Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The male gaze.

I went to a sex shop with Sprite and Rowdy the other day. We got a couple of fun toys, a large quantity of the high-performance lubricants required to fit Rowdy inside a human, and we spent some quality time walking around the entire store in the Porn Trance, just gawking.

I couldn't help noticing an incredibly common theme: a naked woman means straight sex, while a naked man means gay sex. Lesbian sex--which only exists in porn, not in the toy aisle, where even strapons are marketed only as a "bend over boyfriend" item--is indicated by two naked women. It all makes sense if you assume that only men have eyes.

Being a woman sometimes makes me feel like a toaster that somehow gained sentience. People talk about toasters, they talk about what a toaster does and what a toaster should be, they may even be big fans of toasters, but they don't talk to them.

I see this even in women's magazines. The October issue of Cosmo is sitting on my desk right now and it's full of pictures of women. Not the people women would like to look like--the people women would like to be looked at like. Because only men have eyes.

And then a lot of the copy within Cosmo, as I point out each month, is about what women are like or what women should be like. As if I might not know, otherwise.

Walking around an adult toy store, where male masturbators are labeled with sexy women and clit stimulators are labeled with sexy women, I get the eerie feeling that I'm not supposed to exist. My body is, but me, the part that would rather look at men or butch women? Pfft. Men desire, women are desired, and looking at an idealized version of yourself through male eyes is the sexiest thing a woman can hope for.

Then again, maybe this is practicality. We were there for a couple hours, and the whole time, Sprite and I were the only women in the store. Maybe the demographic reality is that straight men are buying all the clit stimulators. Maybe it's a vicious cycle, or maybe most women wouldn't come into a sex shop anyway.

The small contingent of sex toys that are marketed to women--mostly the upmarket stuff, because the $10 made-in-China junk always has a naked lady--tend to have plain packaging. It's just colors and swirls, or abstract woman-goddess figures, that look more like tampon and douche packaging than like porn. I'm okay with this, actually. I don't need to look at sexy men to pick out a vibrator; I just find it disconcerting to face a giant wall of sexy women, each one of them screaming "this isn't for you, what are you doing here?" Sexy nobody, sexy "hey, you're a grownup, you already know what this is for" packaging suits me just fine.

And I'm waiting with bated breath for the first time I see soothing meaningless blue swirls on a male masturbation toy.


  1. Not the people women would like to look like--the people women would like to be looked at like.
    You lost me.

  2. <- Not blue, not swirls, but I think in general principle your wish has already been granted. (It's a decent toy, to boot.)

  3. Bruno, I think Holly means:

    Women don't necessarily want to look like supermodels. But we're trained to believe that men want supermodels - that they swoon for them. And so ads targeted at women show supermodels, and we identify with the supermodels not because we want to look like that but because we wish men would swoon for us the way they (allegedly) do for the supermodels.

    Did I just make it more convoluted?

    Holly: I hate the naked ladies on sex toy packaging, too. And I don't ever remember seeing a strap-on package that made reference to bending over anyone's bf - there's just a naked plastic-looking lady, and that's it. So I assume that in the world of sex stores, pegging a boy isn't even a thing; it's all about lesbians.

    And I fucking hate that every package of bondage equipment always shows a woman tied up, dammit. Why not have two different versions of the packaging - one with a submissive man and one with a submissive woman? Or just don't show a person, or use an androgynous mannequin.

    I feel like I may have mentioned this before, but it's worth saying (again?): some blog I was reading posited the question, "Are women really not visual creatures, or do they just not look at sexy visual materials because they're all aimed at men?" I can't speak for all women but I know for me it's the latter.


  4. This was over a decade ago, but when I worked at a website that sold sex toys, there was this line of dildos based on actual penises, and the packaging included the actual man, displaying his actual penis, staring out from the box. I thought it was pretty nifty, but it made the owner of the website (a man) really uncomfortable.

    Also, Bruno, look at woman's magazines: do you suppose most women buying those magazines look like the cover model or have any particular interest in looking at cover models? Of course not. Every pose, every article of clothing, every puffed lip and poufed hair is aimed at what men like to look at, not that men every buy Cosmo.

  5. I've often wondered if this isn't why tests that are supposed to measure women's sexual response to lesbian/heterosexual/gay porn always seem to read "women are turned on by every damn thing" and "men show marked preferences"--not because women are innately bisexual, but because women are conditioned by this omnipresent male gaze to view women as "sexy." Women's gaze isn't taken into account, so they learn to respond sexually to porn aimed at men.

    (Which doesn't mean there aren't bisexual women, or that women can't naturally be attracted to other women, or any of that--it just means that measuring sexual orientation in terms of "sexual response to visual stimulus" is using a flawed yardstick.)

  6. The "woman = straight, man = gay" equation doesn't only happen in the heads of porn producers. I've often heard people, men and women alike, call a picture of a naked/otherwise erotically presented man "homoerotic". Because of course anyone who sees a picture as erotic is by default a man.

  7. do you suppose most women buying those magazines look like the cover model or have any particular interest in looking at cover models?
    The former is unlikely (who has time to airbrush herself these days?), but the latter . . . maybe not "most," but some women must want to look that way. Regardless, what confused me was the distriction between "looking like that" and "looking like a woman men look at like that." It suggests that there's a difference between 1) being Jessica Alba and looking like Jessica Alba and 2) merely looking like Jessica Alba, when I'm pretty sure they'd get similar responses from men.

  8. Also, yeah, I -did- buy all my girlfriend's sex toys, including a clit stimulator, so there may be some truth to that statement, which I think you were joking about. (Said stimulator sucks, by the way, and not the way it's supposed to. Apparently "Whichever packaging annoys me least" wasn't a wise purchasing strategy there. A warning for anybody else who decides that less offensive packaging is worth patronization.)

  9. Regardless, what confused me was the distriction between "looking like that" and "looking like a woman men look at like that." It suggests that there's a difference between 1) being Jessica Alba and looking like Jessica Alba and 2) merely looking like Jessica Alba, when I'm pretty sure they'd get similar responses from men.

    Right, but the point is that there's a distinction between what a girl/woman would see as her idealized self-image and what she would see as what a man wanted to look at, and therefore what she would have to look like in order to be the sort of girl men look at.

    Image carries more messages than just sexiness; this is why there's a huge difference between what men look like in contexts in which he's supposed to be an idealized image other men would aspire to, and when he's an idealized image that's supposed to be appealing to women and girls. Essentially Robert Pattinson versus Vin Diesel. Vin is attractive to many women (I personally would take him over Robert in a heartbeat), and you can see some beefcake shots of him that are more meant to draw women, but overall his niche in Hollywood is a male-oriented market whereas Robert's is for a female-oriented market.

    Or, to offer a shorthand, look at how men are depicted on the covers of action sci-fi books versus how they're depicted on the cover of Regency novels.

    Difference being, women have very, very few of their own equivalents of Vin or Bruce Willis.

  10. When I was with K, she bought the toys; largely because we were always at her place and because she was the one pushing my horizons out. Since then, I've been buying the toys - though A claim to have a surprise for me - and the toys I buy have -are- all female-oriented.

    Then again, I really should pick up some quality restraints one of these days, and this that and the other... *shakes head wryly*

    The sex shop that I visit, though, is a rarity and a delight. It's called Sugar, and it's fantastic; quality goods at reasonable prices in a totally non-sketchy store that's locally owned by a (frankly adorable) Lesbian couple.

    (Adorable because of their interactions. I find all functioning couples to be adorable most of the time. I'm weird.)

  11. To give you an idea, in an "idealized self-image" way, I would love to look like Hilary Swank circa Million Dollar Baby. Yet when I went looking for the image, specifically using the MDB search string, almost all the pictures I got were of her when she had less muscle mass and was dressed in a much more Cosmo way. Lots of women criticized her look for that move, too- because the muscle mass (and seriously, look at her, she's a long way off from huge) was "unattractive".

    In terms of idealized self-image, "powerful" is several adjectives on my list above "attractive". I suspect the same is true of most men.

  12. Couple of weeks ago, Svutlana go for sex shoppe with former boss from big drugged company (never think Svutlana in million year that would ever share sex shoppe experience with former boss...make happy me this).

    Inside sex shoppe, all vibrate and dildonic products be outside package and display one after other on shelf that look like exhibit entitle "One penis two penis red penis blue penis". Penii seem for slouch over and stare at Svutlana with single beady eye. It be male gaze of total different kind and little bit unnerve.

  13. I remember, ages ago, my then-girlfriend introduced to me to I can't remember what the site design was like at the time but there was only one version of the site. A few years ago, they redesigned the site and created a "straight" version and a "gay" version with buttons on the homepage to enter the version of your choosing. Straight version: naked women. Gay version: naked men.

    WTF. You'd think a place like Stockroom which is more of a sex-positive, Master-Buck's-imported-kangaroo-leather place wouldn't fall into this trap but...nope! I was incredibly pissed off.

    They've since changed the labels from "straight" and "gay" to "main" and "male" but the associations still linger very unpleasantly to me.


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  15. The gears need grease and my cognitive hamster is about to have a heart attack, but I think I understand: Cosmo types don't necessarily reflect aspirations, but stand in for the idea of "being attractive." That makes sense to me, but I could still be missing something.

  16. As long as you don't see this kind of "male gaze" (there are others) as an imposition from The Menz(tm), but as a configuration in society with complex roots, I think I agree with your viewpoint.

    What I would to to "exist" as a viewer is simply try to show interest in the kinds of views you would like to see. Are you interested in images of men presented for the "female gaze"? Then there is a need for more women who will express this interest, and for people to produce said images so that they reach this public. As this becomes more and more frequent, the idea that sexy images are displayed as men would like to see them would start to fade. "Porn for women" approaches seem to be moving into this empty space. Perhaps we'll see some changes in this area in the near future.

    But it seems this was tried before -- why is it again that magazines like Playgirl ended up disappearing?

  17. (One way to start, by the way, might be to subvert the images of men meant for gay consumption by consuming them as a female.)

    I suppose the more interest women start showing in actually viewing sexual images -- the kind of images that they want to see (à la Violet Blue) -- then the kind of "male gaze" situation that you depict should change. (This reminds me of old times when all dolls were white; you couldn't find an ethnic doll -- Black, Asian, etc. -- anywhere. This specific situation has already, it seems, changed significantly.)

  18. For funzies, I'm just going to take a stab at some of the sources of the phenomena you described. Obligatory disclaimer: I identify as a cissexual heterosexual male.

    1). Supermodel features as a selling point for womens products --> derives from the following equation: (patriarchy [women exist to facilitate the desires of men] + thin is good)

    I really don't know where the idea that women exist to facilitate men got started, but it's annoying. The Bible, probably: "Woman was created FROM man to SERVE man," etc.

    2). Man = gay male product, woman = straight male product, two women = lesbians --> derives from blue = boys, pink = girls --> derives from structuralist/modernist thought processes (fixed meanings for words + hierarchical binaries necessary for understanding concepts).

    3). General repression of alternative sexual practices (like men tied up) --> derives from Victorianism --> derives from the institution of property.

    Victorian mores got their start with male ownership and inheritance of property -- and since heritable property requires an heir, you need to know who the father is, which leads to very conservative notions about when and how you can have sex, which then leads to what we know and love today as Victorianism: sexual repression.

  19. why is it again that magazines like Playgirl ended up disappearing?

    Women probably felt weird buying porn...there is/was a bit of a stigma. Also, were those images really aimed at women? Did anyone on Playgirl's staff actually ask women what they wanted to see? I never read Playgirl but my impression is that most people think of it as actually for gay men. I do remember Burt Reynolds famously posing for it, and Burt is way closer to Vin Diesel than Robert Pattinson.

    If the gay men weren't buying Playgirl, maybe it's because they felt weird buying something ostensibly aimed at women. And anyway the gay community has bathhouses where you can get fucked for real so who needs a magazine?

    ...(One way to start, by the way, might be to subvert the images of men meant for gay consumption by consuming them as a female.)

    This plan assumes that women like these images, and this is not necessarily the case. Maybe what most women want to see is [dramatic gasp] something different entirely - something that hasn't been filtered through the "male gaze" at all.

  20. Bruno - Cosmo types don't necessarily reflect aspirations, but stand in for the idea of "being attractive."
    Yeah. I don't want to look like Jessica Alba just because that would be nifty--I want to look like Jessica Alba so men look at me the way they (supposedly) look at Jessica Alba.

    Linguista - One way to start, by the way, might be to subvert the images of men meant for gay consumption by consuming them as a female.
    That's not subversion, that's eating table scraps.

  21. One good source for hot images of both genders is Cirque du Soliel! They are quite impartial in their dressing-up and have a nice range of body types from buff to wiry. Their men are definitely not just props to hold up the female eyecandy, the way male ballet dancers sometimes are.

  22. @Anon: I really don't know where the idea that women exist to facilitate men got started, but it's annoying.

    It could be wrong, but the theory I've heard is this:

    The transition from stone-age hunter-gatherers to the agricultural age was possible only because of specialized division of labor. That is, each person specializes in certain jobs and trades labor with each other rather than everyone doing everything for themselves. This was probably part of the cause of the leap to agriculture, not an effect of it, as many hunter-gatherer tribes today do this to some degree.

    Many societies started developing expectations about how labor should be divided among the people - if your parents were woodworkers, then you were expected to carry on the tradition, if women hunted less often than men because they were often busy being pregnant or carrying babies around, then hunting was seen as a male thing, etc.

    Specialized division of labor lead to governments with more power than a tribal council, and powerful governments lead to police forces and armies. Combined with the fact that there was no real separation of the church and state, and sometimes they were the exact same thing, it allowed the fanatics to turn general societal expectations into word of god that everyone must follow.

    Now there were matriarchies as well as patriarchies. Over thousands of years, matriarchies slowly lost out. Aggressive societies subjugated their neighbors and forced conversions, spreading around the ways and values of their society, including their aggression. But patriarchy had a slight advantage due to the fact that killing off the men and raping and physically subjugating the women was a particularly effective tactic, but the reverse did not hold true for matriarchies. (Partially because the warriors of even the matriarchies were mostly men.) The fact that this tactic was used often resulted in the dehumanization of women, and the "word of god" that they existed for male use.

  23. Male gaze in sex shops and toy packaging: I think this is a feature of everybody focusing on the largest market segment, which is men, and completely losing the idea that there are whole segments no one is making any serious attempt to serve. Gradually people are starting to twig to the idea that there's money to be made by marketing to women; market pressure will change it slowly. The more they change, the more women will buy, the faster they will change.

    Male gaze and body image issues: The actual male gaze is not the biggest or worst problem. The range of acceptable women's body types narrows as the market becomes focused less on men and more on women buyers. Porn offers a wider range of female body types than any other media; action movies skinner; romantic comedies skinner still; fashion magazines feature skeletons for almost exclusively women buyers. This may be some distorted perception of the male gaze, but the actual male gaze does not filter for skeletons.

    To this man, MDB Hilary Swank is twice as hot as Cosmo Hilary Swank.

  24. @Mousie762: I think, at least in the case of porn, back when it was very non-mainstream they tended to focus on the barbie-doll look (very slim with big fake breasts and often fake blonde hair) because even though the men who liked that look were a minority, they still vastly outnumbered the women who looked that way. So they would pay a lot to see it, and the porn actors producers tended to go there because that's were the money was.

    After it became more mainstream, it became more economically feasible to exploit a wider variety of preferences. Not to mention the more open dialogue of sexuality in general resulted in pornographers discovering specialty niches that most weren't even aware existed, let alone potentially profitable.

  25. Before reading this post I was much unknown to this topic but after reading your post I come to know about basic idea about the male gaze. And that would be very helpful.

  26. A few years ago, The Mean Bitch & I took a married couple with us to an adult bookstore. I've known him for 20 years, & was engaged to her 25 years ago. To my shock, he'd never been to one. Still we had a great time. The girls were the only females there, & we laughed our asses off making jokes about the toys (like the inflatable sheep), while he did his best to fade into the wallpaper. Gotta do that again.

  27. One of the few places I've found that has images of sexy and naked men aimed at women is Filament Magazine. They're based in the UK but ship worldwide. I don't have any yet, but it's on my birthday list!

  28. One of the reasons why there aren't a lot of porn/sexualized images produced for the female gaze is that our society has traditionally restricted female sexuality. Masculinity is constructed as being hyper-sexual (for instance, the idea of men thinking about sex all of the time), so it is socially acceptable for men to express sexual interest.

    Sexual purity was for a long time a feminine ideal, although that has changed a bit since the sexual revolution. While there is more acceptance of women's being sexual and sexually active, female sexuality is still policed, and women are often expected to be sexual but criticized if they have sex "too much" or have "too many" sexual partners(with the labels "slut" and "whore").

    As it continues to become more socially acceptable for women to have and enjoy sex, there should be an increasing market for sexual media and products for the female gaze. One problem is that we don't have a lot realistic models of female sexual desire; its hard to know what that looks like if you have grown up surrounded by products for male eyes. Being fed these images, I formed a concept of female sexuality as being desirable and open to attention rather than having desire, which I am now trying to deconstruct.

  29. My town has see through garbage bags. Throwing away packaging that looks like it came from a box of tampons is infinitely preferable to the one that comes with large how-to-use diagrams.