Spring has sprung in here in New York City, stripping off our layers of winter clothes. The eye falls with pleasure on a pair of pretty feminine legs in a minidress here, or the tan thick-muscled joint where masculine torso meets thigh. At least, it did, until it remembered reading in this experiment (pdf) that "the objectifying gaze" had a small but measurable bad effect on women's performance on a math test (men's performance took no such hit from getting the once-over). Seems an apt moment for a seasonal post: This is the time of year, when we come out of their winter cocoons into the warmth, to consider the psychological and ethical ramifications of checking each other out.

Let's confine the discussion to straight men looking at women, the paper's subject, because it's ubiquitous. Most men I discussed the subject with seem to have a personal code for this appraising gaze: A working definition of what kind of checking-out is meet and acceptable for a civilized man and what is beyond the pale. This code generally gets treated as a matter of personal taste, bound up with culture, religion and—especially—social class. And much as people care about matters of taste, choices in that realm don't have the same bite as ethical considerations, where one choice can be, and often is, obligatory. Your taste in socks isn't my business, but your ethical take on murder does.

So I see this new study, published last month in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, as an argument, based on experiment, for moving the gaze question from the realm of taste to the realm of ethics. And if it's right in its claims, then the argument is hard to dispute. It argues that any overt "checking out" has a bad effect on women's ability to thrive.

In the study, Sarah J. Gervais of the University of Nebraska Lincoln and her colleagues trained two women and two men to give a stranger a very hard-to-miss "objectifying gaze": when they met a new person, they looked "from head to waist and from waist to head in one sweeping motion." These people then went undercover, playing the role of just one more assigned participant in a psych experiment. In that experiment, 67 women and 83 men were told they'd be working in two-person units in a study of teamwork. One person would be the "leader" and the other would be the "worker." The leader would ask some questions of the worker, both would answer some questionnaires, and then the "worker" would work on math problems selected by the "leader."

In reality, the "leader" was always one of the four confederates, and for 33 of the women and 46 of the men, the leader did that "I-am-checking-you-out" routine: Not just the sweeping gaze on first meeting, but then three pauses during the question-and-answer session to glance at the other person's chest. And, in case anyone missed those subtle signs, in an instant-feedback written evaluation of the "worker," they would write that their partner "was looking good." The other participants got eye contact instead of ogling, and the written feedback said they were doing good.

Women who received the objectifying treatment scored lower on average on the math test than did women who didn't. Men, on the other hand, didn't show this effect. Both checked-out and non-checked-out males scored in the same range. Gervais et al. were looking for other bad effects of the gaze, and, interestingly, did not find them: Women who had been through the checking-you-out routine didn't score differently on measures of shame or dissatisfaction with their bodies, nor did they have greater anxiety about their appearance. There was one other effect, though: When asked to rate how much they'd like to hang out or work with the leader, women who had been put through the objectifying routine were more positive about spending time with the partner than were women who hadn't been objectified.

As the authors point out, their experiment is unusual in the field because it claims a concrete cause-and-effect (objectifying gaze leads to lower score) , rather than just a correlation (men's presence in a math class is associated with lower scores compared with an all-female setting).

Still, I'm not sure I buy the paper's premise that the experimental condition is generalizable as a model of society. Not all of life, after all, is a math test.

Yet Gervais et al strongly suggest that the objectifying gaze can never be pleasant, or wanted, or appropriate to the situation. "The findings from our experiment reveal that the objectifying gaze is particularly problematic for women," they write, without qualification. But who has not, at some point, sought out the objectifying gaze? Can't we admit that for women and men, there are moments when one presents one's self as a sexual parcel? And that this isn't a social construct of late capitalism but an aspect of the human personality? "For I must tell you friendly in your ear," Shakespeare has one woman say to another in As You Like It, "sell when you can: you are not for all markets." (Yes, Shakespeare's stage women weren't real (in fact, they were boys) but my point is that his audience didn't scratch their heads about the objectification.)

There are occasions when the objectifying gaze is wanted and expected. For example, the moments described in this interview, where Inès de la Fressange said one good thing about being pregnant is that "you have beautiful tits." To which she later added: "I remember at dinner I was tan with my huge tits and I felt so great. I had the feeling I didn’t need to do conversation."

De la Fressange's enjoyment of the "objectifying gaze" depended, I think, on her ability to control where and how it fell upon her. When men rob women of that control over their self-presentation—when male looks turn a math test or a parking ticket or a meeting into a sexual market—it's not the look itself that's to blame. It's men's insistence on abusing women's autonomy. It's as if society had a problem with men running about threatening women with bats: The answer is the curtail the threats, not ban the bats.

Gervais, S., Vescio, T., & Allen, J. (2011). When What You See Is What You Get: The Consequences of the Objectifying Gaze for Women and Men Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35 (1), 5-17 DOI: 10.1177/0361684310386121