Study: Men see women in bikinis as 'sex objects'
Scientists have demonstrated something that many women suspect and most men would admit only to themselves: pictures of scantily-clad females turn women into sexual objects in the minds of men.
Feminists would no doubt see the discovery as the science of the bloody obvious, but the researchers claim the results demonstrate just how pictures of bikini-clad women affect the inner workings of the male brain.
The study found that the part of the brain that keeps in check a man's sexual hostility towards women is deactivated when he is shown images of women in bikinis. The findings also support the idea that pornographic images turn women into commodified objects in the minds of men, the researchers said.
"It is as if they are reacting to these women as if they are not fully human," said Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, who made the study on 21 male undergraduates using a medical scanner to analyse their brain activity. She told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago: "I wouldn't argue for censorship, but I would argue that it is important to know about the impact of the images you are showing."
The study focused on a region of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex, just above the eyes, which, when activated seems to damp a man's tendency to express hostile sexist thoughts about women, Professor Fiske said. Men who express the strongest sexist tendencies tend to have a less active medial cortex. It becomes decactivated in men who are the most hostile to women, but only for women in bikinis, she said.
"So basically they are particularly likely to treat these women as objects, at least that is the interpretation of the data we have so far. It is a preliminary study but it is consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs as if they were responding to objects rather than people."
It was "shocking" to find that the pictures of scantily clad women deactivates the medial pre-frontal cortex, Professor Fiske went on. "The only other time we've observed the deactivation of this region is when people look at pictures of homeless people and drug addicts who they really don't want to think about what's in their minds because they are put off by them."
The panel of 21 heterosexual male students were first rated in terms of their sexist attitudes to women, using answers to interview questions. Then they were placed in a brain scanner while viewing a set of images of women in bikinis, women in clothes and men in clothes. The scientists also used "sexualised" images, where the head of each semi-naked photograph was cut off so that only the torso was visible. The men were then given memory tests on what they had remembered about each image, with and without the heads.
"Heterosexual men had the best memory for the sexualised bodies of women – this is cutting-off the heads – even though they had seen the bodies for only 200 milliseconds," Professor Fiske said. The findings have wider implications for society because they show how sexualised images in the media and in advertising can dehumanise women by encouraging men to think of them in terms of objects to be acted upon, she said. "There is an avoidance-related dehumanisation or dementalising kind of response. This one is an approach-orientated response. These women are attractive, they are seen as sexually inviting.
"When you have sexualised pictures of women in the workplace, it's hard not to think of female colleague in those terms. It has a spill-over effect in how you perceive plausible women in the workplace and not treating them as agents but as independent people, and not seeing them as a means to an end."
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