Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Does Pornography Treat Women as Objects?

Maybe it is something altogether different from objectification.

Think of the way you would normally treat a human being. You might see her as a person with unique needs, goals, emotions, maybe even lofty plans for the future.

Now think of the way that you might treat a mere object: Say, a table. You would not think of the table as having any sort of mind at all. It would not have any needs, any thoughts or goals, any emotions of any kind.

A question now arises about how to understand the impact that pornography has on the way men think about women. One hypothesis would be that pornography makes men see women a little bit less like human beings and a little bit more like mere objects. In other words, pornography makes men see women less as people and more as something like a table.

But is this hypothesis actually correct?

To address this question, Kurt Gray, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom, Lisa Feldman Barrett and I ran a series of studies. For example, in one study, participants were randomly assigned to receive a picture of a woman either clothed, naked or in a sexual depiction.

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Within each condition, participants were asked to judge the degree to which she was capable of self control, planning and acting morally (what we called agency) and also about the degree to which she was capable of feeling fear, feeling desire and feeling pleasure (what we called experience).

One plausible hypothesis would be that as the woman's body was made ever more salient, people would be ever more inclined to treat her as a mere object and would therefore be less inclined to attribute psychological states to her across the board. But that was not what occurred. Instead, the results came out as follows:

In other words, when the body was made more salient, people decreased their ascriptions of agency, but they actually increased their ascriptions of experience.

In short, it doesn't look like pornography is leading men to treat women as mere 'objects' (like a table). Instead, we seem to be getting something that might be called animalification—treating a woman as though she lacks the capacity for complex thinking and reasoning, but at the same time, treating her as though she was even more capable of having strong feelings and emotional responses.

Of course, this can be an extremely degrading and harmful form of treatment, but all the same, it is something quite different from objectification as traditionally conceived. The problem here doesn't have to do with ignoring a person's mind but rather with focusing exclusively on just one part of that mind.

[For those who are curious, the full academic paper -- published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology -- is available here.]

Joshua Knobe is a professor in the philosophy department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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