New psychology research uncovers power-related motives behind men’s objectification of women

Men who endorse social hierarchies are more likely to objectify women when their own power is threatened, according to new research published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

“I am generally intrigued by identifying subtle social psychological mechanisms that reinforce gender power relations and traditional gender roles. These subtle forms of oppression are especially interesting because they are harder to recognize and resist and sometimes even more damaging than overtly hostile forms,” explained study author Orly Bareket, a member of the Improving Social Relations Lab at Tel Aviv University.

“I have a particular interest in subtle and mundane manifestations of objectification (e.g., gazing at women’s bodies), which are not overtly hostile or oppressive, and are often assumed to be driven solely by sexual motivations.”

“I wanted to show that sexual drives clearly are not the whole story by demonstrating that the objectification of women is also driven by the motivation to maintain men’s dominance,” Bareket said.

An initial survey of 80 heterosexual women and 72 heterosexual men in Israel found that men’s social dominance orientation — a measure of the acceptance of hierarchical and dominant relations between social groups — was associated with their tendency to objectify women. But women’s tendency to objectify men was unrelated to their social dominance orientation.

People with a high social dominance orientation agree with statements such as “It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.”

The researchers then conducted two experiments — one with 117 heterosexual men and the other with 129 heterosexual women — to examine how having one’s own power threatened influenced the relationship between social dominance orientation and objectification.

In the experiments, participants were assigned to work as either subordinates or as equally-powerful teammates with a partner of the opposite sex. The researchers then assessed the participants’ objectification of their partner and their general tendency to objectify people of the opposite sex.

Men with a high social dominance orientation had a higher tendency to objectify women after being assigned to work as subordinates. But the same dynamic was not found among women.

A third experiment with another 138 heterosexual men found that the tendency to objectify women occurred when men were subordinated to a female boss, but not a male boss.

“The sexual objectification of women by heterosexual men is driven not only by sexual motives per se, but also by power-related motives (e.g., the wish to maintain male dominance),” Bareket told PsyPost.

“A remaining question is whether men actually feel more dominant after sexually objectifying women. In other words, while in the present research we demonstrated that men sexually objectify women in an attempt to (re)gain dominance, we still do not know whether this strategy is actually effective.

“Previous findings that exposure to sexually objectified women increased supremacy beliefs among men suggest that the answer may be positive.”

“I think it would be further interesting to show that the adverse consequences of men’s objectification of women are not confined to women but are also relevant to men because subjugating others comes with a cost,” Bareket added.

“For example, in another study from our lab we show that men’s sexual objectification of women is related to reduced satisfaction within their romantic relationships. Hence, I believe that educating the public about the antecedents of women’s objectification and further highlighting the negative consequences for both men and women can benefit society as a whole.”

The study, “Domination and Objectification: Men’s Motivation for Dominance Over Women Affects Their Tendency to Sexually Objectify Women“, was authored by Orly Bareket and Nurit Shnabel.