Why do men cat-call women on the street? Men are just more visual. Why is the majority of nude artwork in museums female? Men are more visual. Why is most pornography made for men? Men are more visual. Why are advertisements rife with half-naked women? Men are just more visual.
As a society, we’ve internalized this notion, the notion that men look at women and women get looked at. This idea is omnipresent in our culture and it’s damaging to both men and women by perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Let’s start with women. The idea that men are more visual creates a sexual power differential, one in which men f*@$ and women get f@*$*@. Men are sexual and women are sexy. Men like to take charge and women like to be ravished. It excuses men’s predatory behavior and naturalizes inappropriate objectification of women. The nature of this stereotype makes it logical and natural for women to be objectified. If men weren’t assumed to have a biological need to look at women more than the reverse, then the objectification of women would be universally considered harassment. Instead, it’s the norm.
“Men are more visual” disempowers women to accept their own sexuality because they are constantly being sexually subjugated. Porn, artwork, and movies are geared toward men, and the entertainment industry would look entirely different if media began catering to women’s sexuality. The stereotype makes women feel ashamed of being visual, like there’s something inherently wrong if they enjoy watching pornography or other visual stimuli. For example, according to a study in 2016 (Carroll et al.), about 47% of men reported to view pornography always alone, compared with just 13% of women. Similarly, women who view pornography were three to four times more likely than men to report primarily or completely couple-based pornography consumption. This highlights how women often feel as though they need permission or an excuse to watch pornography, whereas men tend not to feel such pressure. It is also highly likely that pornography usage reported in research is skewed, as both women and men may be biased in reporting (i.e. socially desirable answers: women shouldn’t watch porn and men should).
The stereotype that men are more visual is harmful to men, too. It is damaging in the same way many masculine stereotypes are: it perpetuates a specific idea that causes many men to feel inferior or defective if they don’t identify with it. Men are expected to watch and enjoy pornography, “check women out,” etc., but there are many men who don’t enjoy those things. They may struggle with feeling “less manly” and often experience shame and self-doubt. Additionally, men are inundated with sexual imagery on a daily basis, which may result in a greater a tendency to seek it out.
While the idea that men are more visual than women is damaging to all genders, it also simply isn’t true. Dr. Meredith Chivers conducted a study that demonstrated that women could have more powerful physiological responses to visual stimuli than men, measured by genital engorgement. In the study, heterosexual men were aroused by footage of men and women having sex, and gay men reacted in response to two men having sex. Women, though, regardless of sexual orientation, responded to all visual stimuli. Female genital arousal in response to visual stimuli was also fast and automatic, though women didn’t always report being aroused. This highlights another piece of the puzzle: the intellectual and emotional aspect of sexuality. If women aren’t “supposed” to be aroused by visual stimuli, then it is more likely they won’t recognize arousal in themselves, or they’ll report the socially desirable answer (i.e., no arousal). Men also would expect themselves to be aroused by the visual stimuli, and their bodies may react accordingly.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that men aren’t visual. Rather, it’s clear that folks of all genders can be equally as interested in visual material. There are far more differences within gender than between; that is, erotic preferences are completely unique and can vary greatly from one person to the next. Looking and being looked at should be an equal right of all genders. Our culture needs to stop forcing individuals into gendered boxes and stop perpetuating archaic notions of who men and women should be – starting with, “Men are more visual.”
Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., Brown, C. C. (2016). The porn gap: Differences in men’s and women’s pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146-163.
Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C., Blanchard, R. (2007). Gender and sexual orientation differences in sexual response to sexual activities versus gender of actors in sexual films. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6), 1108-1121.