I have a close friend in Santa Cruz, a therapist named Michelle, with whom I have lunch once a month. It’s usually pretty glorious, with several conversations going on at once—professional, personal, political, and mmm-this-bagel-is-perfect-isn’t-it.
Yesterday we talked about women’s breasts.
We were talking about breasts as symbols of sexuality—whether their owner wants that or not. We reminisced back to junior high school—when Michelle (in California) already had adult-sized breasts, and I (in New York) just gawked at such things wherever they were, whenever I could.
Like a large number of early-teen boys, I was so overwhelmed by how amazing breasts were that I could hardly relate to the humans they were attached to. It was much easier back then to talk to girls who weren’t fully developed. Their humanity wasn’t obscured by the very breasts to which I was so attracted.
Michelle, of course, had the reverse experience growing up—way, way more attention than she wanted, and too much of it on those big things on her chest rather than on her as a person. Of course she continually had to deal with the assumption that she wanted sexual attention. I remember thinking (if you can call it that) the very same thing—that girls with big breasts were obviously very sexual. If that wasn’t true, and they didn’t want that kind of attention, why did they grow those big breasts? Like I said, I was 12.
Michelle also recalled how some individual boys were perfectly nice to her—until they were in a group of 4 or 5 guys. “You could count on teasing when guys were in groups,” she recalls. “They all must have felt pressure to prove themselves in front of each other. And of course being in a group allowed some of them to say things they couldn’t say as individuals while relating to me one-to-one.”
As she spoke, I remembered all this like it was yesterday. Does any heterosexual man ever forget his initial encounters with those glorious, magical, desirable, unattainable, mysterious treasures? If only access to them wasn’t controlled by alien creatures—girls!
Ah, if only we could all just talk about it. If only boys could be allowed to look, really look at some breasts for a few moments, without guilt or shame; eyes ablaze, jaws slack, no shame or deceit.
If only girls could talk about how complicated it is to have those things—the combination of pride, responsibility, frustration, and even alienation. The new burden of having to administer something with enormous social value—when just a child, with limited administrative skills. If only boys and girls could sit down and connect with the humans behind the banter, the intrusive looks, the defensiveness, the sensitivity.
Call me dense, but at 12 and 13 it never occurred to me to ask a girl my age what it was like to be the focus of desire. It never occurred to me to talk about the insane desire I felt, how respect and empathy were so far away when driven mad by a lust I didn’t understand—and hadn’t asked for either, by the way.
Eventually Michelle turned our conversation to “the male gaze.” I’d been hearing the term a lot while researching my forthcoming book on pornography, and Michelle had been receiving it almost her whole life. She reminded me that even in a perfectly safe situation, the full attention of a male almost twice her size could be intimidating. She suggested that most men don’t know the impact their own gaze has on most women.
She’s right about this. Most men eventually learn exactly how to look at women in public—how long you can look, how explicitly you can look, when you have to look away, etc.. At the airport or supermarket, competent adult men don’t compliment strange women on their nice butt—it’s much better to admire a woman’s shoes. Mentioning your wife while doing so gets you bonus points.
On the other hand, heterosexual men are always looking at women in public, and of course women know this. Michelle says women have to learn to forget this, at least temporarily; the inability to forget that you’re being looked at by strange men can make going out a nightmare. It’s not so much that the male gaze promises violence or even mild intrusion. It’s that it requires women in public to be engaged with the men around them whether they want to be or not. The male gaze can be a bully, even when not intended that way.
Of course, some men and women are so self-conscious that being out in public is unnerving; sitting in a waiting room or standing in a long bathroom line can be challenging. It would be nice if such people could soothe their anxiety about being “seen” by others. Regardless of the male (or generalized strangers’) gaze, some people really are way too sensitive about others’ (alleged) perceptions, and they paralyze themselves.
Women’s bodies are the screen onto which men project our hunger, loneliness, uncertainty, innocence, humiliation, and narcissism. Most women don’t ask for this, although they eventually resign themselves to it. In a really adult relationship you can even discuss this.
We men may know that our male gaze can be scary or discomfiting to others. We can think about our participation in this unfortunate dynamic, even consider the unintentionally hurtful results of our way of looking. Or we can say “not my problem” and stick women with it. And then complain about the results.
Well excuse me, I have some apologies to write. If only there were some way to contact people you haven’t seen in a half-century. Meanwhile, I have to think about my next layover at the airport.