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Women as Sex Objects - Influenced By Sexy Images, Men See Women as Objects

Photos of Bikini-Clad Women Excite Same Part of Men's Brains That Enjoy Tools

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Women as Sex Objects - Influenced By Sexy Images, Men See Women as Objects © Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images

What's wrong with passing around the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in the workplace? These images don't really affect male behavior, do they?

After generations of debate, science has an answer: Men respond differently to women after seeing photos of scantily clad females, and some even demonstrate increased hostility. That's according to Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, who presented her findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago on February 15, 2008.

Writing for the Guardian, Ian Sample described how Fiske studied these responses:

Researchers used brain scans to show that when straight men looked at pictures of women in bikinis, areas of the brain that normally light up in anticipation of using tools, like spanners and screwdrivers, were activated.

Scans of some of the men found that a part of the brain associated with empathy for other peoples' emotions and wishes shut down after looking at the pictures....[T]he changes in brain activity suggest sexy images can shift the way men perceive women, turning them from people to interact with, to objects to act upon.

The finding confirms a long-suspected effect of sexy images on the way women are perceived, and one which persists in workplaces and the wider world today, Fiske said.

"When there are sexualised images in the workplace, it's hard for people not to think about their female colleagues in those terms. It spills over from the images to the workplace," she said.

At CNN.com, Elizabeth Landau detailed the research methods:
The participants, 21 heterosexual male undergraduates at Princeton, took questionnaires to determine whether they harbor "benevolent" sexism, which includes the belief that a woman's place is in the home, or hostile sexism, a more adversarial viewpoint which includes the belief that women attempt to dominate men.

In the men who scored highest on hostile sexism, the part of the brain associated with analyzing another person's thoughts, feelings and intentions was inactive while viewing scantily clad women, Fiske said.

Men also remember these women's bodies better than those of fully-clothed women, Fiske said. Each image was shown for only a fraction of a second.

These latest findings support previous research that indicates male behavior towards females is influenced by highly sexualized images of women. Together they suggest that certain images are inappropriate in the workplace, such as pin-up calendars or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

As Fiske told CNN, "I'm not advocating censorship, but I do think people need to know what settings should discourage the display and possession of these kinds of things."

The objectification of women has long been a tool of businesses and advertisers who have used female bodies to sell anything from automotive parts to plumbing supplies. In decades past, these images have hung in break rooms, lockers, offices, and garages, much to the discomfort of the women who've shared these work spaces. Although the argument "there's no harm in that" has been made over the years, it's now clear that even if outright harm isn't a result of keeping and displaying sexualized images of women, their impact in the workplace is negative enough to warrant their removal.

Sources:
Landau, Elizabeth. "Men see bikini-clad women as objects, psychologists say." CNN.com, 19 February 2009.
Sample, Ian. "Sex objects: Pictures shift men's view of women." Guardian.co.uk, 16 February 2009.

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