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Research Blog: Oh, Playboy: Sexual objectification and the playboy ideal

By Maria Owen

James Bond, Tony Stark, Chuck Bass – all these characters have one big thing in common: they are playboys. Not only do they represent the desirable bad boy that all women are supposed to want, but they are idolized by many men too. These guys have confidence, good looks, money, and power. And of course, as you may have guessed, they have sex with a lot of different women.

I grew up in the age of Gossip Girl, and Chuck Bass was all my friends’ crush. He was stylish, handsome, rich, and successful; the male characters on the show were all jealous of his status and the female characters vied for his love and attention. But Chuck’s playboy behavior came with a lot of horrible treatment of women. Early in the show Chuck nearly sexually assaults a classmate. He also tries to prostitute his girlfriend for a hotel (yes, you read that right — the show was a bit dramatic). Somehow, other characters and fans of the show continued to love him. That girlfriend he tried to prostitute? Spoiler alert – she ends up marrying him at the end, which probably isn’t a great example to set for young men and women learning how to be in romantic relationships. “He’s just a character, it’s not real,” we would say, but the sad truth is that these representations have a real effect in the real world: playboy characters are presented as sex symbols for women, and boys and men see these masculine roles as something they should aspire to.

So what do these playboy ideals mean for us? These are “just characters” but what kinds of real-world consequences for men’s attitudes might the playboy ideal have? It’s a big question, but I was especially curious about how the playboy attitude connects to the sexual objectification of women’s bodies (I mean, I think we can agree that naming a porn magazine for straight men, Playboy, kinda makes this connection). A ton of psychological research shows that sexual objectification is really bad for women: it’s connected to a whole bunch of negative outcomes, including depression and disordered eating (Miles-McLean et al., 2015), and can even make our brains freeze! So we know sexual objectification has serious consequences. But do playboy representations encourage regular men to objectify women?

It turns out that Renee Mikorski and Dawn M. Syzmanski[1] from the University of Tennessee had a similar question. They conducted a study in 2016 to see whether young guys who were or wanted to be playboys were more likely to sexually objectify women, as well as to understand where these objectifying beliefs and behaviors might come from. They surveyed 329 racially diverse young men, asking them about how much they were or wanted to be playboys (i.e. “If I could, I would frequently change sexual partners”), how much they objectified women (i.e. “How often have you grabbed or pinched a woman’s private body areas against her will?”), and their attitudes towards violence (i.e. “Sometimes violent action is necessary”). The researchers also measured whether participants spent time with male peers who engaged in sexually abusive behaviors and how often they viewed pornography. They predicted that male participants’ playboy idealization and objectifying and violent attitudes towards women might be connected to watching porn and having abusive male friends.

Surprise, surprise, the survey revealed a huge connection between the playboy mentality and the objectification of women. Men who endorsed playboy ideals and wanted to be playboys themselves had much more objectifying attitudes towards women than men who didn’t care to be playboys. The study showed that having abusive male peers and viewing pornography significantly increased the likelihood of a guy’s objectification of women. Even more so than generally violent men or men who used a lot of social media, the guys who identified with the playboy lifestyle were much more likely to sexually objectify women. So even though there are many things contributing to this objectification, the playboy philosophy is the most damaging!

And how do these guys get the idea that they should be playboys in the first place? As you might imagine, it’s not just from James Bond and Gossip Girl. We are surrounded by these playboys in television, movies, and even music, but also in our own personal relationships sometimes. A lot of it comes from, as we’ve seen in the study, their peers and the adoption of a certain mentality. Many of these men grew up in families or social groups where they saw other guys objectifying women as a way to assert dominance and power. When a guy is told all his life that in order to be successful, well-liked, and worthy, he needs to see women as trophies and not as people, that message can really stick. We knew that the sexual objectification of women was problematic already, but making this connection between the playboy philosophy and that objectification is a step towards change. This study reinforces the idea that we are all products of our environment. Unfortunately, our sex, gender, race, nationality, and financial situation often dictate the kind of social messages that we receive. Guys who act this way aren’t all beyond saving, and aren’t necessarily “bad guys.” However, they have definitely been taught some negative perceptions. One of the best ways to lessen the sexual objectification of women is to make it clear that it isn’t okay and that it isn’t attractive. Despite the glamorization of the playboy, we have to remind people that success and charm does not guarantee respectful behavior.

Unfortunately, being a playboy appears to be a sign of success. Some would claim that it’s because those men are attractive and confident, but if the cost of being a playboy is the humanity of women, then it just can’t be cool.

 

 

[1]Mikorski, Renee and Syzmanski, Dawn M. (2016) Masculine Norms, Peer Group, Pornography, Facebook, and Men’s Sexual Objectification of Women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18, 257–267

 

 

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