I don’t remember how old I was when I first encountered porn. I was young — very young — as were nearly all the men of my generation. We got our first glimpse of the acrobatics, the silicone, the shaved everything, and the drugged-out 20-year-old bounce bounce bouncing away at, on average, 11. Our understanding of sex — what it is, how it works, what makes it good — was shaped years before our first sexual experience with a human woman.
Possibly because of a religious upbringing or a nascent humanism, porn never really grabbed me. But it taught me how to look at women by distilling and supercharging the path that the male gaze is supposed to take.
We look at women differently from how we look at men. Men can be cooed and salivated over, without question, but the judgments are made on a man as a holistically physical being. The phrase “he’s hot” may be followed by details about abs, shoulders, and arms, but the initial judgment is of a man as a complete whole. Men do the same when we talk about each other — we’ll say “he’s jacked” in admiration long before we say “he has huge pecs.”
It’s different with women — we carve them up. We’re ass men, tits men, or leg men. At best, we’ll comment on a woman having an “amazing body,” a judgment that is universally understood to exclude the face. Our language conforms to our gaze — probably every heterosexual man feels the magnetic pull of breasts, delights in a nice pair of legs, and has looked out of the corner of his eye to catch the end of a woman walking by.
Women do it, too. Consider: the endless library of workout products helping women firm up their butts, legs and — in the era of Michelle Obama — arms. Workouts “target” and “work on” individual parts of the female body. The language of plastic surgery follows: the boob and nose job industrial complexes promise happiness and confidence, all for a nick here and a tuck there. Fix the part, we think, and the problems of the whole will evaporate along with the sweat.
The casualties: women who, at best suffer from a neurotic obsession with a certain square foot of their bodies and, at worst, are directly impacted by the sexual violence that this visual dismemberment empowers. Women are much easier to catcall, pressure, or rape when they’re viewed as an amalgamation of appealing humps. We like what we see — and what we see is easily converted to literal pieces of meat. Meat, after all, is to be consumed — not respected and not loved.
The collateral damage: men who want a better world for themselves and the women they love. The feeling of helplessness when a woman you love comes home frustrated after being catcalled — or far worse — is profound. Our gaze and language — and the behavior that follows it — has created a world in which women walk around with a baseline of anxiety after about 8 p.m. as a basic survival technique.
This doesn’t need to be the case. Millennia of art and poetry prove that it is in fact possible to view female beauty holistically, rather than in dehumanized pieces. Returning to this tradition is not a call for the parochial or old-fashioned — it is a call for the human.
Alain de Botton very beautifully describes having good sex as the act of encountering an echo of your deepest needs and desires within the completeness of another person. Sex like this — the sex that makes the whole thing worth it — hinges on viewing your partner as a complete and whole being. Getting there begins with the way we look at and talk about the female body.