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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
*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.