Easterly On Swimsuits

Yes a swimsuit video has sexual connotations and doesn’t emphasize all aspects of the performer, but then the same can be said of many rock concerts. Why do folks complain so much more about swimsuit vids?

When I posted that Wednesday, I hadn’t noticed William Easterly’s post from Sunday:

The relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object … has been a negative trend since the 1960s, inducing more women to be treated disrespectfully or harassed.

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

In a trivial sense calling attention to folks with exemplary abilities or features generally makes most others look worse by comparison. But if this is “disrespect,” our media is chock full of it – swimsuit models aren’t any worse than the rest.

Perhaps men get hornier viewing swimsuit models, and then try harder to gain sex from other women. But few complain about similar effects on women from watching sexy rock stars. Or from men watching ads for sexy female clothes, or live women in swimsuits at the beach or in sexy party outfits.

Yes if any unwanted sexual advances are “harassment” then hornier men would induce more of that, but if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts. And do we really want to discourage anything that makes men horny?

Compared to most sexy clothing ads, or to real swimsuited women at the beach, swimsuit models express a more playful submissive come-hither persona. Does this give men the misleading impression that ordinary women are more eager for sex? It is hard to see why, since most real women only rarely give such come-hither looks. If anything men should learn that this is more what a woman who eagerly wants sex might look like – if your woman doesn’t act like this, maybe she isn’t that interested.

I suspect that, as so often, the real issue here is status. When the media highlights and celebrates women who are acting submissive to men, this lowers the status of women overall relative to men. It can be ok for woman to act submissive in specialty fashion magazines, since the main audience there is presumed to be other women.  And it is apparently ok to show sitcoms where husbands submit to their wives. But for those eager to raise fem status, submissive swim-suiters are a no-no.

Added: Katja also responds to Easterly here.

Added 8a: In an email, Easterly elaborates:

The causal mechanism I have in mind is that marketers have greatly expanded the supply of a consumer product — the image of woman as sex object — which is complementary to the demand for real women to be sex objects. Hence, more women get treated as sex objects, leading to more disrespectful treatment and harassment.

Added 2p: In a post, Easterly elaborates further:

I don’t think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Wow – looking at swimsuit pictures violates the “rights of woman” even if the models themselves don’t mind, and no matter what the empirical consequences, yet watching real women in swimsuits is just fine?!

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  • Tyrrell McAllister

    if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts.

    The argument is that pieces like the swimsuit video induce men to overestimate how eager women are for sexual advances. That is, such media make men overestimate their chances of success. That is what would induce more useless attempts.

    Moreover, on this view, pointing out that lots of media serve up fantasy-males to women is a false parallelism. It is worse for men to overestimate how receptive women will be to their sexual advances, because male sexual advances are more likely to blur into the coercive.

    • http://praguestepchild.blogspot.com/ Sean

      In other words, men who watch swimsuit videos are more likely to sexually coerce women by overestimating their receptiveness.

      This is just a variant of the “porn turns men into rapists” canard. Japanese porn is famous for its ubiquity and submissiveness, yet Japan has one of the lowest rape indexes in the world.

      • Cyan

        And yet groping of women on crowded subway cars is common. Google “chikan”.

      • SG

        Except since a rape index doesn’t include rapes that weren’t reported, or rapes that may not be considered rape by law in Japan, or any country listing stats like that, that says very little about the ACTUAL incidences of rape in Japan, and in no way indicates that Japan really has a lower rate of rape that most other countries.

  • http://blog.printf.net/ Chris

    I’m glad Tyrell wrote this, I wanted to say the same thing. You don’t have “equality” if you’re treating both genders the same way but it has a stronger negative effect on one gender — that’s equal treatment at the cost of equal consideration.

    • http://praguestepchild.blogspot.com/ Sean

      Treating two different people the same is the very definition of equality.

      Allowing anyone to marry regardless of sexual orientation is equality.
      Whether that equal treatment has a different effect on different groups or genders has nothing to do with it. Heterosexual men seem to benefit more from marriage than hetero women, should they get less “consideration”? If gay marriage were somehow shown to reduce AIDS, would that mean gay marriage deserved more “consideration”?

      • James Babcock

        If one group prefers X and another group prefers Y, and X and Y are otherwise interchangeable, then giving everyone X is not what we usually mean by equality. What we really mean by equality is more like what the bargaining solution would be if both groups had equal power.

      • http://praguestepchild.blogspot.com/ Sean

        What do you mean “we” kemosabe?

        I defined what I consider equality, you feel the need to bring in the royal we.

        If one group prefers watching swimsuit videos and the other prefers watching Mathew McConaughey take his shirt off, how do we assess a bargaining solution that would give both groups equal power?

      • http://praguestepchild.blogspot.com/ Sean

        “If one group prefers X and another group prefers Y, and X and Y are otherwise interchangeable, then giving everyone X is not what we usually mean by equality. What we really mean by equality is more like what the bargaining solution would be if both groups had equal power.”

        We aren’t talking about giving everyone X are we? Do you know the difference between regurgitating and rational discourse?

      • nick012000

        >Heterosexual men seem to benefit more from marriage than hetero women, should they get less “consideration”?

        You have that backwards; women benefit far more from tying a man down to them than the men do. The stereotype of the bitch ex-wife taking the children and all your money exists for a reason.

  • Wophugus

    “Yes if any unwanted sexual advances are “harassment” then hornier men would induce more of that, but if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts. And do we really want to discourage anything that makes men horny?”

    How about defining “harrasment” as sexual advances in inappropriate circumstances or with inappropriate conditions? For example, it would be inappropriate for bosses to condition promotions on sleeping with them. Not only is it emotionally distressing for an employee who isn’t attracted to the boss, it isn’t a very efficient way to run a business.

    So at least one causal path from swim suit videos to that kind of harassment is “it makes men hornier, and that makes them more willing to overlook social and institutional barriers designed to keep them from making sexual advances in inappropriate situations — IE something like a middle manager trying to sleep with an employee or explicitly conditioning employment on sex.”

    I think another interpretation of what he is saying might be, “What men find most attractive in women is to some extent socially driven. A media that emphasizes the sexual attributes in women and deemphasizes other attractive attributes — smarts, a sense of humor, talent — will lead to men who interact with women on a sexual rather than intellectual level. In my opinion that leads to lots of bad interactions and has negative consequences for society more generally, as half the population starts focusing on developing their looks to find mates rather than talents and skills that have broader positive impacts both on their lives and on society generally. Also, I am not good at phrasing my arguments with exactitude.”

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Wophugus, the example that you gave is fine. In the US, I’d be reasonably confident that for a middle manager to condition employment on sex is illegal. Using “inappropriate” in the definition, however, sounds much too vague to me. I’d take “inappropriate” to include social faux paux – e.g. making a pass in a club where the atmosphere isn’t quite right for it, and this would be too broad for harassment.

  • Wophugus

    That last post I made was stupidly phrased. Rather than “sexual attributes” I should have said “physical attributes,” and rather ” interact with women on a sexual rather than intellectual level,” I probably should have said something like, “when they pick sexual partners focus on looks more than other attributes.”

    • http://nimbupani.com Divya Manian

      That is precisely the problem. The surfeit of swim-suit covers creates a false parallel that a woman wears a swim suit to appear “sexy” and not as something that serves a function at that time.

      A woman wearing shorts is looked differently from a man wearing shorts. It is unfortunate that clothes that serve a purpose are enhanced with meaning that is not intended.

  • Michael

    In this previous post I said that it may be partly because in some circles, men who are sports fans are perceived to have lower status. I think your point about fashion magazines supports this, but I think you’ve also missed a small point.

    A submissive act towards some men may not be not necessarily bad – look at how many well known high status men there are in the fashion world: Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, the late Ginni Versace just off the top of my head. The main audience of such magazines is other women, but it also includes very high status men. The swimsuit issue on the other hand is directed at average to maybe below average status men.

    You’ve written a bunch on low status going hand in hand with paternalism, and I think this is important here. To some observers, the lower status men who read Sports Illustrated will interpret the beautiful women giving coy looks on the page as directing those looks at them (the readers), personally. Thus, the reader may feel higher status than he actually is, and make many more (unwanted) advances towards many more women.

    It’s not hard to understand how the come-hither looks the models have could give men a false impression of the typical woman’s desire for sex if you already hold the men who read Sports Illustrated in low regard.

  • Roshni

    Anecdata here: In my experience it is those cultures where depictions of women (in swimsuits/ skimpy clothing) which call forth all this criticism of ‘objectification’ are less common, (eg, the Middle East, India), in which there is more of a tendency for a woman to be treated disrespectfully in public.

    I can see a huge difference in attitude between small towns and big cities in India. In a city like Bangalore, people are more used to seeing women in skirts, tight tops etc and tend to treat them with just as much respect as those in more traditional attire. Whereas in the smaller, more conservative towns you can expect any of the following- be stared at/catcalled/ have your bottom pinched while using public transport etc….

  • Buck Farmer

    Does this give men the misleading impression that ordinary women are more eager for sex? It is hard to see why, since most real women only rarely give such come-hither looks. If anything men should learn that this is more what a woman who eagerly wants sex might look like – if your woman doesn’t act like this, maybe she isn’t that interested.

    Excellent question, Robin. I have no strong intuition regarding how media (broadly defined) gets processed by our brains and would welcome any good overviews of this.

    Specifically, it occurs to me that in the primordial past our ancient ancestors had little exposure to experiences that looked like people but weren’t (only exception I can think of are dead bodies).

    Which of our faculties, modules, habits, what have you are active in processing media?

  • Sandeep

    Lets be frank – everyone equivocates between treating others as objects (providing certain goods/services/at least courtesies) and treating others as sentient and “respectable” human beings. Thus the baker, in the context of the bakery, is more naturally thought of as “the bread guy” rather than as “a worthy-of-respect-like-everyone human being who has chosen the vocation of running a bakery to earn his livelihood and feed his family”.

    The anti-swimsuit folks claim that giving scope for men to have an “amplified objectified view” of certain women in a certain context will cause them to be Pavlovian-trained into increasing the proportion of “objectified treatment” in their dealings with other women and in other contexts. It is very difficult to rigorously either support or demolish such a claim using statistics. God knows whether the “since 1960s” claim results from a progressively weaker definition of harrasment or not, and greater democratization of job environments. The factors which cause some people to support this claim, I think, is partly as you said, status, and partly the evolutionary-psychological fear many women have, about “salivating men”.

    BTW where is that Yudkowsky guy when you need him the most? We need some reality check on making arguments falsifiable 🙂

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      David Balan wrote a couple of posts on objectification at OB a while back.

      • Sandeep

        Thanks!

  • Eric Falkenstein

    As Robin notes, you see attractive women on the cover of men’s magazines, and the same thing for women’s magazines. That is, the cover of Cosmo or Glamour or doesn’t have the latest hunk, rather Kim Kardashian in a revealing top.

  • tom

    The causal mechanism I have in mind is that marketers have greatly expanded the supply of a consumer product — the image of woman as sex object — which is complementary to the demand for real women to be sex objects. Hence, more women get treated as sex objects, leading to more disrespectful treatment and harassment.

    any basic economic understanding would lead one to the conclusion that higher demand for a product leads to a higher price for the demander- not the supplier. The more sexy women that men want means the higher a price the individual woman can charge for being sexy. This should lower the status of men seeking sexy woman as they lose power in this relationship relative to men who don’t.

  • Bill Easterly

    I have a response to this post here.

  • Kayla

    Robin, you’re right to say that harassing advances are ‘done to humiliate or assert dominance’. That’s the problem with objectifying women–you arouse men’s desires, but those desires are frustrated. You definitely can’t have sex with the swimsuit model and possibly not with any other woman. This arouses anger against women, which leads to harassment of women and everyday misogyny (intended to hurt women, not expected to lead to sex).

    • Sandeep

      What about all those romantic comedies with unrealistically patient and caring male lovers/husbands?

  • Pingback: Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models? | Meteuphoric

  • http://don.geddis.org/ Don Geddis

    People have innate impulses, and civilization sends messages on which are appropriate to act on in public, and which not. Somebody bumps you while walking down the street, and you feel like punching them — but you’ve learned that is not an appropriate response. A woman with cleavage walks into a professional setting, and men want to stare at her chest. Is that appropriate in society, or not? SI swimsuit issues help move the line of “what is ok to do in public”, in a direction promoting evaluating women for physical attributes. Many women don’t enjoy being constantly evaluated that way, so they would prefer that society explicitly shame and suppress such natural urges on the part of men.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    There is an over-time correlation but not causation between prevalence of cultural products with female flesh and the forcible rape rate. They both stem from an underlying level of sexuality among both males and females.

    When males are more sexually charged, they demand more flesh in the culture they consume, and they are more likely even without that stuff to commit rape. When females are more sexually charged, they too demand more flesh in the culture, and they willingly contribute to it themselves by streaking, going topless at the beach, and flashing their boobs at a rock concert. That may contribute to the higher rape rate by leading men on — and no, an empirical explanation is not a moral pardon.

    The rape rate, like all violent crime, began rising around 1960, peaked around 1992, and has been plummeting since. Below are two empirical posts showing the over-time correlation between level of violence and how much nudity is in popular movies, and how sexually exhibitionistic the average female is.

    Flesh in movies

    Exhibitionism

    • JAMayes

      “There is an over-time correlation but not causation between prevalence of cultural products with female flesh and the forcible rape rate. ”

      The statistics you cite suggest the opposite to me. The availability and consumption of porn have skyrocketed since the dawn of the internet age in the 90s at the same time as the rape rates have plummeted. Hollywood may not show the same amount of skin, because there is no longer much of a market for pseudo porn when men can get the real thing on demand over the internet. It is a mistake to equate less skin in regular moves with a decrease in “prevalence of cultural products with female flesh.” Porn is a cultural product full of female flesh, and there is more of it than ever.

      The “exhibitionism” link is just anecdotal and not very persuasive as far as I’m concerned. In the face of all the girls gone wild advertisements I see, I’d need something more systematic to convince me that women flash less than they used to.

  • http://kim.oyhus.no Kim Øyhus

    It is children who are not sex objects.
    Men and women are sex objects.

  • The Man Who Was . . .

    Most women very much like to be able to use sexy clothing, including swimsuits, to attract men, but they don’t like other women using sexy clothing to attract men. Hence the need to denounce things like swimsuit magazines while vehemently resisting any restrictions on what they themselves are allowed to wear.

    “Disrespectful” here simply means something that lowers the sexual market value of the average woman.

    • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

      Unfortunately, yup. See, e.g., Sandeep Mishra, Andrew Clark, and Martin Daly, “One woman’s behavior affects the attractiveness of others,” Evolution and Human Behavior 28 (2007) 145–149.

      I still think porn is a net good. It eases some of the pain of the undersupply of female sexual services.

  • The Man Who Was . . .

    Attractive women tend not to be all that troubled by attention from men. Most appear to like being thought of as sex objects, though some dress for a more refined audience than others.

  • Emily

    if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts

    This definition fails to include harassment in which the harasser does not want to have sex with the woman (or asserts that he does not). Women whose physique is not that of a swimsuit model are, in my experience, often harassed about their shortcomings — treated as if they were defective sex objects.

    This suggests to me that SI swimsuit issues contribute to the mistaken notion that women always wear swimsuits in order to be sex objects. In fact, many of us wear them in order to go swimming.

  • rapscallion

    We think that the N-word is bad because using it means that one dislikes people of African descent as a class, which we judge to be immoral. What’s the similar immorality in the mind of someone gazing upon a sexy image of a woman? Is Easterly saying that it’s simply wrong for heterosexual men to fantasize about sex, period?

  • mjgeddes

    Your obsession with ‘Status’ for social interaction is just like Yudkowsky’s obsession with ‘Bayes’ for intelligence. You’re both well wide of the mark I’m afraid.

    Status is just the mechanics – ‘motive force’ or ‘engine’ of social interaction, it’s not the main defining feature. Same deal with intelligence. Bayes is just the mechanics – ‘motive force’ or ‘engine’ of intelligence, it’s only secondary to the main defining feature of intelligence, which is something different entirely.

    You could point to a car and say; ‘The engine explains the car’. No. The car needs the engine, but the engine only accounts for the mechanics of the car, whereas the actual purpose of the car is getting from place to place. Status is not in the drivers seat for social interaction, and nor is Bayes in the drivers seat for intelligence.

    An obsession with the mechanics of things, whilst missing the central defing features entirely, seems the hall-mark of high-IQ transhumanist system-oriented folks.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      That would have been a good opportunity for you to explain what the “central defining feature” is. I believe you’ve done something like that vs Bayes, but now we are talking status.

  • dave

    Male sexual demand > female sexual demand. That has to balance out somehow. Best it do so with raunchy magazines rather then psychological damage and rape.

  • Pingback: The Economics of the Swimsuit Issue « Free-Market Feminism

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    I do see a down side to these pictures and video, that is that they seem to fool men into think that there are more beautiful women available than there are. This makes them less likely to settle and in turn to have kids. It can also make a married man less satisfied with his wife.

    • oldoddjobs

      Wow, these hypothetical men you’re talking about sound REALLY dumb

  • josh

    Women are sex objects. Duh. They are also other kinds of objects. They are depicted as sex objects and also as other kinds of objects. Is the objection that no single depiction can fully capture all that woman are? Perhaps we should outlaw all depictions of women and elevate women to the status of Gods in our absurd modernist religion.

  • DSimon

    The main issue is that the attractiveness of women is remarked upon and noticed more prominently than the attractiveness of men. This leads to two problems for women:

    1. Women receive proportionally less attention for other merits (i.e. competence, intelligence), which reduces their access to opportunities that require those merits.

    2. The amount of attention paid to a woman’s physical attractiveness can sometimes reach such a high level of frequency and/or intensity that it becomes distracting, irritating, or even threatening.

    Both of these issues are significant *regardless of the individual woman’s level of attractiveness*, though probably they are worse at either extreme of the spectrum.

    I’m not sure if men looking at women modelling swimsuits far more often than the reverse is actually contributing to this problem, or merely a result of it.

  • Chelsea

    It’s peculiar how offensive Easterly believes the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is. It seems most of the flaws in his argument have been addressed (I particularly liked “agnostic’s” point about the decline in rape proving that these images are not leading to an increase in sexual harassment) but there are still a few that I would like to point out.

    Easterly claims that photographing a woman as a “sex object” in a swimsuit goes against her rights. What about her right to chose? These women weren’t forced against their will to be photographed in swimsuits. Denying a woman the right to be photographed in such a manner goes against her rights even more than looking at such a photo. It also completely disregards the history of the bikini. Once upon a time women were not allowed to wear bikinis- think Annette Kellerman, who was arrested for doing just that. Some argue that the popularization of the bikini was a feminist act; women were asserting their power and dominance. I can understand why someone may have an issue with this as it suggests that a woman’s power comes from her appearance, but I would argue that it is not the sole source of her power. A perfect example of a woman using her body in such a manner is the “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” PETA campaign. Yes the women are photographed nude, but they are using their bodies to support an intellectual opinion on animal cruelty.

    Easterly also points out that only 10% of Sports Illustrated pages are devoted to women’s sports when he argues that the magazine suggests that woman should be more concerned with their appearance then their athletic abilities. There is only one Swimsuit Edition each year. As Sports Illustrated is a weekly magazine, that means that at best 1/52 or around 2% of Sports Illustrated pages are devoted to showing images of women in bikinis. I would therefore argue that their focus is on woman as athletes, not as “sex objects.”

  • Martha
  • Muga Sofer

    “Perhaps men get hornier viewing swimsuit models, and then try harder to gain sex from other women. But few complain about similar effects on women from watching sexy rock stars. Or from men watching ads for sexy female clothes, or live women in swimsuits at the beach or in sexy party outfits.”

    I have heard all these objected to on grounds of objectification. Am I unusual in this regard?

    • VV

      Objectification seems to be an ill-defined catch-all buzzword used to denigrate any type of sexual behavior or preference of other people (almost always heterosexual males).

      • Muga Sofer

        It may not refer to a specific thing – and it doesn’t, in fact – but that doesn’t mean it applies to everything.

        Also, women get accused of, y’know, making themselves objectify-able.