Trader Joe's is an American grocery store chain known for its good prices but also, uniquely for a grocery, for paying their employees well enough that they seem to enjoy their work. This makes for a distinctly upbeat atmosphere that adds to the charm of the low -priced organic food. My husband and I enjoyed chatting with the employees and getting to know them.
Our store shared a parking lot with a popular yoga studio. Sometimes I couldn’t help noticing the male workers response to the beautiful young women who came in after their workout looking for a snack. The women would come in glistening with sweat in the bright lights from the dairy case and in very little clothing or very tight clothing; they would peruse the kombucha and pre-packaged salads while the men decided where to direct their eyes.
The male gaze vs the female gaze
Having heard all about the “toxic male gaze” denounced by feminist thinkers, I covertly observed. I witnessed a spectrum of responses, from open admiration that is eager to connect, “What can I help you find today?” to the hidden furtive glances, some of which appeared to be utterly involuntary eye movements in the women's direction and back again to their work. I saw nothing that I could describe as leering, in spite of my expectations.
These were men I knew to be decent single men or good husbands and fathers who loved their families. I was pleasantly surprised to see them fighting their natural impulses, making what appeared to me great efforts to be respectful. But I also saw that it was not easy for them to look away. Perhaps they were really conscientious men, or maybe just really good employees, very eager not to lose their job.
When I went into the store, I usually had with me my six young children, two in the tiny urban cart, one in a baby in a carrier and big ones trailing behind. We turned heads too, but in a different way: the women, some of them the same beautiful young women from the yoga studio, and some of them older women in business suits, it seemed to me, looked at my babies with the same instinctual regard with which the men looked at the women. Their looks ranged from a full-bodied open appreciation, “Oh! he's so beautiful! how old is he?” to a stealthy, uncomfortable glance as though they said to themselves, “Not for you! Keep going. Look away. Do not touch. Do not engage. Eyes to the ground!”
Men desire sex differently than women. They fight daily some part of them that just wants sex, sometimes even impersonal sex with strangers. Heterosexual men have an inborn desire to touch and hold and be near women. Part of male maturity is learning to channel this in good ways, usually a monogamous sexual relationship, so as not to create chaos. On the other hand, the natural outcome of sex – babies – most men have very little interest in, as a general category. Men need the context of a personal relationship for a baby to become interesting.
Women on the other hand often desire babies much more than men do. Sometimes they even desire the impersonal babies of strangers. The great majority of women are not at all interested in visual pornography or sex with strangers, but absolutely require a personal context for sex to be enjoyable.
I am well aware that many women will say to this, “You are so wrong! I do not want babies.” But I do not mean you think it’s a good idea to get pregnant right now. I am referring to that spontaneous melty reaction we women experience at the large, wet, eyes and bit of drool, and the deep fat rolls on the infant legs. I mean the involuntary heart-breaking sensation of falling in love at the tiny toes; the instinctive beautiful pain we feel when we press our noses against the tiny, fuzzy head, the powerful instinct to touch, squeeze, hold or just gaze at a stranger’s baby in public.
It’s certainly possible that some women are more prone to these feelings. It is also possible this kind of reaction to babies is rarer now because of cultural conditioning of women to find babies distasteful, or maybe hormonal manipulation has removed it in many women. I don’t know, but I have a suspicion these reactions happen more than we allow ourselves to admit.
A handful of times in that same grocery store women eyed my babies with a heartbroken look and turned away with brimming tears. More than one sorrowful woman told me her sad story there in front of the same dairy case, of how much she wanted a child or more children and either from nature or apparent necessity was denied that deep desire.
Interestingly, men and women are both shamed for their natural desires, though men’s gazing at women is treated as “toxic” while women’s interest in babies is simply discouraged, at least until a certain age. All too often that allowable age is past the age when a baby is likely to be forthcoming, causing tremendous pain.
It strikes me as unfair to vilify one half of humanity's natural appreciation of beauty over the other half. Men have an obligation to keep their appreciation in check, as do women. I am not suggesting that men should feel free to ogle women, and no one should not read this as a blessing for such indulgence.
I am suggesting that women should ignore the radical feminists who treat all men’s interest in women as toxic and realize there is a natural component to men’s desire to gaze at them. Perhaps men should not be publicly shamed by women for their natural instinctive response to their beauty, especially not when women present themselves in such a way as to make it increasingly hard for a man with his full share of testosterone not to look.
I think we are well designed. I would say it is God’s design, you can call it nature if you prefer, but it works for the sake of the species. Men desire sex, women desire babies. Of course, it’s not without its challenges. For instance, men are capable of merely using women for getting the sex they desire (for now and into the future) and women are capable of merely using men for security and children.
Some might say the use of a woman for sex is much worse than the use of a man for security. In some ways this is true. But fundamentally it’s the same thing: use of another person to reach our goals. Much better is a reciprocal relationship of love; but sometimes people of both sexes succumb to the mere use of another when an offer of love is not made, or sometimes, more mysteriously, even when it is.
Another difficulty is what Dr. Heather Heying, an evolutionary biologist points out: young women are at their most sexually attractive to all men when they are the least wise. Earlier generations had ways of dealing with this problem that we see as horrifying today: namely, early marriage to older men picked out by parents. This method certainly had some drawbacks and even terrible abuses.
Our own generation’s way of solving this problem is less than ideal: birth control, offered to very young teens, often with very little guidance. The “friends with benefits” system allowed for by readily available birth control is, at the very least, extremely emotionally unsatisfying to our daughters and, at worst, very damaging to their mental and emotional health. In the cases when birth control fails either from honest mistake or from the impetuosity of youth, the resulting abortions are devastating to those with a conscience. If some appear not to be devastated by their abortion we must mourn the death not only of a child but also of a woman’s moral sense.
Men have an involuntary desire to look at beautiful women, and even to touch them, which is as natural as women looking at children and is not all bad, just as a woman’s natural desire for babies is not all good. Women sometimes go to morally questionable lengths to acquire a child. Consider surrogacy: One woman uses another woman’s body to get what she wants from that body. The action of one rich woman using a poor woman’s body to produce a baby for her is analogous to the spectrum of misuses of women from prostitution at one end and rape on the other, depending on the amount of desperation of the surrogate mother.
Both kinds of desire, for sex and babies, start out morally neutral because they have an end in building future generations, though both desires can be perverted. Our built-in instincts are for something and that is the mutual support of man and woman in the work of nurturing future generations together.
Men and women ought to have more sympathy for the experience of the other sex and all that they suffer because of it. We ought to seek to understand where each is coming from and not vilify and shame each other. I once told a family friend of ours that his wife desired a baby with the same intense instinct that he desired sex. He couldn't believe me at first. No, really… she does.
Men’s power, women’s power
Though we are not allowed to say so, women have some powers that men do not and one of these powers has everything to do with men’s great sexual interest in women. Contrary to feminists claims, men’s sexual desire for women actually gives women power. Women and girls know this but are taught that men’s sexual desire for them puts females at a disadvantage. While it is true that men may use their physical strength to acquire the sex they crave, in a man unwilling to use physical force, his physical desire for sex is actually a profound weakness that can cause him a lot of pain, just as a woman’s natural interest in having a baby can cause the same.
Women’s need for a provider and protector gives men a reciprocal power over them. As long as she needs him, he has some equality in the relationship to balance out his intense need for her. While husbands have been replaced by technology, labor saving devices, government services like police, first responders and social programs, women have been encouraged to be as provocative in dress and manner as they dare. Women’s power over men has thus exceeded men’s power over women in the last few decades.
At the same time, with internet porn addiction soaring and sex robots on the horizon, men need women less sexually, and one wonders if women, as wives, will be replaced entirely, just like men, as husbands, already have.
I sometimes wonder if the “male gaze” could be like the old joke about one’s job: the only thing worse than a job is not having it anymore.
Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Western Pennsylvania.