Friday, October 12, 2007

The weakness of male desire

The shock of hearing my friend died and sheer exhaustion have left me out of sorts in some ways. However, I did manage to stumble across another blog post by Hugo Schwyzer, who always manages to come up with interesting discussion points. Today, it was whether or not men should be responsible for objectifying women who dress provocatively.

A friend asks him for advice on whether or not he was responsible for staring at the breasts of a scantily clad woman at the gym, and Schwyzer's advice is stated eloquently along his line of moral reasoning mixed with the feminist response which peppers many of his posts.

First of all, it’s dangerous to attribute intent to the clothing choices others make: whatever you may believe (or whatever some other sympathetic women may tell you), you can’t possibly know for certain why the woman at the gym wore what she wore. Saying that “if she wore a revealing top, she should expect to be looked at” is the equivalent of telling a black man that if he wears cornrows and walks in a white neighborhood, he shouldn’t complain about being stopped over and over again by the police. Thoughtful, rational people don’t tell black men who are racially profiled that they need to “dress more white” to avoid getting harassed, after all.

What is “revealing” is a moving target, defined differently by different groups in different places. There are no public places other than beaches where you would expect to see more exposed flesh than at a gym. For reasons of both comfort and practicality, both women and men will wear less while working out than they will virtually anywhere else. And when you’re a well-endowed woman committed to vigorous exercise, the number of clothing choices that aren’t going to be perceived as revealing “too much” are, in fact, quite limited. I reject the assumption that any of us can “know” with certainty why a stranger wears what she wears.

Schwyzer goes on to write about how different cultures view different parts of the body sexually and tells his friend to let his will win over his roving eyes. For me, the most powerful portion of his blog is when he sums up the woman's complicity in the man's staring at her.

What this means in the end is that the obligation not to objectify another human being is the same whether she’s in a bikini or a burka.

And, of course, once again Schwyzer's audience chimed in with their opinions in the comments section, starting a discussion of their own.

My favorite comment was from Capella, who thinks women do dress to attract attention.

I agree that no clothing gives men the right to touch, talk to, or look at women in an inappropriate manner. I do not think, however, that all forms of noticing a woman are inappropriate. Isky was not eyeing a sixteen-year-old, or ogling during a religious service, or actively making a nuisance of himself. He was observing an adult woman in an environment where many people meet their partners (and where some people go for exactly that reason) as she performed actions that made her an object of interest. The look she gave him was not an “I have been victimized” look; it was an “I have sexual power over you and you have none over me” look.

Adult women control their sexuality. We know how to keep our breasts inside our clothing. Sometimes we don’t want to be objects of the male gaze, and sometimes we do.

So, do women control men when it comes to sexual matters, should men be the ones exercising control even when it comes to looking at female bodies, or is the answer somewhere in between?


WKnapik said...

Speaking as a man,it's often hard not to look.You need to be careful though because there's a difference between an appreciative glance and a scary stare.You never know which side of the "It's OK to look/Don't look at me" fence the woman falls on.Women are in control,but men need to know how to behave.

Marie said...

It's an odd sort of control, though, and often one that the woman herself cannot control.

That said, I think I'd be creeped out by someone "appreciating" me at gym, all sweaty and red-faced in my best old trackpants :D