Through Amber, a couple of great posts on the objectivity of male bodies. The main one is from Hugo Schwyzer, and he in turn links to Figleaf. It's a topic I've explored before in my post "Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men", so this post will be more scatter-shot. It's also a topic I'd love to get the perspective of the Happy Bodies gals on.
Schwyzer relates his experience that the first time he ever was expressly cast as someone wanted, desired, was in the context of a same-sex relationship. In his relationships with women, the idea that someone might lust after him was utterly bizarre and foreign. This intrigued me, because my introduction to this whole line of thinking stemmed out of an article by Leslie Green, entitled "Pornographies" (J. Political Philosophy, Vol. 8.1, 27-52 (2002)). One of Green's major arguments was a defense of gay pornography precisely because it objectifies gay men: men who, in Green's estimation, are perpetually told that their sexuality is something deviant and disgusting, that nobody could ever want them or find them desirable or attractive, that they have no objective worth. Pornography shows them that, yes, your body is one that is something that someone might want -- and that sentiment is an important aspect of human personhood.
It may be that Schwyzer and Green's arguments are not irreconcilable -- the internal norms and culture in the gay community may differ from how broader society views homosexuality, and the affirmation that gay male sexuality is desirable may be of particular importance to closeted gay men, or those from more repressive and homophobic backgrounds who may still be laboring under beliefs which taught them that their very identity was disgusting.
But Schwyzer's post made me reflect about my own experiences as a straight man -- have I ever felt particularly desired? When I enrolled in college, I joked that I just assured myself four years of never getting a date. My best qualities (as I saw them) were that I was nice, polite, and intelligent. Enrolling at top five Liberal Arts school in Minnesota meant throwing away all my competitive advantages. It's not that I think of myself as ugly -- I don't -- but the joke rests on the idea that it is absurd to think anyone might want me for my body of all things. Looking back, prior to my current relationship (which is very body affirming -- as you'd hope dating a body positivity blogger!) I can think of precisely one moment where a woman complimented my body. I also remember being somewhat at a loss of how to react -- I was certainly pleased, but fairly baffled as well. Jill has a favorite body part of mine (no, not that one), and while I like that she likes it, it still is something I find a little puzzling.
The post Hugo links to talks about the unforeseen consequences of men not having a conception of themselves as objects of desire. One upshot is that men have only a weak grasp of what constitutes an attractive male. Apparently, some women think we are simply overcompensating the "no homo" bit when we aver that we can't say if a given guy is attractive. The fact is that, as the Fred Thompson debacle so conclusively demonstrated, no, we're really actually confused. Outside a few obvious poles ("Gilbert Gottfried or Brad Pitt"), the terrain of "attractive man" is foreign territory.
It's not that women don't talk amongst themselves about which guys are hot and why. It's that there are almost no public channels where it is permissible to discuss men in terms of their bodies. The public language of desire has men as the desiring, and women as the desirable. It is a one-way street.
Hugo writes that "The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing." This is a phrase fraught with peril, even as I endorse its particulars. "Gaze" is an important term in feminist discourse, and not generally one used in a positive sense. Women are under the male gaze because they are presented solely as objects for male desire. That is how they walk through the world -- they can't avoid it. So how is it that we can say that we want to "empower women as well as men to gaze"?
Both objective and subjective worth are critical to a full sense of personhood. That is Green's position, and that is mine as well. Women suffer from the male gaze because it is the near-totality of how their lives matter in a patriarchal society. For persons who are respected as subjects, there is no danger in being gazed upon, because we know there is the foundational acknowledgment of one's basic human dignity. Quite the opposite -- for persons accorded subject-status, it can be quite damaging to be deprived of a sense of desirability.
In my post, I argued that control (better: autonomy) is the critical element: we can put ourselves out as a desirable object when we know that we have the right to withdraw ourselves. Women, today, do not have that right -- stepping out onto the street is seen as an implied license to be morphed into a sexual object; and there is no safety net of acknowledged subjectivity lying beneath them. Empowerment to gaze comes from the dismantlement of this structure.