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Some Double Standards are OK.

16 June 2014

The World Cup is on and I am enthralled. International football is my favorite sport, but there are precious few opportunities to care about it on a major level. The United States are a decent team, and we have a strong side going in to the cup and today’s first match against our primary foil of the past decade, Ghana. I’m excited and optimistic, especially after the self-destruction of Portugal against Germany only an hour ago. I think we have a chance to advance.

The world cup has also occasioned an outpouring on twitter of vocal attraction for the footballers by a large subset of the women I interact with there (along with a few of the men, including myself – I deeply appreciate a fine set of abdominals on a man). In a few backchannel conversations, I’ve asked, “Why is it OK for women to openly drool over male athletes, but it’s distasteful for men to drool over female athletes?”

Now, let’s be clear. Men drool over female athletes all the time, and we’re encouraged to by media and corporate culture. It’s not forbidden in any way. But in ‘enlightened’ circles, it’s often frowned upon. It’s seen as objectifying. And the athletes are seen as being prized for their sexiness, rather than for their talent and achievement. Whereas, I have seen no condemnation of women when they objectify and sexualize the male soccer-stars – other than an occasional, “You wouldn’t like that if a man talked that way about a woman!”

But I’m OK with this double standard. It is basically acceptable for women to openly objectify male athletes, and it is somewhat distasteful for men to openly objectify female athletes. My reasoning behind coming to this conclusion (which I am not necessarily arguing that anyone else needs to adopt), comes from those conversations with women that I’ve had in private, and from a description that my sister once used in a similar discussion.

The fundamental issue for me is that we already live in an asymmetrical society when it comes to expressions of sexuality. Women are sexualized (often involuntarily), but expected not to be publicly sexual. Men are allowed to be both. And male sexuality is laced with aggression in a generally positive way, while aggressive female sexuality is usually seen negatively. And so, (and this analysis came from a discussion with @scitrigrrl) when women objectify a soccer player, there is an aspect of claiming the right to be openly sexual, staking territory. Whereas, when men openly objectify a female athlete, we tend to just be reminding people we have dicks. Which is rarely forgotten.

There’s another wrinkle that I tend to see. The male players lusted-after by women are simultaneously admired for their attractiveness and for their skill. Whereas when men lust for female athletes, skill and accomplishment seem to be orthogonal to desirability. See: Anna Kournikova. The male desire seems, largely, to be focused on strict physical appearance. And that seems to make it more menacing. Male objects of female attraction are rarely (though not never) in danger. Whereas female objects of male desire routinely become subjects of male violence.

So, is there a double standard in how women can express sexual attraction in public towards athletes and how men can? Yes. When women do, it usually seems harmless, fun, and sporting – I rarely, though not never, hear of objectified men feeling uncomfortable. But too often, when men express such attraction, it seems menacing, overly aggressive, and a means of asserting dominion – and objectified women frequently report discomfort with the attention. And I think that sometimes, especially young men think that this double standard represents an injustice. In fact, I think it represents the correction of injustice.

History and biology are asymmetric in these circumstances. The rules governing the acceptability of sexual expression are too. And I think that men should be accepting of that. I think we benefit from curtailing the menace and aggression our own public sexual expression, and I think everyone benefits from an environment in which women are more freely able to express theirs.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. anon. permalink
    16 June 2014 16:05

    Thanks for putting into words some of the things swirling in my head.

    I think part of it is that there’s often an undercurrent among (especially younger?) men that they are answering the question, ‘would you do her?’. Where here, sex is the thing the man _does_ to the woman who is sufficiently attractive. That doesn’t feel threatening in itself, but just icky, just because the attitude doesn’t imply consent.

    While when I look at a beautiful soccer player and admire him (and yes, his skills and attitude as a player are a _big_ part of that for me), I’m not answering the question of ‘would I do him’. I’m just humanly enjoying a gorgeous human form, and humanly enjoying being a sexual creature.

    Like you said, everyone benefits.

  2. 16 June 2014 16:16

    Good articulation of a rather complicated argument. Thanks. Two small notes: you reference a conversation with your sister. Was that me, and if so, would you remind me what I said? And secondly, the Iranian team was collectively HAWT.

  3. Syd permalink
    17 June 2014 12:17

    I think that admiring and leering are very different. When I was a teenager, I used to leer–I admit it. But as an adult, I am much more into admiring a fit healthy body.

    And in biological terms, in many animal species, females prefer the males with the longest tails, the brightest plumage or colors. Sexual dimorphism is important and several studies show these attractive mates sire fitter offspring. So female oogling of “plumage” seems to be genetically programmed.

    But the looks of Homo sapiens men may not be as totally important overall. True that most women prefer men who are taller than they are, with symmetrical features (a sign that a potential partner is healthy and parasite-free). But, women across cultures are intent on finding male partners with high status, power, and access to resources—which means a really short guy can add maybe a foot to his height with a Lamborghini or a private jet. And, just like women who aren’t very attractive, men who make very little money or are chronically out of work tend to have a really hard time finding partners.

    The features men evolved to go for in women—youth, clear skin, a symmetrical face and body, feminine facial features, an hourglass figure—are those indicating that a woman would be a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man’s genes.

    And body size in a culture appears to correspond to the availability of food. In cultures like ours, where you can’t go five miles without passing golden arches and much of the general populace is obese, thin women are in. In cultures where food is scarce (like in Sahara-adjacent hoods), fat is beautiful.

    So maybe, reproductive fitness is in play, along with healthy doses of testosterone and estrogen.

  4. 17 June 2014 22:59

    I recently saw a Bachelorette episode ( the problems with that show are a whole other discussion) where the group date with the guys was an exotic dancing, Magic Mike type date. I find the double standard there a bit disturbing. They wouldn’t dare do that on a Bachelor episode. What do you guys think?

  5. 18 June 2014 05:23

    Dr24hours – great post – vocalising something I’ve long thought about. My wife/daughter make comments about the “fit” players. If I make a comment about an attractive newsreader I’m being sexist. I’ve tried to point out the incongruity in this but they say men lusting over women is “pervy” a woman lusting after a man is “natural”… intriguing viewpoint but one that has me a bit lost really

  6. Tom permalink
    15 July 2014 10:01

    In my view, the error in the post above is that there is a fundamental difference. In today’s society, it is true that women seem to have a larger freedom of expression, which was not true some years ago. Now, while this evolution of what is deemed politically correct for women to express themselves about is welcome by me and I would be happy to see a continued evolution towards increased freedom, I do not feel that there should be an essential difference in what women and men should feel free to say.

    What Syd mentions frames the discussion quite well. Women discuss, as argued by the post, freely what is alluring to them: handsome successful men in great shape, while men may not discuss what is alluring to them: beautiful women in great shape. That one sex is objectifying the other more is, in my mind, not true. In neither case the individuals expressing their attraction know, or have met, the individuals being appraised. Therefore, they cannot do anything else than objectify them. They are not being appraised as persons, they are being appraised according to the historically defined measurement that has been accepted for each of the sexes. That women have not historically had to be (or had a fair chance to be) successful, to be considered an attractive mate, has lead to this difference in measurements. While some may argue that the success criterion makes the women’s appraisal more politically correct, I might argue that the more simple measurement of the males in the population allows a more direct appraisal of individual qualities: You may be appraised for being successful, but independent from this, you may be appraised for being beautiful.

    My two cents on this is that as men’s vocal expression of beauty in women has been frowned upon by women in the past, the argument that women appraise more than just plain looks is put forward to distinguish their expressions from those of men – lest they fall under the same criticism as men. Why we should not embrace that women and men look at different dimensions in their objects of passion (be that persons or actual objects) and that both are acceptable, is beyond me. But this does add to the myth of women being constantly of higher moral standing – which is simply not true.

    Can we as a society move further ahead in equality? Definitely! Do double standards pave the way to that equality? Not in the slightest way.

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