Sympathy for the Semi-Nude?

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED November 14, 2011
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Conversations around nudity and objectification often frame women as the targets. Moreover, sociologists have concluded that men and women alike are more comfortable viewing female nudity, compared to male nudity. But a new study from the Maryland Mind Perception and Morality Lab uncovered some surprising similarities among the inferences we make about semi-nude females and males alike.

It seems that objectification isn’t as cut and dried as we might think. While a correlation exists between nudity and dehumanization, the fewer clothes one wears also incites certain non-sexual, emotional responses as well. In a series of six experiments the Maryland researchers evaluated how participants (both male and female) respond to images of men and women in varying degrees of nudity.

Whereas semi-nude people were seen as “less morally responsible” and less in control of their own actions, they also triggered sympathetic responses. As Christie Nicholson explains at Scientific American, “this latter group was also, curiously enough, thought of as more sensitive and needing more protection from fear or pain.” Perhaps the laboratory setting of the experiment muted any sexual connotations of nudity, prompting participants to want to find a jacket or afghan to toss around those bare shoulders rather than a cozy corner to curl up in together.

The Maryland study authors label that psychological effect as a subconscious diminishing of our “perceptions of agency” (i.e. morals, self-control) in exchange for heightening “perceptions of experience” (i.e. vulnerability to sensation and physical pain). So while stripping away clothing appears to simultaneously strip away our attention to intellect and morality, it doesn’t disengage us entirely. Rather, it switches our gears away from logic and turns toward the emotional — whether we’re looking at a bare-skinned guy or gal.

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