When it comes to things like women's professional capabilities and intellectual strengths, it seems many people are learning to look beyond gender stereotypes. Yet too often, when we talk about sex, all of that goes out the window, and stereotypes about male and female sexuality get thrown around with abandon. "Men like to take charge." "Women just want to be ravished." And, perhaps most annoyingly, "Men are more visual."
At first, it may seem like an innocent enough idea that men and women get turned on in different ways. But if you really examine the idea, it becomes clear that this notion reflects and encourages some of our most messed up ideas about gender.
Is it true, though?
Despite widespread beliefs that men are more visual, research has shown women to be at least as visual as men. A study by sexologist Meredith Chivers even found that cis women's genitals engorged in response to a wider range of stimuli than men's. "Every one of Chivers' experiments shows an immediate physical response to erotic imagery, and that in itself is an indication that we've been missing something," Daniel Bergner, author of "What Do Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire," told Women's Health.
Women's ability to get turned on by sexy sights also comes out in their porn usage. One in three porn users is a woman, and IMHO, that number would probably be higher if mainstream porn was not so degrading to us. Women want to look, not just to be looked at.
Why do people believe it, then?
For centuries, women's sexual subjugation has been normalized and naturalized, and excuses have been made for the behavior of predatory men. Why do men catcall women on the street? Because men are more visual. Why are the majority of nudes in art museums women? Because men are more visual. Why is the majority of porn made for men? Because men are more visual.
In reality, these things are happening because of power dynamics in which men look, and women get looked at. In which men are sexual, and women are sexy. In which men fuck, and women get fucked. But because this dynamic is the status quo, like the air we breathe, we don't see where it's coming from, so we dismiss it as "nature." In reality, it's culture and patriarchy.
On top of that, perhaps men are afraid of women's visual arousal. As sociologist Lisa Wade has argued, maybe men are scared of being preyed on. She theorizes that this is a source of men's homophobia, but the potential to be objectified by women could be just as threatening. (Looking is not inherently objectifying, but society's limited understanding of sexual power dynamics often makes it out to be.)
Why it's problematic
'Men are more visual' gets used to justify the objectification of women. If men like looking at women more than vice versa, then the disproportionate attention placed on women's looks in our society comes to seem logical rather than oppressive. Men ogling at women without their consent comes to seem like a biological instinct beyond their control rather than a form of harassment.
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The notion that men are more visual also gets used to justify the repression of female sexuality. If we're less visual, why make porn, movies or art with us in mind?
It also makes us feel abnormal for being visual, but we should get to enjoy that openly and without judgment. The joys of looking and being looked at are not gender-specific, and both should be available to all of us.
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