Some Double Standards are OK.
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.