UNL study says we view women as sexual objects and men as people

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August 23, 2012 - 8:52am

Gabby Douglas is a world-class athlete - she's the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion. Yet much of the conversation surrounding her appearances at the London games focused not on her athletic prowess, but her hair.

"What a strange thing, to dismember her hair from her competent body. To say something like, Her hair looks bad,' and to distract us from the fact that there's a whole person here doing feats of just remarkable human strength," said Dr. Tomi-Ann Roberts, professor of psychology at Colorado College. "What one part of Michael Phelps would be pulled out, you know? It just wouldn't be."

Courtesy image

A sample from the test given to study participants, which had them look at a picture of an average-looking man or woman (top panel), followed by a brief pause (middle panel) and then two images - one unaltered, one modified (bottom panel). Participants then had to pick out which image was the original person.

Roberts focuses her research on the sexual objectification of women and girls and the impact it has on their views of themselves. She said the idea women are objectified isn't new, but a recent study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found women themselves share in the objectifying.

Retired 81-year-old Florence Green was sitting outside a sandwich shop in Lincoln, Neb. when she was asked what she thinks about that study. She emphatically agreed there are men who view women based on their sexual body parts: "In fact, I was married to one," she said with a laugh. "And he used to talk about the waitresses at the restaurants, about their teeth and their different body parts. And he was just absolutely annoying to me, because we were out to have lunch, not for him to be hitting on women."

However, Green disagreed with the study's conclusion that both men and women are doing the objectifying.

"I see a woman as a person, the general figure and demeanor of the person," she said. "I might notice if they have unusually attractive legs or a nice body or something, but that's secondary - it's not a primary thing."

But Dr. Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at UNL and the study's lead author, said there's no real difference between men and women's perception of women as sexual objects.

Her study - the first of its kind - had participants look at a picture of an average-looking man or woman. After a brief pause, they were shown two images - one unaltered, one modified - and had to pick which image was the original person.

"What we know from previous research is that when you do this, people are actually quite good at picking out the original person they saw," Gervais said. "When we present just the parts of person, like an arm, or a leg, people can't easily identify which piece they saw. When it comes to objects - if you present a house, and then present a door to the house - people can do this just fine."

For this study, the second set of images zeroed in on body parts considered to have sexual appeal, like the chest or waist. And instead of struggling to identify the original person as was expected, Gervais found women were viewed by both genders like that hypothetical house - as an object. Both men and women were much better at recognizing the sexual parts of a woman instead of her body as a whole. This didn't happen when men and women looked at men.

Objectifying behavior - things like checking out women and commenting on their appearance - has "direct negative consequences," Gervais said, such as eating disorders and a negative sense of self. One of her previous studies found women perform worse on math tests after being ogled by men.

This is damaging for a couple of reasons, she said.

"The first reason, and this is one of the implications, is that sexual objectification really involves reducing someone to their appearance or sexual body parts. So that reduction? That can be problem," Gervais said. "It sets the stage for things like dehumanization and enacting violence for example, sexual violence toward women. Dehumanization and objectification also lead to even graver things like genocide.

"That's a first step toward those acts of violence."

So if objectification of women can cause so much harm, why would women do it to other women?

It has a lot to do with ethnicity, class, sexuality and age, said Lindsay Novak, a licensed independent mental health practitioner and certified sex therapist in Omaha.

"I think some women don't care about objectification. I think some women actually push the limitations on it and use it to their advantage," she said. "There are social and economic benefits if we perceive ourselves as attractive, and in order to do that, we almost need to play that comparative game toward other women."

26-year-old Gina Bonneau, who works at an art supply store in Lincoln, said she agrees comparison plays a big role.

"Sometimes I find myself comparing other women's bodies to my own body," she said. "Less so than identifying that woman as a pair of legs, it's more like, That woman has longer legs than I do. That must be nice.'"

The fact that we do this without thinking implies it's a natural reaction, study author Gervais said. But at the same time, since both men and women view women as the sum of their sexual parts, it's likely a result of culture and media, not just biology - so headlines like "Objectifying Women Isn't Your Fault" from the Men's Fitness magazine website don't really hold water.

"It might be a natural tendency, in some regards, to reduce women to their sexual body parts, but in the long term, that's going to interfere with your ability to form good relationships with women," she said. "If it sets the stage for violence, that's not great - if it's negatively impacting the women themselves, those aren't the types of behavior that we want to promote. So I would say it's not a 'get out of jail free' card for either men or women."

Roberts, the professor from Colorado College, said future studies could be fine-tuned in terms of what constitutes "sexual body parts" for men and women.

"I don't think waists and chests are equally sexual body parts for women and for men," she said. "In a way, the study as designed leans in the direction of the finding that they got, given that women's breasts are so over-determined in the culture as the symbol of women's sexuality."

Roberts suggested comparing the focus given to women's chests versus men's shoulders, for example, or even testing attention paid to non-sexual body parts, like feet or hands.

Gervais said it may be impossible to completely eradicate biases on the basis of gender, but she pointed to part of the study that showed people's way of processing women can be altered, mitigating the tendency to objectify them.

"So when I say that this is a pretty natural process, I'm not saying that you can't do anything about it."

This study focused on straight European-Americans' views of straight European-Americans. Black men and women are hypersexualized in American culture, Gervais said, so the effect of this might be even stronger for them. Given the significant pressure on gay men to be attractive, she wondered, might they sexually objectify both women and men?

Such questions are likely to drive future studies, she said.

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