Psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Athena Staik says that every human being’s greatest fear is loss of love and disconnection. Further, she says that everything we think, say, and do is rooted in one of two emotions (or functions of the brain); love or fear.
This is the basis for my analysis on the topic of why men look, leer, or ogle and why it seems to women that their men are constantly on the lookout for something better or just plain different. While many men would say they should be judged on actions (remaining faithful, for example) I doubt there could be argument that looking is not an action. We should also be clear that looking is usually accompanied by fantasy and overt objectification and sexualization. So the action is to take in the image of a woman, objectify her, and use her image in fantasy for sexual gratification. When seen this way, what does this action really say about the character of most men in relationships? What is the intention these men put into the world when enacting such behavior?
More on that latter. First, readers should know that I don’t believe in biological arguments for why human beings behave (especially when it comes to gender and sexuality) because there really is no substantial evidence to prove those myths have any basis in reality. Many of the studies that have led to conclusions about men and women and the subsequent reasons for their sexual behaviors have been conducted with small rodents or non-human species such as fruit flies. More recently, some of those findings have been disputed.
I also believe that gender is a social construct and that each individual male and female are unique in and of themselves and should not be lumped into either male or female categories as predictors for their behaviors. Having said that, it is undoubtedly a common characteristic of Western males to objectify and ogle women. This behavior has been called the Male Gaze by some and simple lasciviousness by others. I believe the presence of this behavior says much more about our culture and our innate human fears and desires than it does about the natural male human. It certainly is not the product of a hardwired “male” brain, as more and more research is being done that shows there just really is no such thing.
Dr. Staik’s analysis of the human brain, it’s purpose, and functions point out some major points that are worth noting.
“Your brain is all about relationships. Thus your deepest strivings are for love and meaningful connection to life within and around you. This explains why love (for your self as well as others) enhances your sense of security – and why some of your greatest fears have to do with loss of love and disconnect.”
Think about the idea of fearing love for a moment. We’ve all probably felt that way at one time or another. Love can be scary and often leave us vulnerable to intense emotional pain. While it’s something we deeply fear it’s also something we deeply desire and in fact require for emotional and physical well being. Now, if we’re heterosexual people, the source of those deep fears and desires are the opposite sex. (Note: Other factors contribute to fear between the sexes, namely the Patriarchy and misogyny. If you’re not familiar with those terms, you should definitely look them up.)
Men also develop fears of abandonment, rejection, and inadequacy which are even stronger when they are socialized within a Patriarchy. They are most often not taught to understand (or even ponder) their own feelings and usually consider emotion a sign of weakness. Well, all emotions except anger and lust, which we’ll see in a moment that fear seems to play an important role in.
In order to combat our fears of loss of love and disconnection we learn to self soothe and develop coping mechanisms that are most often completely unconscious. These unconscious thoughts (that can lead to toxic thinking patterns and actions) are often triggered by an outside stimulus. In the case of men ogling, the stimulus is the woman being looked at.
Because males are socialized to suppress all other avenues of emotional connection, women and sex represent the one place where they can feel alive and reaffirm their selfhood as men. Male culture is all about relating to other men and reaffirming manhood through various activities. One of the most popular is the objectification of women.
Many men feel (on a level that they are most often not altogether aware of) that the main way to prove their masculinity is to show obvious interest in women. Their insecurities may also be compounded by female rejection and emasculation from other males (especially if they don’t participate in stereotypically male activities like sports, are slight of build, or otherwise don’t fit a traditionally “masculine” mold). So ogling and objectifying women is not only about alleviating anxiety and fears, but also about remaining in control of one’s manhood – that idea that sits at the core of the way an individual man identifies and relates to himself. When this selfhood is threatened, anxiety, fear, anger, and even rage can result. In a futile attempt to remain in control, these destructive emotions can turn into predatory lust.
So let’s take a look at what happens when a man who has developed the coping skill of “looking” comes across a woman that he may even only find moderately attractive. He has already conditioned his brain to see the woman as a threat. She poses a threat to his sense of self and safety because her mere presence challenges him to prove his manhood. If he were to pursue her, she may reject him, further damaging his entire identity as a man. She is something he fears and in order to alleviate that fear, he takes control (and enacts dominance) by exercising what he feels is his natural male right to stare at and evaluate her physical appearance for his entertainment. I won’t even go into what this teaches women and girls, but suffice it to say there are few positives that come from what some would deem otherwise “harmless” male behaviors.
“The desire which a man has for a woman is not directed towards her because she is a human being, but because she is a woman; that she is a human being is of no concern to the man; only her sex is the object of his desires.” – Immanuel Kant
While looking at a woman, a man may feel a sudden rush of positive feelings, reinforcing this habit in a powerful way that allows it to quickly become subconscious. But he knows this is only a taste of what that particular woman’s image can give him. Fantasy and later masturbation may result where the image of the woman is coveted and used for purely sexual purposes. Often the man with an ogling habit seems to be indiscriminate, using the image of any woman to fulfill his purpose regardless of how morally objectionable actual sexual contact with those individual women may be. In this way the image of a woman (any woman) serves as a fetish object or what some experts refer to as a paraphilia. Because women are the most common fetish objects or paraphilias, does not negate the reality that their bodies are seen and used in this way. Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it has any real benefit or that it is at all a natural human behavior. It is normal for all adults in our society to drive, own a cell phone, send emails, etc. No one could argue those things were “natural” in and of themselves.
What we’re left with at the end of the day is an individual man, who based on his social conditioning and his own life experiences, has learned to fear women and the power he imagines they hold over him. He perceives them as temptresses or at the very least, something to be possessed through fantasy in order to alleviate his longing for meaningful connection. Because the experience of many men in our Patriarchal, misogynistic culture is so similar, what’s created is a male hobby – something men and boys do together to not only push down their fears of the feminine, but also to validate their connection to each other and maleness in general – which is at the very core of their identities.
Female insecurity is a direct result of being viewed through the Male Gaze and being socialized within the same Patriarchal system that teaches men to fear women and then attempt to control that fear by controlling women, even if only in the imagination. This construct causes great harm to both sexes. In essence, fear of loss of love and fear of not having meaningful connection actually causes us to lack love and become disconnected.
Before there are comments about attraction, let me make a distinction or two. Finding someone attractive and admiring their face or form is far different from objectification and immediate sexualization. Patriarchal male culture has commodified the female body and taught men that women are for sex; that the purpose of women is to sexualize them and to have sex with them. This takes the simple and innocent idea of attraction to another level.
We can appreciate the beauty of a flower or a piece of art and not consider them sexual objects to be utilized for our pleasure. We can see the sweet and lovely features of a young child and feel a rush of love and joy that leads no healthy human being to thoughts of exploitation. The difference between a man experiencing attraction and objectification is that one is an appreciation of subjective beauty while the other contains intentions to use and exploit based on the objective standard of being female. In short, attraction (appreciation) gives the object being seen value and objectification takes that value away so the object can be used for selfish reasons.
If men wish to be judged by their actions then it is important for them to realize that remaining faithful to the “man code” instead of to their spouse is a recipe for a lonely life. Ogling, leering, watching pornography, attending strip clubs, and other behaviors that many have been led to believe are harmless “boys will be boys” behavior serves no man in his pursuit for love and connection. What he receives is a poor substitute at best while simultaneously perpetuating self-isolating feelings. He also risks losing empathy for other people, especially women. After all, it's hard to watch degrading pornography or participate at a bachelor party where a woman dances around like an abused circus bear and still have a good time if your empathy is intact.
Our thoughts put intention into the physical world. They are responsible for our emotions and for shaping our actions. Earlier I asked what intention is being created when men choose to ogle women. I believe the answer is as follows:
Every time a man makes the choice to objectify, sexualize, fantasize, and create desire for a woman other than his partner he is announcing to himself – to the part of him that shapes his emotions and actions – that the woman he loves and who loves him is not good enough. He is in fact saying that he is afraid to love, that he lacks love, and that he is not willing to be honest enough to himself to truly give and receive love. He is broadcasting his low self esteem, proclaiming himself not good enough to love, and honoring suffering instead of joy. He is pushing love away because it’s what he most fears and needs the most. Like a claustrophobic who believes they cannot breathe in tight spaces; they know how dependent they are on oxygen and so they are terribly afraid to be caught without it. They then begin to hyperventilate, robbing themselves of the precious oxygen already present around them. So it goes for those who fear love, something I would venture we need more than even oxygen.
The good news in all of this is that it can be changed. Ogling behaviors are learned coping skills that reside in the subconscious mind. In order to change any unwanted behaviors, we first need to become conscious of them and why exactly we learned to do them. We must be honest with ourselves, tell the truth of our pain, and communicate in intimate connection with a key person in our lives (often a partner, but not always). Only then can we begin to rewire our brains and create new, more positive, self and life affirming behaviors. This in turn can create the healthiest possible relationships and subsequent feelings of love and connection that human beings need to thrive.