January 2, 2023
One cannot be sexually attracted to another person without objectifying them, at least a little. As in: ‘Get a load of those Bazongas!;’ ‘Those pecs, those delts!;’ ‘Baby got Back!;’ ‘Did you see his basket?;’ ‘Oh, those luscious legs!;’ and so on. There, I’ve said it. Whenever and wherever lust arises, it has to zero in on an object. The objects of one’s lust may change as quickly as the images in a kaleidoscope, but at any given moment, lust must have at least one object in view. (Confession: recently, I have lusted after Michael B. Jordan and Regé-Jean Page; my ardor for one or the other varies depends on which one’s photograph or video I have most recently seen. Lust is fickle.)
The curious thing is that the more you know about someone, the less likely you are to objectify that person. When I was a single gay man living in San Francisco in the 1980s, it astonished me to learn how promiscuous so many of the men I met were. For them, venturing into the bushes and Monterey cypresses of Buena Vista Park was the most exciting thing in the world. The excitement had everything to do with discovering a hot, naked man behind a tree, and immediately kissing, blowing, or fucking him without even asking his name. Those men emerged from the bushes temporarily satiated, but they couldn’t wait to go back for their next encounter.
What if they hooked up with a nameless guy that they happened later to meet at a party or a conference? They couldn’t help but learn his name, his background, or his line of work. Would they hook up again? In most cases, I suspect that the more they gleaned about the guy, the less desirable he became. Lust always begins with an object; most often it ends when the object is no longer perceived as one. Why this perception shift? It’s because when you superimpose all that mundane information onto the sexy body – name, age, marital status, occupation, home town, family background, etc. – the body tends to disappear under the weight of data. It’s as if, stripped of his or her anonymity, he or she goes from naked to clothed.
How does this relate to falling in love? Maybe you lust after someone and then, one day, you wake up and realize that your infatuation has transformed into love. You know it’s love not only because you want to be with your beloved all the time, but more to the point because you want to learn absolutely everything you can about him, her, or “them.” Since this desire to know the person as thoroughly as possible is the opposite of someone’s sexy anonymity, we could call it transcending objectification. However, I suspect that a little “soupcon” of objectification needs to remain to preserve the spice in the relationship, to keep the fires burning.
Is it possible to fall in love before noticing how beautiful and sensuous the loved one’s body is? Or to put it another way, can you fall in love without first objectifying your beloved one, and only later realize how sexy they are? I suppose this can be argued both ways, but I suspect it is rare. In those rare instances, perhaps you’re mesmerized by a person’s intelligence or charm or grace or good manners and you feel drawn to them without being aroused. Only later do you realize that her eyes are as large and blue as Goldie Hawn’s or that his guns (biceps) are as thick as a tree trunk and his jawline is as square as Superman’s. (As a male, I wouldn’t know, but I suspect that this slow-dawning perception of sexiness probably happens more often to women than to men.)
More common, I suspect, are those instances when someone becomes infatuated against his “type,” surprising himself by turning his gaze away from the bodies he usually objectifies, only to alight on an entirely different object. I have come across two examples of this in novels. In “Swann’s Way,” Marcel Proust describes how Swann is at first repelled by Odette de Crécy, only to fall so precipitously in love that he soon becomes a raging jealous maniac. A lady’s man known to have bedded many women over the years, Swann can’t understand why he’s attracted to a woman so unlike his other lovers with her pallid face and languid, tired eyes. Plus, she’s a suspected courtesan who can’t match his highly tuned sensibility. Similarly, in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” Philip Carey falls hopelessly in love with a pale and even dimwitted young waitress with the strikingly unsexy name of Mildred. He can’t explain why he would go to the ends of the earth to attend to her needs, and I confess that as a reader I could understand it no better. Of course, since both Proust and Maugham were known homosexuals, these case studies could be relegated to the category of unreliable narrator: perhaps Odette and Mildred were actually stand-ins for male lovers.
When it comes to sexiness, shifting American cultural norms are at the very least hypocritical. We accuse heterosexual men of being misogynistic by objectifying women in a singles bar even when they are not harassing them. But without that initial spark of physical attraction, why would any two people go to bed with each other? That women are capable of objectifying men without the same judgment can be readily seen in the huge popularity of the Chippendale dancers, who are now the subjects of a hit Hulu series, “Welcome to Chippendales.”
What is fashion if not an invitation to flaunt your sexiness in one way or another? If everybody dressed in frumpy garb to proclaim that they are not sex objects, a sad experiment often tried on college campuses, this would be a boring world indeed. French culture has the right answer to our neuroses: dress imaginatively and dress to attract whomever you would like to notice you. But as soon as you become an object in their gaze, show them not only your intelligence but your warmth. When you do that, you encourage them to distill their lust into love. You have only to watch “Emily in Paris” to see what I’m talking about.