29 thoughts on “Bikinis and Modesty

  1. I’m skeptical of anything from CNN. I’m doubly skeptical of unpublished science. And I’m triply skeptical of journalists summarizing scientific reports. Thus, I’m sextuply skeptical of this argument. (Even though I agree on the overall conclusion.)

  2. The research was done by Susan Fiske, the author of my social psychology textbook. I like her. And trust her research. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.

  3. That’s not the source of my doubts. I’m only hearing about Fiske’s research second-hand through an untrusted and historically sensationalist source (CNN).

    Although, yes, I would prefer to see the actual data and methods and make my own conclusions, including whether Fiske herself overstates or overinterprets her data.

  4. You’re never going to be wrong in concluding that human beings need to repent, DLewis.

    But, before we pull out the sackcloth and ashes, perhaps we should think about some things that are not addressed by Prof. Fiske:

    — How do men react when they see women that they know, as opposed to complete (and unknowable) strangers, wearing bikinis?

    __ How do men react when they’re at the beach, for instance, and are surrounded by hundreds of women who are dressed that way?

    I’d guess that the reactions are different from when those same men are sitting (fully clothed) in a research lab looking at photographs of women, some fully dressed and others in bikinis.

    If not, then a man should never see his wife less than fully dressed lest he view her only as an object, to be acted upon but not to act.

    And, following Prof. Fiske’s lead, I’m not even going “to go there” and discuss the parts of the brain that were activated upon viewing the scantily-clad women.

  5. “When a girl covers herself up, she reveals more of herself.” Great quote, and very true. I’m glad to hear from scientists that on a purely biological level, a scantily clad woman sets herself up for natural objectification. I hear many women say, when defending their right to dress however they want, “it’s not my problem if a guy can’t control himself.” True, but an immodestly dressed woman presents a biological discipline challenge to the male brain.

    Women can use this to their advantage of course, by selectively inviting their own objectification in order to exploit their physical gifts and hide their intellectual ones, or for whatever sinister reason they may think of. But no woman should be so naive as to deny that their species possess these special powers of exploitation over the male brain.

    There’s a great quote from the film La Femme Nikita “The only thing more vast and infinite than femininity is the ability to exploit that femininity.”

  6. Mark B. I think you’re miss reading the article. Or I did. I believe it only said “some men” and laid out “some circumstances.”

    The study just shows that men don’t just seem to sometimes treat scantily clad women as objects but in fact their brains actually register them only as objects in those given circumstances.

    In other words, this isn’t that big a revelation. It’s a case of science finally catching up with what we already thought and assumed. It’s really not saying anything else. Your ‘counter tests’ would undoubtedly give different results, but were also outside the bounds of this study.

  7. Great post. I completely agree. I consider women in bikinis to be “soft porn”, of which there is so much of in our world today. One rule of humb that I try to live by is If something I see makes me think sexually about any woman oher than my wife, then it is porn. This helps me to draw a firm line in the sand and to not justify things. If somehing makes me feel lustful, then it is porn–plain and simple.

    Steve Dalton

  8. Sorry, I’m just not comfortable determining female modesty according male reactions. To me, this “research” shouldn’t conclude that women should dress more modestly (though they should) b/c of men but that men need to rise above their biological urges.

    It may be wrong to own an unnecessarily luxurious car–but if you happen to drive that car through a poorer part of town on your way to work everyday, and many who see you become envious and jealous, who’s at fault?

  9. Would the results be similar for European men more accustomed to bikini- or monokini-clad women?

  10. While I think the take away from this study is good — women and men shouldn’t turn themselves into objects to be seen as sexual gratification.

    I can’t help but wonder, would you please point me to the “object” part of the brain? Is there some blueprints that someone discovered in the Bible that shows where God created an object part of the brain/ Really… we don’t know very much about the brain so it would not be surprising that the “object” part of the brain would be used for all sorts of things, not just being stimulated by scantily clad women and crescent wrenches.

    That we can look at something as complex as the brain, and declare it the “object” part is just a function of our abstractions and classifications that not surprisingly don’t get it too close.

    How does the brain respond when shown a tasty sandwich? What about a cute puppy? What about a bible? Ironically, this study is just as objectifying as it claims the men to be. If you set out to compare the response from seeing a woman to the response from seeing a hammer, then you’ve already started the objectification yourself, and your forgone conclusion is that men are naturally objectifies. Now, ironically, I can actually agree that something about puberty makes men want to view women as objects of pleasure. But we want the same from our Xboxes, our 4wheelers, our LCD tvs, etc. etc. (and the irony of listing a bunch of objects is not lost on me)

    But I guess my point is that the only time we seem to scientifically acknowledge differences from men and women are when men are portrayed as inferior or defective.

    Did you see the MRI video of a woman’s brain during orgasm that was making the rounds a few days ago? It showed her entire brain was being heavily used. What negative spin can we put on that? She’s using the “hate” part of her brain during sex? Or maybe she’s using the “eat cute puppies” part of her brain. Or maybe that’s ridiculous and we don’t have a part of our brain that is clearly labeled “hate” and “cute puppies” and “object” but the brain is complex and does a lot of things.

    And maybe, just maybe, our decision to take something complex like the brain and quantify it into an abstraction reveals more about us and our choices for abstractions than it does the thing we are attempting to explain and describe!

  11. Chris, I agree that psychologists by and large objectify human beings in the ways that they conduct their research.

    That said, here’s some context for the study: they’ve shown that when a person is looking at people, a specific part of the brain usually lights up, and it’s a different part of the brain than what usually lights up when a person is looking at objects. In other words, they’ve shown that different parts of the brain are more active when a person is looking at objects than when they are looking at people. There’s context and background research for this.

  12. Except for when a woman has an orgasm, that part of her brain lights up too. Where’s the “orgasm part” of the brain? And they showed specific objects like a hammer (if I remember correctly) and then spun the results a certain way to work back to the foregone conclusion (hammer = object, men = objectifier).

    Except for a hammer is not just an object you use to bang things (sorry for the double-entendre), but it’s a means of creation. To a construction worker (or home fixer-upper), without a hammer, you can’t create. So is a scantily clad woman an object or a means of creation?

    So is it the object part of the brain or the creation part of the brain or the organsim part of the brain? Or is it just a mistake or hubris to try to narrow down “parts” of the brain to exclusively determining one thing, and then especially spinning it negatively?

    Either way, we could do with less women in skimpy bikinis and less men ogling them. But I fear this kind of research is so prone to be abused how you want it. Let’s say someone did a study that showed a “deceptive” part of the brain, when we want to deceive others or ourselves. Then they monitored some missionaries and saw that this part of the brain was firing in all involved when the missionaries were teaching. Would we accept it?

    I think it’s more likely the brain uses all parts for different and similar things, similar to how we can see a woman’s brain during climax being used heavily.

  13. Of course, not saying with the last sentence that the entire brain is always being used…. just that various parts get used for similar and dissimilar things and reading into it may very well reveal more about our intentions than reality.

  14. lds-p: thanks for the link to the article. I finally had time to read through it. I had the same questions as Mark B, #10, and in addition wondered about the selected images themselves. Specifically, the women in bikinis could have been posed provocatively whereas the clothed women were not; hence, the “perceived attitude” of the woman in the image could be more informative to the study subject than the actual clothing. This is not a criticism of Fiske’s work, mind you, but rather of the conclusion that many are drawing that “bikinis turn women into objects.”

    I recognize, of course, the limitations of the research method; one cannot easily record fMRI on a subject at the beach!

    Mark B: “If not, then a man should never see his wife less than fully dressed lest he view her only as an object, to be acted upon but not to act.” Why not? I know you’re not really arguing that, but I’d still say that this study doesn’t make a judgment on whether objectifying is bad or always bad.

    I’m also not clear on what you meant by, “following Prof. Fiske’s lead, I’m not even going…to discuss the parts of the brain that were activated.” The study points to several areas of the brain. Were you expecting the article to review all the known information on those areas?

    DLewis: “Sorry, I’m just not comfortable determining female modesty according male reactions. To me, this “research” shouldn’t conclude that women should dress more modestly (though they should) b/c of men but that men need to rise above their biological urges.” First, in fairness to Dr Fiske, that certainly was not her conclusion; that is the conclusion others (here and in the media) have made based. Second, I have no idea why you put research in scare quotes. Third, I don’t see why this report shows that men have to repent.

    chris: I’m trying to understand your point. It seems that it is: 1) the brain is so complex, that we can’t really know anything about it, 2) If we want to know how the body works, then we must look in the Bible, and 3) Because this study is objective (not sure what alternative you would favor) it is therefore untrustworthy. (I will note, I see nothing ironic about the researchers objectifying their subjects, even if they are researching objectification.)

  15. BrianJ – you couldn’t have misunderstood me greater. The bible was a throw away example to say it’s not like there is some blueprint they discovered to declare an “object” region. It’s more of a philosophical point. If you will, show mean genetic blueprint that says, “this is an object”. That’s just someone else labeling something that may very well not accurately describe what it’s seeking to label. I never said we can’t know anything about the brain. I clearly laid out some examples and explanations as to why this is dicey.

    And that is the point. This study is not about data, but about explaining the data. And the data was contrived in ways that were invented. We explain data with our brains. We invent data with our brains. This study is explaining a construct, by inventing a construct, and asking us to accept that construct as a way of thinking about the construct they are constructing… okaaaaaaay.

    Again. One says a tool is an object. This goes all the way back to Plato. Is there an “object” or is there something we create and call an object. Does the brain really have an “object” region? Or do we just classifying things as such and expecting the physiology of the brain to agree? Is that classification accurate? I think not.

    I gave a couple examples to illustrate the silliness of it. Is the entire female brain the “orgasm region” of the brain? So when a woman sees a hammer is she using the orgasm region of the brain?

    In terms of describing the study, is a tool an “object” or a “means of creation”? All of the sudden the whole meaning of the study switches around if you tweak the meanings of the inputs (hammer object vs. necessary thing for creation).

    We invent what we see (and don’t see) in the world through our language and then seek to describe it with our language. When we take these abstractions and attempt to re-overlay them back on to the biology and I think it has issues.

  16. I think it is a mistake to assume without further evidence that there is something innate about this, rather than there being a good deal of socialization involved. What about men in Bushman type cultures, where women are dressed in bikini equivalent all day? Do they see women as tools all the time?

  17. Cynthia, I’ve been waiting to hear a woman’s perspective on this posting. I love your posts at BBC, and I thought this particular subject would be provocative enough to generate a compelling discussion. So far however, it’s just been expressions of skepticism about the study and predictable exhortations for greater female modesty and greater male self-control.

    I think your question about the role of culture is a very important one. I would say that there is nothing provocative or sexual about the naked bushwomen pictured in National Geographic. In European culture, people frequently bathe in the nude, and there is little sexual or provocative about it. If this study had been done in these cultures, I think there might have been different results.

    Why? I think it has to do with the level of shame. In the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took the fruit, they were ashamed of their nakedness, and hid themselves. Before the fruit, Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their bodies, and frankly sauntered around naked and defecated in front of each other like all the animals. But with fruit, shame entered the world. Shame brought eroticism and sexual attraction.

    But there are cultures that are more shameless, like Bushman culture, which is a very primitive, animalic type of culture. Also the nudist culture of Europe, where people frequently bathe in the nude, and images of unclothed men and women are everywhere, there is a growing shamelessness. Because of the ubiquitousness of pornography and growing displays of flesh, shame is decreasing, and eroticism is declining. Sexuality in society is becoming more and more kinky and hard-core. This is because people have been so deadened to eroticism due to the lack of shame in society. It takes a harder and harder hit to get the same amount of eroticism.

    So the fact that in Boston, men still objectify women in bikinis is a good thing. It means that they haven’t completely deadened themselves to the power of eroticism by embracing the growing shamelessness of society. Mormons and Muslims are particularly susceptible to eroticism, because in our religious cultures shame is spoon fed to us from cradle to grave. It makes us more sensitive to eroticism, but it does present a great discipline challenge, while living in a society of increasing shamelessness.

  18. Brian- I did not mean for my comment to be taken in a negative way. Men are visual. Visual is a good thing. Hostile men take visual to another level.

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