In a provocative essay for the New York Times, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, describes his thoughts on the ways that adult content impacts how people see one another. Acknowledging that there is some support from studies for the belief that viewing pornographic images results in objectification — that is, that the person being viewed (or the group of people that person represents) is not a subject capable of autonomy, but a thing to be acted upon — Bloom argues that images of naked people also cause viewers to recognize that those portrayed are capable of experience. He relates:
Along with a team of psychologists and philosophers (with the psychologist Kurt Gray as the lead author), I published a study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at the effect of viewing naked bodies. We went hard-core, drawing our images from a book by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders called XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits. This collection was perfect for our purposes, as it had two side-by-side photographs of each attractive individual, with the same lighting, posture and expression — but in one photograph the person was fully dressed, in the other naked.
We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, naked people were thought of as having less agency. But contrary to this view, they were also thought of as being enhanced experiencers, capable of stronger feelings and greater emotional responses.
Relatedly, in another study of ours, in which participants gave people electric shocks, we found that the participants gave milder shocks to people who were partially undressed versus fully dressed, presumably because the flash of skin makes us more sensitive to others as experiencing beings.
Marilyn Monroe once described sex as “the opposite of love.” This seems too harsh. Part of the effect of nudity that our study found is morally positive — it’s usually a good thing to be more attuned to someone else’s ability to experience — and it’s not clear whether the negative effects have any long-term influence on how we treat one another. In addition, the studies that psychologists have done so far involve the perception of strangers. I hope it’s not overly romantic to assume that sexual desire might work quite differently in the context of a continuing relationship.
Bloom’s paper, “More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification,” co-authored with Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, and Mark Sheskin is available as a PDF for free here.
Header image by David.