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Everyone Judges Sexy Women — but Why?

This is a photo of a woman whose face is hidden by her hair.“Are sexualized women seen as complete human beings?” — and if not, why? A group of psychological scientists led by Jeroen Vaes of the University of Padova, Italy, tried to answer these questions by studying volunteers’ reactions to photographs. They found that both men and women tend to view sexually objectified women as having characteristics that are “less than human”; however, they also found that men and women dehumanize sexualized women for very different reasons. The results were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Vaes and his colleagues recruited heterosexual male and female study participants at an Italian university. The study participants were asked to look at photographs of either men or women that were taken from popular Italian magazines. Some of the photos “objectified” their subjects with sexually provocative positions or scanty clothing. Other photos were “personalized,” which is to say that they emphasized the subjects’ facial features or showed the subjects doing everyday activities.

Study participants were asked to complete a single-category implicit association test, which measured the extent to which they associated each photo with certain words, some of which were associated with humanness (culture, foot, nose, values, and tradition) and others of which were associated with nonhuman animals (nature, paw, snout, instinct, and hibernation). Both male and female participants associated personalized men, objectified men, and personalized women with the human words. The photographs of objectified women were the only ones that were significantly “dehumanized” by both sexes.

In a second study, the scientists set out to determine why members of each sex dehumanized the sexualized women. A second group of male and female study participants completed the animal and human categorization test from the original study and then judged and categorized the extent to which they found personalized and objectified women “sexy, arousing, beautiful, superficial, and vulgar.” Results indicated that female participants who dehumanized sexualized women also reported feeling that the sexualized women were vulgar and superficial. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to objectify women to whom they were sexually attracted.

The researchers also conducted a third study, in which they primed study participants with either neutral or sexually charged words. Men but not women were more likely to dehumanize women after being primed with sexual words.

Based on these results, Vaes and his coauthors suggest that when men associate women with less-than-human characteristics, it is often because they find the women sexually attractive. Sexual attraction may motivate men to focus on women’s physical characteristics and place less emphasis on their personalities and mental characteristics. When women dehumanize objectified women, the scientists believe, it is because they feel distanced from them — perhaps because they see the objectified women as “bad apples” who threaten all women with a negative image or perhaps because the objectified women represent an unattainable standard of beauty from which women feel they need to protect themselves. The authors hope that future research will flesh out not only the reasons women tend to distance themselves from sexualized female images but also the reasons men tend to dehumanize the women to whom they are attracted in a potentially detrimental way.

ResearchBlogging.orgVaes, J., Paladino, P., & Puvia, E. (2011). Are sexualized women complete human beings? Why men and women dehumanize sexually objectified women European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (6), 774-785 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.824

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