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?
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.