Study: Men Objectify Scantily Clad Women
By Amel Abdullah
Freelance Writer - United States
Memory tests performed on the men showed that most of them best remembered photographs of headless women in bikinis despite viewing each image for only a fraction of a second.
Anecdotally, Muslim women often speak of feeling "protected," "safe," and "respected" when they wear the hijab (religiously mandated modest dress that covers the shape of the body and includes the headscarf or veil). Now there may also be evidence to show that their feelings are rooted in scientific fact.
When psychologist Susan Fiske and a team of researchers at Princeton University performed MRI brain scans on heterosexual men who viewed a series of images showing both scantily clad and fully clothed men and women, they found that the men had an unmistakable response to women wearing less clothing.
The less they wore, the more likely it was for the premotor cortex and the posterior middle temporal gyrus to light up. These are the areas of the brain associated with tool use, hand manipulation, and the urge to take action. (Cikara, Dell'Amore)
"It was as if they immediately thought about how they might act on these bodies," Fiske explained during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which was held in Chicago, February 12-16. "They are reacting to these photographs as people react to objects," she said. (Nicholson)
Memory tests performed on the men showed that most of them best remembered photographs of headless women in bikinis despite viewing each image for only a fraction of a second. (Landau)
Fiske and her team further examined the men for hostile sexist attitudes. They found that those rated as more hostile had little activity in areas of the brain that are associated with considering another person's thoughts and feelings (a phenomenon called mentalizing) when looking at sexualized photos of women in bikinis. "They are not thinking about their minds," said Fiske. (Cikara, Dell'Amore, Landau)
Sexualized Women Viewed as Less Human
Several studies further demonstrate the link between viewing pornography and committing violence against women, including rape and sexual assault.
According to a lay summary of Fiske's study provided to IslamOnline.net, when a man's mentalizing network shuts down, this means he views sexualized women as "less human." (Cikara)
This type of dehumanization is something Fiske says has rarely been observed in the laboratory setting—only "once before," according to a recent National Geographic article, which cited a study in which people were shown "off-putting photographs of homeless people and drug addicts." (Dell'Amore)
In the case of scantily clad women, however, men do not demonstrate the same feelings of avoidance as they do with populations like the homeless, which are often shunned by society. Instead, they wish to act on them as one would "push," "handle," or "grab" an object—first-person action verbs that men associated with the images of women in swimsuits. (Dell'Amore, Landau)
Mina Cikara, a Princeton University graduate student who was involved in conducting the study, added that men do not view their wives or sisters in the same manner they view sexualized images of women. In addition, men associated the images of women who were more fully clothed with third-person verbs, such as "she pushes," "she handles," and "she grabs," which, according to Fiske, implies that men view fully-clothed women as having more command over their own actions and not as objects to be manipulated. (Eshleman, Landau)
More Clothing, More Respect
"One of the main objectives of hijab is to safeguard women from the gazes of people of weak morals."
According to Fiske, the results of the study have important implications for women, especially in the workplace as it has previously been shown that viewing sexualized images of women can affect how men perceive women and interact with them afterwards. (Landau, Sample)
A sexism study conducted by Lawrence University professor, Peter Glick, also found that professional women who wear provocative attire in the workplace are perceived by their co-workers as being less competent and less intelligent, especially when they are in positions of power. According to DiversityJobs.com, Glick's study suggests that "women in higher level and high power jobs may need to dress more modestly and conservatively to win the respect of their colleagues." (DiversityJobs.com)
Several studies further demonstrate the link between viewing pornography and committing violence against women, including rape and sexual assault. In the wars of Bosnia and Iraq, soldiers who committed atrocious crimes and dehumanized the other side were often found to be regular consumers of pornography, even viewing pornography on purpose to "psyche themselves up" for the work of killing. (Chew, Rejali)
Fiske compared the results of her study to studies showing that viewing television can desensitize one to the effects of violence. "You have to be aware of the effect of these images on people," Fiske told The Daily Princetonian. "They’re not neutral. They do have an effect on how people think about other women." (Eshleman, Alleyne)
Dignity and Confidence
"There were times where I wish I was covered up more so that I could just get home without worrying about who might be following me."
Despite mounting evidence showing the benefits of modest and conservative dress, media portrayals of the hijab frequently depict Muslim women as victims of oppression, mind-control, and abuse.
Karen Danielson, however, maintains that wearing the hijab gives her both dignity and confidence. Danielson, an American living in Jordan, first wore the hijab more than two decades ago, shortly after embracing Islam in 1983.
"When I walk in public, I cannot be looked at or judged based on my sensuality or lack of either, or how I attract or not attract men," she explained to IslamOnline.net. "I define myself based on my upright behavior and intelligence—what my dress upholds—and I am humbled in my modest dress."
"I feel that I can be myself, a unique individual with her own voice to speak," added Sumayah Finnigan. "I am not conforming to the majority in what they say and wear and thus I am me - which is thoroughly liberating."
Balqees Mohammed, an American who embraced Islam in 1979, holds similar views and told IslamOnline.net that the hijab "promotes modesty...for the woman as well as all those around her."
Mohammed, who lives in Saudi Arabia and covers her face in addition to the rest of her body, says that her way of dressing "causes others, particularly men, to not be so free to engage in unnecessary discussion."
Hijab and Safety
"The message that the woman gives when she wears Islamic dress is as follows: 'Respect me for who I am. I am not a sex object.'"
"I definitely feel safer wearing hijab and dressing modestly in general," Cari Abudeyeh, another American living in Jordan and a practicing Muslim of twelve years told IslamOnline.net.
"I feel it is my barrier against men staring or disrespecting me and my boundaries. It is a barrier to prevent or change that first instinctive look men give you to check you out and see what you are 'about,' a barrier to prevent sexual feelings you didn't intend them to feel or ideas in their heads that are created by dressing provocatively."
She went on to say that "It's a protection against men approaching you in an inappropriate manner, helping to influence their decision in the way they stand by you, talk to you, look at you, or even prevent them from touching you."
Finnigan, who is from London, contrasts wearing the hijab, which she describes as "an act of obedience to the Creator" that "makes women safer in both the literal sense and the spiritual sense," with the feelings of vulnerability she used to experience before accepting Islam and the hijab in 1999.
"There were times where I wish I was covered up more so that I could just get home without worrying about who might be following me," said Finnigan. "Every night I would venture out and return home always looking over my shoulder, afraid I would be attacked or raped."
"There will always be those who will or may attack women regardless of their manners or style of dress," acknowledges Mohammed. However, she sees the Muslim hijab as "an added help to ward off possible physical approaches."
"One of the main objectives of hijab is to safeguard women from the gazes of people of weak morals and from those seeking to indulge in unlawful worldly pleasures," says Sheikh Riyad Al-Musaymiri, a professor at Al-Imam University in Riyadh. (IslamToday.com)
"The Muslim woman is distinguished from the impious woman, for which she deserves respect." (Al-Musaymiri)
According to IslamToday.com, some Western observers have assumed that the head covering of a woman is meant to show her inferiority to men.
“This could not be further from the truth. The Qur'an explicitly states that the reason for her dressing this way is so that she will be respected. The message that the woman gives when she wears Islamic dress is as follows: 'Respect me for who I am. I am not a sex object.'" (IslamToday.com)
For Mohammed, the choice to wear the hijab was an obvious one. "For me, it was not a question of safety. I never even thought of it in that light," she explained.
"It was a question of following Allah's directives. For me, I was [neither] happy nor satisfied in becoming a Muslim only half-way. Either I became a Muslim and followed the commands and directives the best that I could, or I remained as I was previously."
"My dress helps to remind me about my behavior and my religion and it indicates to others the same," added Danielson. "And that is security on more levels than just safety in public; it is peace of mind and a protected heart that is molded. Alhamdulillah (Praise to God)!"
Al-Musaymiri, Riyad. "Dress & Grooming." IslamToday.com. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Alleyne, Richard. "Men Really do See Half Naked Women as 'Objects', Scientists Claim." The Telegraph. 16 Feb 2009. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Chew, Huibin Amee. "Why the War is Sexist (And Why We Can't Ignore Gender Anymore)." History News Network. 13 March, 2006. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Cikara, Mina; Eberhardt, Jennifer L.; Fiske, Susan T. "From Subjects to Objects: Sexist Attitudes and Neural Responses to Sexualized Targets." Lay Summary of Study Conducted at Princeton University.
Dell'Amore, Christine. "Bikinis Make Men See Women as Objects, Scans Confirm." National Geographic News. 16 Feb. 2009. Accessed 12 March 2009.
"Dress & Grooming." IslamToday.com. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Eshleman, Doug. "Men View Half-Naked Women as Objects, Study Finds." The Daily Princetonian. 17 Feb. 2009. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Landau, Elizabeth. "Men See Bikini-Clad Women as Objects, Psychologists Say." CNN. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Nicholson, Christie. "Women as Sex Objects." Scientific American. 17 Feb. 2009. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Rejali, Darius. "After Feminist Analyses of Bosnian Violence." Reed College. 1996. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Sample, Ian. "Sex Objects: Pictures Shift Men's View of Women." The Guardian. 16 Feb. 2009. Accessed 12 March 2009.
"Wearing Provocative Attire May Impair Women's Progress in the Workplace." DiversityJobs. 14 May 2007. Accessed 12 March 2009.
Amel S. Abdullah is a freelance writer, editor, and Arabic-English translator who has written and translated more than 200 published articles on topics related to health, science, technology, culture, history, language, and education. She is especially interested in the relationship between faith and science and is a regular contributor to IslamOnline.net. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org