This morning as I scrolled through my twitter feed, I saw a tweet from the New York Times that could only be click-bait for a feminist: “Do images of naked or sexualized people really cause us to ‘objectify’ them?” Obviously, the wording of the question implied that the answer is “no,” but the super-simplified way that it was phrased made me want to see what the argument was. The click-bait worked, dammit.
In his article The Ways of Lust, Professor Paul Bloom describes a study where he looked at the ways in which seeing someone naked influences our perception of that person. On its own, the study seems pretty harmless (although I have to disagree with his equating of nudity with lustful feelings, although that was probably also to make the article seem more interesting); Bloom found that seeing more flesh caused viewers to see the naked person as capable of experiencing more emotion. In the experiment, participants even gave naked people less of an electric shock than they did a more-clothed person, likely because they were more aware of the person’s ability to experience feelings. However, Bloom makes several suggestions regarding objectification and pornography that, while maybe making his article a little more titillating, are also kind of misleading.
First, Bloom vastly oversimplifies and kind of misinterprets what objectification means. He says that if women in pornography were “literally” objects, they’d be unconscious and unmoving. It’s disappointing that he provided only this extreme definition, because “objectification” seems to be a concept that people have heard of, but don’t totally understand. Objectification is often more subtle than turning a human into a literal thing (although we see that in advertising every now and then too ). Objectification involves seeing a person as less than an individual, as someone whose desires are unimportant or non-existent, or who exists purely for your pleasures or purposes (the Wikipedia article on objectification is really clear and concise).
Further, Bloom goes on to minimize the harm that objectification can do. He gives a silly example: “Imagine that you are sitting outside on a sunny day, and you move behind someone so that she blocks the sun from your eyes. You have used her as an object, but it’s hard to see that you’ve done something wrong.” Sure, objectification in an isolated instance like that may be harmless. But Bloom ignores the systematic objectification of women that contributes to many of the issues that “contemporary feminists” are concerned with. See, if a group or category of people is regularly objectified, it makes it easier to see them as interchangeable, or to consider their needs and wants as less valid than your own. If you see a woman as less of a person, you can more easily justify controlling her or hitting her. If women as a group are objects, then there’s nothing wrong with shouting things at them on the street, or demanding sexual favors from them.
Finally, by focusing only on nudity in pornography, Bloom ignores all of the other issues within porn that are of concern to “contemporary feminists”. Mainstream pornography sets up expectations that are often unrealistic for both women and men. It creates the expectation that women (and men, really) will look a certain way and act a certain way during sex. It also tends to downplay communication and consent, instead highlighting the actors’ flexibility and stamina. (To make it clear, I am not making a blanket anti-porn statement– just pointing out some of the issues Bloom seemed to miss).
I’m not attacking Bloom’s research here. However, I am criticizing the conclusions that Bloom implies. Yes, talking about pornography will get you more clicks. But it’s probably not useful to over-generalize your results when there are so many other factors at play.