The Ways of Lust

How does lust affect the way women think about men?

In 1780, Immanuel Kant wrote that “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite.” And after that appetite is sated? The loved one, Kant explained, “is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry.”

Many contemporary scholars agree that sexual desire based on a man’s wealth can lead to “objectification.” The objectifier thinks of the target of her desire as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience.

This idea has some laboratory support. Studies have found that viewing men’s clothing, as opposed to their faces, affects our judgment of their intelligence, ambition, competence, and likeability.  One neuroimaging experiment found that, for women, viewing pictures of well-dressed men induced lowered activity in brain regions associated with thinking about other people’s minds.

The objectification thesis also sits well with another idea that many psychologists have defended, which is that we are all common-sense dualists. Even if you are a staunch science-minded atheist, in everyday life you still think of people as immaterial conscious beings — we inhabit fleshy bodies, but we are not ourselves physical. To see someone as a possessor of material wealth is in opposition to thinking of him as a mind, then, and hence a heightened focus on someone’s success tends to strip away his personhood.

But this analysis is too simple. It’s not literally true that men in upscale magazine ads are thought of as unfeeling objects. Also, as the philosophers Michael Nussbaum and Lance Green have pointed out, being treated as an object isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine that you are sitting outside on a sunny day, and you move behind someone so that he blocks the sun from your eyes. You have used him as an object, but it’s hard to see that you’ve done something wrong.

The real worry that people have with lust based on wealth and success is that the targets of the arousal are seen as losing certain uniquely human traits. They are thought of as beings that exist to perform a service – typically, to provide funding and status – more like robots or animals than people. This attitude is well expressed by the misandrist hero of the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishwoman” who says that her aim is “to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.”

Recently, colleagues and I published a study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at the effect of viewing pictures of desirable males. We went hard-core, drawing our images from dating websites that emphasized “successful men.”  We selected examples providing photos of the same man in business or formal clothing and also in jeans or other informal clothing.

We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, well-dressed people were thought of as being diminished experiencers, less capable of strong feelings and of a range of emotional responses.  But contrary to this view, they were also thought of as having greater agency.

Relatedly, in another study of ours, in which participants gave people electric shocks, we found that the participants gave milder shocks to people who were wearing business suits than to those in informal clothing, presumably because the impression of success makes us more sensitive to others’ status as legitimate human beings.

Marilyn Monroe once described money as “the opposite of love.” This seems too harsh. Part of the effect of success that our study found is morally positive — it’s usually a good thing to be more attuned to someone else’s legitimacy — and it’s not clear whether the negative effects have any long-term influence on how we treat one another. In addition, the studies that psychologists have done so far involve the perception of strangers. I hope it’s not overly romantic to assume that desirability might work quite differently in the context of a continuing relationship.

These findings underscore the corporeal nature of many of our moral feelings. The experience of other people’s poverty can elicit empathy and compassion; it can also trigger disgust, fear and hatred. Our moral thoughts and actions are influenced, often unconsciously, by others’ smell, their race, their sex, their age, how much money they seem to have, and much else.

If we want to be good people, to do right by others, it’s important to know about these influences. Sometimes we will embrace them, but often we are going to want to combat them.

*  *  *  *  *

The foregoing is a restatement of a Paul Bloom article in the New York Times.  His essay was about men viewing pornography.  I did not have to change very much to produce a plausible suggestion that one might find similar effects in the case of women viewing desirable material attributes in men.

The exercise of producing the restatement provoked several thoughts.  One was that, in the case of men as objects, research like that which Bloom cites has not been done, or at least it is not commonly reported in places like a New York Times opinion page.  This is regrettable.  Although Bloom presents an objectification thesis that he characterizes as being held by “many contemporary feminists,” that idea is, of course, many years old.  In that regard, once again, it appears that Times editorial thinking on gender and discrimination operates on a knee-jerk level, stuck in the 1970s, with a white male professor again using his position of power to showcase his own desirable enlightenment at the expense of other men not similarly situated.

It is regrettable that, in today’s university, research is driven, not by the emergence of obvious unknowns (e.g., the question of whether one can say, about women, things that are very similar to what one says about men), but rather by funding and politics.  What gets studied and reported is decided through similar processes, whether one works at a prestigious university (Yale, in Bloom’s case) or at a small-town daily newspaper.  The important thing is not that knowledge is produced for the use of other scholars; it is that one makes a splash with something that people want to hear.

The imaginary research that I have cited in this restatement may not reflect what real research will someday show.  There are two things worth noting about that.  First, let’s do the research; and second, anything can be demonized.  In other words, a focus upon one type of person and experience (e.g., men viewing pornography) tends to highlight things to criticize about that particularity (e.g., pornography may impair male kindness), without shedding any light on related matters (e.g., that a focus on male success may impair female kindness).  We cannot be certain how to respond to a given effect (e.g., objectification) without a contexted sense of its applicability to other types of people and situations.  For instance, if people generally tend to adopt an instrumentalist mindset when evaluating other people in light of their material condition (e.g., voluptuous, rich), then perhaps we would be well advised to direct our energies, not toward the narrow issue of pornography, but rather toward the materialistic or hedonistic worldview that would promote it.

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