The societal reluctance to depict men as sexual objects is connected to the denial of female desire.
When I was 17, I developed an obsession with the actor Chris Evans — or, more accurately, with looking at him. I joined a Facebook group called Chris Evans Is Hot Shit just to let people know I was a subject who looked, not just an object men looked at. I felt power in this looking.
As I got older, requesting NSFW photos from partners became a rebellion of sorts. I knew this was considered too raunchy, too voyeuristic, too aggressive, too active to be “ladylike…and that’s what made it empowering to me. As a woman, I was constantly expected to provide visual pleasure, so it was only fair that I received it, too. But it wasn’t just a feminist statement; it genuinely turned me on.
Yet later, I started to get shamed for this, both overtly by people who didn’t share my taste and indirectly through all the public discourse surrounding NSFW photos, particularly dick pics. Rather than call out the fact that they’re often sent without consent, which is indeed worth calling out, critics claimed they were misguided because women aren’t visual and/or nobody enjoys looking at men. (Important note before I continue: Not all men’s bodies have penises, and not all bodies with penises belong to men. I’m writing about cis men because they’re typically the ones called out for sending dick pics, typically to cis women. But all sorts of people can enjoy them — or, as is frequently the case when they’re sent without consent, not enjoy them.)
“In terms of sexy, it’s just a rung below a picture of yourself committing domestic terrorism,” Ryan Reynolds declared of dick-pic-sharing in 2015. That same year, a viral video titled “Women React to Dick Pics” showed women responding to penis photos with comments like “hopefully he has a good personality.” Mic asserted that “the assumption that a penis photo is sexy reflects men’s total misunderstanding of women’s turn-ons,” and anthropologist Helen Fisher told The New York Observer, “A man wants to see a woman’s body and a woman may want to see a man in the picture with … a Rolex watch or a business suit or a pair of cool jeans.”
These responses suggested that women weren’t, in fact, visual subjects — that they were better suited to be objects. That women are designed to be looked at, while men are designed to look — or, more broadly, to do. Elaine summed up this attitude on Seinfeld: “the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
But many women do, in fact, enjoy looking — and, often, at men. Magic Mike, a movie centered on male strippers, raked in $170 million worldwide, and 82% of the audience was female. “Gay male” was also the second-most-viewed category among female Pornhub users in 2015. Research has shown that straight women experience vaginal lubrication in response to clips of gay men having sex (among other things), and even straight men’s eyes dilate in response to photos of men masturbating.
And, believe it or not, many women actively request dick pics. “I’m a very visual person,” says one 27-year-old preschool teacher in Boston, who asked to remain anonymous. “It is usually the videos that turn me on the most, but I do appreciate a sequence of photos. Like if he sends me one before he’s turned on and then sends me some of him touching himself until he’s turned on. I also enjoy a tasteful shot of a guy’s boner through his pants.”
Quinn Rhodes, a 22-year-old student and sex blogger in London, similarly enjoys “receiving [nude] shots from my partners, plus photos of their penises, new sex toys, photos of partners (of any gender) in lingerie, or of marks left on them from spankings/kink scenes, or when they’re tied up in beautiful rope bondage.”
“When I am attracted to someone, of course I want to see more of him,” says Taylor, a 31-year-old in LA. “If my partner and I are talking and I ask to see it, it’s very exciting.” She adds, “There is a dominant narrative that women are not as visual as men when it comes to sex, and it ends up erasing many other women’s experiences, or we end up feeling like our desires and fantasies are ‘unhealthy’ because they fall outside of the social norm. But plenty of us watch porn and sext with our partners, and we enjoy it because it’s visual.”
“There’s a lot of empowerment in having someone expose themself to you,” agrees CJ Stanford, a 26-year-old college student in Jacksonville, Florida. “I don’t just perform for his pleasure; he performs for mine.”
Why are perspectives like these so often buried? “A common sexual script is that men are more visual,” explains Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD, licensed mental health counselor and adjunct psychology professor at Hunter College. “This myth can be so ingrained that people don’t think to experiment with sexual activities like seeking dick pics because they don’t even consider it. Another sexual script is that men desire while women are to be desired. However, it could be potentially a win-win in straight couples for the man to feel like he is being desired in the request of nudes.”
Not all women are attracted to men, obviously, but the societal reluctance to depict men as sexual objects is connected to the denial of female desire. Most porn, movies, TV, and art highlight the perspective of a stereotypical straight man: cameras zooming in on women’s faces and chests; disproportionate female nudity; women almost exclusively touting hourglass figures and symmetrical features. That’s not necessarily what all straight men like to see, but it’s what they’re taught to approve of. Anything else is deemed unnatural.
If heterosexual men are indeed “more visual,” it’s probably because they’ve been bombarded with sexualized images of women their whole lives, explains Lisa Wade, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. Similarly, if people view women as more aesthetically pleasing, it’s probably because we’ve all been surrounded by these same idealized images.
“We’ve made women into ornaments,” Wade explains. “We will put a naked woman in art, and she serves the same purpose as a flower or a design. We have come to see women as ornamental in a way we don’t think of men.”
That could also be why same-sex attraction is often more accepted when those involved are cis women. They’re directing their desire toward the objects society has taught us are natural. Not to mention, lesbians are easier to fetishize for the male gaze than gay men.
The reluctance to depict men as sexual objects may also be connected to a fear of male vulnerability. “Our cultural frame for sexual activity is not a cooperative one; it is more of a predator-prey-type frame,” Wade explains. “If we have this competitive frame of sexuality, you are either the one doing the fucking or the one getting fucked. You’re either the object of the gaze or you’re the gazer. It’s considered disempowering to be the object of the gaze, so I think that’s why men may be uncomfortable in positions where they feel like objects. And we have this idea of women interested in sex as being scary, voracious, hungry in a way that’s dangerous.”
The dynamic of a voracious woman ogling at a man challenges not only the male gaze but also the conception of the male body as inherently aggressive, threatening, and domineering. Penises are sometimes compared to dangerous things like swords or snakes, as if the sight of one is supposed to hint at sexual violence. Treating a penis as something pretty feminizes it, stripping it of this imagined power.
I’m not advocating that we reverse the situation and objectify men. But someone can be an object of desire without being objectified. To objectify someone means to depict them as only sexual objects. Enjoying looking at someone doesn’t do that. What does objectify someone is failing to acknowledge that they themselves look, too — which is what we do to women.
Another crucial difference between an objectifying gaze and a merely desirous one is consent. In fact, what makes dick pics so aversive for many women is that they’ve received so many unsolicited ones. “Dick pics may have gotten a bad reputation because senders were not asking for consent and using them for shock value,” says Stamoulis. But by actively seeking them out to gratify their own desire, women can transform this dynamic, she adds. “If women decide they actually want to see them, from people they are attracted to and from people whom they ask, it could transform the sexual script that men just look and women are just looked at.”
For Hannah Schwartz, a 32-year-old in California, the act of requesting dick pics is part of their appeal. “I want him to know I want it, and then I want him to acquiesce,” she says. “There can be vulnerability in that, and of course there’s power in it as well, which is part of the turn-on.”
“I am used to being the object of the gaze, so it’s pretty powerful to step outside of that and do some gazing of my own,” agrees Taylor. “Even though women are socialized to be passive recipients rather than active participants in our own sex lives, I am not about to surrender all of my power like that. I have desires, too, and I know what it takes to satiate them. To hell with norms.”