Ruminations on “attractiveness” and responses to it

I’m a man, and I think of myself as a feminist. So what should I do when I notice a woman who I think is sexually attractive? There are three issues here. First, I need to be considerate of the woman and how my behavior affects her. Am I doing anything that might bother her or make her feel uncomfortable? Second, I need to monitor my own internal response. Am I “objectifying” her by thinking of her primary purpose as my sexual enjoyment? Third, I need to monitor my response to others. Do my actions or words bother others or move them to behave badly?

An article on Slate on this topic has generated a lot of attention. For a time it was Slate’s second-most-read article, and it has generated over a thousand comments. Author Andy Hinds, who claims to be a feminist, says that his arousal when he sees attractive women is a problem, and details the ways he tries to address the problem. His article focuses primarily on his internal response. He clearly believes that his own sexualized reaction to women he finds attractive is a big problem, whether or not his behavior to the women or others is visible.

The reaction of the majority of the commenters on the article is predictably puerile. I won’t bother quoting any of them as you can easily imagine the type of remarks that will inevitably be made.

I do find myself agreeing at least with the spirit of some of the comments: It’s okay to be sexually attracted to women solely on the basis of their appearance. That’s not the same thing as “objectifying” a woman because it is simply a natural biological urge. What matters is how we respond to the urge. But I disagree with the commenters who suggest that no internal adjustment is necessary for a man who finds himself obsessing about the sexual attractiveness of every nubile young woman he encounters. If this is what’s going on internally every time he sees someone he thinks is hot, then something’s wrong:

But I do wonder more at my own reaction to women I find attractive, which perhaps is more like the way most men respond. Most of the time, when I see a sexy woman, I’m not making the howling-wolf sounds in my head. But occasionally, for whatever reason, I will have a strong sexual response to a woman who’s not my wife (who I also have strong sexual responses to [and that’s all I’m going to say about that]). If I keep it to myself, is this okay? Who’s hurt by it? Maybe the woman is hoping to have that effect.

I certainly understand that it’s not acceptable to ogle a woman, and that women generally prefer that you look at their eyes and not their sexual organs when you are talking to them. But if a woman doesn’t notice that I’m really only appreciating her as a sexual being, what’s the harm?

There’s no doubt that harm comes when a man is unable to control these impulses during an extended / high-stakes interaction. At a job interview, it’s nearly always unacceptable to allow sexual attraction to have an impact on the discussion or the ultimate hiring decision. (And of course, the impact can work both ways: A man could [wrongly] decide not to hire an attractive woman because he feels she would be a “distraction” to others in the workplace, or [wrongly] to hire her because he prefers to be around women he finds sexually attractive — whether or not he intends to act on that attraction.)

So how, in a case like this, does a man remove the variable of sexual attraction? One path that could work is something like Hinds’ system, where he attempts to mitigate his sexual attraction in every interaction. I wonder, though, if this is just moving the variable below the surface, making it less apparent, and thus perhaps more insidious. Would it be better to acknowledge the attraction, then attempt to rationally factor it out of any important decision or action?

After all, thoughtful women often choose to appear “sexy” for a variety of reasons, as this clip illustrates:

The subject of this clip is a professor being made over by fashion experts, who encourage her to show her sexy side. If thoughtful women believe that appearing sexy can improve their own lives, part of that equation involves others appreciating their sexiness, doesn’t it?

Where this becomes problematic is in cases where people don’t believe they are sexually attractive, where they don’t find any aspect of their physical appearance appealing. Here’s an example:

I don’t love my body. My body is awful. I will never love my body. I never have. And I’m 35 and maybe you think that’s too old to have real hang ups about my body. But I do. And I always will. And maybe you think that because I’ve lost a bunch of weight I should feel great about my body. But I don’t. And I won’t.

And maybe you think that because it’s my body I should love it and that I should think I’m beautiful. That I should somehow ignore all the standards the world imposes on me every single day, standards that make up “beautiful.” That I should make my own standards, and tell myself that I can just create my own reality. That I should pretend that I can never be judged by the standards of others. Maybe if I just love myself enough, other people will be able to climb into my head and begin adopting my standard of beauty and the world will follow and my formula will be the new standard and I will become The Most Beautiful.

Anders goes on to post photos of the parts of her body she presumably finds unappealing, perhaps as a demonstration that she will never attain the social ideal of “beauty.” She has a point. Despite the fact that she has worked to improve it, a body like hers is never going to show up on “America’s Next Top Model” or “The Bachelor.” Is it right for any of us, therefore, to value traditional, societally-defined “beauty”? It’s hard to say. Many people will never be able to write a coherent sentence, let alone the Great American Novel. Should we therefore not value great literature? Most people could never win an Olympic medal, no matter how hard they trained. Should we shun all sporting activities?

This is not to say that there isn’t a certain amount of arbitrariness in our definitions of “beautiful” or “sexually attractive.” Obviously there is, just as “great painting” and “delicious food” remain amorphous concepts. Perhaps it is true that many more people perceive themselves as unattractive or unworthy of attraction than are, in fact, universally unappealing. Maybe it really is empowering to show these people that they can be valued for their beauty. But such notions are probably more about selling makeup, diet plans, and fitness club memberships than they are about genuinely improving people’s lives.

In the end I still don’t think I know how to respond internally to someone I find sexually attractive. Most of the time, I think, it’s probably mostly harmless to just enjoy the experience in as benign a way as possible. But sometimes it does make sense to reflect on the nature of attraction, and maybe even to try to curb your “natural” urges if you find they occupy too dominant a portion of your conscious thought. Beauty and sexual attraction are a small fraction of the available qualities we could choose to focus on; we should make plenty of room for the others as well.

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