"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Does Pornography Objectify Women?

The Golden Fleece Awards, sponsored by Sen. William Proxmire, were given to those government research grants which were total wastes of taxpayer money. Here are a few:
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded project by psychologist Harris Rubin for $121,000, on developing "some objective evidence concerning marijuana's effect on sexual arousal by exposing groups of male pot-smokers to pornographic films and measuring their responses by means of sensors attached to their penises
  • The NSF for spending $103,000 to compare aggressiveness in sun fish that drink tequila as opposed to gin
  • National Institute for Mental Health for spending $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel; the researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy
The Golden Fleece Awards are things of the past, but research projects which either prove nothing or prove the obvious are just as common now as in the old days.

One of the areas of inquiry that seems to attract more than its share of money, both public and private, is pornography.  Does it or doesn’t it affect the brain, and if so, how? 

Most men have had a look at Hustler once or twice, and many have current subscriptions.  Despite the allure of the sexy, naked, and hot women depicted in these magazines, most readers go on to marry very ordinary women. Assuming that a fantasy sexual life necessarily leads to the objectification of women seems far fetched, and counter-intuitive.



Hundreds of millions of Indian men fill cinema halls to see seductive starlets lure men into caves and bowers.  For three hours they are transported far from their begums into a world of fantasy. Yet few rickshaw-pullers emerge from the cheap seats at the Regal Cinema as anything but rickshaw-wallahs.  They do what every other fantasy-loving, porn-watching, heterosexual man does all over the world – enjoy the fantasy and go back to work, wives, and family.

A psychologist, Paul Bloom of Yale, developed what he thinks is a foolproof way to prove that men objectify women – that is, to look at them only as sex objects. He had subjects look at two pictures of the same woman, one naked and the other fully clothed (New York Times, 11.29.13).
We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, naked people were thought of as having less agency.
Now, this is where the Golden Fleece Award comes in. Of course men think that women have more ‘agency’ when they are fully clothed.

What all men know and what researchers like Bloom still don’t, is that men – and women – are quite capable of holding two very distinctly different views of the opposite sex at the same time.




An Armani suit, Gucci leather briefcase, and stylish but sensible Tieks mean business, and pay attention.  Male subordinates may wonder what the boss looks like without her clothes but they are far more concerned with her performance review than sex.

Context is everything.  A woman in a power suit at a singles bar is a naked woman dressed up like a Senior Vice President.

Male sexual interest is subject to the Bell Curve like anything else; but but men think of sex all the time.  There is not an hour of the day when men don’t think about sex with imagined lovers, old lovers, women on the street, colleagues, Marilyn Monroe, and Scarlett Johansson



The modern-day Golden Fleece Awards continue
Relatedly, in another study of ours, in which participants gave people electric shocks, we found that the participants gave milder shocks to people who were partially undressed versus fully dressed, presumably because the flash of skin makes us more sensitive to others as experiencing beings.
In the original, discredited Yale experiment of the early 60s researchers wanted to learn more about the dynamics of authority – i.e. how willing would subjects be to administering shocks to others simply because they were told to do so. They assumed that individual conviction is always compromised by authority.  The experiment was methodologically flawed, ethically suspect, and soon discredited; but its failure did not completely discourage other researchers.


In the 'sex experiment' cited above, Bloom and his assistants found that subjects gave milder shocks to women who were partly clothed compared to those given to harder-looking, less alluring ones.
These findings underscore the corporeal nature of many of our moral feelings. The experience of other people’s bodies can elicit empathy and compassion; it can also trigger disgust, fear and hatred. Our moral thoughts and actions are influenced, often unconsciously, by others’ smell, their race, their sex, their age, how much skin they are showing and much else.
If we want to be good people, to do right by others, it’s important to know about these influences. Sometimes we will embrace them, but often we are going to want to combat them.
In other words, despite the moral cant and academic reasonability, Bloom wants men to think only good thoughts – to combat the libidinous enemy within, to smell only fragrance, and to be good.

His experiment belongs in the Golden Fleece category because 1) men think about sex all the time; 2) men like to look at pictures of sexy women; 3) the same woman can be both appealing and respected; and 4) despite their obsession, most men, like most women, can file, disaggregate, separate, and then hold two different ideas at the same time.




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