On Ogling and Appreciation

[This is crossposted to Feminist Allies]

There was an article today in the Toronto Star about Hollaback Canada, and about the wider issue of when it is and is not appropriate to ogle people on the street1. The article was titled “When does looking become a leer?”, and touches on something I started writing months ago, and never finished. First, though, if you are a woman in Canada, I would recommend that you bookmark Hollaback Canada, and next time you’re sexually harassed send in a submission to shame your harasser. If you’re in New York City, visit Hollaback NYC, and if you’re elsewhere look for a Hollaback site linked from there. If there is no Hollaback site for your city or region, start your own!

One of the difficulties many men have with feminism seems to be a perceived attack on their sexuality. For instance, men who consider pornography an intrinsic part of male sexuality are likely to get pissed off when someone asserts that porn is wrong as a rule. On an even more extreme angle, some believe that fantasies involving rape, pedophilia or bestiality are perfectly okay, and that anyone who tries to suppress these “perfectly normal” urges is denying them an essential part of their sexuality.

What I want to examine is a milder, but similar, issue. The question I want to ask is: where is the line between sexual objectification and aesthetic appreciation? Somewhere along the continuum from sexual repression to sexual overtness, I feel, there must be an acceptable middle ground. It should be obvious that, at one extreme, externalizing every little sexual impulse we have by yelling “hey baby” at women we pass on the street is wrong. At the other extreme, completely denying our own sexualities2 by refusing to look directly at women is unhealthy. Is there some middle ground where we can acknowledge our own sexualities without contributing to the environment of oppression and abuse of women that we live in? Is this continuum perhaps flawed in some meaningful way?

Here’s where I’m coming from: I am sexually active, in a committed relationship, and I enjoy looking at people I consider beautiful. However, I have a great dislike of making others uncomfortable, and I know that being checked out by a stranger does make many people uncomfortable. When I do look at someone in a sexual way I don’t (I think) do it in an objectifying way: I take care to not look at them as a sexual object, there for my enjoyment, but I do take advantage of the fact that they have certain sexual characteristics that happen to be where I can (visually) enjoy them.

So whenever I do feel like taking an eyeful of someone I am conscious not only of how I look at them and what I am thinking, but also of how I might be making them feel. I generally wait until they will not notice me looking, or else look away quickly. I also make an effort to keep other people in the area from feeling uncomfortable at having an ogler in their midst: I don’t want someone to think “ugh, that creep is staring at that person over there — will he be staring at me if I turn my back?”

So I go to all this trouble to reassure myself that my looking at someone isn’t misinterpreted as lechery and objectification. One might ask: is it really wrong to look at someone one finds attractive, intriguing or whatever? Well, yes and no. Or rather, it can be. The important thing is, as it often is, to take into account the feelings and reactions of everyone involved and to remember that, as in any social interaction, both parties are participating.

I spend a fair amount of time watching people watching people3, and a few things occur to me as ways to differentiate looking and leering, ogling and appreciation. I find it least offensive when the observer:

  1. engages the other person. Rather than staring at a woman’s chest or rear as she walks by, it can be less threatening — and certainly less gross — when a guy looks her in the eyes and smiles a bit. This acknowledges her part as a conscious participant in the interaction (note that saying or doing something for the sole purpose of getting a reaction is not engaging someone meaningfully). Where this gets a little creepy is if the smile is too intense, or lasts too long (see point 2). The observer has to use his discretion and remain aware that the other person has feelings about the interaction, too.
  2. doesn’t linger. Without reciprocation, a short glance is about the limit of respectfulness in most of North America. Beyond that we’re in the realm of staring, which is not only rude, but can send an “I might be dangerous” signal. I’ve seen people give a quick little smile, and I’ve seen people grin uncontrolledly. The second is creepy. The first can be kinda hot.
  3. makes no imposition. In general, any speech falls into the category of imposition. Really, there’s no way to verbalize “I find you attractive” to a stranger that doesn’t come across as creepy or worse. This is doubly true of actions such as standing in someone’s way and forcing them to walk around you, and actually having the nerve to touch them is right off the chart.
  4. has no expectations. Here’s the punchline, which a lot of people seem to ignore. Nobody is going to sleep with you because you looked them up and down on the street. No woman has ever been suddenly filled with a desire to sleep with a man who leaned out of his car and yelled something incoherent at her. And, perhaps barring the stupidest of the stupid, no man has ever thought she would. When it comes down to it, this sort of behaviour is not an expression of sexual desire, but of dominance. The only times I’ve seen people act respectfully while looking at others like this is when there is no implied expectation that something more might, or ought to, happen.

It is true that when someone gets dressed up to look nice, they are often pleased when they get some attention in exchange. Even if they haven’t put any effort into it (or perhaps especially so!) it can be nice to notice that someone has checked you out. But at some point when the checking out is persistent, lewd or otherwise inappropriate, it crosses the line to harassment.

So here’s where I’d like to hear from people. What, to you, is the line between looking and leering? What should one bear in mind, what should one take into consideration?

1 Thanks to HBCanada for the tip-off. You can also read some asshole’s response, sent anonymously from a throwaway Hotmail account. I really don’t feel like going through this email line by line and pointing out exactly what’s wrong with its “if women don’t want to be harassed they shouldn’t dress like sluts” rape-apologist reasoning. Perhaps another time.

2 Note that here I am specifically referring to men who are sexually attracted to women; the dynamics of objectification among gay men are very different.

3 I used to like sitting in public places and watching people go by. At some point I discovered that it could be much more amusing to watch other people as they watch people go by.

7 thoughts on “On Ogling and Appreciation”

  1. In visual culture studies we learn that the practice of looking involves an interplay between gaze and object. “Object” is a passive term, and we use it to denote a negative position in the viewer-viewee relationship. Traditionally in visual culture, the objects of dominant gazes are women and visible minorities. Those images that are historically subversive are those that work contrary to the male dominant gaze – VISC 101:



    Olympia returns the male gaze to the horror of the french salons. Here a prostitute takes the institutional female pose and looks directly at the viewer as he ogles her body.

    A bar at the Folies-Bergere

    The man in the top-hat (upper right) propositions the waitress for sex and she defiantly refuses by returning his gaze (the viewer is the man reflected in the mirror).

    A contemporary example, Jeff Wall: http://courses.washington.edu/hypertxt/cgi-bin/

    The reason I bring this up is because out practices of looking are not independent of those we have been institutionalized into. There is a pre-existing culture of how we observe the marked versus the unmarked. David is right to make the distinction between female and gay male objectification. The objectification of men by other men is a reversal of the male gaze which denies the centuries old European tradition and in turn makes people tied to it very uncomfortable. (Thus the: “I don’t care if he’s gay as long as he doesn’t his on me” syndrome.)

    Innocent or not the act of looking at others is still part of that European tradition of domination and subjectivity. Women, consciously or not, are very much aware of when they are being subjugated by the male gaze. Some believe that by actively participating in this subjugation they can become empowered (see hotmail-douchebag’s oh-so-sensitive email or “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy). Others (myself included) believe that this could be the case if men were equally treated on our public streets (which they ain’t).

    The Line: Single people use body language (including looking) to alert other single people that they are willing and available. I don’t say this lightly. I find that generally we employ this body language only to those we find to be suitable matches to ourselves – as deluded as they may be at times. As good-looking as some club-going greasy-haired loser eating a street dog on my corner may be I probably won’t strut my stuff in front of him whereas I might with a bearded indie-rocker on Queen west. Par example.

    That being said – if you’re not on the market it’s not okay to make eye contact with girls you find attractive on the street. Think of it this way – if she were to catch you eye and come up to you and say “Let’s go for it” you would feel very sheepish responding with “actually, I’m in a relationship”.

  2. re HTML, I linkified a couple of your links, but it looks like there’s one missing.

    Thanks for the insightful response. I hadn’t even gotten much into the case where looking is a signal that “I’m single, you’re single, let’s hook up.”

    edit: I added the other link. I don’t know why stuff is not automatically HTMLified. hrm.

  3. Dave can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the eye contact that he’s talking about is not of they “hey, you’re sexy, notice I’m looking at you!” variety, but rather of the normal “pass someone on the street, make brief eye contact, smile, look away” variety, which I think is totally appropriate. The important thing is that that is something he would be just as likely to do with another man, or a woman he didn’t find attractive.

  4. I read and wanted to respond on Feminist Allies. However, I am at work and my computer won’t let me access that page.

    With respect to “doesn’t linger,” this holds true if she returns the glance but looks away quickly and doesn’t respond. I do this often to let people know that I do feel them looking at me and I am NOT interested. If I were interested, I would start talking to the person myself.

    I disagree that there is no way to verbalize that you are attracted to someone politely. I think this comes under the “has no expectations” category. I have been complimented by strangers on the street, in a very direct manner (eres muy guapa, you are very attractive). The person who complimented me immediately returned to the conversation with his friend and kept walking. It was a compliment, not a proposition and I took it that way.

    Hollering things from a car, whistling, etc are not about expressing an attraction to the woman. They are about treating women like sex objects in front of friends to prove masculinity.

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