachusetts: Media Education Foundation.
2. Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S., & Klein, O. (April 3, 2012). Integrating Sexual Objectification With Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434748