How to Stare at Women

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.

—Photo tobkatrina/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Jeffery says:

    Someone made a very good point above, in the story Jenny with the boobs is the one who behaved in the more abusive way.

    And there is a litany on things that we need to talk about in way women treat men.

    the objectification of men as sacrifice, work, genital torture for humor status as well as sex objects
    (anyone remember the advertisement featuring the man who had been anally raped with the vacume cleaner he gave his wife for Christmas? Can you imagine why would happen if women being raped with the power tools they gave the husbands was being depicted as humour?

    Also, women are more likley to abuse in relationship situations, abuse our children, commit paternity and a range of child related frauds, child kidnapping, parental alienation, publicly humiliate (see jenny with the boobs) , feminism stereotyping men with the dregs of men, many double standards, stats show that female breadwinners keep their own wages vs male bread winners sharing with the lesser earner..

    There is more wrong with the way women threat men than visa versa.

  2. wing girl kim says:

    We are visual creatures (most of us humans anyway). Once I wore a dress that had sparkly flowers very close to my nipples. And my breasts are small. Sitting at a registration table while volunteering at a benefit, at least 3 men — probably all attached — stared at the flowers. At first I didn’t realize what they were staring at. But I did experience “the stare”. I thought, “What the hell are they staring at?” until I went the ladies room, looked in the mirror and saw. Heh, I give men grace and myself a reason for more modesty.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    The Questioner:

    Check the FBI stats. In interracial crime, the incidence of black on white violent crime vs. white on black violent crime is grossly disproportionate. That is, blacks assault whites far more than the reverse, adjusted for population proportion.

  4. As a boy, u grow up watching cartoons, that have hidden pornographic images(research it). Every show, movie, commercial, ad is about sex/something to do with it. Everywhere u look theres a half naked woman, not to mention PORNOGRAPHY IS EVERYWHERE. It’s the world we live in that has made everything so distorting/lustful and the war seems to be against men mainly with the femenism, and all these laws that give women all the power to put ur ass in jail, when they feel like it. gladly only 40% of women abuse the power, in today’s society men are viewed as pervertic child molesting rapist women like w*****, and being a realist here some are true some not. But back to the point women have stared at me, as if am a sexual object of pleasure, with a 10 sec stare and a smile at the end. Girls and women of all ages and of course woman say, no I don’t like always (and no I don’t pay any mind to girls). Just stop complaining and take away tv, phone and computer. Then future generation wont be so pervertic from both genders PERIOD

  5. Well there are two things – men and women are differently wired. Men are visually stimulated whilst women are emotionally stimulated. Objectification of women is wrong and men must learn to treat women as they would their mothers or sisters. But women, please understand that you can never understand why a man gets aroused so much, and men, we can never understand the emotional needs of a woman unless we make an effort to honestly do it. Its just that God has made man and women different.

    Secondly the media is the major influencer. Hollywood exalts sex that is imaginary, unreal, warped and perverted. But don’t women act in Hollywood too for money?. Don’t they perform all that what the director wants?. Why?.. They do it for the money. If they put their foot down firmly and say they won’t then maybe we won’t see so much glorification of unreal sex, objectification and nonsense.

    Both men and women are to blame here. Men use women and women use them too. We have to change totally instead of blaming each other. .

  6. 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.

    And they also get all the dates.

  7. Part of this problem is because of the way women dress.
    Like they are half naked. I bet if men who had six pack abs
    , big cut chests and arms walked shirtless onto a train or around
    the place women would stare. When I wear work clothes I barely get a second look but
    when I wear jeans and a tight shirt with my muscles showing and
    my proportions obvious I get stared at.

  8. natalie says:

    It’s Natural to want to look at beautiful people, I think most men obide by the 3 second rule when lookingf at hot women.what’s really confusing to me is
    the way men stare at ugly women, as soon as they catch sight, they have a constant fixed generally hate filled stare!! People always say men are logical, but where’s the logic in staring at someone who turns you off?!

  9. Many good points made here. Women have been socialized (rightly or wrongly is a whole nother can of worms) to both desire and hate the male stare. Women look at men too, but since most of us have not been raised to fear women (insert privilege here) that look either goes by unnoticed or makes our day. Frankly, if I saw a woman staring at me in a lustful manner (or a gay man for that matter), it would put a spring in my step for a solid week, even if that was the extent of the interaction. Women too, enjoy being looked at, but let’s face it, we need to be aware of when we are pushing people’s boundaries. We need to be (ahem) “man enough” to not get all butthurt when someone whom we know nothing about reacts negatively to what we do, and be ready to apologize, and acknowledge it’s truth in their world.

  10. I am always flattered to be noticed by a man. I am always creeped out by men who stare obnoxiously (I am not a centerfold), whistle or yell (I’m not a dog), make rude hand or tongue gestures (I am not your lunch) or otherwise act like disgusting animals who have some God-given right to force their lascivious thoughts upon me.

    If you’re a decent man who notices and gets caught appreciating a beautiful female, make eye contact and smile. If she seems receptive, compliment her! If she seems not to appreciate you checking her out, just look away. The fact that you smiled at her, acknowledging her as a human being, is enough to keep you from falling into the “creeper” category, in my opinion.

  11. All of that crap about women don’t want to be objectified is drivel.. the real truth is that a woman want you to objectify her if you’re the kind of man that she wants to be objectified by.

    don’t forget that men who “objectify” have their female counterpart too!

    • Yeah…. thought this was kind of common sense? I think at 13-14 (teens in general really) there’s no reason to feel guilty about it… when I was about 14 I once did the same thing but with a teacher (she was like 24 or something.. & she also had this lower back tattoo of a deep purple rose that I’d seen before… what’re you gonna do haha) went up to ask her about help after school and we were directly facing each other so she bent over to open her planner and write me in her schedule… I was sneaky about it though! Even back then. I doubt it was even a full 3 seconds. I looked away before she was done writing. Maybe I’ve always just been very self-aware. I don’t think a women’s studies class is usually necessary. Just common sense is. Actually those kinds of classes.. I tend to avoid them, because they’d make ME very uncomfortable. lol.
      And yes women do the same thing. They’re usually sneakier about it though.
      I think men should aim to be mind ninjas. :P That’s kind of been a personal goal lately. If you can out-ninja a woman…. she’ll probably be caught off-guard most of the time haha.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] at the expense of accuracy. Such an instance today with my Tuesday column at the Good Men Project: How To Stare At Women. My suggested title for the piece was “How Good Guys Gaze”, but I suppose that was [...]

  2. [...] never ceases to amaze me, on articles like this on the Good Men Project website, commenters will jump on writers for this or [...]

  3. [...] demands that we humans cease to find one another attractive will simply fail. Given these things, we humans need to learn to check one another out without causing distress to those we observe. This seems like a good beginning point to figuring out how to do [...]

  4. [...] complain amongst each other about “creepy” men coming onto them or checking them out. Hugo Schwyzer offers some rare good advice, which basically dictates, feel free to look but not gawk. I do think women use the word [...]

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