In a TV interview in the 1970’s, feminist author Susan Brownmiller remarked, “When Hugh Hefner comes out here with a cottontail attached to his rear end, then we’ll have equality.”
This quotation has inspired me to imagine a world in reverse. Imagine an America in which:
- There is a restaurant called Cahones. This restaurant hires only male waiters, all of whom wear blue speedos to work. All of the tables in the restaurant are low to the ground, and the clientele sit on pillows, so that the tables are in just the right spot for some gazing-while-grazing.
- For every music video in which a woman seductively licks an ice cream cone, there is a music video in which a man seductively eats a slice of watermelon.
- For every music video in which a woman’s breasts are shown as agents of destruction, there is a music video in which a man’s penis is shown as an agent of creation. (I’m thinking a flower could come out of the end, but there’s room for creative license here.)
- There is a franchise called Playboy. Yes, the magazine is a start, but now there is also a mansion, where Playboys dressed as—hmmm, I can’t think of an animal right now. Bunny doesn’t seem right—women wouldn’t want drinks served by bunny men. And most other animals just seem silly, don’t you think? Maybe they could wear the blue Speedos again, and a bowtie, like the Chip n Dale’s guys. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Anyway, they serve drinks and smile a lot, but they can’t go on a date with any of the women who come to drink and gaze, gaze and drink, and spend, spend, spend. (And these men are understood to be quite masculine, and they really do WANT to go on a date with the nice rich ladies.)
- You can go through a car wash at a male strip joint where all the men who work in the place wash your car while wearing—you guessed it. And pressing that blue baby up against the windows of your low-rider. While you eat some fries that you bought to go with that shake.
- When you’re on vacation with your family, or just driving home from a visit to see relatives in another state, you pass at least one billboard advertising a strip joint featuring a young fresh-faced blond man. The place is named something like Full Moon, and the ad proclaims that you must be 18, but no experience is necessary. You find yourself wondering if you need to say anything about this billboard to your children, but then your husband wisecracks that he knows where he will be getting that part-time job to fund your next vacation.
- When you Google the name of your favorite actor, ten shots of him in a bathing suit or a towel immediately pop up in the search results.
- On your next trip to the beach, or as you’re driving down Main Street in your hometown, or both, you see a sign advertising a Wet Boxer Shorts contest. (Exactly what we’d be judging here, and how, would be a matter of some debate. But I’m sure we could come up with something.)
- As you’re shopping for some clothing at the local mall, you pass three triple-life-sized air-brushed photos of shiny men in lazily erotic poses, decorating the windows of an underwear store called Victor’s Promise.
As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where men are sexual objects. And I don’t think it would necessarily create sexual equality—or, if it did, it would be an equality of voracious indifference in which real sex, the kind that can give you AIDS or a baby or seal a marriage with a kiss for fifty years—is nowhere in the equation.
However, I do think the world I’ve described above makes for an interesting thought experiment. If you’re a woman, how would you feel living in this world? Would you feel more powerful than you currently do? More constantly stimulated, even when you have PMS or a headache or you’ve just had a baby? Would you feel that the world is alive with possibility? Would you feel a little guilty for liking what you saw all around you? Would you think some of it was stupid, and blatantly manipulative? Would you want to go to a restaurant named Cahones, even just once, to see what it’s like? How would you respond to peer pressure—what if a bunch of your girlfriends are going to get their cars washed by guys in speedos and you know your boyfriend wouldn’t like it if you went along? In a way, it’s hard to know exactly how you’d feel—while there are elements in our culture that objectify men (I’ve named a couple above), these are fringe elements, not the mainstream. If the sexual objectification of men were part of mainstream culture, it’s entirely possible that women wouldn’t give it much thought at all—it would just be how things are.
If you’re a man, think for a moment about how it would feel to live in the culture I’ve described above, to learn it from the moment testosterone starts to flood your system. Would you feel confused about your body and your mind, and the relationship between the two? Would you want to participate in the culture you saw all around you? Can you even imagine a flipped world like this, in which the men who are on display are decidedly masculine—a world in which it is part of being masculine to be a treat for female appetites?
Oh, the ways in which this Bizarro world would flip things around. And not just for the heterosexual among us. We sometimes forget—consciously or unconsciously—that homosexuality is, you know, a thing. So always, there are people among us who are looking at images that send simultaneous messages about the bodies they are attracted to AND the bodies they own. When you begin to think about sexual equality from a homosexual standpoint, all sorts of interesting things surface—chief among them, the fact that we see homosexual men as willing to put their bodies on display (which makes them “feminine”) while homosexual women would be too “masculine” for such silliness. Unless, of course, these women are displaying their bodies as part of some Girl On Girl Action. (But there we are again, back in the sexual politics of this world. Can you imagine two women discussing their desire to see some Boy On Boy Action? My goodness, they’d sound like pedophiles.)
While my thought experiment is interesting, and, I’ll admit, a little bit fun, it’s not realistic. And it doesn’t get us sexual equality, at least not in a meeting-of-the-minds, we’re-all-grownups-here kind of way.
So what does?
How about a world in which no one wears a tail on his her rear end? A world in which, while sex does indeed sell, the profitability of sex is not the most important thing about it culturally. This world would require an awful lot of calming down, all across that fancy information superhighway of ours. Once we felt sufficiently calm, emotionally and physically, we might be able to negotiate a way of being in which everyone gets to be a sexual person—however he or she defines that—which means, within bounds, everyone gets a little play. But no one gets exclusive, exploitative rights to the playground.