SEX OBJECT: Empathy Erosion via the Female Form

Disclaimer:

Strong language, of the non-sciencey sort, will be used in the following piece. The content may be disturbing to readers denying the gender based violence women experience on a daily basis in the workplace, traveling to the workplace, getting a coffee outside the workplace, leaving the workplace, oh – and being hired in the workplace to begin with. Lewd thoughts/gestures/remarks and the occasional pussy-grabbing affect the objectifier as much as the objectified. Learn why. And change it. 

Reading with discretion is advised.

Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
— Oscar Wilde

 

This is an (incomplete) list of powerful men accused of sexual harassment after Harvey Weinstein:

While in the US gender based injustices are exposed publicly, internationally the pandemic is hidden behind [insert archaic excuse here] smokescreens. The #MeToo hashtag* has been spotted in over 85 countries. Just to get an unpleasant taste, in

Ø  India, sexual harassment is commonly referred to by the word 'eve-teasing', a term described as misleading, tame, and diluting the seriousness of the crime.

Ø  Japan, the word "rape" is taboo and is typically described with less threatening words such as saying an underage victim was "tricked" or a woman was "violated" to describe what's happened.

Ø  Afghanistan, about 90% of women experience sexual harassment in public, at school, or at work. The #Metoo hashtag was quickly silenced when those who shared their stories started fearing for their life.

* For all that #MeToo is doing, the dialogue around sexual assault has gone globally specifically with a focus on men preying on women. It's important to remember that this, while indeed the overwhelming perception, is not just a male-on-female issue. It is an issue that is just as much female-on-male, female-on-female, male-on-male, male-on-trans - effectively, this is something that concerns every gender. Source

So if gender debasement is a world-wide rot on gender equality’s surface, what’s the best remedy? First, deconstruct the problem from a biological perspective. Researchers at the University of Italy were interested in finding out:

What happens in the brain when you think of what’s in her pants?

Or in science-ese: What brain mechanisms are active when viewing a woman in distress while dressed in revealing vs. non revealing clothing. The question was expanded from a theory that states: empathy towards another person’s suffering diminishes if they are seen as “other.” For example, a football fan has strong emotional reactions when his beloved team wins, but does not empathize when the rival team loses.

In the same way, men like Harvey Winestein simply lack the ability to share how a sexually objectified woman might feel. Based on their physical appearance, they are perceived as:

Less competent

Less moral

Less human

Less agentic

Less intelligent

The consequence? Anything from sexualized comments, to groping, to whipping their members out, to pussy-grabbing, to outright rape.

Our now president*, Donald J. Trump, illustrates the point beautifully:

*Term used loosely.

Bush: It better not be the publicist. No, it’s, it’s her, it’s —

Trump: Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bush: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Bush: Uh, yeah, those legs, all I can see is the legs.

Trump: Oh, it looks good.

Bush: Come on shorty.

Trump: Ooh, nice legs, huh?

Bush: Oof, get out of the way, honey. Oh, that’s good legs. Go ahead.

To understand the leap from person to object, participants in the study (both male and female) played a virtual ball-toss game while lying in the MRI scanner (see below). The partners were a sexy blonde/brunette dressed in a short black dress, high heels and heavy makeup and a frumpy blonde/brunette dressed in loose pants, ballet flats and light makeup. Participants had to choose whom to throw the ball to every time they had it by pressing a button. Importantly, they also watched a game being played without participating and then rated the intensity of their negative emotions. 

Picture2.jpg

When the participant never got the ball, negative emotions driven by social exclusion surged and regions in the brain associated with physical pain lit up (Somatosensory Cortex and Posterior Insula) – Why am I not being picked? This hurts.

When they watched the frumpy woman never get the ball, negative emotions, empathic response and activity in  regions in the brain associated with mentalizing (PFC), or taking another’s perspective lit up – Hey I remember how it feels not to be picked, that sucks!

But when the sexy woman never got the ball, empathic response, negative emotions and brain activity were lower than self and frumpy. Frumpy woman can be related to as “self”, while the sexy woman was seen as “other”  - Well she’s attractive! She must not feel the same way as I do.

The results suggest, that when confronted with an attractive woman, participants’ brains short circuit and cannot think clearly leading to a dampening their interpersonal sensitivity. Comedian Jena Friedman slyly noted, “If you’re nervous around a woman, just picture her clothed.”

Yet the overall message is anything but funny: Attractive women are seen as less than human. Moira Donegan, the creator of the Media Men list said, “This is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.” Precisely:

Outward appearance acts as a barrier, blocking entry into a woman’s humanity.

Although both men and women were part of the study, a lack of gender difference in the results suggests a frightening pattern of passive compliance from women contributing to pervasive sexual violence. The similar results across gender indicate entrenched societal pressures shaping women stereotypes affect both men and women.

The mass media trough from which we all consume isn’t helping. Numerous male newscasters marked International Women’s Day with disturbing on-air behavior – from inappropriate jokes to flirting with female co-anchors. John Oliver highlighted one anchor's "pervy" comments about Salma Hayek, which occurred during a segment on Mattel's "Inspiring Women" doll of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (whom Hayek portrayed on film).

Yet an extraordinary shift is taking place. Trends like the #MeToo hashtag and #TimesUp movement signal an end to women’s silence. 400 senate seats are up for grabs in the next election. Women will take most of them. This. Is. Unprecedented. The remarkable movement is inspiring sexual harassment law restructuring. And with a new study showing that only 10% of our genetic makeup dictates empathic behavior, not all hope is lost.

Oscar Wilde was right. Sex is about power. But true power lies not in belittling but in understanding, not in denigration but in integration of physical aspects into the human whole, not in idle acceptance of societal norms but in focused effort to change stubborn pathways carved by generations who didn’t know any better.

dobetter.jpg