Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

11 responses to “Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

  1. Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Easterly On Swimsuits

  2. I suspect that sexual objects refers to the idea that these are people who have no preferences regarding sex and that, in choosing whether to have sex, the desires or decisions of a sexual object have no impact. I guess the connection to the magazine is that it is turning these from women with their own interests to women who exist only to appeal to men.

    That’s not to say I disagree with your analysis in general but just that I don’t think the use of the word object is meant to mean either “inanimate” or “low status” (at least not directly).

  3. I think the standard worry about SI swimsuit pictures is that they are designed to trigger a specific frame mind in hetero men, and when men are in that frame of mind, they don’t reason at all well about gender issues.

    There is some reason to think that this may not just be silly. Frist: When men are aroused, they admit on a survey a far greater willingness to be violent to women and ignore non-consent. We also seem to show a profound impairment in our capacity to reason about means and (especially) ends. You can read about this in Dan Ariely’s first book. I was a bit stunned by the magnitude of the effect. Second: It makes some evolutionary sense that there would be a mental gear in men’s minds which leads them to focus singlemindedly on depositing semen in a fertile womb, even at the expense of crowding out their better judgment. It also makes sense that women would be able trigger this irrational state with body language. SI’s photographers are likely quite skilled at capturing just this.

    If there is something to this, it’s understandable that a huge swath of society would be deeply threatened by the aroused human male. Of course, the people who decry the SI swimsuit pictures don’t object to all cases of male arousal. Maybe they picture the guy who’s aroused by his steady partner as someone whose temporary “lower brain irrationality” will be diffused in a socially acceptable manner, perhaps even with good externalities. The problem is, I assume, the guy who gets sex-stupid but doesn’t have a consenting partner with whom to resolve that stupidity. And that’s just the kind of guy we picture paying great attention swimsuit pictures. These men don’t just masturbate and regain higher cognition – for that there’s real porn (which makes porn in some sense less threatening).

    So maybe people picture sexy commercials and swimsuit pictures as things that dangerously stupidify men, but this stupidification isn’t diffused and bleeds into their normal dealings.

    I’m not saying that they are right to worry. I suspect they’re not, because I see no evidence that spending lots of time in a partially sex-stupidified frame of mind is somehow rewiring a male brain to *be* more stupid. Indulging in that pattern of thinking doesn’t wear out a cognitive rut which influences men’s considered opinions of women. If swimsuit models give us lots of looks of sexual consent, do men get confused and transfer their “ticket to ravish” to other women, or maybe even womankind as a whole? I don’t think there is any evidence that we do. Or at least I would hope not.

  4. You remind me of Scott Adams, back when his blog was still good.

  5. …the discomfort seems to also come from the quick and easy (“low cost”?) use of visual mating cues to get (mainly guys) to buy stuff. Mating cues are used with women as well but men’s brains mating triggering system is much more visual — in most cases…

    …another objection is that the visual narrative is a lie, this is the same narrative of pretty much all men’s magazines — the sales pitch being that optimal women mating partners are easily available and ready (eager?) to mate…reality is the opposite, of course….reality is always the opposite of pop stuff….that why pop stuff is so pop(ular)…ho hum…

  6. I’m pro-porn, but it’s because I think its benefits outweigh effects like this.

    Not only porn, but how we act and what we wear every day can have nasty externalities.

  7. it’s likely the less available receptive women actually are to young men, because of hyper-competition leading to less and less relaxed time for dating and mating, the more pop culture will portray the opposite…the covers of magazine are very reliable contrary indicators of real experience…pop songs are as well….

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

  9. Thanks for this, Katja. It’s been helpful in my quest to understand “objectification”:

  10. Nathan Phillips

    Lmao. Thanks for some very lucid posts on this bizarre, saturating focus on gender-categories.


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