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The Look of Lust

August 10th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images muses on why commercial depictions of “lust” or “sexy” overwhelmingly involve images of women, making the implicit lust-er or perceiver-of-sexiness a straight male:

Thought Experiment:  If nearly naked men had been dancing in those columns, do you think the audience would have thought “hot men for the women!” or “how gay!”?   I think many, if not most, would have thought “how gay!”   A female gaze that validates women’s sexual subjectivity and the sexual objectification of men is simply less accessible for both women and men.   I think if men were dancing in the columns, an objectifying male gaze would still be at play, except this time the gaze would have been aimed at men.

Wade attributes this to the “primacy of the male gaze” and the presumption that the default perspective is male.  Which is probably no small part of it, but I think there’s some other stuff going on here as well.  First, there’s a widely held belief that men are much more responsive than women to visual sexual stimulus. Recent brain research suggests that this may, in fact, be a myth—but the idea is widespread enough that a marketer trying to use sex to sell in a visual medium may just be trying to maximize the effectiveness of their ad.

But I think part of what’s lurking here has to do with the way homophobia tends to be asymetrically focused on male homosexuality. The bogeyman for social conservatives seems to be gay men far more often than lesbians, and anxiety about being perceived as gay seems to be a much more pervasive straight male phenomenon.  This affects norms even in pretty gay-friendly circles: I’m not likely to tell a straight male friend his new suit or haircut looks “super hot” or greet him with a kiss on the cheek—even if I know both of us do those things with our gay male friends.   Which is to say, even if we’re both fine adopting the gay norm of interaction when it’s seen as the other person’s norm—when in Rome and so forth—there’s a residual anxiety about being the one introducing it. This is pervasive enough that it even shapes our private reactions: I’m also not that likely to see a Dior ad in a magazine and consciously form the thought “wow, he looks hot” even as a sentiment of simple aesthetic appreciation. Of course, if the ad successfully motivates me to think that maybe I would look good in a similar suit, I must at least implicitly be thinking something like that, but my tendency will not be to explicitly represent it to myself in those terms, something women generally seem more comfortable doing. And since our culture doesn’t seem to burden women with this particular bit of psychic baggage to the same extent, the straight-male image of “sexy” probably really is more “universal” in the sense that it’s more capable of being processed as “sexy” by both men and women, which again makes it more viable as a “generic” image for marketing purposes.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sexual Politics · Sociology


       

 

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jess // Aug 10, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    “straight-male image of “sexy” probably really is more “universal” in the sense that it’s more capable of being processed as “sexy” by both men and women”

    I would say, as a woman, I’ve thought along these lines myself, but with a slightly different twist.

    I remember reading an article once which said that “studies show” that women are more likely to be turned on by sexualized images of women, than men are to be turned on by images of men. The conclusion of the article was that this probably meant that women have more potential for bisexuality than men do.

    But I didn’t think this was true, at least not in the sense that women are *born* with more potential for bisexuality than men are. I simply think that women are as conditioned as men are to think that certain things are sexy. It’s in the culture. Because something is consciously aimed at men doesn’t exclude it from having an effect on the way women see things as well.

    It’s like Lisa Wade said: Sexual imagery of men tends to be “less accessible for *both* women and men.” *Both* men and women are more likely to be turned on by sexual images of women, and *both* men and women are more likely to be left cold by sexual images of men. This isn’t, in my inexpert opinion, because of some inherent biological quality, but because of how we all, as a society, are conditioned to react to things.

  • 2 One Fine Jay // Aug 11, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    This affects norms even in pretty gay-friendly circles: I’m not likely to tell a straight male friend his new suit or haircut looks “super hot” or greet him with a kiss on the cheek—even if I know both of us do those things with our gay male friends.

    You, sir, have some pretty fortunate gay male friends. My straight friends won’t even go so far.

  • 3 LP // Aug 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    “But I think part of what’s lurking here has to do with the way homophobia tends to be asymetrically focused on male homosexuality.”

    Right, but what’s the reason for the asymmetry you note with regard to homophobia? I suppose there are probably several, but the ‘primacy of the male gaze’ seems like a solid underlying cause – if women’s bodies are always sexual objects, then attraction to women is always socially acceptable. I would argue that this is very likely the cause of the myth of male visual lust, if it’s a myth. (The study you linked to provides evidence that both men and women found images of erotically-engaged *couples* arousing, which different from the claim that men are more visually stimulated by images of women’s bodies than vice versa.)

  • 4 Emily // Aug 11, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Ooh, I like this discussion. All kinds of chickens and eggs and other reproductive quandaries. I think LP has it about right for a start. The question of WHY male homosexuality is more culturally abhorrent is significant here. I tend to give a lot of credit to evolutionary biology, but there’s also the matter of culture reproducing itself, and male-as-default-gender is one of the oldest memes around. As long as men have held most of the power, they’ve been able to represent and propagate their desires and foist them upon others. The sexy-to-straight-male image may be so universally accepted because, well, we’ve always been exposed to sexy-to-straight-male images and been informed that they are sexy.

    As for bisexuality, I’m not sure how biology and culture interact there, but I do think it’s an interaction rather than an either-or. As somebody who’s experimented and still occasionally digs certain women, I think that was probably made easier by a certain winking cultural permissiveness. Then again, maybe some aspects of my general femininity, receptiveness, nurturing, whatever, which I arguably come by genetically, make it easier for me naturally to be more inclusive (rather than, say, macho-fearful), in my attractions, and to be attracted to those similar qualities? Meh.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Aug 11, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    I find the standard account pretty persuasive: Western homophobia is a form of disguised misogyny, rooted in male horror of feminization and the prospect of themselves as penetrable (and therefore potentially subordinate and depowered). So the ultimate root is still sexism, but by a more roundabout path.

  • 6 Emily // Aug 12, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Yeah, I could buy that. Misogy-WHEE!

  • 7 Al Sanchez // Aug 15, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Julian, regarding your comment, #5. I follow the train of thought, but I simply don’t buy it.

    If a man is viewed as being weak or less masculine or more feminine, then quantitatively less women will be interested, and qualitatively, less desirable women will be interested.

    To use your words, yes, it is a male horror of feminization and and depowerment. But a fear of being penetrable? Huh? It’s a fear decreasing the chances of getting laid. It’s a matter of evolutionary biology.

    It’s pretty simple, really. And I’m sorry, I don’t understand why misogyny enters into the equation.

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