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Is It Always Bad When Men Look at Women?

Values should be realistic.

As I blogged here, I worry that the Left is asking men to relinquish their masculinity. Perhaps this is nowhere more palpable than in the insidious equation of men’s sexuality with pornography and rape culture.

I admit that I find a beauty pageant to be derogatory toward women. I also admit that I worked in a shoe store in the 1960s and I was certain that high heels were about to go out of style permanently. So I, too, have for decades been naïve about mainstream America’s attitudes toward men gazing at women. It still strikes me as odd every time the camera drifts toward the cheerleaders at football games. When the Donald Trump story broke, though, I remember thinking that we didn’t find out anything about him that we didn’t already know from the fact that he owned a beauty pageant. Still, that there are beauty pageants and scantily clad young women at football games shows us where mainstream America is on this issue.

I’m sure that some men who voted for Trump are out-and-out sexists, and I’m sure that some women who voted for him are victims of internalized sexism. But my guess is that the vast majority just don’t find his constant emphasis on a woman’s looks to be particularly discordant with their own view of what the world is like. More than that, I think the Right may actually have a healthier (more accepting) view of men’s sexuality than some on the Left have.

I’m not talking here about intruding on or groping women, which as I wrote about here. I think of it as a projective identification of feelings of inadequacy. This distinction was caught in the Seinfeld episode where George got caught staring at a teenage girl’s cleavage. Jerry had only peeked at the sight, not stared. George explains that his life is empty, so he has little else. Jerry tells him to glance, not to stare. “Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. You get a sense of it, then you look away.” Of course, men look at cleavage (women, too, says my wife), but the idea is not to make the woman feel reduced or assaulted, and not to seem creepy.

In the first season of The Sopranos, the handsome young priest tells Carmela that looking at a beautiful woman is like appreciating a sunset or any other of God’s works. He’s talking at the time about Emma Thompson, hardly a typical pornographic presence. Men tend to be visual in their sexual interests, not unlike female birds. Yes, I get it that this has led to a host of problems for women trying to live up to photo-shopped ideals, but the vibrancy of the pornography industry suggests that this is not about to change any time soon. Instead of looking for pro-social ways for men to gratify their visual interests, however, the Left seems to say that men should not have these interests at all. The Left seems to say that since all rape starts with sexual interest, all sexual interest must lead to rape. The Left seems to say that if a man enjoys a woman’s looks, that must be all he enjoys about her.

The Left seems to say that men should treat all young women as they treat their daughters. I’ve noticed that for many men, a mentoring relationship does lead to treating the woman like a daughter. Many men have told me that after a few weeks of doing therapy or supervision, the woman seems like a girl to them and sexual interest stops being a factor.

Many women do not hate men for liking to look at women. These women do not feel threatened or competitive, any more than they would if men liked restaurant cooking more than their own. Although not a perfect analogy because of power differentials and the history of sexism, many men do not hate women for dreaming about what it would be like to be with a movie star or a sensitive, powerful man like Barack Obama. In This is 40, the wife played by Leslie Mann employs a hottie (Megan Fox). When another woman expresses surprise that she would let the hottie into the husband’s ambit, the wife says about her husband, "Oh, he wouldn't know what to do with that." She sees the gorgeous young woman’s proximity to her husband the way she might see an amazingly expensive car. If she knows he’s not desperate or self-destructive, she knows he’s only looking. A good friend of mine in a really good marriage told me his wife had taken a job with a stunningly good-looking doctor. I asked him if he felt threatened, and he laughed and said that their sex life had been rejuvenated by her coming home from work every day turned on.

No system of values—psychological, political, or moral—can work by ignoring reality. Human aggression and men’s visual sexual interests are often treated, especially by the Left, as dispensable inconveniences rather than as core elements of the human condition.