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What (Who) do you see?
What (Who) do you see?
Katja Heise

Women are just sex objects! Making a classic male sexist comment like that has long been taboo in Western societies. Yet two studies, one Belgian, the other American, actually go a long way in proving that women really are perceived that way.

A team working with psychologist Philippe Bernard at the Université Libre in Brussels found that lingerie-clad women on photographs were perceived more as objects than as people although this was not the case with scantily clad men.

To demonstrate this, the psychologists made use of a mechanism known as the inversion effect. If photographs are viewed upside down, viewers find it more difficult to recognize faces and people. However they have no problem recognizing objects, such as buildings or cars, when photographs of these are shown to them upside down.

For the experiment, 78 test subjects were shown photos of men and women wearing underwear or bathing suits. The subjects were then shown each picture again with an inverted version, and asked to say which one they had originally seen.

The result was that the subjects had much more trouble recognizing the photos of men that were shown upside down. This was not the case with photographs of women, where it didn’t seem to make much difference if they were standing on their head or not.

Checking out a potential partner

In an article published in Psychological Science magazine, the researchers concluded that men tend to be perceived as persons, while women tend to be perceived as objects. And the most surprising thing, says Sarah Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska and co-author of the study, is that the blame for this cannot just be shunted onto men: women perceive other women in exactly the same way.

Gervais explains that the reasons for this may be different: men do it because they are checking out a potential partner, while women are looking at the competition by comparing themselves to the other woman.

A second study that Gervais conducted at the University of Nebraska came up with the same results. She used another method, however: in the photographs shown to subjects, the men and the women were wearing more clothes so that their gender-specific body parts did not immediately catch the eye.

Researchers in the second study also made use of a different psychological mechanism, which is that when humans look at an object the brain either processes what we see as an entity (global processing) or as a collection of several parts (local processing). Gervais says that we normally process objects locally but that global processing is used where people are involved. However, as her article in the Journal of Social Psychology reveals, there is a gender component at play here as well.

In her experiment, 83 students were shown pictures of human bodies. They were later shown pictures of the same bodies and pictures of parts of bodies. The result was that the subjects remembered women better when they were only shown parts of them, such as breasts or legs. They remembered men best when they saw their whole body a second time. The scientists concluded that people see women as they do inanimate objects: as linked individual parts.

"We don’t divide people into parts except where women are concerned, and that is really remarkable,” says Gervais, adding that there are still many open questions such as how homosexuals perceive women, or fathers their daughters.

A cultural perspective

Another aspect of the research would be to see if American and European perceptions of women carried over into other cultures. Social psychologist Jens Förster of the University of Amsterdam says he suspects that perceptions would be different in Asian societies where the role of individuals is subordinate to that of the group, which could change the perception of the individual woman.

However, there are indications that women are perceived similarly -- as sex objects -- around the world. In 1989, psychologist David Buss of the University of Michigan studied 37 cultures and found that where sex and partnership are concerned men and women tend to use stereotyped distinguishing characteristics.

That points not to the objectification of women but to the fixation on specific body parts. The bottom line however is that the two new studies could lead to quite remarkable conclusions that would end up having significant repercussions on male-female relations.

Jens Förster says: "The real consequences of these studies will only reveal themselves after many other studies have been conducted.” The next step, he says, is establishing if the perception of women as sex objects means that they are treated differently than men. If so Förster says there is reason for hope, because he does not believe this behavior to be innate. "We can unlearn it, get out of the habit of it."

Neurologist Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen disagrees with this. While there is no comparable neurobiological study – it is extremely difficult to use technology like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to research such links – it is possible to see when something appears attractive to a subject from unconscious reactions in the deepest recesses of the brain such as the hypothalamus and amygdala, which are strongly influenced by sex hormones like oxytocin and testosterone.

To Roth that means that the fixation on certain parts of the female body can be stronger or weaker depending on the culture but can’t be left out of the equation entirely.

So even if studies show that women are perceived as objects the question remains as to what consequences that has on behavior – for men and women both.

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