Why Men Are Sexist Towards Avatars in Tight Shirts
Do men treat pretty virtual women better than their less-attractive counterparts? Research from Karl MacDorman of Indiana University in Indianapolis (his research will be published soon in the journal Presence) and Jesse Fox at Stanford seem to say being prettier doesn’t necessarily engender better behavior, but presentation definitely matters. Men like pretty women, be they avatars or the real thing, but they also treat women whom they respect a little better too. MacDorman presented 682 volunteers with an ethical dilemma taken from a medical ethics program. The volunteers played the role of doctor and listened as a female, Kelly Gordon, asked them not to tell her husband that she had contracted genital herpes. Kelly Gordon was presented to volunteers in one of four different ways, according to this summary of the experiment in NewScientist:
…either as an actress superimposed on a computer generated (CG) background or a CG female on the same background (pictured) – and then either edited to move smoothly or in a jerky, unnatural way. Overall, women responded more sympathetically to Gordon, with 52 per cent acceding to her request compared with 45 per cent of men. But whereas women’s attitudes were consistent however Gordon was presented, the male volunteers’ attitudes swung sharply. The two human versions got a far more sympathetic hearing than their avatar counterparts. “Clearly, presentational factors influence people’s decisions, including decisions of moral and ethical consequence,” says MacDorman.
The avatar was more sexualized than the human actress. She wore a tight pink, belly-exposing shirt and had bigger breasts. Sexualized representations of women, says Jesse Fox, a human-computer interaction researcher at Stanford University, are often judged to be dishonest or “loose”—and more so by men than women. MacDorman was quoted as saying that his study shows that presentational factors influence decisions, including decisions of moral or ethical consequence, and that the different responses from volunteers might mean that men show more empathy towards those they see as mate material—and promiscuous women, clearly, are not a good mate choice—at least according to the responses by men in this study.
Jesse Fox published a study in Sex Roles, the June 12, 2009 edition, where she exposed 43 male undergrads and 40 women to virtual women dressed provocatively and who made lots of eye contact, and conservatively clad virtual females with low eye gaze (all in an immersive, virtual environment). She also exposed participants to virtual females dressed provocatively who didn’t make lots of eye contact and conservatively dressed who did—that latter group went against the stereotype. After all was said and done, Fox and her coauthor Jeremy Bailenson noted that outside the virtual world, those who come into contact with high stereotypical characters—the sexy vamp making lots of eye contact, for example—act more sexist towards them. But when the look is there but the behavior isn’t—a sexily clad female who is demure and doesn’t make lots of eye contact—the sexism is lessened.
The authors wrote at the conclusion of their study that the interaction of the effects of “gaze and dress on sexism … are noteworthy.” In the real world, exposure to a woman dressed in a sexually suggestive way, who makes a lot of eye contact, might be interpreted by a man as that woman being sexually dominant or aggressive, wrote the authors. It validates the stereotype that provocatively dressed women are “asking for it” –and in an immersive, virtual world, the authors say the effect may be magnified, helping to reinforce those faulty stereotypes. Which means we probably need more studies on just what these female avatars are doing to the average male’s ideas about women, about female sexuality, and to their expectations of women—whether it’s their sister, their girlfriend, a colleague or a random encounter. Just because she wears a tight shirt and looks you in the eye doesn’t mean she’s looking for sex. Fox and her coauthor are clearly concerned about this. They conclude with this:
People are spending more and more time in virtual spaces, from video games to online social worlds. Thisstudy demonstrates the need to study the effects of virtual human representations on users. Both men and women demonstrated significant changes in their sexist attitudes and rape myth acceptance after a brief encounter with gender-stereotypical virtual females. It is possible that in these contexts, the effects of sexualized and stereotypical representations are even greater than those in traditional media. And as this study has demonstrated, it is possible these effects linger and can seep into our real world interactions, reinforcing negative stereotypes, promoting objectification, and hindering women’s pursuit of equality.