Her breasts were fantastic. Round and perky, these breasts did not belong to someone who had been through two pregnancies and an attempted breastfeeding. They were the breasts of a young, child-free woman.
I sighed. He would love those breasts. I am not a jealous person. I don’t like competing with other women (or anyone, really). And my amazing boyfriend has never given me any reason to question his loyalty or devotion.
But thoughts like these now frequently interrupt my days…as I drop off a package at UPS, pump gas, roam the aisles of Target. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m in a constant state of shock and anxiety, but in slow motion.
The truth is I never really noticed other women’s bodies before unless they were shockingly fit or wearing something I might want to buy. But this wasn’t before. This was after — after I read the book.
The book I’m talking about is Through a Man’s Eyes by Shaunti Feldhahn and Craig Gross. It gives women an inside look at what the expression “men are visual” means. It details how a man’s eyes are uncontrollably drawn to look at women’s bodies as they move about their daily lives.
And it’s alarming — at least it was to me, because I was so totally unaware of the frequency and magnitude of this temptation.
The book opens with a detailed description of a day in the life of a typical man, how his eyes are drawn like magnets to look at women’s bodies and the near constant white-knuckling determination it takes to keep from openly staring.
The authors describe how these images are both annoying interruptions and pleasurable distractions to men at the same time. And they reveal how utterly oblivious women are to men’s reality.
“We have noticed this irony: men are visual…and women are blind to it,” they write. “All too often, we simply don’t see — or we completely misunderstand — a man’s visual nature.”
What “men are visual” really means
The phrase “men are visual” was not new to me. I’d heard that expression many times over the years. But I didn’t understand it at all. I thought it meant that men like to date/have sex with women who are attractive.
I did not know that “men are visual” is a way of saying that men are constantly visually drawn to look at women’s bodies all the time — a co-worker wearing a slim-fitting pencil skirt, a woman at the coffee shop whose top button is unbuttoned, a friend at the gym wearing leggings that show off her curves.
And it isn’t just attractive women, women who are their type or women who are in their preferred age range. It isn’t women who are dressed in sexy clothes or wearing makeup or who have physical attributes they prefer. A leg man will still feel compelled to look at waists and breasts. A breast man will look at hips. It isn’t even live women — one man described feeling compelled to look up a mannequin’s dress!
Moreover, it is something they simply can’t turn off.
I thought those visual cues might be accompanied by desire, which apparently they are, but I did not realize those feelings are often fleeting, much the way I might covet a piece of chocolate cake when walking past a bakery window, then forget about it hours later.
I also did not realize that these feelings are (often? always?) not romantic. This was especially hard for me to understand, as my feelings of desire are nearly always connected to romance. I may be in the minority of people in that regard.
It isn’t a moral issue
It’s tempting for those of us with two XX chromosomes to dismiss Gross and Feldhahn’s descriptions as religious proselytizing in an attempt to curb sexual expression, because the authors are Christian and write for a Christian audience. We might disagree with their anti-porn stance or think their views are fundamentalist, reactionary or unenlightened.
That would be a mistake.
I am neither Christian nor anti porn, and I learned a ton from this book. After reading it, I asked my boyfriend how often he felt compelled to look at women’s bodies in a given day, week or month.
He looked at me incredulously. “You mean how often in a minute?” he asked.
He also assumed that women are equally as distracted by men’s bodies. “I’ve seen women comment on men,” he noted, citing two examples of women friends who’ve made comments about an attractive man’s body.
Women aren’t the same
I tried to explain that for women, it’s entirely different because it’s something we can turn on and off. If we’re in the mood to look at men, we will. If not, we won’t.
Moreover, for some of us, our relationship status can change the way we look, how often we look and even whether or not we notice men at all.
Truth be told, more often than not, I don’t even notice men’s bodies unless the man is especially fit or attractive. When I was un-partnered, I noticed men more frequently, but if I had to put a number on it, I’d say maybe five times a month.
I may be unique or I may be representative of most women. I am not sure, but I suspect it’s the latter.
Since reading this book, I did become hyper aware of a behavior (drive? neurological response? hormonal difference?) that had totally eluded me before. I thought I understood that some men ogle women, that most men like to look at attractive women and that men frequently think about sex.
The truth is I drastically underestimated the extent of all of those things.
Why? Because for the most part, I’ve been with good men. By “good,” I mean men who treat me well, are considerate of my feelings and try to conceal their magnetic, powerful drive to look at other women. I view this as incredibly respectful. I appreciate it. And I am aware that most men behave this way.
Do they deserve a medal for this? I don’t know. What I do know is that it would be hard for me to operate in the world the way they do.
I honestly can’t imagine what it must be like to experience involuntary interruptions of that magnitude all the time. Sure, some of the time those interruptions might be welcome, but the men I asked about this said that more often, they are powerful distractions that keep them from achieving their goals, completing tasks or focusing on what they want to.
My initial reaction to this book was revulsion (and maybe denial at first, because you gotta have a little denial in any honesty soup), followed by insecurity, and finally an attempt to understand. I don’t think it was the authors’ attempt to make women feel insecure — in fact, I think it’s the opposite — that’s just what I felt initially.
Where do we go from here?
I’m sure there will be discussion about what causes this — the free availability of porn, the sexualization of women in our culture, the patriarchy at large. But I don’t think any of those things are the point. I really think this is an innate drive that men should continue to discuss honestly and women should strive to understand.
I suspect that outing it openly like this will get me in trouble with both men and women. Men won’t like being reduced to generalizations (I am sure there are men to whom this doesn’t apply), or they will assume that women are wired the same way they are and that I am somehow calling them out for being human. Perhaps they will worry about getting in trouble with their wives and girlfriends.
Women will accuse me of excusing what they deem to be bad behavior on the part of men.
Neither is an accurate representation of my intentions. My intention is simply to illuminate and understand. I am merely sharing an insight that changed my life and ultimately improved my relationships with men, with the hope that it may help improve yours as well.
My sense is that the more we understand other people, the better off we will all be.