more variation on objectification

My cousin has discovered that my Facebook page is a handy repository for all the interesting sexuality-related stuff he reads on the internet, and since his actual job involves the internet, he reads a lot of stuff.

One example from this morning: this recent article in Wired, which says, in short, that seeing photos of people without clothes on changes the viewer’s perception of that person’s mental capacities – specifically decreased ratings of “agency” (“the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control”) and increased ratings of “experience” (“the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions”).

Given my recent mental perambulations about objectification and the media, it sparked my interest, so I went and read the whole paper. ‘Cz, nerd.

The authors’ point is that rather than causing “objectification” – i.e., perceiving someone as having less overall mind – focus on bodies actually results in a “redistribution of mind,” causing them to be perceived more in terms of experience and less in terms of agency.

Which to me sounds like an important but ultimately minute point – to me, objectification means decreased perceived agency, and indeed the research they cite in their lit review confirms this, for the most part. They write, in part:

In one discussion, for example, Nussbaum (1995) outlines a number of components of objectification, among them “denial of autonomy,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for choice and self-determination; “inertness,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for agency and action; and “denial of subjectivity,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for experience and feelings.

The part they’re refining/refuting has to do with “denial of subjectivity.” It turns out, according to this series of experiments, that when you break down assessments of “mind” into these two variables, agency and experience, nakedness decreases perceived agency but increases perceived experience. However, in the results of experiment three, they do report that “there was an overall less mind ascribed to naked targets” (i.e., people in the photographs) than to clothed subjects, though this is a mathematical artefact of the fact that subjects rated the people in the images overall as having less agency (“mind”) and more experience (“body”).

In relation to my Body of a Blogger post, they confirmed previous research that found that ratings of attractiveness increase ratings of both agency and experience. In other words, pretty people are viewed as both more capable and more sensitive.

So the important question for me is, “Does this matter? Does this change how we consider the problem of objectification?” To which I can’t help thinking, “No. My conceptualization of the problem remains the same.”

And why is that, Emily? Well. They do definitely TRY. The final experiment (out of 6) explores the “up side” of increased experience attribution. It involved subjects believing that they’re shocking their partner, with the goal of protecting their partner from harm and therefore only shocking them as much as they felt their partner could tolerate. In the conditions where subjects were shown images of their male “partner” (actually a confederate) with their shirt off, they shocked the person at a lower level than when they were shown a picture of their partner with their shirt on. So participants inflicted less harm, conclude the researchers, when people are perceived more as bodies than as minds.

And that kinda sounds like bullshit to me. In the photographs, the “shocking” nodes are either attached to the person’s skin or to the person’s clothes, so couldn’t they be responding to the basic physics of the problem, that shocks to your clothes are less direct and therefore less painful than shocks to your skin, rather than to their perception of the person as “more able to experience pain”? They are more able to experience pain because the nodes are taped to their skin rather than to their shirts, surely.

So. Does this idea that people are perceived more as “experiencers” and less as “actors” when they have their clothes off change how I think about objectification? Does it help me to talk with my students (or with anyone) about this phenomenon? Er, nope.

An important thing to note that hardly anyone ever bothers saying out loud so let me just take this opportunity: all the results are about PERCEPTIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHS OF BODIES, not perceptions of bodies per se. This is also a primary shortcoming of mate selection research in humans: people rate images – photographs or even stimuli as impoverished as LINE DRAWINGS. What relationship does the perception of a line drawing have to a person’s perception of a human body? Fuck knows. If there is research that compares how people’s attributions of mind are the same or different depending on whether they’re seeing bodies or photographs, I would love to hear about it.

Another important thing to note is that “mind” is a cultural construction and therefore varies from culture to culture, so the whole idea of “attribution of mind” and the impact on behavior or judgments can only be interpreted in the context of culture.

So I suppose this is another example of interesting but unhelpful.