The Sexual Gaze
I recently posted a meme of a well-known male actor on Facebook, which had him removing his jacket, shirt and tie (although leaving a white vest on so he was well-covered). This meme had originally been posted with a header simply stating “ladies, you’re welcome”. I re-posted with “persons of all persuasions, you’re welcome!” to make this less heteronormative (i.e. the default state in our society in which heterosexual attractions are the ones seen as appropriate and normal).
I was called out on the posting by a friend who stated “Sorry, but you’d all be going mental if a bloke put the same thing up with a woman in it”. I’ve tried to find a similar meme featuring a woman owning her sexuality and stripping down to a vest but couldn’t find one. My friend makes a good point though; I had posted this publicly because of the redressing of the heteronormativity but as it was public, it was open to all interpretations by people who are not versed in gender politics and the differences between how men and women are perceived sexually. There is a difference in posting a man and posting a woman enacting the same activity such as inciting sexual attraction.
I did not define the context in which I was posting and my friend was right to call me out on it.
There is a fundamental difference in how men and women are treated in expressing their sexualities. Posting like-for-like memes differing only in gender are not the same.
In our society men are seen as people with sexual subjectivity, as active participants in their own sex lives. Women are seen as sexual objects, passive receptors of sexual activity. It is from this that rape culture is derived, and the double-standards still so prevalent in our society; the slut/stud dichotomy. This is equally applicable to cisgender or transgender people but due to the transphobia transgender people are subjected to, such standards may be more violently applied. Transgender women in particular are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than any other gender identity, often when a partner or family member ‘realises’ or is told they are transgender*.
When a meme such as the one I refer to above is posted, it is presumed that if it features a male body then the man in it is empowered and sexually active, and it is for him to act on sexual expressions which may be inspired by this.
When a meme features a female body then (apart from more clothes being removed thus affecting the true comparative nature of the memes) it is presumed that it is for the male gaze and the woman is an object in the sexuality inspired by the meme.
The famous diet coke advert theme in which a male strips off and women line up to watch for a ‘diet coke break’ but that is all they do, and if the male notices there is an arch smile, the inference that he could be sexually active with any one of the women watching and he knows it. There is no sense of entitlement to sexual activity from the women, there is from the man. That is the fundamental difference in a nutshell.
More simply put, the comparison made by my friend is not an equivalent one because society does not treat the genders as equal.
I am a Sexuality (known as Sex in the wider debating community) Positive identifying person , I do not believe in suppressing sexual identity or activity, as long as enthusiastic, informed, updated consent is present. I do not believe in censorship. What I do believe in, whole-heartedly, is equality of sexual expression and gender identity.
People attracted to men expressing their sexuality whole-heartedly and without repression is joyous, and that is what the meme of Tom Hardy (for ‘twas him removing said jacket, shirt and tie) was about for me, so in response to my friend – yes, I should have put the post in context and/or not made it public in order to make that clear. However, an ‘equal’ meme of a woman removing clothing would not be comparable for the reasons stated.
The sexual gaze is gendered. Society is unequal. This is evident in television programmes, media representations of gender (for example, this headline on the meeting of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon in 2015’s Newspaper of the Year as voted by the London Press Club, the fourth win in 11 years, and which paper remains the most popular online), in classic art (see examples, below, both beautiful works of art), in the constant scrutiny of women as passive objects, men as active subjects; I could go on but I think you get where I’m going with this!
This isn’t a new thing; it’s been ingrained for centuries and continues to be so through mainstream attitudes surrounding us and we are all influenced by such inequalities. If you aren’t sure how it is passed on, and you have teenage friends/children of friends who post memes on facebook, observe for a while what they post especially differentiated by gender. It will open your eyes, but be warned, once see it can never be unseen!
One way to fight inequality is to celebrate heterosexual women, gay men, and bisexual/pansexual people of all genders having sexual agency, and that is what the meme which inspired the post should be about, for me (thus my original amendment to the reason it was posted in the first place). Gay women have the female body but it tends towards depictions idealised with the male gaze in mind. The ‘perfect’ female body (which is cisgender, usually white, tall, slim and passive) is one intended for male consumption. You cannot compare images of different genders in similar style, the basis of comparison is not one of equality.
Now when I post memes to inspire sexual agency in those who do not have it under patriarchy, I can post this blog!
NB: all references to men and women are inclusive of cisgender and transgender identifying-people.