The Male Gaze: Attraction vs. Lust

For the past several months, I’ve been watching the conversation unfold as the evangelical feminist movement has declared war on the modesty culture that predominates fundamentalist churches where youth pastors and other church leaders enforce a strict dress code on teenage girls and teach them to take responsibility for protecting men from their lust. I came across a particularly heartbreaking example of a girl whose weight gain caused her youth leader to send her home from church for wearing jeans that were “too tight.” In any case, one of the core assertions being made by female feminist bloggers is that male attraction and lust are two completely different things.I have been struggling with this assertion because it seems rooted in ideological necessity and not in the first-hand experience of the male brain behind the gaze which I have actually lived through.

I understand why drawing a thick line between attraction and lust seems ideologically indispensable. The basis for the culture that shames women for having beautiful bodies is the assumption that lust is an involuntary snare that men can only avoid by not seeing anything that makes them lustful (so if women wear sweatpants or burkahs, then everyone can be happy!). So the way to resolve this ideologically is to say that attraction is the involuntary feeling which is totally healthy, natural, etc, while lust is the choice to act on this feeling whether in your head through a fantasy or through busting a move in real life. And if men can just stop being ashamed of their attraction, then that will somehow kill the fantasies that haunt them when they see an amazing female body.

I like this partition in theory. I just can’t say it’s true to my experience. I’m not by any means advocating a culture of shame, but I have to be honest. If I look, then I imagine doing things, so what I have to do is not to look. Now I hope that I don’t act like the pastor that Amy Thedinga wrote about on Zach Hoag’s blog who wouldn’t even talk to her because he was so paranoid about his lust. That sucks. I don’t think I avoid engaging attractive women in conversation, but I do have to use my willpower to keep my eyes from wandering while I’m talking to them. And when a teenage girl wears a miniskirt to church, it does make me very uncomfortable.

When I was in my first year of teaching tenth grade English, the principal called me into her office. A girl in one of my classes had recently transferred to a different school and had gone to her school cop to report that I had been “checking her out” during my class. I was shocked and horrified to have this put in front of me. It was among the top five worst moments of my life. I tried to scrutinize my memory for any incident that could have possibly been misinterpreted; I couldn’t think of anything. As a male teacher, I was so paranoid about keeping my eyes from wandering. My principal believed me; she told me to avoid contact with this girl, which I was happy to continue doing.

It really hit me how differently two people can perceive the same gaze. Something must have happened to trigger this response from the girl, unless she was all-out schizophrenic or she had a history of abuse from a male relative that she was projecting onto me. It hurt me a lot to think that something I did that I honestly can’t remember doing and tried studiously to avoid doing the whole time I was teaching made a girl feel violated. I’m very grateful that my principal didn’t operate from the principle of guilty until proven innocent (which does happen too often with these types of accusations).

I remember a different incident in which I’m realizing that I did the wrong thing, based on the recent conversations that I’ve been witnessing. There was a brilliant young woman in my journalism class who started our school Latino student association. I had high hopes for her future and was very honored to have the privilege of mentoring her. She took the lead in organizing an assembly for Hispanic heritage month to put on before the whole school.

This girl had never worn any clothing that exhibited her body in any kind of way, which made her really stand apart from the rest of the girls in our high school. It didn’t seem like anything particularly prudish, but rather that she was professional and serious. In any case, during a salsa dance that she did as part of the assembly, she wore a short red skirt that scandalized me. And I confronted her about it because we had a close enough relationship for me to say something even though I was a male teacher. I said that I just didn’t want people to think the wrong thing about her and not see her for the brilliant, gifted person that she was.

At the time, I felt proud of myself for being able to have a very uncomfortable conversation with someone I really cared about. But looking back on it, I feel like a dick, and it kills me to remember seeing her smile disappear when I said that. Because I had assumed that she was trying to be seductive, and I’ve come to realize that just because the way women dress can cause men to be tempted by their bodies doesn’t mean that their motives correspond to our responses. I had no idea what the red skirt meant to her as part of that particular dance number, and it was wrong for me to judge her.

Now I do think that it’s dishonest to pretend like women are never trying to be seductive with how they dress. I don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to delight in beauty with how she dresses, even in a way that includes bodily curves, but as with any kind of beauty, it turns into ugliness when it lacks all elegance and subtlety. Many outfits today are just plain trashy. I don’t think the only two choices are sweat clothes or skirts that only come down to your waist. There are a lot of options in between, and some of the choices being made particularly on college campuses today are honestly a bit pathetic and embarrassing.

I like wearing tank-tops in the summer because I get hot very easily, but since I’m a very hairy guy, it’s an uncomfortable experience for other people when I wear them to do things out in public other than going to the pool or playing basketball. Sometimes I get comments like “Wow, you sure are hairy, Morgan” that let me know another shirt would have been a better choice.

So I wonder if we can at least say as a general principle whether male or female that we should be sensitive to the comfort of others in the fashion choices we make. This is not to say that we should obsess over dress codes or make women responsible for male lust. But I have to be honest as a man in saying that men do involuntarily imagine things that are problematic for us to imagine (especially if we’re married) when we look at certain highlighted features of attractive female bodies.

I’m sure that if I lived in a different social context like in Africa, I would have a less overly-eroticized perspective on the beauty of the female body. But men in our culture have been legitimated damaged, not by any kind of emancipation or empowerment of women, but by the capitalist exploitation of female sexuality to sell all kinds of products. I don’t think this means that women need to burkah up, but I would caution female bloggers not to put too much stock in speculation about male psychology that has been tailored to fit their ideological frameworks without verifying whether it’s actually true to to the lived experience of the men behind the gaze.

In any case, don’t ever feel ashamed to wear something that makes you look beautiful. Just try not to be tacky, and I’ll try to keep my gaze eye-level when I’m talking to you. Peace.


22 thoughts on “The Male Gaze: Attraction vs. Lust

  1. I know this post is old, but it was enough “out of character” for you that it stuck in my mind. And I finally have figured out how to articulate why it seemed dissonant.

    Although you do a pretty good job of trying not to blame women for your “male gaze” (caused by male privilege in our society), and you do identify it as sin, you still leave a significant amount of room where you are not at fault (eg: “men have been damaged…”). While I do not dispute that men have been damaged by our culture, it is still pretty lame to dodge your own responsibility in male privilege.

    When you speak of racial privilege (such as here: you identify feeling fear around your black sisters and brothers as an evil sin. You identify it as white privilege, and you apologize for it. You don’t explain yourself by saying “If I grew up somewhere in Africa I probably wouldn’t feel this fear…”. You simply say “I’m sorry”, and vow to change.

    So why do you neglect to do this when we are talking about male privilege? Why, when identifying your male privilege, do you explain yourself, excuse your sin, and say “I’ll try to change, but it’s really not completely my fault. You see, I’VE been damaged TOO…”?

    I know this is a small point in an overall good post, but the Africa example stuck out too much to ignore. You wouldn’t respond like that to racial privilege, even though that is as culturally based as the gender-based privilege. As a woman, I know how messed up our culture is around sex and gender. I know that men are used to privilege, and will need me to forgive them when they mess up. But I don’t need them to tell me about how damaging male privilege has been *to them.* I just need an “I’m sorry” and “I will try to change.”

    • I’ve been on a journey with the whole lust/modesty issue so I would probably write this differently if I wrote it today. Regarding your direct question, I have definitely made choices in the past to engage in behaviors that caused me to objectify female bodies. Not just noticing others’ beauty in passing but looking at things on purpose that were harmful to me and contributed to a culture of violence against women. So you’re absolutely right that I can’t say I’m just a victim. I’ve also been an accomplice in my own degradation and in the creation of the culture I despise. I’m comfortable saying that. And to the degree that I can speak as one representative of all men who have acted similarly, I can say that I’m sorry for how our actions have made the world less safe for you.

  2. Women and men will both achieve more of a gender equality when both accept the truth that, if a person becomes upset because a woman or man briefly noticed one’s physical attractiveness, perhaps in a moment of distraction or just because she or he is human, the fault lies entirely with the person who has become upset and not with the woman or man who inadvertently gave a harmless glance. (I do mean only a glance, obviously.)

    When I briefly notice that a piece of cake looks delicious, I am not immediately a glutton, and when I briefly notice that a U.S. film actor is caucasian or African-American or Asian-American, I am not immediately a racist. However, anyone who assumes my momentary glance of interest at the slice of cake means I intend to steal it or that my ability to recall the race of an actor I admire means I’m prejudiced has demonstrated that she or he has a major problem. The same thing is true for anyone who assumes my momentary glance of interest at a a woman or a man means I must want sex or must be lustful : that person is the one with problems.

    Such people damage female-male equality to an almost criminal degree every time they make such irrational accusations about “lust” or “sexism” or “dehumanization”.

  3. I think boys need to learn the difference between attraction and lust. In our past, boys were taught how to respond to girls. There was a code of chivalry. Over the past decades, it seems that narrative has been lost.

    I have two boys 18 and 17. Early in their lives, they chose dance as their sport. When they were little it was not a problem to be in a room with girls in leotards and tights. It became an issue for them when they hit puberty. In order to continue participating in dance, they had to learn how to take their thoughts captive. Through their own discipline the were able to acknowledge their maleness and not sin.

    I am often blown away by the respect they pay girls they come into contact regardless of dress. All girls are treated with the same level of respect. They see them as people. “Girls are friends. Not food”-a twist on Finding Nemo’s sharks motto.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  4. I have read elsewhere (I am not at all a scholar in any biblical languages) that the word for “lust” when Jesus mentions that it is just as bad as adultery is the same word translated as “covet” in other contexts. If that’s true, it seems like that parallel might give us some important information as to exactly where the “sin line” is drawn.

    • That makes a lot of sense. If I covet something, I want to own or consume it. Really I shouldn’t relate to anything or anyone in God’s creation in that way.

  5. And if men can just stop being ashamed of their attraction, then that will somehow kill the fantasies that haunt them when they see an amazing female body.

    I don’t think that it’s that banishing shame will stop the fantasizing, but that men need to recognize that attraction may be involuntary but lust is not, that lust can be mastered by force of will and banished.

    I like this partition in theory. I just can’t say it’s true to my experience. I’m not by any means advocating a culture of shame, but I have to be honest. If I look, then I imagine doing things

    That is a failing — shared by many damaged men — to be overcome, not an inevitability to be accommodated by women. It is not on women to protect men from men’s failings by being modest, but on men to protect women from men’s failings by being chaste in their gaze and their interactions.

    • Agreed.
      Personally, I don’t think Jesus would have called something sin if it was possible for us not to do it. An automatic response that we have zero control over… I don’t think that’s sin, because, from what I understand, sin is a choice we make. Of course, we’re sinners, so it’s impossible for us to live a sinless life, but I don’t think that means that we are going to be held accountable for biological, nuero-chemical responses we can’t control.

  6. I wonder about the capitalist exploitation thing and how causal it really is. It seems to me that more of the modesty/lust discussions seems to reside in Islamic / Evangelical / purity culture arenas and it makes me wonder how much of this is a problem aggravated by a tribes own making?

    Personally my experience is that attractiveness / lust are two very distinct issues. I assumed that was the same for every other guy… and as a result often viewed brothers who struggled with the modesty/lust thing in a somewhat dim light… they needed to get their act in order, be responsible etc. (Be well and be fed so to speak) Your stories present a totally different view on this.

    • It could very well be that our problem is that we’ve been socialized into interpreting our reality in a certain way. I can’t just flip a switch and not think thoughts that I don’t want to think when I see certain things even if it’s a weird taboo/shame thing that’s been socialized into me, so the point at which I make a choice is what I look at.

  7. Thank you for thoughtfully articulating the thoughts I had after reading the post on Hoag’s blog.Men struggle with visual stimulation in a way that women typically do not, so it’s frustrating when I hear women rail against men for struggles with lust. What I find strange, is that there seems to be a real resistance on the part of women to help their brothers in Christ in this issue. If you have a friend that has a past of struggling with alcohol abuse, you don’t drink in front of them so that they aren’t tempted to slip, but when you apply the same logic to clothing choices and problems of lust, tempers flare up. We should be making every effort to support our brothers and sisters in their weaknesses, whatever they may be, regardless of whether or not it is convenient or it infringes on us (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8:6-13)

    • I think the hard thing with this is none of analogies are perfect. The fact that every man is a lustaholic shouldn’t mean that women have to dress like Eskimos in the summer time. But it’s beat up to tell a guy that he’s deliberately being sexist when he imagines a fantasy with a woman because that’s lust oh but at the same time it’s just attraction and perfectly natural. There’s a double speak that’s going on. Anyhow I feel like a reasonable expectation that I can have is that women would do the equivalent of what I do by wearing a belt with my pants so that I’m not low-riding and showing off the top of my butt crack when I bend over. I don’t see getting bent out of shape over sweaters and jeans that aren’t baggy but hopefully it’s not sexist to say I don’t want to see London or France.

    • As a woman, I’d like to take a moment and point out that the “men are more visual than women” argument is kinda… well, bunk. I believe we don’t have the same exact reactions, that’s probably true, but every woman I know looks at a hot guy (whatever our version of “hot” is) and thinks “hubba hubba.” There are a growing number of medical studies being performed that confirm that women are easily stimulated and aroused by visual stimuli.

      • Interesting. It’s very hard to know where nature ends and socialization begins with this kind of stuff.

  8. “attraction is the involuntary feeling which is totally healthy, natural, etc, while lust is the choice to act on this feeling whether in your head through a fantasy or through busting a move in real life. ”

    I think this is the best part of the post.
    It really resonates with me.

    Women don’t need to dress sexy to be beautiful.
    Women also don’t need to cover everything up to avoid making men stumble.
    We, men, must take full responsibility for our actions.
    I think we also need to acknowledge that a certain amount of lust is pretty much inevitable when constantly
    rubbing shoulders with the opposite sex. To go from lusting to acting on that lust is another animal altogether.

    • Yeah, I just feel like you can think about sex inappropriately without actively willing it. But of course it’s different when you deliberately look at things that make you think about it.

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