A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior investigates the role of self-objectification in the choice to engage in unsafe sex. The findings indicate that female college students who experienced a heightened level of self-objectification were more likely to engage in unprotected sex and less likely to wait to use a condom with a highly desirable partner.
Women are objectified across different media platforms. As a result, they may internalize the social valuation system, leading them to view themselves as mere objects to be evaluated based on their appearance. This internalization, known as self-objectification, has been associated with detrimental mental and physical health consequences, such as mood disorders, body image issues, eating disorders, and risky sexual behaviors.
Research has also indicated that women high in self-objectification may have difficulty paying attention to their bodily processes, such as feeling hungry. For example, women who tend to focus more on their appearance may not feel as cold when they wear little clothing in low temperatures.
Study author Katherine M. Ingram and her colleagues intended to explore the connection between self-objectification and involvement in risky sexual conduct in female college students, given the high rate of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) in this population.
To investigate the impact of self-objectification on the willingness to engage in unprotected sex, participants were randomly assigned to view media presentations intended to prime self-objectification or no objectification. The researcher hypothesized that those who were exposed to self-objectification would exhibit a greater inclination to engage in risky sex compared to those in the control group.
The study included 283 female undergraduate students who identified as cisgender and were currently taking at least one psychology course at a public university in the mid-Atlantic region. The participants, aged 18-35, self-identified as African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White, or other. To gather information on sexual behavior over the past six months, participants completed the CDC Sexual Behavior Questionnaire.
The study aimed to induce self-objectification in two groups of participants using 5-minute videos. The self-objectification video included commercials featuring women similar to the participants and high in objectifying qualities. In contrast, the control video had no objectifying content or human presence, only cats and dogs.
The study conducted a pre/post-pilot test on female undergraduate students, revealing a significant rise in self-objectification after watching the self-objectification video. Self-objectification was measured using the Twenty Statements Test.
Next, the participants were shown 60 pictures of potential sexual partners and were asked to select those they would consider having sex with and the partners they deemed most and least likely to have an STI. They were then asked to rate their willingness to have sex with each partner with and without a condom, with condom-protected sex available only after varying delays. Participants used a visual analog scale to provide scores for each partner, and the order of partner conditions was randomized.
The results indicated that when women experienced increased levels of self-objectification, they were more inclined to engage in unprotected sex and less likely to delay condom use, but only with a highly desirable partner. This indicates that exposure to objectifying media may impact two distinct decision-making processes: the general evaluation of risk associated with not using a condom and the delay in using a condom.
“Given the pervasiveness of intended and unintended objectifying messages that college women face, this increase in willingness to engage in risky sex behavior represents a consequential health concern,” the researchers wrote.
But it is unclear how well the mate selection task represents real-world decision-making. Moreover, the study did not account for factors such as socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, and sex, which may influence how individuals react to objectifying media.
Although the study has some limitations, it offers preliminary evidence that exposure to media can lead to self-objectification and increase the likelihood of risky sexual behavior among college women. Nonetheless, additional research is necessary to explore the mechanisms that link self-objectification to reduced condom use and to replicate these findings with larger and more diverse samples.
The study, “A preliminary experimental study of self‐objectification and risky sex behavior among a university sample of cisgender women in the U.S.”, was authored by Katherine M. Ingram, Anahi Collado, Julia W. Felton, and Richard Yi.