I thought I’d write about men staring at women for a few reasons.
Reason one: It’s summer. It’s going to come up.
Reason two: All of my female friends think that this topic is extremely important, but thoroughly confusing. They all said ,“Sure, write about it. But don’t ask me my opinion because . . . I don’t . . . ugh.”
Reason three: In the spring of 2012, Ian Brown wrote an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail entitled “Why men can’t—and shouldn’t—stop staring at women”. It contained perhaps the worst advice about looking at women ever, encapsulating myriad reasons why women feel disgusted with men, and often themselves, after being stared at by a stranger.
It begins with Brown, 58, staring at the ass of a young woman (whom he believes is about 20) as she rides a bike in front of him on a crowded Toronto street. Brown feels a brief rush of guilt, but he doesn’t like to feel guilty, so goes on a quest to, as he says, “investigate the male gaze”, and just looks at tits for a few days before deciding that, yeah, he’s good.
Talking to a group of friends last week, more than one of them could actually quote the article, despite the fact that very few of them read the Globe and Mail. They remember that bicycle scene, and the uniquely repulsive way Brown notes that lips come in different shapes, and describes a waitress’ cleavage as the restaurants’ prix fixe. At the time it was making the rounds on Facebook, Brown’s article made me so uncomfortable that I couldn’t bring myself to read it twice, let alone try to methodically parse out the reasons why the whole thing made me feel like I needed a hot shower.
Now that I’ve had a year to react emotionally—and replenish my electrolytes—I think I can parse it out.
The trouble is: I agree that men should be able to stare at women. Summer is short, life too apparently, and human sexuality is a lovely thing. Also, I occasionally look at men, so saying that men can’t look at women would not only be cruel, but extremely hypocritical. However, no one can pretend that being looked at by men is always, or even mostly, a positive experience.
For women (and maybe for men; I don’t know, I can’t generalize) a sexualizing glance can go from feeling like a compliment to something else very quickly. An appreciative look sometimes seems like an entitled look, an admiring gaze is not always so different from a threat. While being looked at might not always scare a woman, it can easily make her feel dehumanized and used—and this is especially true when a national newspaper columnist starts listing off the best parts of the female body like fine cuts of meat and alludes to women being bought at Wal-Mart. It is that dehumanizing quality—and not act of looking—which bothered my young, female friends so much. To combat this, here are a few tips I’ve compiled so that more men may stare at women—and everyone can keep their dignity.
1) Look, and look away
In Brown’s article, he chats with a 60-something year old man who enjoys sitting on a patio, drinking espresso and just staring at women. Every girl in the world is probably all too familiar with this type of person. They are usually standing on the street having a smoke or a coffee, but when you walk past, they make no pretence of doing anything besides staring at your chest, and waiting for you to walk past so they can eye-fuck the other side. I don’t think I have to tell any intelligent man why this is a really horrible feeling for women, but the easy way to avoid doing this accidentally is to just turn away after not more than three seconds. Bring out your phone, start talking to your friend, or if you’re feeling bold, look the woman in the eye, smile, and then look away.
If you’re legitimately looking to play the flirtation game, look a woman in the eyes, and not as a sheepish apology for ogling her tits first. Look at her like she’s a human being with the capacity to talk and think and rationalize your attention towards her. After you have done that, tell her the colour of her dress is lovely on her.
3) Look at the ones who are dressed up
While it’s not an excuse to eye-fuck everything in a dress, if a woman is in high heels with jewellery and make-up on, she’s probably trying to look good for someone, and a little validation can be more than welcome. As one of my friends put it, it’s good to be stared at when “I’m dressed slutty . . . but like, it looks uncomfortable.”
4) On the flip side of this; never stare at a girl in sweatpants
Getting stared at when you clearly look like shit is never a compliment. The object of your stares will feel no more attractive; rather, they’ll just assume that you’re desperate and not really motivated by “female beauty” but rather “female holes to fill”.
5) Don’t look at women young enough to be your daughter
I don’t care what you look like. I don’t care if you think it’s harmless. If she catches you, she will be disgusted. Always.
6) If a woman reacts badly to your attention, don’t take it personally
In retrospect, The most upsetting thing about Brown’s article is not that he is a dirty old man, or even that he is a dirty old man with the ability to foist his stomach-turning tales of Nabokovian misadventure in our national paper of record. The most upsetting thing is that, while sexualizing a young girl who almost certainly didn’t want that attention from a 58 year old man, Brown convinced himself that he was the victim. He is the victim, he suggests, of a society that makes men feel guilty about their sexuality. This is, however, the same society where women are routinely sexually assaulted and too intimidated and afraid to report said assault.
So, I guess the point I’m trying to circle around is that, if some woman catches you looking at her, and walks faster, or tells you to leave her alone or even crosses the street to avoid you—don’t take it personally. There is no safe way for a women to initially differentiate between fleeting, positive attention and the sort of attention that might lead to them being harassed, or followed. Or worse. This may be unfair to the majority of men who just like to look at women and leave them alone, but then, there is nothing fair about either side of this situation.
Mika Rekai is a Toronto-based writer, humourist, and self-designated sex guru. She does not feel the need to justify that last part to you. She asks that you just be cool and go with it.
Photo courtesy of flickr.