The Tyranny of the Gaze

I enjoy teasing my boy about submitting to the female gaze. I enjoy having him kneeling, naked (or perhaps in some underwear of my choosing), on the floor, as I walk around him letting my eyes run over his skin, occasionally moving his limbs this way and that, my finger under his chin to force his big, blue eyes to meet mine. I like making him feel objectified, my plaything, something deserving of desire and focus and attention. Boys don’t seem to get that sensation often, because when I offer it, along with barely civilized smutty compliments, they blush with the praise. They’re used to their value being in their pocket, not their confidence in their skin.

It was part of the inspiration for the Andro-Aperture Project, a celebration of male beauty for the female gaze (and something I plan to get back to as my life calms down!) I was sick of seeing images from the male gaze being repackaged and marketed to women.

I have a weird relationship with the male gaze anyway. As a sex worker, I invite being gazed upon– if I didn’t, I doubt I would get much in the way of work, as a big portion of my advertising is unspoken and immediate. I try to invite that gaze on my terms- my photos are taken by friends and lovers, and therefore convey a sense of intimacy and warmth that professional shoots often lack. I try to focus on photos that hint at my sexuality rather than make it explicit- something I’ve often been complimented on. And my images are as playful as I am- the occasional silly costume is on my work site, and I don’t really work to hide my personal life online. I decided early on that for me, being a professional dominant woman also meant doing it on my terms, not playing a part written by someone else.

I both enjoy the male gaze and hate it- I enjoy encouraging it, for sure, as I like to be admired, but hate how often that becomes my only facet. I’ve been gazed at enough to feel ok with my attractiveness in the scheme of things, and rarely envy other women their bodies- but I also have a brain, and creativity, and playfulness, things that objectification doesn’t leave room for. I have certainly felt fetishized for my body type before- not sexy as a whole, but as a collection of body parts that woud be worshipped in turn. And of course, everywhere I turn I see objectification being used to turn my sexuality into an accessory for a man, to shame me for my acceptance of my fat, to remove power from me.

A great example, really, is modeling. The poses I chose at first when doing erotic modeling, the failsafe poses for such imagery (after paying a lot of attention to what works in advertising) often conveyed a sense of childishness, of sensuality that comes from submitting to a certain ideal of feminine behaviour– I did the head cocked to one side, the slightly opened mouth, the big eyes focused on the viewer. I wasn’t always even conscious of what I was doing, really, or what it meant when it came to how I was portrayed. I had photographers who tried to cover up my fat, hairy armpits, or my tattoos, to fit their version of what was beautiful. I’m much more conscious now, and my photos show me laughing, powerful, comfortable. I have gotten to the place where I gaze back, where it is dynamic.

Why is that not as much the case of male erotic photography? When I look for “sexy pictures of men for women” I see a lot of superbuff, white, hairless men, aggressively posed… and often photographed for gay websites. If there are hairy men, or fat men, it is for humour’s sake, not a diversity of interest. And yet, when I did a survey of the sort of men women wanted to see in erotic photography, that type of man was last on the list. Puzzling, isn’t it? Well, not really, when you realize that sites such as this one say things like “Perspective and composition are completely polar opposites when managing the sexes – a man should be strong and up front while a woman should be displayed like a prized object.” Oh, so that’s where it comes from.

There is this crazy idea that women aren’t physically attracted to male bodies, that the male gazer and the female being gazed upon is “just natural”, or that women’s bodies are “just more attractive”. I can’t help but wonder, if women didn’t find men’s bodies attractive, why would there be any heterosexual women..? It seems like it would be a biological imperative to find the male body attractive, at least for some of the population!

And anyway, studies suggest that not only are women visually stimulated, they’re multisensory in their arousal¦ and often, what they think turns them on and what physically turns them on (and to what extent) aren’t in accord. Maybe women aren’t buying anything but this muscleman porn because that’s been most of what they have on offer (though thank goodness there are options). Which makes me wonder- are women unlikely to be seen as consumers because they’re told that they’re not? Is this a chicken/egg thing?

I certainly think seeing men posing in these “traditionally feminine” ways works for me- I would be intrigued and turned on by a boy who struck the same poses women do in ads, poses that suggest vulnerability, submission, flirtation, and sexual availability. I’m desperate to start on my Andro-Aperture first project- male pinups that are flirty without being ridiculous. I mean, when my boy tilts his head to the side, or puts his finger in his mouth, I get wet. There’s something immensely hot about how he presents his sensuality to me in a way that’s simultaneously seemingly passive and completely aware of what effect he’s having. I want him to be sexualized while I am not- just admiring his beauty without needing to offer my own sensuality.

Now, is that a female gaze as it comes from a female, or is it a male gaze because how it manifests (consumer/consumed)? I’m not sure I know the answer.

I’m not the only one, though. Considering this article suggests that women are starting to become active consumers of porn in their own right, I wonder if it’s helped by the fact that there’s been more porn put out there to appeal to couples (which usually means “hardcore enough for the guy while having enough story to catch a woman’s interest though it can also mean “has sexy men and closeups of their bodies too) and even some stuff specifically for women like Filament or For the GirlsWomen are directing porn more often, and films showing real life couples and ethically produced films with a focus on genuine desire have become a lot easier to find. Advertising companies are using the clothed woman-naked man thing for the shock value (though while I find that the first image seemed like it could be something made for a female consumer, the last image was much more reminiscent of gay male imagery). Tumblr has made it possible for photo collections including sexy men curated by women to be a lot easier to find. A few years ago this stuff didn’t exist, or at least I didn’t see any of it. I wonder to a certain extent if the push towards appealing to straight women has been helped along in part by the growing popularity of queer porn for a female market¦

Though I kind of love men as furniture.

But this is all pretty new. So there hasn’t been enough material out there to really begin to say “yes, this works or “no, it doesn’t work. What I’ve found, however, is that women are becoming more and more comfortable with the public appreciation and consumption of the male erotic form- boylesque is a good example of this, for example. And we’re still fighting for that recognition- I went to a boylesque final heat in London, and despite the audience being 80% women, the panel was 4 gay men to 1 woman. While it’s nice to see men objectified as submissive in ads, too, it takes away from it when the women are also being sexualized and fulfilling that “prodomme” trope. If you want to see pretty men meant for your female gaze, you really have to fight to be heard.

Fangirls are a perfect example of the female gaze, as this article points out way more succinctly than I can. LJ icons objectify men’s bodies and faces in a way that more than mirrors the male gaze- and teen magazines certainly don’t put the “heartthrobs” they choose in magazines for their amazing intellect. Or another area that really reflected this was in the OkCupid photo analysis– women should not only look directly into the camera, but actively flirt into it for the highest message count- men, on the other hand, should look away from the camera. Interestingly, however, contrary to popular belief, OkC discovered that if you have a nice body as a man you should take your shirt off and show it- that the shirtless photo was second only to a photo of you with an animal in terms of attention. So perhaps this trend is shifting?

This all finally came to a head in my brain a while back when reading Julie Bindel’s article about going to a “Nyotaimori” party, where guests eat sushi off a still woman’s body. She, of course, hated it, likening the women who were the tables to “bodies in a morgue”. Meanwhile, I immediately wanted to have a similar party with male sushi tables (interestingly, Seattle and Minnesota have these events with both women and men- yay!)- I mean, think practically, people, men’s bodies are a little more flat, thus saving your sushi from falling onto the floor!  I’ve certainly found them to be good laptop tables in the past. Does my desire for this indicate some sort of unhealthy inability to connect with others, or is it just sexy good fun, along with combining pretty boys and delicious sushi?

Is objectifying men wrong?

Or is it past time they got to feel the double-edged sword of enjoying being desired and worrying about being desired too much?

I’m not sure.

But my boy, he likes to perform for me. He likes it when I gaze at him, when I let my eyes follow his chest hair, down to his belly button and below. And I like having him display his body for my satisfaction. I don’t know if it’s wrong, his desire to be leered at by me, or my desire to leer. What I do know is that in our lives, it feels like not a male gaze, or a female one, but the gaze of a predator surveying their prey.

And what willing, beautiful, and loved prey he is.

Kitty Stryker

Kitty Stryker is a geeky sex worker, Burner, rabid writer and feminist activist with one high-heeled boot in San Francisco, California and one in London, England. In London, Stryker worked with the TLC Trust, an online organization connecting people with disabilities with sex workers experienced with emotional or physical limitations. She is the founder of the award-winning Ladies High Tea and Pornography Society, and was nominated by the Erotic Awards as Sex Worker of the Year for her charity and activism work. Now back in the States, Stryker has been presenting Safe/Ward, a workshop on combating entitlement culture within alternative sexual communities, along with being the PR rep for the Bay Area Sex Workers Outreach Project promoting sex worker rights. She has written for Huffington Post, Filament, and Tits and Sass, built a social media strategy for Cleis Press, and consults with sex workers about their online presence. In her copious free time, she enjoys switching things up with her two hot lovers. Read more from Stryker on her personal blog, Purrversatility.

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