Hugo Schwyzer offers some practical advice for checking out women without making them head for the hills.
It’s been over 30 years, but I still remember the day Jenny Talbot caught me staring at her boobs.
Jenny and I sat next to each other in a couple of classes. We weren’t exactly friends, but friendly; she helped me in math, I helped her in social studies. One day, Jenny and I were working together on a project, our desks and bodies facing. Though she usually wore sweaters, this spring day she wore just a V-neck T-shirt. When she bent over, I could see her breasts encased in her white, frilly bra. I was not quite 14, and in a near constant state of arousal; the sight of a bra strap was, frequently, enough to produce an erection. With Jenny distracted by her work, I had a free close-up view of the kind I’d rarely had. So I stared.
At one point, after she’d been hunched over her work for a while, Jenny looked up and noticed my eyes locked on to her chest. Her reaction was immediate and fierce.
“You’re so perverted!” she yelled, loud enough to make the teacher and my classmates turned off. She turned away in disgust and anger; I cringed and flushed with embarrassment. The snickers of my classmates continued for a few days—from boys as well as girls—and they left me confused. Was it wrong to look? Or was it just wrong to get caught looking? Those questions haunted me for a long time afterward. Though I didn’t stop checking out hot girls, I made my gaze subtler, not wanting to ever repeat the public humiliation I’d experienced with Jenny.
When I got to college and took women’s studies courses, I heard for the first time about the problematic power of the male gaze. I listened to my classmates tell painful stories of the first time they noticed men ogling their bodies. I realized that I’d grown up believing what many men believe, that guys may not have a right to touch what they see, but they have a right to look as much as they want. Listening to women’s stories, I understood for the first time just how uncomfortable it was to be on the receiving end of those penetrating stares.
The question I wrestled with then was one I now often get asked by other men: How do I look? These guys aren’t asking for feedback on their appearance; they’re asking for clear guidelines for how to check out women in ways that aren’t going to make those women (or others) uncomfortable.
It’s a question we should be asking.
The jerks who genuinely don’t care how their stares make other people feel aren’t likely to be reading this, and if they do, they’ll ridicule it. These are the lads who think it’s their God-given right as men to take ownership with their eyes of all that they survey, and they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.
On the other hand, there are some who aren’t sure men should ever look at a woman (other than their wives.) If you believe that gazing with lust is always a sin (as some religious traditionalists do), then there can’t possibly be a “right” way to check out attractive strangers. The best that these ultra-conservatives can do is avert their eyes as much as possible and plead for a modest dress code that will ease the pain of temptation. Sounds exhausting.
I’m convinced most men are in the space between these extreme positions.
For straight (or bi) guys, there are two things to keep in mind. One, it’s OK to look and OK to be turned on by what you’re looking at. Two, it’s not OK to make the person you’re gazing at (or other people who witness you looking) uncomfortable.
(Obviously, whether or not you’re in a monogamous relationship will go a long way toward determining how acceptable it is to be turned on by someone other than your partner. Not everyone agrees on whether the boundaries of fidelity stop at fantasy or not. That’s a topic for another column.)
One easy technique is the three-second rule. (It has nothing to do with either driving or basketball.) It’s clear enough: look at whatever you want to look at for three seconds before you should probably shift your gaze away. Few women are going to feel as if you’re undressing them with your eyes if your glance lasts so short a time. If you need to count in your head “one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand,” do it. And wait at least three seconds before looking again.
Shift your gaze. One of the most common complaints women have is that men tend to focus in on a single body area (boobs, butt, etc.) Move your eyes, not just up and down, but look at the woman’s face. Breasts don’t walk by themselves; they belong to human beings. It isn’t erasing a woman’s humanity to notice her body (or particular body parts). It isn’t erasing her humanity to fantasize about having sex with her. It is erasing her humanity when you make your gaze and your fantasy her problem. A blogger named Holly once wrote, in a comment about this very subject, that there should be “no objectification without due subjectification.” That’s jargon, but the idea is a simple and useful one: it’s OK to stare at someone else’s body (and even long for it) as long as you don’t ever forget that you’re looking at a person. And just as you have a right to lust, that person has a right not to be made forcibly aware of your desire.
Don’t forget the third parties. Even if you and your wife (or girlfriend) have agreed that it’s OK to check out other people, doing it in an obvious way in front of her is hurtful. But other strangers count, too. A buddy of mine was in his car, stopped at a stoplight, staring at a hot woman walking through the crosswalk. “I was drooling,” he admitted. “Then I looked over at the car next to me, and this girl, maybe 10 years old, was in the passenger seat, watching me. She looked frightened. I felt like shit.”
We live in a world that is deeply suspicious of male desire. Rightly so, I think. The number of men who rape, who cheat, who act out in countless other sexually compulsive and destructive ways is depressingly high. The solution doesn’t lie in puritanical self-restraint or in a defensive insistence that there’s nothing wrong. The solution lies in acknowledging that while we have a right to want what we want, we don’t have the right to burden or offend others by the way we display those wants.
As I figured out when I was a kid, it wasn’t wrong to be turned on by Jenny Talbot’s boobs. But it was wrong to stare so long and so hard that I forgot Jenny herself.