When is it OK to objectify men?

One of my favorite things to write about is the many contradictions one comes up against in trying to live according to feminist ideals. Despite our best efforts, there are times when our feelings and actions don’t match up with our ideology and we are left feeling like “bad feminists.” For me (and quite a few others), oogling hot, studly men is one of those times.

As Isaiah Mustafa clearly proved, women enjoy looking at beautiful men with their shirts off. I’m sure that didn’t surprise anyone either because we are currently living in a time where women’s sexual desires are, for the most part, acknowledged and even celebrated. Today, men groom and work their bodies to be more sexually attractive to women. Superstar Rihanna warns and taunts her lovers that they better be able to perform to her standards in a hit song. Sex and the City’s “Samantha” has become an icon of this brave new world of female sexual power. But it wasn’t always this way. Traditionally, women’s sexual desires were considered dirty, shameful, unnatural, evil… and if they weren’t being vilified, they were ignored.

As a result, the new freedom to be open – to own one’s sexual desire is empowering. And that empowerment is part of the reason oogling men like Isaiah Mustafa feels so good. (Besides the obvious, of course!) But oogling is problematic, and there is certainly a double standard at work when we talk about objectifying men’s bodies. When does one person’s empowerment become another’s oppression?

Women know all too well the consequences of objectification. In our new world of female sexual empowerment, men are beginning to learn them too. As men feel the pressure to conform to the standard of beauty in order to please women, they are falling prey to eating disorders, spending their hard-earned money on hair removal and personal grooming products, and most likely are experiencing low self-esteem if they don’t measure up to the assumed female fantasy. If they do measure up, they must deal with the feelings of low self-worth that comes from being treated as a “piece of meat,” and fight for respect as a human being with a brain.

Jezebel caused a small stir during the World Cup with a feature called “Thighlights” that highlighted the hotness of football players in action. They defended the oogling with some very interesting points. The first was that context matters, and that since men still have the upper hand in just about everything, it’s all in good sport. The second was a reminder that these men are at peak levels of fitness – and were not underweight or re-designed with plastic surgery. They also pointed out that the men were doing something they loved – playing football – not posing as objects to be looked at. Their final argument was about oogling as a form of women’s empowerment, which I discussed above.

These arguments are good, but as they are written, they only apply to situations where you’re oogling an athlete playing a sport. But I think they can apply to other situations as well, like for example, another type of performer who is healthy and enthusiastic about performing, like we assume Isaiah Mustafa is. Perhaps this should be a general litmus test for oogling: is he healthy, is he enthusiastic? But even this type of litmus test is not foolproof, as there is no fail-safe way to tell if someone is healthy (physically and emotionally) or enthusiastic (enthusiasm is often part of the performance) just by looking.

So should women feel guilty for oogling men? Probably a little. But as Jezebel argues, it’s all about context. Oogling involves an exchange of power; usually the oogler gains it and the oogled loses it. But many other activities and day-to-day experiences also involve exchanges of power, and in those exchanges, men are more likely to come out on top. If power was distributed equally in other situations, perhaps women should refrain from oogling. But it isn’t, and women are still in the red on the balance sheet of power. Until we’re in the black, I think it’s probably OK to objectify men, in certain circumstances (like the World Cup or Mustafa) and with the awareness that you’re doing it.

No one is a perfect feminist 100% of the time, and that’s okay. (Especially since we don’t know what a “perfect feminist” even is.) So, when you find yourself drooling over beautiful men, make the best of it. Ask yourself if they are healthy and enthusiastic participants; recognize and celebrate the fact that you are embracing your female sexual power; and try to remember that they have brains and feelings too. Once you’ve got all that out of the way, go ahead and put the “shameless” back in shameless objectification.

9 thoughts on “When is it OK to objectify men?

  1. I don’t think ogling in and of itself is the same as objectifying, and I don’t think objectifying is always bad (regardless of the genders involved). Yes, historically men ogling women has been the accepted behavior in the public sphere. Yes, that was (and is) problematic for a lot of reasons.

    The main issue I have with men ogling women v. women ogling men (it’d be interesting to explore ogling in a non-hetero context, too, by the way) is how pervasive the former is.

    Men ogle women in all walks of life, in any context. A woman could be just catching the bus to work and getting ogled and harassed by random guys. A woman could be at work. A woman could just be grocery shopping. She doesn’t have to be a movie star, an athlete, or a fashion model to get ogled. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t feel harassed continually, enough that it seriously bothers her or she feels helpless (shout back and engage and provoke, or ignore and just allow it to continue?). Very few men have experiences like that with women ogling them. Very few.

    Women tend to ogle men in only very specific contexts—almost always when the man has decided to present his body up (in a sports event, in a modeling shoot, in a strip show). Women do not have to be deciding to show off their body to have their body judged. They could be politicians, doctors, writers, stand-up comedians. Hey, which kind of stand-up comedian do you think will be more successful (assuming the same level of humor), a fat and ugly woman or a fat and ugly man? Why do reporters constantly remark about female politicians’ (or judicial candidates’) hair styles or clothing?

    I do think there is a theoretical danger of going so far as to never allow any healthy context in which a man could objectify a woman, but the truth is that 99% of men objectifying women is not okay for all the reasons feminists know and have known for the past four decades.

    • Really good points, A.Y. Siu! There is definitely a difference in the sense of entitlement – men often oogle with the assumption that women’s bodies are there for their own gratification and enjoyment. When women oogle, and that entitlement is NOT present, it’s a different story.

  2. Hiya.
    I’m okay with oogling/objectification.

    Me and my straight girl friends do it all the time… They tell me who they like, and the things they’re appreciating aren’t the men’s minds. And I do it alone to. And it’s done to me. I know that when other men are looking at my dating profile, they’re most interested in my looks and “stats”.

    I don’t like the hypocrisy though. I have been to the gym with freshmen students and I was the only guy in a disco-themed aerobics class (wonder why lol). I could hear people talking about the way my butt looked.. It didn’t bother me too much. Except that the girls didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were leering at me and were pretty loud with their ‘critque’… I’m fairly certain they’d feel it was wrong if it were a flipped dynamic. Which is hypocrisy.

    And while I agree that males have an advantage here (and probably are more avid ooglers for many reasons), saying that objectification is okay for feminists because it does less harm seems unprincipled and self-serving.

    Jezebel was a hypocrite. She quotes someone as saying:
    “The men routinely spend their time ogling (and yes I do mean ogling, they make now bones about it) women in the fitness magazines. However these same men were distinctly uncomfortable and put out that we women were cheering and enjoying the Greek footballers taking off their shirts. Double standards? I think so.”

    True. There’s a double standard. The men wanna oogle but not see women oogle. Women wanna oogle but not have men oogle. So there are hypocrites on both sides.

    No offense intended to anyone. Love your blog. 🙂

  3. I found myself nodding yes, yes, yes to much of this. I have really come to see, in the last five years, the true meaning of context mixed with one’s life experience and given (or not given) its own voice. The excellent anthology Yes Means Yes really etched a lot of that into relief for me.

    You have to think, what is the man’s experience of being oggled compared to women’s all too familiar cringeworthy creepies? I had this thing I would do on occasion, which I jokingly called “performance art” where I would hit on strange boys. I would pick boys whom I truly felt attracted to (oh so rare, my nerdpunk dream boy), and tell them “you are so damn cute” and really mean it. Ninety nine precent of it loved it, felt flattered, and blushed adorably. Most thanked me.

    It occurred to me that if positions were reversed, the outcome would be different. No matter how cute, if he gets too close too soon, I’m on the alert. None of these boys imagined me to be stalking them or following them home, not even that grey area of “maybe” that I and many other women run through as we might acclimate ourselves to the event of a total stranger hitting on us. It could get ugly very quickly, a la horrible street harassment except right up close to you.

    Imagine being able to experience one’s sexual self without that stupid alarm system making noise inside, large and small, beeping, blinking, occasionally malfunctioning, once in a while being deliciously silent…you know what I mean.

    It’s such a dance of power, and even though I know it intellectually, I’m sometimes still stunned by it.

  4. The Jezebel argument that when women do it it’s okay, and when men do it it’s sexist or creepy is obvious hypocrisy. I guess they can fish for justifications why it’s not equally wrong. (And I can’t wait for that “future era” when everything is equal and women will voluntarily stop objectifying men. LOL.) Come on, you know it’s a little hypocritical.

    That aside, I agree that appreciating the opposite (or same) sex is a natural thing. I think the “ogling” part is maybe the problem. It’s not appreciating, it’s the loud and aggressive way it is done. Is that really about “appreciating beauty” or a display of power and attempt to humiliate or put down other people.

    Ex: The construction workers who whistle at women are making a dominance display more than “appreciating” anything. It’s more of a show for his coworkers. Likewise, women who loudly ogle men are probably showing off for each other how “empowered” they are, or in other cases, subtly trying to mock the men who are in ear shot. Sort of like “now that’s a real man!” Obviously men who feel uncomfortable because it is an insult in a way. No different than men hanging voluptuous playboy centerfolds on the wall for women to see.

    So my view is looking is fine, and I myself like to look. But ostentatious displays of “ogling” seem to be more of a power play and show than about mere enjoyment.

  5. Girls do it all the time but are slapped around and harassed for it by some guy that likes them as well as their boyfriend or husband because they are jealous of another man’s body, especially in between his legs. Some guys even retaliate if you ogle their bodies by making you touch him inappropriately. But girls do it to them loudly like crazy, unfortunately. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of pornographic pictures of men available for women out there, although women ogling men is not acceptable because women face a lot of dangers when they do so like harassment, abuse, and even rape. Apparently men and their bodies are objects anyway to be used and abused by women and men are very sensitive to it. I mean, you hear of men doing all sorts of things to achieve that perfect male model-like body for a woman, especially a woman who stares at good-looking men with nice bodies and bits that are yet Photoshopped. It’s no wonder men in our American society are suffering from body image problems and women are cheating and playing men for sex.

  6. Well, I’d say male objectification is ok if the “object” is doing it voluntarily and if it’s done in a manner that’s not derogatory to the guy in question.Also, it’s important to do it in a polite manner. As a male stripper I’m obviously doing it voluntarily which put my (female) audience in the “ok” zone, but I can assure that women are very different when it comes to politeness 😉

    While never feeling really uncomfortable, I do appreciate some politeness though, for example asking before touching. If they’re polite I may even go all the way.

  7. You make a lot of valid points but you keep pushing this idea that women are valued so much less than men in today’s society. While I do admit that there are situations in which women are undervalued, I also know that there are many situations in which men are undervalued. In your terms, I believe women are much closer to the “black” than you propose.

    In academics, I often see women treated with much more leniency than men in similar positions. I have found many different opinions on this but a the most common opinion I have come across (from both men and women) is that women are so much more “fragile” than men or other synonymous descriptions. I personally find this very disturbing as it causes problems on both sides of the genders. With women, it could be considered as being demeaning as it portrays them as weak and incapable, which is not true. For men, it enforces the primitive stereotype of strong, self-sufficient hunter-gatherer types which, while seemingly a compliment, it causes many problems for men. In the long term, men gain an image of what a “Man” should be based on this stereotype and feel they must live up to this, and should they fail, they are reluctant to seek help since they should be “self-sufficient” and not relying on others.

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