I don’t know if most men even know what the male gaze is, or when or if they even do it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, mainly because I am on the receiving end of it for the first time. Wearing skirts and other ways of dressing has brought me into the consideration set of a certain type of man. I think of such men as most likely gay men. Probably dominant gay men.
Male on male sex scares the bejesus out of me. It is an echo-box of testosterone. I think of what it feels like to be touched by a man, to be groped, because that’s what it feels like, manhandled. There is a strength and roughness in men’s hands that feels very different on the body. There is insistence in the touch, a possessiveness and power that is oh-so different than the female touch. It lingers long after the touch has gone, it almost makes me feel the toucher’s intent, that I am meat.
For someone like me who wants a woman to knock me over the head and drag me back to her cave by my hair, why does this kind of touch, or the thought of it, feel so awful to me? And how do I know what it feels like anyway? I’ve read that many “straight” AMAB (assigned male at birth) M2F (male to female) trans people find that their attraction shifts from female to male as they transition. I wonder if that will happen to me. Somehow, I don’t think so.
And not just my ex-Domme, but also all my therapists have told me that my own path to healing is to learn to love the masculine within me…but my path appears to be increasingly female…that by becoming more female, I am able to connect more deliciously with all aspects of the female—with women, with femininity, with my own body. I hear their voices calling me, a collection of soft female voices coming from the seraglio.
Feeling the Male Gaze
The other day I was walking to a date with a wonderful woman, dressed conservatively yet in a feminine but also powerful way, and a man looked at me with open lust. And it just felt gross. And since my date had invited me to a show on gender and female power, I had plenty to think about.
First, I wondered, does any man have the capability to deliver the energy I just received. Do I? Have I ever done that? Is it something in me that made him look at me like that? Is it just because of how I perceived it? Or did it emanate from him? And what was it that emanated from him? It felt like a desire to possess, to take, to own, to control. It was as if his thoughts were made physical, “I’ll have that.” And in a split second, I had been defiled. Okay, that is a terribly strong word, but I did feel violated. And I thought, how is it possible that just being looked at is enough to make me feel that way?
Is it only gross because he represents something I would never willingly want to touch or be touched by? Is that the difference? Is it just that women are confronted with this so often that the vast majority of the gazers are just not “her” type? What if a man. who is attractive to “her” is doing the looking? Does it still feel wrong? Or does “her” attraction open a door, make it voluntary, or welcome?
Dominant Gay Men are the Most Male of All
Is it just what men are? I think of many gay men as even more male than straight men. That some gay men are the ultimate men, more masculine than any other. Somehow to be a Top within the context of gay male society is to embody even more power—after all, isn’t a man holding power over another man even more dominant than holding power over a woman? That kind of sexual power terrifies me, turns me off completely, and yet, I also know that I am capable of having fantasies of submission to that kind of man.
It makes me think of rape fantasy. It is so common, yet it is also the last thing that any woman wants in real life. Boy! Complicated. I have come to regard my own gay male fantasies as the product of guilt and shame.
Growing up girl
Growing up, I was dressed as a girl up until first grade. I used to think that my mother did this to me, and spent years in therapy dealing with that, and living with blame. It was only recently that I realised that she might have been letting me breathe, knowing what I needed as only a mother could…even if she took it away from me cruelly later. ( “I don’t want to raise a fag,” she said).
After that, and until I was 16, outside of my boy’s school uniform, with my long hair and stick thin body, I was almost always clocked as female. The result? I couldn’t be out in public without being touched inappropriately. Funnily enough, it was in Asia where I experienced the most aggressive and frequent touching. Get on a bus, a crowded bus, when you couldn’t move, couldn’t see who was doing it, and the hands were on me. A few times it was more than one person at a time. And I would look at their faces, serene, unmoving, as we bounced along, and would have no idea. Couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t turn, couldn’t move, and a hand was there.
As puberty struck, I became acutely aware of the changes happening in my body, finding them distressing, but also realising that at least somehow, I was fundamentally female. Being torn from my sense of self through a chemical process that was altering my body from within, was a kind of psychic pain that is impossible to describe, only to live through.
Uninvited Male Touch
And when a man reached his hand across his car and groped me, squeezed me, his strong hand on my thigh, then on my crotch, I let him do it. And when he commanded me to open my legs, I did, and I was so unbelievably aroused, but also feeling so dirty and shameful at the same time. And I get it…the narrative that “I was asking for it.” After all, I was wearing shorts, and my long and pretty legs were a come on. And I also (innocently) got into a stranger’s car. A girl, or a boy, like me should know better. To want a ride because I couldn’t afford to take a bus is the same thing as wanting a strange man to put his hands on me.
The worst part about it? The aftermath. That I questioned my own innocence. Maybe I did want it. I told myself that he touched me because of how female I looked to him, to be androgynous offers up a particular kind of temptation, and a part of me felt affirmed–he sees the part of me that I cherish most…ugh.
And all of this has become shame. The roots of twisted sexuality…
But it was not just once. There was the man in the cinema who sat in the row in front of me, and dropped his hand casually onto my leg, so subtly that at first I thought that he didn’t even know. But then, as it crept up my leg, I began to wonder. And then as he dropped his hand between my legs, and up to my crotch, doubt was replaced by shock that this was happening in public, with people all around, but I felt a kind of intense guilt and humiliation and arousal all at once, that made me sit there and allow it. My arousal was real.
The same again when sitting and reading on a bench, fondled, and not daring to move or say a word, just letting his hands roam. And even at University, leaving the school “night club” where I had been hanging with my friends, and a man reached up between my legs and cupped me as if I was Laura Darn in Wild at Heart, and I was both instantly “wet” and disgusted at the same time, and when I turned and looked at him to register my disgust, to see he had a beard made it worse.
Why do men do this? Do they think this is how to be seductive? Do they think that this is going to produce better results. In the incidents related I ran away each time—”get off of me”; I made him pull over; or I got up in the cinema, and then he did too, and hightailed it out, but I was worried after walking home, “what if he’s here, stalking me, following me home?”; and same in the park…Is this the result of suppressed desire from patriarchal pressure on men too?
These experiences, whistles, catcalls, whatever came my way disappeared from my life as testosterone pulled me ever further from a body that I could relate to. But the shame stayed. Was it my fault? Did I do something? Was I advertising? But also, I told myself that it was because they regarded me as female. That if they knew I was male, they wouldn’t do it. And that was validating. Oh, so the wrong way to be validated. Oh gosh. But there was an important thread in that which confirmed who I was—and to think that the only people who saw it, acted on it, and did so in such a vile way. What an awful tradeoff.
My dislike for men, and for how they behaved, just increased. Why would anyone ever think that this kind of behaviour is acceptable? That touch that hasn’t been asked for is desirable? And why on earth did my body betray me in that way? Why?
These toxic meanderings infested my sexuality like rat runs through my psyche for decades. “I know what you really want…” became a kind of trigger for me. In my daily life, it made me run ever further from the way a man was “supposed to” approach a woman. Many women lament how the modern man is not masculine. So many women vote for the toxic male. I have to accept that such women will never find someone like me at all appealing. I am its opposite. I strive to be its opposite.
And this shaped so deeply and fundamentally how I approach a woman, how I flirt with a woman, how I talk to a woman. And I am conscious of just how many women don’t want to have anything to do with me, didn’t as I was growing up, because this approach did not conform with what they wanted in a man. And that in itself was painful, and something I had to wrestle with—to be attracted to someone and to know that she will never be attracted back…a lesbian friend of mine has climbed inside these same feelings with me and shared her own version of the same, leaving me understood for the first time.
In the plus column, this manner of being has allowed me to be “friends” with women with whom I have had intense sexual energy. I was like a gay friend in a way, but without the gay part…but that led to a depth of friendship that few males ever get to experience with women who aren’t their partners. There are many parallels: the gay male who flirts intensely with a woman, because they both know it is safe; the married man is attractive to a woman because she knows he is “vetted” and also desirable enough to be in permanent relationship (single guys apparently wear wedding bands to increase their ability to pull). Having this kind of intimacy with female friends is something I have cherished, and has given me experiences, especially when travelling, that I might have never had. In a way, it has also helped me cope with dysphoria. It was always like having one foot in the sisterhood.
Being able to create a safe space by just being non-predatory is a gift. It is one that I cherish so much that I have actively cultivated my entire post-pubescent life. Even with women I was so attracted to that I was crippled, paralysed by their charms…never once have I leaned in for a kiss. Ever. Always ask.
But when that man looked at me as we passed each other I could imagine all kinds of things that must have gone through his mind. Ravaged. And I wondered, what happens when I look at a woman that I am attracted to? Do I do the same? Is it just because the container is outwardly male that the gaze is slimy? Would a woman see that in me? Is the intent what we see when someone looks at us in that way? Or is it our perception of the container? A closer look at the female gaze doesn’t answer the question either.
Not too long ago I was at an event with strangers, and I was sitting on a couch and there was a woman sitting next to me. And somewhere along in the proceedings I leaned back and put my arm on the couch, behind her, though it was more dangling off than actually behind her–even unconsciously I was aware of her space. She got up and when she did I wondered did I do that? Did she get up because she felt violated by me? We had had a lovely chat beforehand and I thought she was an interesting person. But I was also presenting male that evening. Then I thought maybe she went to make tea. But she didn’t come back.
The next day, however, I was presenting female/non-binary. And that evening I spoke about dysphoria. And after that, she came back and hugged me, and the natural that we had started with came back. I wondered then all of the above all over again. Was it just because she now understood I never had in intent? She could certainly see that I was now “safe”.
What of the Female Gaze?
I know that superficially I am an attractive man. I am flattered when a woman looks at me and I can tell she is attracted to me, that she holds her gaze, appreciates me with her eyes. And yet, I have never once in my life felt the same slimy feeling as when a guy looks at me this way. Even when she is completely predatory—a proverbial or literal cougar. Is that something in me, in my head, because I am receptive to it? Because it is a woman? Or is there something in her intent that is different? Is it that I am open to women, even the ones I am not attracted to? I don’t think so.
Is it that female desire is not one of ownership? Is it that female desire does not seek to conquer or possess, but rather to connect? There is an openness in the expression of a woman with desire in her eyes, exploration, a sense of possibility. When a woman looks at me with desire in her eyes, and it is there to see, I perceive that she is curious, not that she wishes to own me. And there is something beautiful about that curiosity, even when it is coming from someone who I would not or am not attracted to. On many occasions, in group settings, this look opens the door to friendship…
To be looked at by a woman is very different than what it feels like to be looked at in that way by a man. There is no sense of entitlement, or naked hunger. Instead, there is just a questioning feeling of possibility.
Making sense of it
I have concluded (though dear reader, I would love to hear your own thoughts on this topic) that the male gaze really is different than the female gaze. That embodied within it is the root of the same thing which engenders toxic masculinity. It is the desire to possess. There is something about masculine desire which speaks of conquest, taking, holding, possessing. When this is welcome, I can well imagine it is pleasurably experienced. But when it is not, it feels gross. And I think that it doesn’t change—it is the nature of the beast. That all that changes is that the recipient welcomes it…and that the problem is that male entitlement leads men to let this beast out, to roam freely, not fully aware that it isn’t okay, or that society has not yet concluded it is wrong…and so men are on the prowl looking at strangers thinking “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “no” and that plenty of women are “asking for it” or will want it after saying “no” for a while. I can’t think of any other reason why it is still out there.
How being trans is changing my life for the better
Puberty was devastating for me. Most importantly, it pulled me from suckling on the breast of a self-identity that was deeply female—I was nourishing myself because how I felt inside and what I looked like on the outside were close enough. But then I wasn’t able to anymore (because one look in the mirror was enough to trigger self-hate). And if and when a woman ever looked at me, or saw me, or saw in me something she might fear, I hated myself. To walk behind a woman on a city street and see her fearful glance, or know that she has crossed the street, or is talking on the phone because she is scared has made me want to shout and curse all men. And I cry out to her, that she is safe (not literally, of course). It makes me so sad. And I feel it intensely.
And yet, here is where an unexpected gift of transition lies. While many women look at me funny, especially older white women, but also some younger ones (funnily enough, it always seems to be white people–and I know I shouldn’t do this)…I get far more smiles than I ever got before. Women don’t smile at strangers, strange men, on buses or on the subway, because they don’t want to be seen as inviting. And yet, now, I get so many smiles. I’m not just some dude in women’s clothes. There’s something going on over here. The changes are coming from within. The outside is just a little bit more in line with what is on the inside. And it is a very welcome change.
I came out to a business friend the other evening over dinner, a woman. She said, “yeah! Come over to our side.” It was such a sweet thing to say. And those smiles I get, they are knowing smiles, friendly smiles, and they just feel welcoming, carrying so much female enigma in them. Femininity carries so much mystery and beauty in its freedom, and receiving a welcoming smile from a stranger makes all of this seem worth it.
What is the value of transition? To finally be seen as who we are. To be able to breathe. That is what is changing. And now that I have tasted it, I see how thirsty I have been for it. Yes, I can breathe now. And I won’t be turning back.
And what of the male gaze? Really?! Why? Just stop.
You hit the nail on the head with the filth that is felt by the male gaze. It’s intense, off-putting, and demanding. It does feel like ownership, possession, and power. It is said that men’s role as a provider prevails naturally, so if the myth that women want to be saved is true, it would make for a good pairing. However, being a woman who doesn’t feel this way, the gaze is intimidating, scary, and uncalled for. It feels like being undressed without permission. The catcalls feel like a heightened sense of ownership. The pride and ego are on display for all to see demanding attention. And despite acknowledgment, it continues.
It is a tragedy the groping you experienced in your youth. This is not said in support of shame (of your arousal) but rather in disgust of the adults “at play”. It occurs too often. It is too prevalent in a society that condones itself as intelligent. I sense that those of us that were taken advantage of have found the strength to heal such trauma and go on to raise our children with awareness. Will it eliminate pedophilia? I doubt it but it will incriminate those who act on such immoral behaviors. Silence is no longer the thread keeping our society together. At least not in my home. Toxic ways need to be exposed and addressing the man gaze is a start to some important work but only because it is so much deeper than a look. And as always, thanks for shedding light with your observations. Great post.
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Hi…I really appreciate this rich comment. There is one issue that transcends all others for me and that is child sex abuse. I find it abhorrent from every angle–its prevalence, how there is a lingering tolerance for it, how sexualised children can be/are, how girls, especially, are sexualised and objectified from a young age. it is a cardinal sin. The theft of innocence is such a horrific crime.
I don’t raise my own experiences with inappropriate touch as some traumatising life event–and consider myself fortunate that the things that happened to me were somehow “mild”…but even that though is horrifying. I cannot understand how any human could ever experience the kind of dehumanising arrogance that it would take to grope someone. And the male gaze is just the first step in that direction.
In a sense, it is also a canary in the coal mine. For all the advances we make as a society to be more inclusive, more woke, more in tune with these factors, the closer we come to equality of the sexes, there seems to be this toxic backlash against women, women’s rights, gender, gender rights…and it just tells you actually how far off we really are. I have no doubt that the man who looked at me which triggered the post was looking at me as a man in a dress, but there is no diminishing how gross it felt, it feels. But in another way, it is a salutary reminder that we have not even really begun to expunge society of this kind of predatory behaviour.
I am really proud of my children, and how aware of this they are, and am glad that as a family we have been able to talk about these things openly, and now that we can throw gender into the mix, I do have hope for the future. Adults mostly think that the next generation has the wrong values or isn’t ready to lead…it seems a common trope through history. My own view is that perhaps for the first time in the course of humanity, we need the next generation to take take over, and it won’t come a moment too soon.
Thanks for popping by.
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