Women in Bikinis May More Easily Avoid Potentially Abusive Partners, Study Says(?)

OK, OK, the headline is a joke, but there’s a serious point behind it that I think those of us who value true purity as opposed to cheap knockoffs need to reckon with.  This past Summer I’ve been reading a lot about the 2009 Princeton study that, according to some sources, found that men can’t help but view women in bikinis as objects instead of persons. 

I hadn’t had time to read the study before now,  but I finally got around to it this past weekend and I have to say that the study really doesn’t appear to say what people are claiming it does.

What The Study Actually Says

The original study was titled, From agents to objects: sexist attitudes and neural responses to sexualized targets.  I have the full study in front of me, but the link goes behind an academic library firewall so I can’t post it here.  The abstract is, however, in the public domain so I’m posting it in italics below.  (Don’t get freaked out by the academic language.  In fact, feel free to skip it if you like.  It’s pretty murky stuff.  I’ll walk you though it, but since the post has the potential to be a bit controversial, I wanted to be sure to show my math. Also, I am taking the liberty of highlighting the most relevant passages for easier understanding of the results).

ABSTRACT:  Agency attribution is a hallmark of mind perception; thus, diminished attributions of agency may disrupt social-cognition processes typically elicited by human targets. The current studies examine the effect of perceivers’ sexist attitudes on associations of agency with, and neural responses to, images of sexualized and clothed men and women. In Study 1, male (but not female) participants with higher hostile sexism scores more quickly associated sexualized women with first-person action verbs (“handle”) and clothed women with third-person action verbs (“handles”) than the inverse, as compared to their less sexist peers. In Study 2, hostile sexism correlated negatively with activation of regions associated with mental state attribution-medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, temporal poles-but only when viewing sexualized women. Heterosexual men best recognized images of sexualized female bodies (but not faces), as compared with other targets’ bodies; however, neither face nor body recognition was related to hostile sexism, suggesting that the fMRI findings are not explained by more or less attention to sexualized female targets. Diminished mental state attribution is not unique to targets that people prefer to avoid, as in dehumanization of stigmatized people. The current studies demonstrate that appetitive social targets may elicit a similar response depending on perceivers’ attitudes toward them.

Clear as mud, right?

Basically, what all this means is that the study sets out to determine not how the way women dress affects men, but how people who exhibit views consistent with “hostile sexism” vs. “benevolent sexism” view women who are dressed in different ways.  In other words, the study did not attempt to examine whether bikinis caused men to view women as objects.  Rather, it asked what sort of men are most inclined to look at women as objects, especially if they were wearing something like a bikini.  Would all men objectify women who were dressed more provocatively?  Or would only men who exhibited either benevolent sexist attitudes or hostile sexist attitudes  be more likely to view the provocatively dressed women as objects?

Internal Control Fallacy is Intact

If the study actually set out to determine whether bikinis caused men to view women as objects, the researchers would have an uphill battle in front of them.  That’s because there are decades and decades of research demonstrating that the idea that one person can be directly responsible for another’s emotional reactions is patently false.  This idea – that one person’s behavior causes another person’s feelings – is called the “internal control fallacy”  (see #7 here).  The internal control fallacy figures prominently in abusive and codependent relationships especially, where the abused person believes that if she could just figure out the “right” way to act, she could get her abuser to stop treating her cruelly or thinking of her poorly.  Many well-meaning people in the Church unfortunately buy into this myth, believing that, depending upon how they dress, women cause men to feel a certain way.  This is simply another manifestation of the internal control fallacy which has been shown, again, by decades of data, to be a false and unhealthy belief that tends to undermine emotional and relational health.    If the study was actually trying to overturn such an established principle as the internal control fallacy as it relates to fashion and lust it would have caused quite a stir.  The fact that it attempted no such thing makes much more sense.

Hostile vs.  Benevolent Sexism.

Again, what the study actually examined was how men with “hostile” versus “benevolent” sexist attitudes viewed women, especially women dressed in a more revealing manner. According to the study, men who exhibit”hostile” sexist attitudes tend to  “strongly agree” with statements such as “Once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash.”  By contrast, men who exhibit “benevolent” sexist attitudes tend to “strongly agree” with statements on a survey such as “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man”

What the study found was that, when exposed to pictures of women in bikinis, men who scored high in hostile sexist attitudes (as opposed to the other men in the study) tended to view women as objects both cognitively and neurologically.  Cognitively, men who had high levels of hostile sexism tended, on a word association test, to have a preference for 1st person words indicating use instead of agency (e.g., words like “use” instead of “uses”, “push” instead of “pushes”  etc.).  The researches assert that this preference for these particular words indicates a tendency to objectify women dressed in a more revealing way.  Some people might say that’s a bit of a stretch but there is justification in the literature for this assertion.  Likewise, neurologically, men who exhibit high levels of hostile sexism also exhibit low levels of activity in the part of the brain responsible for empathy and higher levels of activity in the part of the brain responsible for manipulating objects (as determined by fMRI).    This offers a pretty strong case from both cognitive science and neuroscience that men who exhibit hostile sexist attitudes will be more likely to objectify women who are more provocatively dressed.

Results: Good Men Do Not Objectify Women No Matter How They Are Dressed

Interestingly though, the study also found that men who were not hostile sexists or exhibited attitudes consistent with benevolent sexism, did not objectify the women dressed in a more revealing manner.    This finding actually is directly contrary to the assertion of the religious promoters of this study who imply or directly state that bikini-clad women cause all men to view them as objects.  This assertion is not supported by the data.  Only men with hostile sexist attitudes toward women viewed provocatively dressed women as objects.   Men who were not sexist or who had benevolent sexist attitudes did not objectify women dressed in a more revealing fashion and, in fact, did not view the bikini images any differently than women participants in the study!

So, here are the actual take-aways from this study.

1.  Bikini’s do not cause men to lust.  This was not even the focus of this study but if it was, decades of data refute this idea which is founded upon the internal control fallacy.

2.  Only men who are hostile toward women in the first place tended to view women as objects when they were dressed in a more revealing manner.  By contrast, men who had benevolent attitudes toward women did not display either cognitive or neurological signs of objectifying bikini-clad women.

3.  Men who are hostile sexists do a better job hiding their pre-existing negative attitudes around women who dress more conservatively.

All this leads to my tongue-in-cheek title for this post.  There is real potential danger in the finding that men with pre-existing hostile sexist attitudes do not as readily display these attitudes around more conservatively dressed women.   It could be argued, based solely on the findings of this study, that women who only dress conservatively are more likely be fooled into marrying men who actually see them as objects, but who don’t overtly display these attitudes until the relationship becomes sexual after  marriage.  After marriage this otherwise conservative woman suddenly becomes sexualized in the hostile sexist’s mind.  His hostile sexism–which was only lurking around the corners before– now presents front and center much to the surprise and chagrin of the woman.  Come to think of it, I actually have clients who have fallen into exactly this trap.

By contrast, a different woman who was more comfortable with the idea of wearing a bikini at the beach in front of her boyfriend might actually be more likely to experience her boyfriend’s hostile sexist attitudes–if he had any–before she marries him and thus, be able to dump him before it’s too late.

Let me be clear….I am NOT seriously suggesting that women should dress provocatively to weed out potentially abusive partners.  That would be stupid.

But as ridiculous as it would be to assert this idea, the above would be a more logical conclusion–based solely on the data presented in this study–than the conclusion many have drawn from it.  Holding up this study to support the spurious idea that women cause men to lust by what they wear is completely inappropriate because this study does not, in fact, say anything like that at all.  In fact, it says the opposite because the benevolent sexists in the study (as opposed to the hostile sexists) didn’t actually objectify the women in bikinis.  It was the viewers attitudes that determined objectification, not the way the women were dressed.

In a word, the study shows that bad men objectify women and good men don’t–regardless of what they’re wearing.

The other day, I posted a link to a terrific article about an imagined conversation between a father and his son. It really struck a cord with many readers.  I’d like to close this reflection with an excerpt from that piece by Nate Pyle.

There are two views regarding a woman’s dress code that you will be pressured to buy into.  One view will say that women need to dress to get the attention of men.  The other view will say women need to dress to protect men from themselves.  Son, you are better than both of these.  A woman, or any human being, should not have to dress to get your attention.  You should give them the full attention they deserve simply because they are a fellow human being.  On the other side, a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you.  You need to be in control of you.

Unfortunately, much of how the sexes interact with each is rooted in fear.  Fear of rejection, fear of abuse, fear of being out of control.  In some ways, the church has added to this.  We fear each other because we have been taught the other is dangerous.  We’ve been a taught a woman’s body will cause men to sin.  We’re told that if a woman shows too much of her body men will do stupid things.  Let’s be clear: a woman’s body is not dangerous to you.  Her body will not cause you harm.  It will not make you do stupid things.  If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things.  So don’t contribute to the fear that exists between men and women.  MORE

Finally, if you’d like to learn how to raise children who know who to not objectify themselves or others and not be afraid of God’s plan for love and relationships. Check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees (2nd Ed. Revised and Expanded)

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Cherie

    I am the conservatively dressed woman who married a sexist monster. I have daughters and want to help them avoid the trap I fell in. This gives me some things to think about. Thanks for the post. More information about helping girls avoid abusive relationships would be greatly appreciated. Also I would like to see more Catholic/Christian therapist, priest/pastors and media types differentiate between people divorcing due to fixable problems and people who divorce due to abuse. I stayed in my marriage far too long because I listened to some “religious minded people” and convinced myself that I would cause my children harm by divorcing their abusive father. I am not angry about it because as far as they understood it they were speaking Truth, just not the whole Truth.
    It was only when I began to see that nothing I was doing at home to be a “good wife” and decrease conflict was helping them. In fact it was doing the opposite. It was giving my boys the idea that mom didn’t count and dad could do what ever he wanted. My one daughter was learning to be me (take what ever is handed to you) and my other was becoming increasingly angry. It took a year after leaving for those knots to get untied, and to this day they still show up from time to time.

  • Kat

    Soo…Dr.Greg, is it better not to wear a bikini? Sorry, that part wasn’t clear to me.
    Thanks in advance.

  • Carrie

    Very good Dr. P. Thanks for challenging my brain. I really appreciate understanding the difference between benevolent and hostile sexism. Very interesting!!!!


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