Becoming a Sexual Subject, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Objectifying Men

When I was thirteen years old, during the summer between eighth grade and high school, Sam Keasbey* gave me my first chaste kiss on an overturned row boat at the edge of an irrigation inlet off Howard Lake. In response, I stuck my tongue in his mouth.

To say I was a precocious child would be an understatement. But here’s the thing: despite knowing what I wanted, I still operated more like a sexual object than a sexual subject. What’s the difference?

I worried more about what boys thought of me – the way I looked, the way I kissed, whether I was sexy enough or not – than what I thought of them. And this, friends, is an epidemic that plagues women everywhere.

Cosmo magazine cover
It’s no great coincidence that the headers about sex are directly above the headers about losing weight, reinforcing the idea that to be sexual, a woman must be looked upon and admired by someone else.

It’s not our faults. Let’s get that out first thing. We’re raised from birth to view ourselves – and all our friends – through the lens of the male gaze, by which I mean, to care more about how we look than what we can do. The first compliment you likely got as an infant girl was some variation on, “Look at this beautiful little girl!” (By contrast, I vividly remember people commenting on my baby brother’s shoulders as an indicator of how big and strong he’d be one day. “He’ll be a linebacker!” they said.)

These forces continue all through childhood and shape us in ways that run deep, whether we embrace femininity or rebel and seek tomboy status. The world tells us that little girls wear dresses, they like sparkly things, they want to be beautiful princesses, they love nothing more than to dress dolls in outfit after outfit, they grow their hair long, they take ballet classes, they learn to preen and play with their mothers’ makeup and accept compliments about how pretty they are from strange friends of their parents.

The world shows us that it does not value women as sexual subjects in the way that female anatomy is glossed over in sex ed. Oh, sure, they teach us about our uteruses, our ovaries, our vaginas – all the parts integral for reproducing – but neglect to give names to our vulvas, our labias, our clitorises – all the parts connected to our sexual enjoyment.

We have words for women who enjoy sex. Insults. Slut: a woman who enjoys sex with many partners. Whore: a woman who exchanges sex for something in return. Dyke: a woman who enjoys sex with other women. A teacher once told me that the de rigeur insult from his childhood was, “Your sister sleeps with sailors!” A woman who takes her sex life upon herself seems to be the insult that keeps on giving.

Even magazines, ads, movies and television shows selling things to women use this tired old trope. To sell to men, you use a sexy female model. To sell to women, you use a sexy female model. No matter which way we turn, women are being fed the line that it’s more important to be sexy to someone else than to enjoy sex yourself. And the way women learn how to be sexy is by continually gazing upon other women.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd? That the de facto model for women’s sexuality centers around women observing other women being observed by men?** Are we nothing more than fodder for someone else’s consumption?

A bottle of Tom Ford cologne for men is displayed prominently in a woman's cleavage.
This is how Tom Ford sells cologne to men – by literally making an object out of a woman’s body.

We’ve been stripped of our sexual identity and forced to perform a pantomime for our audience. Why else would men feel the need to shout at us to smile, give them a piece of that ass, and come suck their dicks as we walk down the street?

That’s the difference between men and women. Those who have been born biologically male and raised in the male gender have always been told that their sexuality is their own, that they are entitled to appreciate women’s bodies, to be aroused by what they see, and to exercise that sexual agency as they see fit.

Which is why I now consider it my duty as a feminist to objectify men.

A shirtless Joe Manganiello looking sexy as hell.
CONGRATULATIONS. You are now participating in the Female Gaze. Joe Manganiello in Muscle & Fitness magazine.

Now, now. I don’t mean I want society to put half-naked men on the cover of every women’s magazine, parade men around in outfits specifically for my viewing pleasure, and otherwise rob them of their sexual free will through shame and degradation (sound familiar?).

I mean that there is still something subversive and political about the act of looking at an attractive man, appreciating him as no more than the sum of his parts, while completely disregarding what he might think of me. Whether or not he would be flattered I’m looking at him, based on my own level of sexual currency. What he’s like as a person.

Why does it feel so subversive? It’s just looking! Right?

Because I’m taking back my body, claiming it as my own. I’m appreciating someone’s physique – the curve of his well-muscled shoulder, the way his hips move when he walks, the dusky five o’clock shadow growing on his jaw – and I’m inhabiting my thoughts, my brain, my sexual will, instead of putting my own body on display as a proxy of my sexuality. (Which is not to say, of course, that putting one’s body on display is incongruous with owning one’s sexuality – merely that it’s the only option sanctioned by society at large, and even then, they have a LOT of opinions about what you should be wearing when you do it.)

Jason Momoa in dreadlocks and glasses, being his usual handsome self.
You’re getting the hang of it now. Objectify the hell out of Jason Momoa – go on, you have my blessing.

For too many years when I was younger, I couldn’t look at a man without suddenly feeling shy and wondering if he would be disgusted at my looking at him – disgusted because he felt he should have more attractive girls looking at him. I told myself, “I’m not as interested in the way a man looks as what his personality is like,” and while that still holds more than a kernel of truth, what I wasn’t telling myself was that by not appreciating male beauty, I was trying to save myself from criticism.

Something changed. Several things:

  • I fell in love and got married to a man who appreciates my beauty (Just the way you are, Bridget Jones!) and simultaneously makes me feel like what I look like is less important than the connection we have together.
  • I switched from birth control pills to the Mirena IUD, which restored my natural sex drive. (It’s much easier to objectify men when you have sex on the brain 24/7.)
  • I got older. When people say you’ll care less about what people think of you, and you’ll compare yourself less to others as you get older, believe them. At 28, I care more about my opinion of the world than the world’s opinion of me.
  • I entered the work world and all the discrete ideas I had about my own strengths solidified. I learned that my opinion could be heard, that my skills could be respected, that my capability for brain-storming and creative problem solving gave me something that not everyone had. I learned that what I looked like was NOT the most important contribution I had to give society in the concrete way that only comes after life knocks you around a little bit and you see you can make it to the other side in one piece.

All these things together gave me a new perspective on my sexuality. Getting married, ironically, was the biggest one; no one ever tells you that you’ll be more interested in checking out a guy’s ass after marriage than before, but in my case, it’s true. Because I no longer have to care what men think of me – I have one at home and I know exactly how he feels – I’m free to enjoy the scenery in a way that I never was before.

A black and white photo of Alfred Molina in a fine looking suit
You would be shocked how many of us have the hots for Alfred Molina. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

And I do enjoy the scenery. Every day. So much so that I’m often a little surprised when a very attractive man walks by and I waggle my eyebrows at a friend only to have her look at me like, “What?” As women, we’re not taught to appreciate good-looking people just for being good-looking. If we see a sexy guy, we wonder if he’d like us. If we see a sexy girl, we’re programmed to compare ourselves to her. None of that cultural messaging is going away anytime soon – but I challenge you to subvert it. I challenge you to look for the sake of looking, to fantasize for the sake of fantasizing, to appreciate for the sake of appreciating.

Women are good at this. We’ve got a lifetime of practice at being polite, not staring, avoiding men’s gazes to keep them from garnering attention. Use those stealth tactics now for your own pleasure – cruise to your heart’s desire.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus smoking a cigar
Elaine Benes knows how to be mistress of her domain – even though she loses the masturbation contest with the boys after she has an aerobics class with John F. Kennedy, Jr. and fantasizes about sleeping with him.

Being a sexual subject is about more than checking out the sexy people, of course. It’s about owning your sexuality. Inhabiting your own opinions instead of worrying about others’ opinions of you. Seeing the world through your own eyes and never, ever apologizing for what you want.

I can only speak from my perspective, but you can feel free to admire beautiful women (without jealousy), quirky-looking men, androgynous hotties or gorgeous people who subvert all notions of gender, just like you can choose to ignore society’s expectation that you should be interested in sex at all.

The best part of being a sexual subject is making up your own rules.

Young Peter O'Toole wearing glasses and a goatee, giving a saucy look to the camera.
A hot, young Peter O’Toole knows you’re a rebel, you rule breaker, you. He wants to know if you have a safeword you’d like to use.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

**Not that there’s anything wrong with observing women being observed by men (or just preferring to observe women in general), but the status quo needs to go.

16 replies on “Becoming a Sexual Subject, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Objectifying Men”

For whatever reason, this makes me think of Cindy Gallop’s website “Make Love Not Porn” wherein she points out that most young people’s interpretations of sexuality come from pornography instead of what sex can actually be like between two partners. She mentioned especially how young women, who in our culture are taught that they are to please men, will often go along with certain sexual acts that they don’t like or that make them uncomfortable because God forbid they say, “No, I don’t want you to cum on my face.” (Her example in her TED talk.)

Being someone who didn’t get a great sex education growing up, I believed what girls’ and women’s magazines told me sex should be like. I learned what to do to make my man happy, but I was never told I should or could or would be able to enjoy sex myself. Then I met my husband and we had some frank discussions about sex before we got married–I was a virgin on our wedding night–and realizing that I could trust my husband to respect me and to listen to me when I felt uncomfortable in such a vulnerable, intimate moment was life changing.

This is a provocative, brilliant piece. Definitely some stuff I am not sure resonates with me completely, but I think it was a brave notion to put out there. I often struggle with the concept of objectification–is it inherently, always bad, or is it only bad in a society with such a toxic rape culture?

A good part of my sexual pleasure comes from objectification. Unfortunately a large part of my sexual dissatisfaction comes directly from the fact that I am always worried about how I am presenting myself sexually. What is my pose, what does my face look like, do I fuck enough like a porn star, is my hair too much in his face, how does my chin look in this position, etc. Rarely it’s about me. Granted, this is connected to a whole load of psychological, object relational issues I have going on, but I was really inspired by this piece to continue to work on letting that part of me go–to fuck for fuck’s sake.

I agree with a good bit of what you’ve said here (and good choice on Jason Momoa!) but I’m not sure if ‘objectifying’ is what I’d call it when I appreciate an attractive man. He’s not a thing to me – in the way that the woman’s breasts are used as a prop to sell perfume – he’s just a guy I don’t know who’s caught my eye for whatever reason. I’m not way up on my gender studies theory, though, so I’m open to correction/explanation.

In the most basic sense of the word, I’m using it to mean appreciating someone’s body without regard for their personality. Getting sexual enjoyment or pleasure out of someone without necessarily engaging with them as a subject. In this sense, it’s something everyone does to some extent or another. Any time you’ve seen someone attractive and wanted to approach them, you’re objectifying them, since at that moment, the only information you have about that person is the way they look.

Which is different from the systemic objectification of women as a force of oppression in society.

I think you’re saying what I’ve been sure of for a while: the solution isn’t to push for the de-objectification of women.  It’s to make it okay for everyone to objectify whomever they want.  Eliminating objectification isn’t feasible, realistic, or even desirable.  I enjoy objectifying men, just as I enjoy being objectified (so long as it doesn’t cross boundaries).

I think the difference lies in individual acts of objectification (appreciating someone’s figure at the gym from afar) and the systematic objectification and oppression of women by the media and pop-culture.

Person-to-person objectification is as old as time, while the reduction of the feminine identity to nothing more than a series of good-looking parts is considerably more modern. The way women are portrayed in society by forces outside their control is absolutely something that deserves critique and criticism.

What I’m interested in here is challenging the status quo that tells us we should accept that objectification on a personal level to the point where we identify as sex objects, not sex subjects. For example, a male friend told me once about a girl he had a crush on. They were sending sexy messages back and forth. He asked if she masturbated – she responded that she would, but her fingers weren’t long enough. The fact that she could have such a POOR grasp of her own sexual anatomy speaks to the extent which women are systematically divorced from their own sexual agency.

We may not be able to change society overnight, but we can reclaim our birthright – our own sexual subjectivity.

Oh man do I strongly disagree with a lot of this piece. Nowhere do you talk about the correlation between the objectification of women and rape culture in general, and how the fact that women’s bodies are seen as objects and public property makes it easier for members of society to assault and rape and kill women – it’s not like they’re real people, right? And that, to me at least, is the main problem with objectifying women, above and beyond its reductive elements. When I notice a guy looking me up and down on the street, I worry if he’s going to attack me, because he sees my body as public property.

While I really do enjoy a good photo of Jason Momoa as much as the next girl, if not moreso, objectifying men isn’t going to help anything. The power structure is still so unbalanced – can you imagine any of the guys whose scenery you enjoyed truly fearing for their lives because you looked at them? Objectification in general puts entirely too much pressure on appearance, and reducing anyone, regardless of gender, down to their looks is harmful to society as a whole.

 Yes, the male gaze is harmful and destructive. Yes, own the hell out of your sexuality. But revelling in objectifying men isn’t helping anything.

Cherri – Nowhere do I advocate that objectifying men is going to change the way men treat women. Instead, what I’m advocating for is the idea that women can and should inhabit their bodies fully – something that society at large consistently discourages us from doing. Owning the Female Gaze does accomplish something – it accomplishes heterosexual women taking back their identities as people who have their own sexual motives, rather than accepting that they are the blank canvas upon which male desires are painted.

And absolutely, the objectification of women creates several problematic social issues that need to be addressed. But what I’m talking about here is individual women taking back their sexual agency from within their own minds, which I think is especially important when women’s sexuality exists within a culture of perpetuated fear. Fear makes it easier for all of us to accept that our sexuality does not belong to us, that it’s dangerous, that it needs to be hidden away or else we’ll bring upon ourselves terrible things. But women’s sexuality does not invite violence – women’s sexuality exists alongside the acts of men who turn to violence as a means of power. I can criticize the forces behind that violence against women separately from my deconstruction of the power of an individual’s sexual agency, and that’s what I’m doing here. The issue is no less important, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I can criticize the forces behind that violence against women separately from my deconstruction of the power of an individual’s sexual agency, and that’s what I’m doing here.

I think this is what my main issue is – I don’t see how you can separate the two in this case, because you’re advocating a woman increases her sexual agency through one of the tools (objectification) that has been used  to keep society amenable to violence against women. I find objectification to be degrading as hell, and the less of it, the better, no matter who’s doing the objectifying.

In regards to the changing the way men treat women bit, I did read this post as “I’m trying to even the score” which, after reading your additional comments, I realize was not your intention, but between the “my duty as a feminist” and the “i challenge you to subvert this” bits, I don’t think my initial interpretation was without justification.

I should also probably point out that, when reading the headline for the first few times, I saw “objectifying” as an adjective rather than verb, so I went in with my hackles up. I also have had very different experiences interacting with the dominant heteronormative culture than the assumptions made in this post, and I find few things more frustrating than implied universality.

You are absolutely right that a woman looking at a man does not carry with it the same threat as a man looking at a woman, but I think the point here is not to equalize objectification, but to say that women should be able to own their sexuality in ways that they are not allowed. There are stacks of magazines (all of them problematic in the way you describe) devoted to staring at women, but few of these for women, as if women don’t want to look at men or watch porn or be turned on. We have to read about how to turn men on. All the time. It sucks. Why can’t men turn us on?

The objectified gaze is a complex thing that cannot be set aside as off-limits because of rape culture. Discussions such as these look at the other side of the coin, which is the side that denies women their sexual power. The patriarchy is a multi-headed beast with no one direct route to overcoming it.

Absolutely what Sally said. Why can’t men turn us on? Why do I need to wait for permission to feel sexy? Why is my sexiness dependent on how I’m perceived by others?

I completely agree that discussions of sexual violence are integral to women’s rights and equality. But likewise, discussions of women’s own sexual pleasure are just as important, and can coexist even as we tackle the hard issues.

You’re completely missing the point of the article, but allowing yourself to be hijacked by word usage which you disagree with. You need to go back and read the article over again, maybe a few times so that it’s clear for you that no one is advocating rape.

What we are actually discussing is women owning their own sexual feelings, desires, and fantasies in open and healthy ways.

You may need to reread my comment a few times, because nowhere in it do I say that the author or this article are advocating rape (some magazine ads, however, are a completely different story.) Nor do I think I’m missing the point, but please, continue to misinterpret my comment and tell me I’m wrong, and how I should internet better.

I don’t think it’s “open and healthy” to reduce a person to their appearance, no matter their gender, even if doing so does empower women to own their sexual feelings.

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