How We Talk About What Turns Us On

There are those bodies that we congratulate ourselves for liking, and then there is what we like.

When Mark Radcliffe’s essay “In Praise of Small-Breasted Women” was published, I didn’t “like” it, because I was worried what my girlfriend would think. That was the first clue that I had failed Mark as his editor.

I was warmly empathetic to his subject matter. Once, I loved a woman who had tiny breasts. It wasn’t why I fell for her, but it became one of the qualities of her that I found sexy. She was pale and pear-shaped, wore trendy glasses. She had the only book by the Marquis de Sade I’ve ever actually picked up and read from. On one of our first dates, I laced up her corset, and birthed fetishes for waists, and breath control, and small breasts.

In the progressive, sex-positive circles in which I run, we praise ourselves and one another for liking bodies that are alternative-trendy. Health and beauty come in many forms, but at any given time, in any particular culture or subculture, there are those bodies for which we harbor desire, and there are those bodies that we congratulate ourselves for liking. Those “real women have curves” images that we pass around on Facebook make the curvy ones feel good about themselves in a Crossfit and pro-ana marketplace. My old girlfriend’s version of small-breasted allure was neither of these models, either.  She was not skinny-ripped, did not have a powerful core, did not have an eating disorder. She was librarian-sexy, with a generous rump, and she was hot as hell.

After Mark’s article, there were a proliferation of breasty titles. Josh Bowman cracked me up, even while I was sure he was objectifying worse than Mark’s detractors said he had. Then there was In Praise and Appreciation of Women, which did the same thing, but in a Benetton of flavors. Are we better people if we like all the flavors, or at least a wider array than someone else does? Would we be better people, the gay and the straight among us, if we widened our palates to include the other gender? It’s racist to only want to date your own race, so should we all specify in our OKCupid profiles that we’re looking for “everything except [my own race]”? What about age: do you only date those close to you in age, or should you branch out? Are you ageist if you haven’t yet found the beauty in an old body and celebrated it?

Is there any way to talk about what we like, that isn’t objectifying? I talked to my current girlfriend about it. One of the first things she ever sent me to read was the Femme-Shark Manifesto, laying out her identity as a working class, sex positive, fat positive, POC positive queer feminine woman. As we used to say when I was in high school, I have been told. I started to tell her about Mark Radcliffe’s essay.

“When I tell you the name of it, I know you’re going to say, ‘Oh, Justin,’” I confided. Then I told her the name of it.

She rolled her head dramatically. “Oh, Justin,” she said, exactly the way I knew she would.

She’s accustomed to the culture that tells her that large breasts mean stupidity and low class. She’s well aware of the archetypes that have constructed both Mark’s appreciation and that of the construction workers who whistle. They whistle at my girlfriend. When I say her breasts are perfect, I am not exaggerating, and this needs no more explanation. Perfect is perfect.

When one of her femme friends gives smut readings on the kind of old school butch she wishes would drag her home by the hair, is she objectifying? Or is that okay as long as her tastes are charmingly old-fashioned, or as long as she only ascribes sexual qualities to the physical and social traits she admires? As long as she doesn’t assume butch women are handy with a toolbox, or don’t cry, is this innocent? What if her butch rolls over—will she still admire that firm jawed woman when she’s crying out to be fucked, now, hard?

We like what we like. We can’t change that. While there exists pressure to expand who we might consider, to go beyond what’s in our porn, our advertising, or our particular unicorn fantasies, they are met by the countering forces of the reality that you’re not actually into everybody. Of all the people you have known, only some of them have made you want to kiss them.

The mistake is in trying to intellectualize and make politically palatable our sexual tastes. We can’t generalize any attributes to people based on their physical traits. It does not make you a good person because your sexual tastes run from top to bottom, fair to dark, old to young, fat to thin, and a bad person if, time and again, the same archetype brings you to your knees.

And just as your desires do not determine your worth, neither do your physical traits. It is no more true that small breasted women are immature than that they’re well-read. Fat people are no more lazy or nurturing than skinny people. One sort or another might make you look longer, want to get closer, talk, touch. As much as we want to justify how we feel in a realm that seems defensible,  what turns us on isn’t defensible, and we don’t have to try.

—Photo Foxtongue/Flickr

About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. Good job, Justin. The irony, if there is such a thing in the post-modern world, is in the word objectify. I think someone with a three-letter name above may’ve made this point but isn’t objectifying almost always subjectifying? There is almost always an implication of “this is what I think is attractive” when you comment on what’s attractive. Same with fetishization and exoticism. When I see a looker and say to myself or the tiny man who lives in my shirt pocket, “Gawddamnz, she is blazin’, yah,” I mean “Not knowing if she is a kind-hearted or awful person, some or many parts of her physical form I find to be very attractive. In a world of instant and consequence-free sexual adventurism (re: being an airline pilot in the 70s), I’d like to perform mutually-pleasurable acts on each other until exhaustion.” The tiny man in my pocket generally agrees and we go on to thinking about what might happen if the Dread Pirate Roberts were to duel MadMartigan.
    A tricky part of the semi-involuntary nature attraction is when we’re into something that intellectually we don’t want to find attractive. The obvious example is of guys who are into rescuing women and ladies who are into bad boys but there are a billion other examples. A spoke with a data-nerd once and she had performed some online dating analysis and her maths found that many people lie about what they’re attracted to as their “likes” often do not resemble the profiles they most-regularly browse.
    I’d wager if you threw in a guy’s porn-viewing habits, you’d further confuse the issue.
    Jesus Jones, let’s not even get to things like personality, sense of humor, ability to drive a car, socio-economic status, intelligence, work ethic, family, etc etc.
    Personally, I have very little idea of what makes me going boing-oing. My dating history, limited as it may be, is scattershot at best and weirdly erratic when if comes to the ladies I “trick” into going out with me.
    Maybe variety is both the spice of life and a newspaper that tells us what’s going on in Hollywood.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      I like your musings, Tom. 🙂
      Not only I agree with what you said, but you said it with a relaxed, thoughtful, non-judgmental tone that’s refreshing.

  2. Mark Neil says:

    The problem truly arises when someone starts asserting that attraction or appreciation for an attribute precludes us from appreciating or finding attractive anything else, be that someone the person with the attraction, or someone looking to take offense to that attraction.

  3. Valter Viglietti says:

    Thank you Justin. Damn fine point!

    “We like what we like. We can’t change that.”
    This is gospel. It’s just plain reality. And we should not be judged because what we like. After all, we didn’t decide that!
    But I want to underline two problems. And they’re both related to Politically Correct-edness.

    1) People feeling hurt because they didn’t like what one said (and I should really say “insecure people”).
    When I say “I like big breasts”, someone will feel bad (because they have small breasts, or they feel objectified, or they don’t want to hear about breasts, or… whatever. You just can’t damn please everybody!).
    Thus, when I politely express my taste, someone would just feel hurt. Anyway! And I say it’s just THEIR problem. The world is not there to please them.
    The PC stance that “You should never hurt someone” is just not feasible. To not hurt anybody, you just have to be nothing, do nothing, say nothing.

    2) The need to deny the importance of beauty/looks.
    You wrote “And just as your desires do not determine your worth, neither do your physical traits.”
    Well, the physical traits ARE part of one’s worth. Just like intelligence, skills, goodness and everything else… what you are, what you have “to offer”, are part of your “value”, of your worthiness in the eyes of others.
    Denying that is another PC folly – a big fat lie we’d like to believe but, alas!, is still a lie.

    What’s true is that everybody has their own tastes, so there’s no just ONE model of beauty (and thank God!).
    But wanting to deny that beauty has worth in itself, and we’re sensitive to its presence (like a song once said), it’s naive and deceitful.

    “We like what we like”… and we like beauty. Yes, we like OUR type of beauty (the type that appeal to us), but, still, it has its importance.
    Even if this will hurt and piss off somebody. 😉

    • Excellent points, Valter. You can’t please everybody – especially not the PC police! – and likewise, not everybody can please you.

      I think the way we talk about what we like can get messy depending on the language used.

      “I like women with big breasts.” That’s fine. It explicitly states this is *your* individual preference.
      “Women with big breasts are beautiful.” Also fine. It still implies that this is your opinion.
      “ONLY women with big breasts are beautiful.” That’s…problematic. That turns an opinion statement into a fact statement, by quantifying it.

      It’s rarely said that explicitly, but it’s something easily inferred when people start talking about their preferences and state their opinions as facts.

      Big breasts are appealing to a lot of men. When I hear and witness, over and over, men expressing a preference for big breasts, it gets much harder to see it as individual men expressing their individual preferences, and easier to see it as “Men only like big breasts/Men are obsessed with the size of my breasts/I have small breasts so I must not be attractive.” For a concrete example, when Maxim fills its pages with nothing but (or predominantly) big breasted-women, but advertises itself as a magazine for men (not just for men who like big breasts), it’s not so far of a jump to get the message that men only like big breasts.

      Beauty, and attraction, are possibly the most subjective things out there. It’s when someone starts making them out to be OBJECTIVE, starts trying to define beauty for the rest of us, that the pitchforks and torches come out.

      • For the record I was only using the big breasts thing as an example, not to pick on a particular preference or make any universal claims about men or women.

      • Valter Viglietti says:

        Thank you for the appreciation. 🙂

        @KKZ: “I think the way we talk about what we like can get messy depending on the language used.”
        Really? Your examples aren’t different for the language they used, they carry different messages.

        “ONLY women with big breasts are beautiful.”
        I think no intelligent man (person) would say such thing. Only a dumb one, or someone so immature and/or narcissistic, he thinks he represents the whole world. 😯
        (and we can easily dismiss such person)

        OTOH, I think a real problem arises when someone say something subjective (“I like…”), and someone else take it literally and gets upset. In these cases, is the reader who distorts the original message (likely projecting his own issues and insecurities).
        So no, many times the problem is NOT the language, but the reader’s interpretation. Even when the language is crystal-clear. When someone is obsessed by something (be it sex, rape, objectification or anything) s/he’s prone to see it everywhere. :roll:

        @KKZ: “Beauty, and attraction, are possibly the most subjective things out there”
        Well, not really. I think that’s another PC statement.
        Beauty and attraction are (in part, at least) defined by biology and evolution: that’s why some traits are – on average – usually preferred over others; they are hard-wired into our brains. It’s not random, there are common trends.
        Then, of course, there is cultural influence and individual tastes. The attraction we experience is a mix of all those.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    The problem comes when people make the leap from liking something to making some larger judgment about the people or things that are being liked. Or going from liking something to suggesting that your preference is superior to other preferences.

    It’s kind of nonsensical to praise people for their physical attributes, because that’s not praise, exactly. Saying “in praise of ____-chested women” is not actually praising any women at all. It’s saying “I really like ___-sized breasts,” which is not the same thing as extolling the virtues of women who have them. Even when I say something is beautiful, I’m not really praising anything beyond aesthetic value, and if I say I love women with small breasts, that’s not really praising those women for anything that they have done. I’m just celebrating things they generally have little control over, like their genes.

    Saying “I like that” shouldn’t have to be taken as a moral judgment one way or the other. Just because I like it doesn’t mean that it’s “good,” and it doesn’t mean that it’s “bad” either. I don’t even think “I like that” is actually a form of praise for anything. It’s a statement of feeling, and it’s not even a statement of preference necessarily.

    (As an overweight guy with man-boobs, I am also offended by the exclusion of people with breasts like mine. Is my chest not also worthy of praise? Can I not also be praised for all the wonderful things that my breasts reveal about me?) : – )

    As for objectification, I would make a distinction between 1) focusing on the physical aspects of a person and 2) treating a person as an object and nothing but an object. Sure there’s probably a spectrum involved, but it’s not necessarily the slippery slope that it’s been made out to be. I don’t believe there is an internal male toggle switch that has only two mutually exclusive settings: either thinking of her as a person or thinking about her body.

    As simple-minded as the male brain has been stereotyped as being, we can actually appreciate physical characteristics and think of her as a person at the same time.

    Most people who rail against objectification seem to assume on some level that it is possible to do both. I have never heard anyone cry “objectification!” when a man talks about falling in love with a woman because of her eyes. Somehow that is BOTH physical and recognizes her distinct humanity, but really, that could just as easily be branded as objectification. If appreciation of all anatomy is inherently dehumanizing, then theoretically there’s no difference between looking at a woman’s chest when talking to her or looking into her eyes. Eyes are just globes of flesh, so why fetishize them, right?

    • “It’s kind of nonsensical to praise people for their physical attributes, because that’s not praise, exactly. ”

      Tell that to David.

    • “(As an overweight guy with man-boobs, I am also offended by the exclusion of people with breasts like mine. Is my chest not also worthy of praise? Can I not also be praised for all the wonderful things that my breasts reveal about me?) : – )”

      And what about us mediums? The high Bs, the Cs, the low Ds? What’s with the obsession with extremes? 🙂

  5. It is strange to intellectualize something so visceral. You can really get “in your head” about something that at the end of the day comes down to pheremones and primal feelings. Lots of people get along famously without attraction. Other people are fiercely attracted to one another, but argue constantly and disagree about everything.

    A few years ago, I lost about 30 pounds and really started hitting the gym. My body was bangin! What I noticed was a LOT MORE attention, often from women who just a few months ago wouldn’t have even considered dating me.

    What does that mean? It means that physical attraction means something. And sometimes, you can’t analyse what you like because, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    • I like this comment. But there are other things at play besides just visuals, and I think this is true for all genders. Have you ever found yourself mysteriously attracted to someone not “your type” but they had this…something? Phermones maybe or who knows, but I think it’s a little bit of everything.

      • Interesting thought. The first woman I ever felt strongly attracted to, I met her before I had identified or even thought about my “type” in women. She definitely had that “something” that made me feel almost magnetically drawn to her – it was surreal for me because I’d never felt that way towards anyone, man or woman, before that. Since then, I have found myself drawn to a lot of women who look like her – dark hair, incredible curves, smooth fair skin and an enchanting smile.

        So, was she my “type” and I didn’t even know it?
        Or did she help establish my “type” because she was the first woman I felt attracted to?

  6. The Wet One says:

    For my part, I like what I like.

    Anyone who has a problem with that can blow me.

    That’s all I’ve got to say about that, and that’s all anyone should have to say about that.

    The Wet One

    • wellokaythen says:

      And if they agree with you, can they still blow you, or is blowing you only reserved for those who disagree with you?

      • The Wet One says:

        Nah, it’s reserved for those who have a problem with it. Agreeing or disagreeing isn’t an issue. Just those with a problem. How anyone can have an actual problem with what I like is beyond me. You have a rigth to decide what I like? I think not. Thus, they can blow me.

        Now, if you want to disagree with me on the relative attractive of fake vs. real boobs (or agree with me) or black girls vs. white girls, well whatever. We all have our own tastes right? That’s cool. But to have an actual problem with what I like? Go throw yourself off a high bridge into a shallow stream. Seriously, get your own life and live it. I don’t have time for your nonsense, be you female, male or otherwise. The more I think about it, the angrier I get, so I’ll stop here.

        • Valter Viglietti says:

          @The Wet One: “But to have an actual problem with what I like?”

          Some people have the need to policy everybody else’s life. :roll:
          Religious fanatics come to mind, but they aren’t the only group doing it: conservatives, right wingers, moralists, and radical feminists as well.

  7. We like what we like. True enough.

    Why we like what we like is the conversation we cannot seem to have. It’s too ethereal, intangible and complex is one of the true answers.

    When attempts to be specific are made, then it becomes objectifying – for being specific never can never measure up to the mystery of inclusiveness. We’ve put on a well fitted straightjacket and are complaining that it’s too tight.

    As Mile L says above – there is no evidence that trying to be specific somehow turns off our mental faculties. When I take my umbrella out on a rainy day it does not mean that I will forget where I’m actually trying to go.

    QuantumInc – that post at feministe is horrid. Talk about straightjackets….

    • “Why we like what we like is the conversation we cannot seem to have. It’s too ethereal, intangible and complex is one of the true answers.”

      I would say that the reason we can’t have this conversation isn’t because we don’t know the answers, it is because we will be so harshly judged for them.

      • Soullite says:

        I really don’t know at all. I have no answers, and I’m not saying that to disagree with you. I just don’t get why I like some of the things I like. It’s totally visceral for me. I see a woman with certain features, and I get this feeling warm, hard feeling in my gut. That’s all there is to it as far as I can tell.

      • soullite says:

        Just to add – it is entirely possible that I’m simply not being honest with myself. As much as I pride myself on self-awareness, that kind of pride can often blind a person to how unwarranted it really is.

        I’m really not trying to call you out or anything, is all I’m trying to say here. If you have some kind of insight, I’d really like to hear it.

        • Aw buddy. I ain’t hostile, we’re cool. Me personally, I could wax poetic for hours about the vulgar and the divine. The things I crave that I wouldn’t admit under torture and the selfless angels with the most beautiful inner demons. And more to the point, I could tell you exactly why I want, desire, and starve for each and every one of them.

          But I won’t. Because there are ladies present and we must all be on our best behavior.

  8. QuantumInc says:

    Even if you don’t “objectify” a woman (whatever that means) there are many instances where physical appearance is over-valued on a massive scale. There are few situations where a woman’s physical appearance should be the main factor in choosing her over another woman. Even if you’re just a guy looking to get laid, hitting on the horny chick is a better use of your time than hitting on the hot chick. If you want an employee or a wife than a physical appraisal is beyond tertiary.

    Yet there are far more tabloids talking about women with cellulite than men with cellulite, and a man composed primarily of cellulite is far more likely to end up on the silver screen. Even when we acknowledge a female star known for something else than looks, I have to note she does have looks, and probably needed them to get her foot in the door. Hollywood is an easy target, but I believe they slightly influence society at large, and more importantly reflect what society wants to see. It’s no secret women worry about their appearance, that they spend more time getting ready in the morning than men on average. Heck, being concerned about appearance is considered anti-masculine. A real man doesn’t bother, but a real woman is supposed to look hot, even if what she does primarily requires intelligence or kindness, etc. Not to mention the more specific stereotypes based on appearance. (I watch too much porn and have noticed that the rise of softer more sensual porn excludes big breasts or even women of color. Only model skinny white girls get made love to.)

    I’ll post it again, an article from, like the rest of it takes an angry feminist tone, but I feel it does a good job of explaining the problem. The third paragraph is rant-like, but lists out a lot of the more unreasonable, horrible, and bizzarre yet everyday common stereotypes and issues. Not to mention the coincidental title:

    • “There are few situations where a woman’s physical appearance should be the main factor in choosing her over another woman.”

      According to who? You? Are you and the feminists really trying to decide for all men what we should and shouldn’t find attractive in a potential partner? Based on what? How it makes you feel?

      Excuse me, I just spilled my drink I was laughing so hard.

      I read that feministe article and it had the same message and tone that most women seem to take when discussing men discussing women. Namely that men are wrong in valuing women’s beauty above all else, that men are wrong in their conception of beauty, and that men should stop giving our true and honest opinions on women if they don’t make all women feel good about themselves.

      “We get insight into the male gaze every day.”

      No, you really don’t. You may witness it, you may experience it, and you clearly like to write about it, but you damn sure don’t have any insight into it. Based on the way you talk about men who share how they view physically attractive women you have no interest in understanding and valuing their perspectives. You seem to only have an interest in judging and criticizing these men in some vain hope of changing what they find attractive? You have no idea what it’s like on the other side of that “gaze” and beyond that you don’t even want men to be allowed to talk about it.

      Let me know when the book burning starts, I’ll bring the marshmallows.

      • Jimmy,

        I think you make an excellent point when you say that women really don’t gain “insight into the male gaze every day.”

        It’s particularly interesting how often articles like the one cited talk about “tabloids” and “hollywood” but don’t consider that the test audiences for those products are often quite female (probably majority female for many tabloids). The female readers are actually getting insight into their own gaze, and then patting themselves on the back for “understanding men.”

        I’d really appreciate it if feminists stopped telling me how much they “understand men” and instead just listened without judgment when men talked.

        • Why bother listening, when assuming and judging is so much easier–and so much fun?

        • This is a good point. A lot of discourse on “objectification” and a lot of feminist discourse about men, frankly, is nothing more than women thinking they can read men’s minds.

          • Valter Viglietti says:

            8ball: “… women thinking they can read men’s minds.”

            Or, women thinking they’re entitled to tell men how they should behave. 😐

            Funnily enough, for decades feminism has told men “Stop telling women how they should behave!”… and now many feminists are doing exactly the same (in reverse),
            I guess, deep down, everybody likes to rule the world. :roll:

      • Well done, sir. Well done. (This is from me, a woman.)

    • Perfectly said.

  9. I personally had no problem with Mark preferring small-breasted women, but why did he have to be so damn insulting about it, claiming that small breasted women are more intelligent, more athletic, more adventurous and all that crap? What if someone wrote the exact same kind of article praising large breasted women and saying that women with small breasts are timid, neurotic and boring? Or whatever? What if I wrote that kind of article about the alleged personalities of men with large pensis or small penises? It’s one thing to have a preference, it’s another thing to congratulate yourself, and the women/men you admire, as some kind of superior beings.

    • Even better, what I’d a woman wrote an article about guys with small penises saying that they were smarter an more sensitive or whatever? It would be beyond ridiculous. For the record small tits can be perking, that’s a great reason to like them.

  10. This is perfect. Thanks, Justin.

  11. It seems like the real problem here is with the definition of “objectifying” in the first place.

    It is possible that appreciating someone for a physical attribute is objectification because it suggests fungibility: everyone with that particular attribute is to a certain degree interchangeable.

    But even if we accept that a certain degree of fungibility is present, that doesn’t demonstrate true objectification because it’s not clear that the observer lacks concern or appreciation for the feelings and agency of the individual with the admirable physical trait.

    Thus the word “objectification” suggests more than is truly present; in effect, the diversity of definition serves as a de facto straw man. The possibility of one definition immediately suggests the broadest application of all definitions.

    This is a real problem, and it’s why I can’t really take arguments about “objectification” at face value.

    • A great article about objectification, from a lesbian’s point of view, can be found here.

      The key is that shift from thinking about a person with attractive features…to simply thinking of the features and ignoring that they are part of a person.

      • HeatherN,

        Despite majoring in economics, I’ve actually read Martha Nussbaum’s work (shocking, I know, it’s also where the idea that fungibility = objectification comes from), and there are fundamental problems with it.

        Most of them involve the kind of “definition creep” that I was discussing above. There is simply no causality demonstrated, ever, that one kind of objectification (according to her definition) will lead to other kinds of objectification (again, according to her definition). Conclusions are lept to with wild abandon, to a point where it’s clear that the real objectification takes place in Dr. Nussbaum’s head when she assumes most people are unable to both appreciate attributes and recognize humanity in the same person.

        As you said, the problem is when there is a “shift from thinking about a person with attractive features to…ignoring that they are part of a person.” But there is absolutely zero evidence that this actually happens on a large scale. It is alleged, but unproven.

        I would argue, however, that there is compelling evidence that certain groups with defined agendas would like us to believe that large scale objectification is real and common.

  12. Such a simple point: We like who we like, and though we can challenge ourselves to open our minds, we can’t force ourselves. Thanks!

  13. I think the last few paragraphs really hit the nail on the head, so to speak. I think we run into a lot of problems trying to rationalize why we are sexually attracted to the people we’re sexually attracted to.

    Actually, I’d venture a guess and say that’s part of the trouble that the initial “In Praise of Small-Breasted Women” article had. It seemed like it was an attempt to say – see I’m not objectifying, I like these small breasted women for their personalities! Which, then, yeah…lots of problems which I won’t say again cuz then I’ll just start repeating myself. 🙂

  14. Men aren’t allowed to talk about how we think women look sexy anymore, because that’s objectification. We are only allowed to think a woman is sexy if we make at least 3 references to her personality.

    Didn’t you get the memo?


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