What do we think about when we think about naked people? In the New York Times this weekend, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom says that it’s time to rethink the theory of objectification. The feminist argument is that when people are depicted in sexualized contexts, “the objectifier (typically a man) thinks of the target of his desire (typically a woman) as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience.” Bloom argues that the objectification process is actually more complicated: While focusing on people’s bodies as opposed to their minds does decrease our perceptions of their ability “to act, plan and exert self-control,” he writes, it can actually increase our perceptions of their capacity to “feel pain, pleasure and emotions.” When we look at people in a sexual context (or catch a peek at them without their clothes on), we’re less likely to ascribe them agency, but we’re more likely to ascribe them feelings. That could actually inspire greater empathy toward the objectified party—a silver lining to the focus on flesh.
This is not just a wild guess. In 2011, Bloom and a team of other psychologists and philosophers executed six studies in which they presented groups of participants with photographs of strangers in various states of undress—or descriptions of hypothetical people that emphasized either their physical or mental qualities—then asked the participants to rate the strangers’ perceived capacity for agency and experience. In each study, removing people’s clothing, emphasizing their body, or placing them in a sexualized context increased the viewer’s perception of their capacity for feeling and decreased their perception of agency. Our empathy for these emotive, sexy people may even inspire us to treat them better. In one study, participants were asked to administer low-level electric shocks to men in various states of undress until they believed the exercise became unsafe; they buzzed clothed men more times than they did shirtless ones.
To Bloom, the findings are hopeful. “Part of the effect of nudity that our study found is morally positive—it’s usually a good thing to be more attuned to someone else’s ability to experience,” he writes. Bloom’s interpretation of human psychology could even make us feel less bad about ourselves for watching porn. “It’s not literally true that women in pornography are thought of as inanimate and unfeeling objects; if they were, then they would just as effectively be depicted as unconscious or unresponsive, as opposed to (as is more often the case) aroused and compliant,” he writes. Looking at naked people can “trigger disgust, fear, and hatred,” Bloom says, but it can also “elicit empathy and compassion.”
That sounds nice, except that when watching porn, while we may perceive that these “aroused and compliant” women on screen “feel” more, what we understand them to feel is always pleasure, regardless of what’s being done to them. That doesn’t sound like a sunnier version of objectification. If we view people as capable of feeling, but not capable of action, we’re still failing to understand them as fully human. Someone who is incapable of thinking for herself, and yet feels very much, is essentially a puppy.
In fact, porn actors are specifically denied the ability to express a full range of human emotion on screen. Many performers are legitimately jazzed about the sex they’re having. But the persistent depiction of unflagging enthusiasm in porn is also a clever safeguard against accusations that porn treats women as “inanimate and unfeeling objects.” At the recommendation of attorneys who focus on obscenity law, many pornographers refuse to depict sexualized pain in their movies—scenes that include depictions of rape, bondage, fisting, slapping, or hair pulling, for example—to avoid running afoul of the law in certain states and countries. Meanwhile, Kink.com, a Web-only BDSM company, takes the opposite approach, prioritizing depictions of actors’ agency even when the results don’t always appear so happy-go-lucky. At Kink, “you can slap and spit and choke people, and you’re even allowed to cry—as long as there’s an interview before and after saying how that model felt about it,” performer Danny Wylde told me. “Most companies don’t allow half of that stuff.”
The optimal situation would not be either-or. It would be great if we could view people as simultaneously capable of intense feeling and strong mental agency, regardless of the clothes they’re wearing (or not wearing), or the sex acts they desire, negotiate, or refuse. That’s a tough sell for a lot of porn, which shoots for the quick and easy release of a certain type of fantasy: That she likes it, whoever she is, and no matter what we want her to do. If a performer fails to satisfy, we can just click over to another until we find one who will comply.
So how do we change this? To start, by listening to what porn performers have to say about their work (among other things), and supporting porn directors like Tristan Taormino, who actively and vocally prioritize their performers’ desires in the construction of their scenes. Of course, there’s no reason for the porn industry to have a monopoly on humanizing the erotic. One solution is for the MPAA to rethink its ratings system for the mainstream film industry, which (unlike the largely self-policing porn industry) takes a lenient view of extreme and even deranged depictions of physical violence, but penalizes filmmakers harshly for nudity and sexual content. If the MPAA were to loosen those rules, we might finally see some fully-drawn characters engage in explicit sex—with the full range of motivations, desires, and rational actions that make people, on screen and off, human.