Sexual Overload: Is it Screwing with Our Heads?

In 2006, three psychologists made a startling discovery. Just being in the presence of money, or even visual cues that remind us of money, makes people more selfish and unwilling to co-operate. Even though such behaviour offered participants no actual financial gain, the connotations of capitalism and its attendant self-interest was enough to significantly alter their short-term attitudes and behaviour.

Other studies have shown similar patterns. A team at Duke University found that exposure to the Apple brand caused people to exhibit more creativity in a task than participants shown logos less closely associated with creativity. Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist explored the way in which the metaphorical concept of cleansing our sins to absolve ourselves can be triggered with visual cues, finding that participants were drawn towards physical cleansing products after experiencing a sense of moral shame and felt diminished guilt or obligation to others after undergoing a physical cleanse.

Merely referencing an ideology, a pattern of behaviour or an accepted metaphor embedded in language can have an astonishing effect on preferences and behaviours. And sexual language is no exception. 

In fact, the “hot state” brought about by sexual arousal has a profound effect on the preferences and impulses that underpin our behaviour.

In an experiment run by the Behavioural Economists Dan Arierly and George Loewenstein, heterosexual male participants were asked in either a neutral “cold state” or an aroused “hot state” how they believed they would behave in a range of scenarios related to sexual behaviour and risk-taking.

The inclinations of those in a neutral state suggested general aversion both to risk-taking and to mistreatment of women; those asked the same questions in a state of arousal, after immediately viewing pornography, reported dramatically higher proclivity towards acts of sexual manipulation and even violence, as well as acts likely to endanger themselves.

These “hot states” are, of course, temporary. Arierly concludes that, on the whole, people struggle with “interstate empathy”, meaning that they are unable to accurately predict how they themselves will think or behave when in a dramatically different state of mind – even a state of mind that they have experienced at another time – and so, once their “hot state” is over, they return to more stable attitudes and quickly forget their capacity for more destructive ones. But exposure to heavily sexualised imagery is hardly confined to private porn binges: it’s everywhere we go.

Advertising overwhelmingly relies on images that fragment female bodies into sexually available components. In video games, music videos and much popular TV and film, female characters are largely defined by exaggerated sexual characteristics. Even children’s toys and female Disney characters are increasingly sexualised.

The average person will be exposed to sexual signifiers associated with heterosexual male arousal literally thousands of times a day, giving us constant exposure to imagery that references and reinforces the titillation of pornography. If even a half-noticed currency symbol can trigger behaviours that we subconsciously associate with Capitalist self-interest, it seems reasonable that perpetual exposure to images of objectified sexual availability could trigger behaviours associated with “hot state” risk-taking, manipulation and aggression.

The objectification element is particularly insidious. In her TED Talk “The Sexy Lie,” Caroline Heldman discusses the dehumanising effects of sexual objectification and the seven ways this is manifested in advertising imagery: the isolation of sexualised body parts to stand in for the whole, the depiction of sexualised persons as interchangeable, commodities, body-canvases or stand-ins for objects, depictions of the bodily violation of a person who can’t consent, and/or suggesting that sexual availability is the person’s primary characteristic. Porn makes extensive use of all these elements – but then, that’s hardly surprising. Porn is explicitly commoditising sex by selling it to consumers who seek it out with the sole purpose of becoming aroused. It exists specifically within a sphere of sexual objectivity.

Pervasive sexual objectification in advertising, on the other hand, relates women in any context back to this sexual sphere. It normalises their objectification well beyond the short-lived private fantasy world of porn. Creepily, it implies that regardless of whether they are playacting in porn or just existing in normal life, women are primarily sexual objects to be acted upon.

Rather than an aberration that fades along with arousal, these objectifying reiterations suggest that the pornographic view of women is actually the blueprint for how women should be seen all the time. Moreover, the destructive, aggressive, risk-taking responses that men experience in their “hot states” are being validated, encouraged and constantly provoked.

Of course, no matter how pervasive the stimuli or intense the “hot state”, these psychological triggers obviously do not render men unable to reason or absolve them of moral responsibility. But when so much of human behaviour is irrational, driven by displaced responses and temporary emotional states, it seems senseless to constantly skew the odds against ourselves. The imagery that we are exposed to on a daily basis has shown to be psychologically damaging for both sexes, and benefits no one but the advertisers that rely on lazy objectification to draw our attention.

Psychiatrists have long understood how powerful visual and verbal cues can be in triggering associated memories and emotional responses; the way we react to stimuli and the feelings we experience in situations that bring to mind past dangers, joys and coping mechanisms create intense cycles of behaviour that are extremely hard to break.

Take, for example, the issue of aggressively gendered toys: evidence suggests that play patterns that limit girls to passive roles and exclude boys from caring ones, persist well beyond childhood, with worrying effects on educational and career choices in adult life.

Given the power of sexually objectifying advertising to trigger and reinforce negative responses to women, and its damaging effect on a heterosexual male audience, ongoing exposure to this for our entire lifespans can only be a cause for concern.

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