Awhile back I was chatting feminism with a male friend who consistently makes it a priority to demonstrate respect for women in his daily life and whose opinions and views I also have great respect for.
During the course of our discussion, issues of “biological imperatives” were raised. This is a massively important issue when it comes to feminist discourse, because one of the most basic underlying tenets of feminist theory is a necessary belief that human beings in civilized society — rational creatures with the ability to self-actualize, to feel empathy, to make moral and social distinctions, all the things that supposedly separate us from every other known species on this planet — are more than mere slaves to our biology. In other words, feminism firmly rejects the notion that society must accept and normalize (if not outrightly encourage) mens’ domination and objectification of women both sexually and culturally simply because “it’s male (human?) nature.” Feminism rejects the notion that men are powerless to control their sexual impulses or incapable of making rational decisions and conscious choices where sex is involved. Feminism rejects the notion that the systemic sexual objectification of women by men is a biological inevitability which must be fed lest complete societal chaos ensue (i.e. “if men didn’t have porn or strip clubs as an outlet for their enormous and uncontrollable sexual appetites, they’d just end up raping more women.” — yes, I have actually witnessed someone try to use the porn-stops-rape argument seriously).
And for many men (like my friend) who believe in the humanity and autonomy of women; who believe in a woman’s right to be regarded as a whole person who is more than just the sum of her tits, ass and pussy; who believe that a woman’s cultural and societal worth encompasses more than her value as a sexual object; who do not believe that women innately “owe” men sex by virtue of our existence; but yet who also find much of their thoughts, desires and behaviour at least partially driven by their innate sexual attraction to women — attempting to uphold feminist ideals of not objectifying women may often seem like an impossible task.
Part of my discussion with my friend on this topic took place via e-mail, which affords me the opportunity of quoting him directly.
Genetically, Darwinistically, biologically, I am forced to be obsessed with women’s bodies. Yes, forced. I can control how I act on that obsession, and the obsession doesn’t include the urge to hurt women physically. But there is absolutely no changing the feelings. Not after millennia of evolution. And in this place and time, the people whose respect I crave the most are always telling me that my very inner core is dirty, shameful, evil, wrong, disrespectful, backward, brute, and unevolved. But I can’t change it. So I’m stuck in perma-shame. That conundrum has always made me envy gay men. But I crave women. I desire their bodies. I want to fuck them. They’re so gorgeous and wonderful and perfect that I want to make love to almost every one I see. But I don’t try to fulfill that, and I don’t even admit those feelings to most people, and that’s how I get by. But I still feel like I’m acting through all of life. I have to pretend that the evidence of my respect for women lies in the supposed fact that I don’t want to fuck most of them.
There are quite a few points I want to address on this subject, so please bear with me as I attempt to organize my thoughts, as this is quite a complex issue which will no doubt result in a rather long-winded post.
First, I don’t deny that human beings (both male and female) do, indeed, somewhere within them possess an innate biological drive to reproduce which directly translates to an innate biological drive to have sex. And I can even contend that human beings possess an innate biological drive to pursue sexual pleasure in and of itself without reproduction being a factor. After all, if one believes as I do that homosexuality is generally not a conscious “lifestyle choice” but rather a biological drive over which most people who identify as homosexual have no control (to clarify, I say “most” in this case because there *are* some people who consciously choose to have sexual/romantic partnerships with members of the same sex even if they have not always “felt gay” or been gay, for whatever reason) then there has to be some biological factor at work with regard to human sexual appetites over and above just the drive to reproduce and continue the species, considering that homosexual sex acts themselves can never result in reproduction.
I would also like to state up front that not being a man, I can’t claim in any way to understand the experience of male sexual appetites. I can evaluate and analyze what I have observed about male sexual drives and what the men in my life have described about male sexual drives only in the context of what I have felt in my female sexual drives and what I understand my human sexual appetite to be. I personally have a lot of trouble identifying with the feelings that my friend describes. While I have most certainly experienced sexual desire toward men, and have experienced strong physical/sexual attraction that was quite beyond my control and that existed wholly apart from any cerebral or emotional attachment I felt toward the man I was attracted to (in fact, I’ve felt bizarre strong physical/sexual attraction toward men I actually actively disliked), I have never experienced the sensation of being “forced to be obsessed with mens’ bodies” or the sensation of “wanting to fuck practically every man I see.” Despite some occasions where I’ve felt that my sexual attraction to a particular man was beyond my control despite all logical reason (i.e. I found him morally, emotionally or spiritually repugnant), I have never felt powerless over my sexual attraction to men in general. When I meet a man for the first time, my mind does not immediately jump to evaluate his existence in a sexual context (i.e. would I or would I not want to fuck this man).
I’m certainly not saying that these feelings can’t innately exist in men because I, as a woman, have never experienced them. That would just be presumptuous. My friend isn’t the first man in the world to describe what feels like an overwhelming and uncontrollable biological drive to gaze upon the women of the world as a sea of potential mating partners. Some theories of human sexuality purport that men and women experience sexual drives and sexuality differently (i.e. men feel that “forced obsession” where women don’t) because we have inherently different needs from sex/mating. We’ve all heard about how men are biologically driven to “spread their seed” and women are biologically driven to seek out a stable mate who can provide material things (like food and shelter) for her offspring, a precept that dates back to prehistoric cave(wo)man times. This is then used to justify stereotypes about the cheating husband, the studly playboy, the shallow woman who only wants to date men with nice cars and gold cards that exist in our modern and extremely specific cultural context.
I will also say though, as a bit of an aside, that I don’t necessarily think the sexual drives we, as humans, feel can be so easily qualified as innately biological and therefore completely beyond our control and separate from the context of cultural or social factors. For example, how do we explain the way sexual attraction (supposedly a completely uncontrollable biological phenomenon) is deeply and fundamentally affected by trends in culturally fashionable body types? The current “ideal” female body in North American culture, the body type that men (as a general social group in the context of this culture) tend to seek out as the pinnacle of sexual desirability, the one they “can’t help” being innately attracted to and wanting sexually, is that of ultra-slender hips, thighs, arms, buttocks and torso, a flat or concave stomach and disproportionately large breasts. In other words, a female body type that occurs exceptionally rarely in nature without the benefit of cosmetic surgery and/or rigidly controlled diet/exercise regimens. It makes absolutely zero sense that a female body type which is, for the most part, artificially constructed would most strongly stimulate a man’s innate biological sex drive that has existed since the dawn of evolution. If men are hardwired to want to mate with as many women as possible as often as possible, why is it that they are so picky about the weight or breast size or stature or proportions of the women they fuck?
Three hundred years ago, corpulent voluptuousness was widely regarded as the epitome of sexual desirability. Today, our culture is completely fat-phobic to the point where healthy flesh and womanly padded proportions are widely considered not only sexually repulsive but also “health risks.” It isn’t uncommon to hear men talk about how they “can’t help” being sexually repulsed by things like cellulite or a bit of a jiggle in the tummy, things that just a few hundred short years ago were the epitome of hotness. I don’t doubt that the men expressing these sentiments truly do feel repulsed by such things, but they feel so not because feeling so is an inevitable part of their biological sexual response but because they have been taught to fear and loathe them. Airbrushing, breast implants and liposuction have only been around for the last fifty years or so, and I don’t believe for a second that mens’ innate biological sex drives have evolved THAT quickly, so the shift can only be attributed to cultural factors. Hence, I can only conclude that sexual response and sexual drives are at least as influenced by culture and socialization as they are by biology, if not more so.
OK, Kiki, blah blah blah, you’re thinking. That’s all well and good, but what does all this have to do with feminist-friendly mens’ reconciliation of their healthy lust for the female body with feminism’s objection to objectification? Well, let’s assume for the moment that my friend is right, that his experience is universal and that men are innately and biologically forced to be obsessed with womens’ bodies and to desire almost every woman they meet sexually, motivated purely by the animalistic and instinctual aspects of sexuality that are completely beyond their conscious control. Even if this were true (which I am not entirely convinced it is), where it gets problematic for me is when we start to conflate socially constructed demonstrations of sexual desire with the innate sexual desire itself, which then causes us to assume that the method by which the desire is demonstrated is in itself a biological inevitability, and therefore exempt from criticism.
Let me illustrate this with an example. ManY is introduced to WomanX for the first time. He feels an instinctual sexual desire for her beyond his control. Brief images of him having hot, sweaty, carnal sex with her flash through his mind and he is powerless to stop them. WomanX is blissfully unaware that her new male acquaintance is screwing her silly in the privacy of his own mind … until she notices ManY’s gaze focused intently and unabashedly at her breasts. Suddenly, WomanX knows she is being evaluated as an outlet for ManY’s sexual desire. Perhaps, as is so often the case, this makes her feel uncomfortable. Perhaps she doesn’t understand why it is that this man must stare at her breasts within moments of meeting her, why his first action upon making her acquaintance is to evaluate her sexually. Perhaps she turns away or crosses her arms over her chest. Perhaps ManY breaks his gaze, embarassed, realizing he was caught staring. Perhaps ManY simply shrugs his shoulders and raises his eyebrows and smiles in that all too familiar “I can’t help it! I’m a man! I like tits! You have tits! I have no choice but to stare at your tits!” sheepish grin that virtually every woman has seen at some point in her life.
I can concede that ManY simply cannot help his desire to have sex with WomanX, and can’t control his mental images of having sex with her. Even if he didn’t want to desire her sexually, even if he didn’t want to picture having sex with her in his mind moments after meeting her, he’s going to whether he likes it or not. I can accept that possibility. However, while this innate biological drive extends to his *desire* to have sex with her, this drive does not force him to stare at her breasts. It is not a biological inevitability that he must stand there and stare at her breasts. Whether or not he gapes at her breasts is entirely within his control and his conscious choice. It is a socially constructed (and in our culture, socially accepted) demonstration of his sexual desire. Women are told “men can’t help but stare, that’s the price you pay for being hot.” Women and men are taught to believe that the staring, the visual claim of ownership, the obvious objectification, is as much a biological inevitability as the desire itself. And it’s not. Now, I’m not talking about a furtive passing glance that occurs unconsciously, before a man even realizes it. I’m talking about that gaping leer, that fixed stare, those eyes moving up and down your entire body as they evaluate you and then the final nod or smile that tells you “you’ve passed the test. I’d fuck you. You’ve fulfilled your objective.”
Unfortunately, often times these demonstrations go beyond a simple gaze and move into “touching territory.” If you are willing to accept that men are hardwired to stare at women’s breasts and such staring is beyond their control, part of their innate biological makeup, it’s not such a far reach to suggest that “men are hardwired to grab womens’ asses” or “men are hardwired to rub their pelvises up against women they find attractive in crowds” or “men are hardwired to kiss women they find attractive” or any number of potentially unwanted physical invasions. And indeed, all too often both men and women alike do excuse this type of behaviour as inevitable or to be expected. They shrug and laugh and say “boys will be boys” as though each and every time a man decides to stare or decides to grab it is not his autonomous choice. These are all points on the same contiuum. Once you start accepting that the demonstration of desire, in whatever form it takes, is as inevitable as the desire itself, well you’re basically saying that men are not in fact rational and sentient beings capable of consciously choosing to treat women as people rather than sexual objects in spite of any uncontrollable sexual desire they may feel towards them. So which is it? Because if I were a man, I’d be incredibly insulted by the notion that I’m nothing but a slave to my penis and all the other inner sexual biological workings that my penis represents.
It is my belief there is a bit of a disconnect going on here, a bit of a misinterpretation on the part of some men about precisely what feminism is objecting to and what its goals are with regard to male sexuality. Feminism has no objection to the existence of male sexual desire. Feminism does not wish to make men asexual. Feminism does not assert that men cannot respect women or treat them as equals unless they abandon their sexual desire. Feminism does not wish to make men ashamed of their natural and healthy sexual desire for the female body. Feminism does not wish to squelch your lust. Feminism does not think you are a bad person if you find yourself wanting to fuck a woman. Feminism does not condemn you for having a sexual appetite.
Feminism objects to men forcing women to deal with their sexual desires without regard for whether women want to deal with them or not, at any level. At every level. Feminism objects to the removal of womens’ choice in whether or not mens’ sexual desire for us plays a part in our lives. The mere existence of male sexual desire does not obligate us to acknowledge it, indulge it or fulfill it. When we walk past a man on the street or in the mall or at the grocery store, he may not be able to control whether he feels like he wants to fuck us, but he can certainly control whether he tells us he wants to fuck us or whether he undresses us with his eyes or whether he makes some derogatory and belittling remark to his friend about what he’d like to do to us. When we brush past a man in a bar, he may not be able to control his urge to touch our breasts or our butts, but he can certainly control whether nor not he acts on that urge. Feminism asks that men consider a woman’s personhood, consider her autonomy, consider her feelings before blindly acting on their desire. I know this is hard. I know that our society often mistakenly equates this aggressive, selfish flaunting of sexual desire in womens’ faces with what it means to be a man.
Feminism objects to the idea that womens’ status as the sex class is our biological destiny. It rejects the notion that women are innately responsible by virtue of being born female for both satisfying male sexual desire, and simultaneously for ensuring that male desire is not allowed to run wild and out of control (the old “she shouldn’t have worn that/gone there/drank that/said that, what did she think was gonna happen?” argument - we must exercise our influence to control men’s desire because they are incapable of controlling it themselves). None of that has anything to do with any agenda to snuff out male lust. Rather, feminism aims to reach a point where male lust no longer necessarily equals female objectification or disempowerment, where men can freely and comfortably lust for women as whole human beings rather than lusting for a mouth, a pair of tits, an asshole and a cunt, where sex can just be sex and not a positive measure of masculinity or a negative measure of female moral failure or the means by which half the world’s population is controlling the social, economic and cultural status of the other half.