Women become more silent

Ed Yong wrote a post in 2010 about a study of how objectification silences women.

Many people brush off the importance of men staring at women’s bodies.

Tamar Saguy is different. Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.

Saguy’s study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities”. It targets women more often than men. It’s apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague’s appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.

And in shirts with exaggeratedly sexy women on them. I’m not talking about Matt Taylor here; he apologized without any “but you’re so touchy” bullshit. But I’m seeing people shouting about “callout culture” and it’s just a shirt and nuance and “tribalism”…most of it from people who aren’t subject to being dismissed in quite that way.

She recruited 207 students, 114 of whom were women, on the pretence of studying how people communicate using expressions, gestures and vocal cues. Each one sat alone in a room with a recorder and video camera. They had two minutes to introduce themselves to a male or female partner, using a list of topics such as “plans for the future” or “four things you like doing the most”. The partner was supposedly sat in the next room and either watching the speaker from the neck up, watching from the neck down, or just listening on audio. The camera was tilted or blocked accordingly.

The summary? Men talked the full two minutes no matter what; women talked the full two minutes to a woman or a man who could only hear them, but not to a man who could see them, especially one who could see them only from the neck down.

As Saguy explains, “When a woman believes that a man is focusing on her body, she narrows her presence… by spending less time talking.” There are a few possible reasons for this. Saguy suspects that objectification prompts women to align their behaviour with what’s expected of them – silent things devoid of other interesting traits. Treat someone like an object, and they’ll behave like one. Alternatively, worries about their appearance might simply distract them from the task at hand.

I would think a more salient explanation would be the possibility (or likelihood?) that the man wasn’t paying attention to what she said. There are cues to pick up when you’re boring people, and if you do pick them up you probably stop talking…Unless, of course, you’re one of those hugely important people who just can’t be boring no matter what, and so never worry about other people’s level of interest in what they’re saying.

Anyway. Yes – in for instance science, when you’re on the job it’s really not relevant whether or not your body is pleasing or arousing to other people; that’s not what you’re there for. If there are messages that tell you otherwise, that can be offputting. There’s not much “nuance” to that thought, but so what? There’s not much nuance to tits and ass, either.


  1. quixote says

    Just a guess, but I think any social situation where one person is insulted without the ability to put the insulter in his/her place will generally tend to make the insultee want to withdraw.

    Because it’s very insulting to be treated as a thing. Men put in that position get belligerent. They’re high enough up the tree, at least in their own minds, that they move straight to putdowns rather than silence.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘Objectification’ is, I suspect, the tip of the iceberg. It would seem that in the experience of most women, Male Gazing is associated with truly threatening and predatory behavior. Mr Blanc, anyone?

    I think predation is so damaging to the social contract that heterosexuality really is at risk. Not the way the MRAs and PUAs whinge about. Women seem to be robbed of agency and autonomy by the constant threat of real violence and resentful spite.

  3. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    I would think a more salient explanation would be the possibility (or likelihood?) that the man wasn’t paying attention to what she said. There are cues to pick up when you’re boring people, and if you do pick them up you probably stop talking…

    It wouldn’t have been that. The subjects were alone in the room and had no contact with the supposed “partner.”

  4. says

    I’m reading George Yancy’s Look, A White!, and just came across a great and relevant quote at the beginning of the first chapter. It’s from Charles Johnson, “A Phenomenology of the Black Body”:

    I am walking down Broadway in Manhattan, platform shoes clicking on the pavement, thinking as I stroll of, say, Boolean expansions. I turn, thirsty, into a bar. The dimly-lit room, obscured by shadows, is occupied by whites. Goodbye, Boolean expansions. I am seen.

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