What Does Sexual Objectification Look Like in the Brain?

Recent research suggests that people feel less empathy for women dressed in revealing clothing compared to those dressed more conservatively.

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When reporting a rape to police or testifying during a trial, it’s not uncommon for women to face a barrage of intrusive questions: What were you wearing at the time of the assault? Were you intoxicated? Why were you walking home alone at night?

A recent study suggests that people feel less empathy for women dressed in revealing clothing compared to those dressed conservatively.

Visual: Roga Muffin/Flickr

For decades, social psychologists have documented links between the ways society perceives women and their bodies — ones that often lead to this line of questioning — and attitudes towards gender violence. But only recently have neuroscientists begun to investigate what sexual objectification actually looks like in the brain.

In a study published in the journal Cortex in December, European researchers explored the relationship between empathy — the ability to feel others’ emotions — and sexual objectification. Their findings, based on measuring brain activity in response to viewing a woman being left out of a social activity, suggest that people feel less empathy for women dressed in revealing clothing compared to those dressed more conservatively.

To conduct the research, Giorgia Silani, a neuroscientist at the University of Vienna, Austria, along with her colleagues, asked 36 participants — both men and women — to participate in and watch videos of others playing a digital ball-tossing game. The videos featured a model who either wore long pants, a plain top, and light makeup, or a short dress, high heels, and heavy makeup. At different points in the videos, the model was included or excluded from the game.

As the participants watched the videos, the researchers measured blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for controlling empathy. The results showed that participants had lower activity in these regions when the woman in revealing clothing was excluded from the game compared to when the woman in plain clothing was excluded. The positive response when the “sexualized” woman was included was also less than it was for the other woman.

Silani speculates that the reason for the differing levels of empathy could be dissimilarity — people tend to empathize with individuals who they find something in common with. “With a more similar person, you are better able to put yourself in her shoes and, therefore, feel her emotions,” she says, though the study did not find a statistically significant difference in the reactions between male and female participants.

Regarding the findings, Silani is careful to note that she doesn’t want to send the message that women need to change the way they dress. “Here’s what we want to say — actually, the problem is not with the target or the person that is dressing,” she explains, “but with the perceiver who feels less empathy for her.”

Though the study’s conclusions were drawn from a relatively small sample size, other researchers found the results convincing. “There is a real lack of cognitive neuroscience looking at sexual objectification, so I think papers like this provide us insights into the way objectification occurs at a neural level,” says Steve Loughnan, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The results, he says, are thoroughly consistent with what social psychologists already know about sexual objectification’s implications. “We know that aggression towards objectified women is higher, that people care less when they are hurt, and that people are less willing to intervene to help them. So, a lower level of empathy is another part of that puzzle,” he says.

Silani’s work also resonated with activists working in women’s rights. “The findings affirm much of what those working on behalf of victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence have long known to be true — rape culture influences all of us,” says Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that provides resources and collaborates with other organizations to respond to and prevent sexual violence.

Palumbo says this research must be understood in the context of cultures and societies that have historically objectified women. “The experience of objectification is not a choice — it is an inevitable outcome of a society where the minds and bodies of women are devalued,” she says.

But if objectification is so closely tied to societal norms, can neuroscience really help explain it?

“Certainly,” wrote Olivier Klein, who teaches social psychology at the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, in an email. “As long as we acknowledge that what we observe in the brain is in part a function of the socio-cultural factors to which the subject has been exposed (including portrayals of women as objects).”

Dinsa Sachan is a freelance journalist based out of New Delhi, India. She edits Nucleus Mag, a weekly science and culture newsletter.

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10 comments / Join the Discussion

    Tim, what are you doing on a science site!! The bro culture is in Silicon Valley –

    I too had the initial reaction that a woman who genuinely wanted to participate in a ball tossing game would not have shown up in high heels. I would judge her as clueless and would not feel sorry for her for being excluded. I wouldn’t want my team to include a woman in heels since I would hope to win the game. I think that the study should be repeated without such a confusing variable. If the results in the repeat study were the same, I’d be much more inclined to believe that there is less empathy for sexually dressed women, at least in the society represented in the study.

    Girls and women need to be aware of the simple fact that revealing clothing will or may incite sexual arousing in men, especially young males. Many men who see a woman dressed in tight, skimpy or skin-revealing clothes as a sexual object with an open invitation to lure, harass or even assault. This is not just the result of our socialization, but do to the fact that humans are sexual beings that respond strongly to visual stimuli, in contrast to most animals that respond to smells and pheromones.

    Well, i think we all, animals of the world respond with all our senses. I personally wouldn’t mind some cute, high healed, perfume blessed babe on my team! Oh! i hope some people are reading this, it is a joke, it is’t a joke. She may ditch the heals and be the best player on the team and still smell great.

    This article is the demonization of men.

    The study was conducted on both men and women. The results were consistent across both sexes. Even in social psychology studies, both men and women have been shown to dehumanize women who wear revealing clothes. This article does not demonize men.

    Get over it; men need to be responsible for their own reactions-physical and mental- the old adage of keep it in your pants applies. We have to be aware that all of use both men and women are racists against a whole lot of culturally perceived norms. We either hold fast to them or reject them as not revelant. If we are aware of such and focus on loving kindness instead, we might be better to deal with our interactions.

    This was a computer simulation of a ball game, not an actual ball game.

    Women in high heels aren’t the best choice for ball games, I consider myself empathic but I too would probably exclude her from my team. But that doesn’t mean I would want her raped or feel less sorry for her if she got raped.

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