The Economics of the Swimsuit Issue

Posted on February 28, 2011 by


What’s more exciting than the release of Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue? How about economists talking about the Swimsuit Issue?—or, more precisely, economists arguing about whether or not the Swimsuit Issue creates negative externalities for average women?

As far as I can tell, the debate started with an old post on Suzanne MacNevin’s blog, Feminist Truths. In a list of the “Top 10 Ways Sports Illustrated Disrespects Women,” MacNevin argues that the Swimsuit Issue of the magazine is offensive in that it crudely objectifies the female body.

On February 20th, Brookings Institute economist William Easterly linked to MacNevin’s post in a short post on AidWatch titled, Sports Illustrated Releases Annual Mainstream Gender Objectification Issue.”

Then, on February 23rd, George Mason University Professor Robin Hanson criticized MacNevin’s Top Ten list on OvercomingBias, quipping:

Yes a swimsuit video has sexual connotations and doesn’t emphasize all aspects of the performer, but then the same can be said of many rock concerts. Why do folks complain so much more about swimsuit vids?

And that’s when things got interesting (in an econ-geek sort of way). Easterly took issue with Robin Hanson’s post and responded with a snarky update on his blog:

Robin Hanson’s blog offers a defense of the Swimsuit Issue. (Strangely it fails to mention this post although it uses the same “Top 10″  link as below. Maybe Professor Hanson regularly surfs feminist blogs.)

This is a teaching moment for economists — does the relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object create a negative externality for women in general? (only economists use the words “externality,” “sex” and ”swimsuit” in the same sentence). I would say yes, Robin apparently says no.  I think the explosion of such marketing has been a negative trend since the 1960s, inducing more women to be treated disrespectfully or harassed, partially offsetting other gains in women’s rights. If you believe individual rights are a key to development, then I think this is an important development discussion (in case you were very justifiably wondering?!)

Robin Hanson responded with a new post on February 25th, titled (rather pointedly), “Easterly on Swimsuits.” Hanson writes:

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

In a trivial sense calling attention to folks with exemplary abilities or features generally makes most others look worse by comparison. But if this is “disrespect,” our media is chock full of it – swimsuit models aren’t any worse than the rest.


Compared to most sexy clothing ads, or to real swimsuited women at the beach, swimsuit models express a more playful submissive come-hither persona. Does this give men the misleading impression that ordinary women are more eager for sex? It is hard to see why, since most real women only rarely give such come-hither looks. If anything men should learn that this is more what a woman who eagerly wants sex might look like – if your woman doesn’t act like this, maybe she isn’t that interested.

Also on February 25th, Katja Grace weighed in on the debate on her (excellent) blog, Meteuphoric. Grace writes:

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

So then William Easterly decided to email Robin Hanson directly to clarify his original argument, and Robin Hanson posted part of the email in an update to his February 25th post:

In an email, Easterly elaborates: “The causal mechanism I have in mind is that marketers have greatly expanded the supply of a consumer product — the image of woman as sex object — which is complementary to the demand for real women to be sex objects. Hence, more women get treated as sex objects, leading to more disrespectful treatment and harassment.”

Not satisfied with the email response, Easterly then posted his final words on the subject in a February 26th post, titled, “The Swimsuit Debate Continues (sigh) . . .”:

As I made clear to Robin in an email exchange, I don’t think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Now it’s really WAY past the time that two middle-aged male economists should get back to their own areas of specialized knowledge…

A pity! Personally, I wish middle-aged male economists would talk more about the externalities of sexual objectification—but maybe that’s just me.

When Women’s Studies or Cultural Studies majors talk about female objectification, they talk about Jacques Lacan and Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze;  they talk about how women re-tool their bodies to adapt to patriarchally-enforced beauty norms; but they don’t generally talk about how real women are empirically affected by the sexualization of women in media. They don’t tend to ask, as Katja Grace does, about the “causal path to badness.” Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue presents beautiful women in provacative poses for the express purpose of being looked at and enjoyed by men—but does it follow that women in general are harmed by that?

Essentially, where Easterly, Hanson, and Grace all disagree is on the exact correlation between how a man relates to sexed-up, scantily-clad photos of women in magazines and how he relates to the women he interacts with in the real world. Easterly seems to think that a man will treat real women with something of the same casual disrespect he has for glossy photos of sexy pin-ups. But barring empirical evidence—which Easterly dismisses as irrelevant to the debate—that’s a tough case to make.

I more or less agree with Katja Grace. Men might enjoy Sport Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue because they’re free to fantasize about the women photographed as low-status sex objects; and their fantasies—facilitated by Sports Illustrated—might encourage them to look for low-status sex objects among women in the real world. But women in the real world, unlike the two-dimensional women on the cover of Sports Illustrated, have voices and personalities and statuses of their own. The idea that men are so influenced by Sports Illustrated that their experience with two-dimensional swimsuit models supersedes their daily experience with living, talking, fully-formed women in the real world is not just implausible—it’s almost offensive.