By Alex Fradera
The phrase “sexual objectification” began popping up only 50 years ago, but it’s now ubiquitous, reflecting our concern that seeing someone sexually amounts to perceiving them as eye candy or a piece of meat. More recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have gathered evidence that sexualisation can literally lead us to perceive people less as whole humans and more as an assemblage of parts – the same way that the mind normally processes objects.
But the picture is complicated by new work published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from a team mainly drawn from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Their experiments on the impact of various forms of sexualisation on the perception of the body find that objectification does not necessarily follow.
This study relies on the discovery first made nearly 50 years ago that when human faces and bodies are presented upside-down, it is particularly hard for us to perceive them in the same holistic way we do when we look at them the right-way up (a phenomenon known as the “inversion effect”). Supporting the concept of objectification, evidence from this decade shows that inverted sexualised bodies (for example, wearing scant clothing in a provocative pose) do not trigger the inversion effect, suggesting that we process them more like we process objects – by scrutinising their individual parts, rather than holistically.
To break down exactly what about sexualisation drives the switch from humanising to objectifying perception, Philippe Bernard and his team measured volunteers’ brainwaves, in particular looking for a negative spike in brain activity called the N170 that is known to be a marker of the inversion effect (the N170 is much larger when we view flipped human bodies versus upright ones, but shows little difference in size when we view flipped versus upright objects).
In their first experiment, Bernard’s team focused on an obvious way to sexualise a person, by reducing their clothing. Twenty-one participants (average age 22, and in all experiments a balance of genders, with no gendered effects observed) viewed pictures of males and females with pixellated faces wearing black jeans and shirts or black swim-trunks/bikinis. The change in N170 caused by inverting the pictures was similar for both scantily-clad and well-covered bodies – in other words, at a neural level there was no evidence for greater objectification of the more sexualised models.
It was in further experiments that neural evidence of objectification emerged, once researchers introduced pictures of models engaged in sexually suggestive postures (see image above). Regardless of their amount of clothing, when the models posed suggestively inversion did not lead to a change in the N170, which means that they were being perceived more like objects.
Can it really be true that, without provocative posing, images showing a lot of skin did not provoke any sexualisation? While the study’s primary focus was on inversion effects, the researchers also looked at the overall size of the N170 in the different conditions because more sexualised images are known to trigger a larger N170. When the participants viewed bodies that were less clothed, particularly women’s bodies, the N170 was larger. So it seems that although seeing a lot of skin doesn’t objectify, it does generate sexual associations.
As far as I see it, suggestive posturing is a volitional act that we make in the moment, one that is intended to express “see what’s on offer”. That people respond to such invitations by checking out the wares rather than the person seems to me to reflect the response working as intended. In contrast, skin exposure need not be any kind of signal to a viewer – we expose skin when we wash, swim or stay cool (or just because we want to). That seeing skin can rouse some sexual feeling, but doesn’t automatically make us see the person any less, seems to me to be a fairly decent and respectful way for our perceptual and cognitive architecture to be put together.
I should leaven this optimistic take by recognising that these actions take place in a cultural context. In the hunt for ways to titillate and capture attention, media and advertising have exploited the sexual and objectifying qualities of the provocative pose, in a way that inundates and threatens to normalise this way of viewing.
In an ideal world, the way you pose is at your discretion, a consensual act. But where people feel pressure to actively signal sexuality, whether on Instagram or on a night out, the choice is less clearly free. And individuals who through inclination or conditioning are eager to objectify may not require suggestiveness from their target in order to do so; more work is needed to shed light on this. What this study tells us is simple: you can be seen as sexual, without being seen as an object.