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Sexualized Women Are Seen as Objects, Studies Find

The male brain sees women it finds "sexy" as non-human.

Key points

  • Studies have found that the male brain dehumanizes women it finds sexually attractive, even assigning them less human traits.
  • One study found that men viewed objectified women as less moral and emotionally warm.
  • Research also shows that objectified women are perceived as less competent and lacking thought and emotion.

Catcalls. Cougars. Sex objects. Recent research suggests that these are not just expressions; some male brains neurologically deny sexualized women's humanity.

Sexualized women are not seen as human

A study by Princeton psychologists hooked up men to an fMRI machine. After being hooked up, these men were shown pictures of both men and women. Some were scantily clothed; some were not.

The results showed that images of people activated the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is highly involved in social cognition (e.g., recognizing human faces, when separating one person from another).

The exception was when men high in sexism viewed pictures of sexually dressed women. These pictures did not activate the mPFC for sexist males. This suggests that these men's brains did not perceive these women as fully human.

This study is consistent with the work of University of Padova researchers. They found that when women were dressed sexually (compared to when they weren't), people implicitly associated them more with animals.

Other research has found that merely focusing on a woman's appearance (fully dressed) is enough for people (men and women) to dehumanize a woman. Specifically, we found that people assign female targets less "human nature traits" when the focus is on their appearance. These traits are perceived by humans to separate people from machines, automata, and objects.

Traits the male brain ascribes to "dehumanized" women

Another study found that these women are seen as less moral (sincere, trusting) and less emotionally warm (likable, warm).

These findings are also consistent with a wide range of work showing that objectified women are perceived as less competent. Interestingly, research even finds that when men view sexualized pictures of women, they subsequently view a female experimenter as doing a worse job. In other words, men "carried over" their views of the sexualized women to another woman, who was not scantily dressed.

And lastly, research shows that men and women view sexualized images (of both men and women) as lacking "mind," which is basically a denial of thoughts and emotions. In this work, people even had less concern for the sexualized people's pain, compared to when they were fully dressed.

The picture truly is bleak when women (and in some cases men) are evaluated solely on their looks and/or sexualized.


Cikara, M., Eberhardt, J.L. & Fiske, S.T. (in press). From agents to objects: Sexist attitudes and neural responses to sexualized targets. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.

Haslam (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 252-264.

Heflick, N.A. & Goldenberg, J.L. (2009). Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that objectification of women causes women to be perceived as less competent and less fully human. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 598-601.

Heflick, N.A., Goldenberg, J.L., Cooper, D.P. & Puvia, E. (under review). From women to things: Target gender, appearance focus and perceptions of warmth, morality and competence.

Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., Murmane, T.,Vaes, J., Reynolds, C., & Suitner, C. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 709-717.

Vaes, J., Paladino, M.P. & Puvia, E. (under review). Are sexualized women fully human?

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