As this BMW advertisement shows, sexual objectification of women occurs in the media. But how do men and women perceive sexually objectified women?
Jeroen Vaes, Maria Paladino and Elisa Puvia of the University of Padova (Italy) exposed men and women to images of females, half of which were sexual. After exposure to these images, participants completed a measure of implicit (subconscious) attitudes towards the women in the images (a modified IAT).
Basically, in IATs, people respond to a series of pairings between words (such as good, evil) and images (such as Black and White faces). When there is a stronger mental association between the word and the image, people are quicker to categorize them together (click here to take one). For this particular study, the words paired with the images were either animalistic (e.g., hoof) or unique to humans (e.g, culture, values).
The idea is that if the sexualized images are more associated with animal traits, people should respond more quickly when they are paired together (e.g., the word hoof with a sexualized image compared to the word hoof with a not sexual image).
They found that women who were sexualized were rated by both men and women as more animalistic (less human). In follow up studies, they found that men rated women as animalistic much more (perhaps even only) when they first were directed to think about sex.
They also found that when sex was primed before viewing the images, men preferred to work with a more attractive female on a difficult mental task. This was even though she was described as incompetent. When sex wasn't primed, men more often chose the less attractive, but more competent, female.
This sex prime did not effect how women rated sexualized women. What did effect it, however, was how much a female participant identified with the woman. When they percieved themselves as like the woman, she was rated as more human whether she was sexualized or not. However, when the sexualized women were perceived as unlike the participant, females rated them as more animalisitic than the non sexualized women.
In sum, both men and women rated sexualized women as more animalistic than non sexualized images. For men, this was driven by sexual thoughts, and for women, this was driven by identification and percieved closeness to the women.
This research is consistent with past research showing that men rate sexualized women as less competent . It is also consistent with studies showing that merely focusing more on a woman's looks (not sexualized) makes men and women rate her as less warm (trustworthy, sincere) and less human (more like an object or tool).
Women who dress sexually sometimes do so (in part) to attract males. And, obviously males are sometimes drawn to this. But, women might want to reconsider the effect that sexual attire has on how men and women feel and think about them. And, people perceiving these women might want to realize these effects as well, in order to perhaps alleviate them.
More seriously, it is likely much easier to harm a women when she is perceived as more animalistic and less human.