This proved to be one of the more controversial posts of last year. Here’s a link to the original comments section, which was very helpful in offering a corrective to what this post may have overlooked.
From May 2009.
I’ve been thinking this week about the experience — or lack thereof — of being the object of other’s desire. Two different posts got the wheels turning: Girls, Both Real and Otherwise by Daisy B., and Figleaf’s Unforseen Consequences of Men Believing Themselves Unseen. Both Daisy and Fig, in different ways, talk about alienation from their own bodies, at least as they appear to others (and, in a sense, to themselves). I recommend both posts.
In feminist circles, it’s common to talk about the tremendous damage that objectification does to women of all ages and adolescent girls in particular. Many young women remember a moment (painful, terrifying, or, perhaps less often, full of wonder) when they realized that they were the object of another’s sexual desire. Even more women have memories of being sent the mixed message of how both to entice desire (lessons on how to apply make-up, how to dress “sexy” taught at a young age) and how to avoid appearing either “slutty” or “ugly.” (the distinction, of course, is a shifting and elusive one.) For better or for worse, most young women grow up with a cultural awareness that
their generally speaking, women’s bodies (though perhaps not their own) are intensely desirable to boys and men; strategies for managing that desire are much-discussed facets of women’s magazines, the advertising industry, and conversation.
But we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful as well as functional. Our cultural discourse about young men teaches that managing their own (presumably insatiable) sexual desire is the defining task of their adolescence. A “jock discourse” that encourages young men to “score” with as many women as possible and an “abstinence discourse” which encourages young men to restrain themselves heroically have essentially the same perspective: your job as a man is to channel your libido, either into sexual conquests or radical restriction. Both discourses center male desire, just as most discourses aimed at young women teach teenage girls how to gain, manage, and direct that same titanic force. The missing element, of course, is the idea that female desire can be directed towards men in general, and towards their bodies in particular.
There’s some explicitness below the fold. Use your own judgment about proceeding.
At first glance, it seems that this argument is oversold. In my high school youth groups and gender studies classes, women — when the environment is safe — often admit to “looking.” There are spaces, more and more perhaps, in which women can acknowledge that a visually-stimulated libidinousness is not solely the province of the be-penised. Television shows like “Sex and the City” and “Gray’s Anatomy” make female desire a central feature of the dialogue — though of course, and this is critically important, the men who are obviously longed for are strikingly good-looking in some fairly obvious ways. Most young men grow up with what might be called the “Brad Pitt Discourse”: the idea that a small subset of particularly attractive men are the objects of women’s desire. But despite the abundant evidence that women’s desire is directed towards an extraordinarily diverse set of physical “types”, few men in our culture grow up with the sense that their bodies could be longed for and wanted.
Gay male desire, of course, is desire directed towards other men. Young gay men will, presumably, sense what it is to be wanted in a way that their straight peers will not. Of course, both gay men and women have been taught to be very careful about being obvious about their desire for straight men — the very real threats of homophobic violence and slut-shaming serve as effective controls, controls which (among many other things) rob young straight men of the strangely wonderful, albeit often disconcerting experience of being wanted.
I’ve written before about my sexual past with men. Most of my fleeting adolescent experiences with guys were with men considerably older than myself. And one of the things that drew me to them was, of course, my attraction to their obvious attraction to me. In high school and even in college, I felt clumsy; nerdy; awkward. Even after I had a girlfriend and a budding sexual history with women, I had never seen and felt obvious and intense desire for me from a female partner. I remember that the first time an older man made me — geeky Hugo — feel wanted, even craved, I felt a rush of elation and relief so great it made me cry. The sex I had with him was not based on my desire for him; rather, I wanted to make him feel good out of my own colossal gratitude for how he had made me feel with his words and his gaze. I was a bi-curious straight boy who had never felt someone ache for him — and the first time that happened, I was floored. Afterwards, this man (about the age I am now, a thought that discomfits me a bit) ran his fingers across every inch of my body, murmuring flattery of the kind I had never heard from a woman’s lips.
My early sexual experiences with men and women were deeply affected by these discourses about desire. I knew my first girlfriend and I were “in love” before we ever slept together; our sex, initially fumbling, became both easier and much more fulfilling over time. But when I thought about what made our sex good for her, I assumed that it was a combination of her emotional attachment to me and my own burgeoning proficiency as a lover. In other words, I assumed that my skill and our shared romance worked together to “make her have” an orgasm — because that’s what the discourse taught me. Neither of us had a vocabulary for anything else. She said encouraging things like “You make me feel so good.” When I first was with this older man, he said something that rocked me: “You’re so hot, you make me want to come.”
What a mammoth distinction between those two phrases! The idea that I could be sufficiently attractive to someone that his own desire could overwhelm him was beyond flattering — it was truly revelatory. And when I replayed what had happened between us, all that remained in my memory for years was my recollection of those words and how they made me feel. That distinction between how these two people described what was happening sexually isn’t unique, I think — it captures something real about the ways in which our cultural attitudes shape our vocabulary and experience of desire and being desired.
It took me years to unlearn these discourses, and years before I would experience being desired — in the most obvious visual sense — by someone other than a gay man.
In a men’s group a dozen years ago or more, I first read Delmore Schwartz’s famous The Heavy Bear, a devastating poem about what it is to be embodied. We read it to stimulate a discussion about male self-loathing; every lad in the room identified, at least in part, with what it meant to go through puberty feeling “in love with candy, anger, and sleep”, feeling the grossness and imperiousness of the body, a body which distorts the real self, making it into a “stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” We teach our sons that it’s okay for boys to be dirty, to be heavy, lumbering, hungry bears. Feminists often frame that, rightly, as male privilege — it’s easier to live as a slave to impulse than to deny it altogether, as girls (who must be “everything nice”) are forced to. At the same time, many young men grow up with a keen sense of their own awkwardness, their own clumsiness, their own sense that their bodies are repulsive. The idea that someone could long for all of that shaking, raging, farting, sweating bundle of energy seems impossible; who could possibly want to touch this? Who could possibly be turned on by something so evidently unappealing?
So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired and longed for for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their tongue or their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but worthy of longing. As Fig points out:
Since (the) Rules of Desire are problematic, and since they conspire to make us (men) feel undesirable for any reason but the worthiness of our accomplishments or status (largely, I believe, as a byproduct of accommodating other of men’s preferences), it’s just one more barrier that needs to fall before gender equality is really gonna work. And not because men should be objectified equally to women (wrong direction) but because not understanding that we can appear as physically attractive leads us to go a little overboard on the worthiness front. From which much hilarity does not ensue.
Indeed. The very real hurt, the very real rage, that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and very destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego. The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted. That was precious indeed, and far too few men have known it.