This is the first study to examine the relationship between viewing media that portrays women as sexual objects and the desire to seek collective action afterwards. A team of researchers led by Francesco Guizzo at the University of Padova in Italy asked 78 men and 81 women to watch three different television clips. The first clip was an advertisement where women were sexually objectified; the second was the same clip with commentary that explains why the footage is objectification; and the third was of a nature documentary that served as the control condition.
The researchers found that after viewing the advertisement with commentary, the majority of the female participants recognized that women were in a disadvantaged position in society. These women also were more prone to want to take collective action against sexual objectification, such as attending protests and rallies. The primary emotion that they cited as inspiring this decision was anger.
However, this effect was “not noted among men.” But the study found that both men and women who were more habitually exposed to sexually objectifying footage were less likely to speak out against it.
“In many Western countries we are accustomed to being exposed to media images of undressed and sexy bodies often used as decorative objects or instruments to attract new customers,” Guizzo said in a statement. “The overall pattern of results suggests that the chronic exposure to objectifying media might lead to the dangerous assumption that such female portrayal is the norm, thus further reducing people’s likelihood to react.”
It’s a seemingly uphill battle to crack down on sexist advertising. A 2012 study found that between 1983 to 2003, the number of ads that used sex to sell products in magazines grew by 12 percent. A different 2008 study in Sex Roles found that out of 1,988 advertisements in 58 popular magazines, half featured women portrayed as sex objects.
Guizzo hopes her research could help leverage the prevalence of campaigns that motivate people to demand improved portrayals of women in media. Campaigns like The Representation Project coordinate mixed media to expose, per its website, “how mainstream media and culture contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.”