Men & Women React to Male & Female Nudity

Women and men showing skin

Women and men showing skin

By Lisa Wade @ Sociological Images

We’ve all heard the truism “sex sells.”

But whose sex is sold?  And to who?

If it was simply that sex sold,

…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture.  Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men.  So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?

What is really being sold is men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity: the experience of being a person in the world who was presented with images that were for his titillation.  Women do not live in the world this way.  They are not exposed everyday to images that legitimize their lust; instead, the images teach women that they are the object of that lust.

In light of this, Sociologist Beth Eck did a series of interviews attempting to tap into what it felt like for men and women to look at male and female nudes.  Her findings were pretty fascinating.

First, she asked men and women to look at naked images of women, including this one of Cindy Crawford:

Women viewing images of female nudes almost inevitably compared themselves to the figure and felt inadequate.   Said one women:

…the portrayal of these thin models and I just get depressed… I’m very hard on myself, wanting to be that way.

Women ended up feeling bad whether the model conformed to conventional norms of attractiveness or not.  When looking at a heavy set woman, they often responded like this:

I am disgusted by it because she is fat, but I’m also… I need to lose about 10 pounds.

I don’t necessarily find her body that attractive… Her stomach looks like mine.

Men, in contrast, clearly felt pandered to as holders of a heterosexual male gaze.  They knew that the image was for them and offered praise (for a job well done) or criticism (for failure to live up to their expectations).  About Crawford they said:

Personally I think she is attractive.

I like that.

Both men and women, then, knew exactly how to respond to female nudes: women had internalized their object status (women as sex object-things) and men had internalized their subject status (men were people looking at sexy objects).

Eck then showed them male nudes, including this one of Sylvester Stallone:

Interestingly, both men and women felt uncomfortable looking at male nudes.

Men responded by either expressing extreme disinterest, re-asserting their heterosexuality, or both.  They did not compare themselves to the male nudes (like women did with female nudes), except to say that they were both male and, therefore, there was “nothing to see.”  Meanwhile, because men have been trained to be a lustful sexual subject, seeing male nudity tended to raise the specter of homosexuality.  They couldn’t see the bodies as anything but sexual objects for them to gaze upon.

In contrast, the specter of homosexuality didn’t arise for women when they looked at female nudes because they weren’t used to being positioned as lustful.  Eck explains:

When women view the seductive pose of the female nude, they do not believe she is ‘coming on to’ them.  They know she is there to arouse men.  Thus, they do not have to work at rejecting an unwanted advance.  It is not for them.

Many women also did not feel lustful when looking at male nudes and those that did often experienced lust mixed with guilt or shame.  Eck suggests that this may be, in part, a reaction to taking on the active, consuming, masculine role, something they’re not supposed to do.

Summarizing responses to the male nudes, she writes:

Men, over and over again, reject the seductive advance [of a male nude].  While some women welcome the advance, most feel a combination of shame, guilt, or repulsion in interacting with the image…

This is what it means to live in a world in which desire is structured by a gendered sexual subject/object binary.  That is, men are taught to be subjects who see women as objects, and women are taught to be objects.  It’s not just “out there,” it’s “in us” too.

This piece was originally posted in Sociological Images. A slightly edited version is
reprinted here with permission.

This is a rerun, I’m on vacation.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 19, 2015, in body image, feminism, gender, men, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. No i do not think male nudity exciets the women the way a female nudity exciets men! Men could get horny just looking at some bra strap out of a blouse of a women who otherwise could be appropriately dressed ! Here the visualisation power of men comes handy !As from that barely visible view men could paint the whole part which exciets them that is from the back if a woman is shaking her ass men could visulise her naked ass or if a woman/girl is wearing tight jeans and if her camel-toe is revealed then men could picturise her vagina in the eye of their mind and which in turn turns them on But reason for this could be that as in our society and social system one can never ever see a naked woman unless and untill one is married At least that was the picture ubtil some years ago.

    • I’m trying to remember where you’re from. Is it Israel?

      Yeah, men are visual. But that’s partly because we teach men to be visual and we teach women not to be. Partly by making “Sexy” a target for the male view. And we’ve rarely sexualize the male body, Or fetishize any part of it. There’s so part of the male body that we, as a culture, selectively hide and reveal and obsess over, for instance.

      But thank you for your thoughts and sharing something of your culture with us.

  2. I have always regarded men as generally unerotic and not very aesthetic, so looking at male nudes just makes me feel indifferent. But I can imagine many men feeling uncomfortable looking at such pictures, especially those who tend to be homophobic.

  3. This is interesting. I’d like to see this experiment done with different age groups. I feel as though the results would be very different from what Eck learned here when comparing a group of 16 yr olds and a group of 40 yr olds. 🙂 I’d have to say that the current youth is so much more sexualized than past generations. Therefore the females would be more likely to sexualize Cindy Crawford just as the males did here.

    • Yes, that would be an interesting study. Including comparing how women experience women versus how women experience sexy men these days. Because now it is more cool for women to sexualize women, but the male body still isn’t sexualized nearly as much as the female’s is — although that is changing somewhat. But there are at least 10 hot women for every hot man on a billboard, I’d guess. Maybe more like hundreds sexy women for every semi naked man. Hmmmm, I’ve got young students and sometimes I survey them. I’ll have to survey some classes and see what they say.

    • I agree, but I think you’d have to start at a younger age — I can assure you that by 16, men are already indoctrinated into the “women exist to arouse us sexually” mentality.

      I suppose you’d run into ethical and/or legal difficulties showing nudes to an audience under 16, though. In spite of the fact that mass media in all forms provide ample opportunity for the youngsters to obtain said indoctrination. These days I see stuff in movie trailers marked “approved for general audiences” that would have garnered an R rating when I was a kid.

  4. So I have a (inarticulate) theory based on no evidence: the prevailing objectification of women(‘s bodies) in mass media is not only accepted by both genders, but welcome-these days women talk openly about girl crushes and lesbianism seems to be cool and fun, but I’m not sure the same can be said about man on man action. Men’s bodies are not part of our daily discourse and I wonder if this has contributed to what zimbardo calls the demise of guys… Because women’s bodies are such a focal point, there is equal emphasis on women to be empowered beyond our bodies. But at least we start with a desire for our bodies. We have a starting point. I’m rambling, I probably should have written this when I had thought it through a bit more. I guess I’m trying to say:

    It’s ok and socially acceptable for both men and women to like women’s bodies.

    By ignoring men’s bodies, are we ignoring men?

    • I do believe we are ignoring men. And a lot of men are pissed off about it, Based on some of the comments I get on my blog.

      I’d actually be a lot less annoyed at seeing sexy women on billboards if sexy men were equally portrayed. And if women were portrayed in a much larger variety of ways than predominately as “sexy.” And if “Sexy” weren’t so narrowly defined.

  5. Very well explained. The last lines say it all.

  6. ” It’s not just “out there,” it’s “in us” too.” That internalized conditioning that is so challenging to seep out of the body. and it really affects how we see ourselves, relate to ourselves, and relate to the world.

  7. Several years ago I attended a sweat lodge ceremony that was held on a full moon. Before it began it was suggested by the leader of the ceremony (a woman) that it be a nude sweat. Unconventional, but we all consented. The image from that evening that is indelibly etched in my mind is that of a young, shapely woman standing in the moonlight, her skin white as alabaster. She looked like a radiant Greek statue and I was so deeply struck by the beauty of the feminine form. Remarkably, there was not the erotic response that one would typically expect, just the aesthetic one.

    It is an interesting dichotomy, how we view “artistic” nudes, whether ancient statues or modern photography, differently from sexualized nudes. It’s worth noting that the two photos used in the article underscore the author’s point even more, for the one of Crawford is more sexualized, the one of Stallone is more artistic (of course mimicking a famous statue). While I do find myself slipping into the male “subject status” towards images of women, the more conscious one becomes of the exploitive objectification of women, the more one shifts to an aesthetic appreciation.

    This calls to mind an earlier post of yours, I believe, that described a boyfriend who obsessed about the bodies of other women. It seems inherent in our psyches that, part of the expectation of honoring one’s love relationship is that, man or woman, both partners make that internal shift, from “subject status” to aesthetic appreciation when viewing members of the opposite sex.

    That being said, likely not many in modern western society would want to live in a culture devoid of sexy depictions of women or men. And I understand that part of the issue is not just that men’s “subject status” is pandered to, but that culture conditioning has locked women into the “object status”, thus precluding them from adopting the “subject status” – and that more sexy depictions of men would even the score, so to speak. 😉

    To that point, something else that I find interesting, my woman friends who are polyamorous seem much more comfortable with their bodies just as they are and also seem more comfortable with adopting the “subject status” toward men (clothed or not) than other women. Or at least they seem more free in expressing that, which, of course, is consistent with that lifestyle.

    • Interesting thoughts. Sounds about right. The number of men have commented on my blog feeling pissed off that men’s bodies are not eroticized (as if trying to kill me, the mere messenger). I think balance would be better such that we can appreciate both male and female bodies, But without being rude to our partners. And such that women are depicted in a much wider array of ways, other than the predominant “Sexy.”

  8. Very interesting, Georgia. I heard recently a comment that there is much more female nudity on TV and in films than male nudity. It’s sad to me that women look at that Cindy Crawford image and compare themselves with the assertion that they are falling short in comparison; while men may say they want that, the reality is that the women they fall in love with may look quite different than that. Intriguing article!

  9. That is a very interesting study, I think females always compare their own bodies with other females because they are lack of confidence and they always think they are not as good as those nudie female models. Also in today’s society, females are still seemed to be the subject. So when a nudie male is on the magazine, we just see it as men are showing their powers, but for female we would think she is just “a sexual object”. That reveals the current movies are showing more female nudity than male. It shows the difference of showing different gender of getting diverse judgments.

  10. Great post!… It is odd that male nudity is mainly related to gay pornography …when it comes to magazines!… and female nudity is so much more massive somehow…
    Probably it has to be with the fact that even for straight women, women’s bodies are considered beautiful- an object of wish- and also appealing somehow?….
    Best wishes!, Aquileana 😀

  11. Yes, at times when I see female images with sexy poses, I feel why I am not like the one,posing in the magazine. But, I dont feel depressive because I know I cant stop eating and those models work a lot hard to maintain those figure.

  12. Sabrina Szpetkowski

    I couldn’t agree more with this article! I feel as though the sexualization of the human body in our society has reached an all time high. It is honestly so sad that these are the ideals we are teaching to our younger generations. Nearly all aspects of entertainment/media use the method of “sex sells” to make money. This just internalizes the roles of women as objects and men as subjects even more. It’s pretty depressing how much of a woman’s worth is based on beauty. I was recently talking to a friend and we somehow got on the topic of what guys look for in a girl in order for her to be dateable. He told me that he knows girls often go for a guy if he has a good personality even if hes not great looking but guys wont. If a girl isn’t attractive enough, she basically doesn’t even have a chance. I definitely believe this is due to all the internalized mindsets that are taught to us by the expected reaction to seeing a naked man or woman. It related to so many issues that real people face in their lives.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It’s a tough situation.

      • Some women are so beautiful that you do not really need to see them naked. You enjoy being around them and listening. It is useless to watch porn because you have to see both partners naked. It is a pleasure to see women in two piece swim suits walking by me. I’m from San Diego so you can’t bring any sand there. Porn is only for the gain of riches.

  13. Caroline Dietrich

    Great job on this article! It really hit home for me as I have always struggled with body images. I have a small scar across my forehead that I was always made fun of for when I was in middle school as it was the time that Harry Potter had come out and was a huge deal. Therefor, I was then called harry potter which made me resent the book SOO much. My name is Caroline and I was then picked on and called “CaroDENT.” It is so upsetting in our society how everyone is so wrapped up in how we look and we are all so influenced by pop culture and we have to live up to the iconic celebrities and actors that have “PERFECT” bodies, and faces, and hair and skin. It has as a whole taken over our society. People would rather go get plastic surgery than go to the gym and have photos of these “ Perfect people” everywhere weather its in their bathroom, or bedroom they are suffocating our society as the norm.

  14. I would have to say with utmost certainty that women are usually seen as sexual subjects or objects. I have to preface this by saying women should be able to do what they want with their own bodies and I am in no way saying that they cannot promote their own sexuality but with that being said, major media outlets make it hard for not only the consumer to not compare themselves to what is in the magazines but also diminish the women within said magazines by not promoting any of their accomplishments but rather reducing them to their sexuality. I say that not only because of magazines such as Victoria’s Secret or even Sports Illustrated, which only comes out with a bikini issue just because it can but because of TV ads, billboards, fashion shows, and much, much more. One huge of example is Sports Illustrated, which is one of the magazines that I believe really does exploit women’s sexuality for the pleasure of men. I would believe it would make some sense if any of the women were actually competitive in the sports that Sports Illustrated talks about and is the main reason why it is a magazine. Out of the 28 women on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2014 magazine, only 4 are actual women who are in sports. This magazine is geared towards men and uses women’s sexuality. However, Nike does a similar version called the Body Issue but in this case not only does it include women but also men. It does not shy away from nudity but rather embraces it to show an athlete’s body, not for looks or sexual purposes, but rather from a biological and fitness standpoint, which I believe is what Sports Illustrated should begin to do instead of sexualizing women just because they can.

  15. Okay, even before reading this post I came to an assumption from the title that I don’t it would matter to me which one I saw. Then I went along to read the post and I did exactly what the majority of women did. I instantly envied the woman and compared my self to her and unnecessarily hated myself a little. And with the male photo, I was not interested at all and frankly didn’t even want to look at it. Maybe Johnny Depp would have done it. :). But this really made me stop and think why it is that we do that as women. Men don’t compare themselves like we do, as it says they were more concerned about defending their heterosexuality. Women on the other hand will sit there and just stare at other women and nitpick everything they can about themselves or even the other person. Until I started the women’s studies class, i never looked into how society and media standards affect us so much. I just always caught myself critiquing myself in negative ways. I am really interested in this subject and hope to learn alot more and possibly overcome the “norm” feelings we are given when seeing this type of stuff. Thanks.

  16. Whenever I watch television, especially cable, I am always reminded of how much more female nudity there is compared to male nudity. Although there have been more instances of male nudity in recent years, they are quite rare. I think this is due in large part to the fact that most show-runners are straight, white males. I believe that if there were more female show-runners, there would be more equal opportunity for both male and female nudity. I think the reason why there is a lack of male nudity in the media is because men do not want to be seen as objects. When men appear nude they become exposed and that makes them vulnerable. Their bodies become subjects of discussion and are opened up to criticism. In a patriarchal society, women are meant to be the objects, not men. When the roles are suddenly reversed, it is a huge blow to a man’s ego. Even though I think it is important to have “equal opportunity nudity” between the sexes, I also think what women (and men) really want is to have an emotional connection with someone and not just sex. I think the media often forgets that and becomes too focused on just selling sex instead of romance.

    • “I think the reason why there is a lack of male nudity in the media is because men do not want to be seen as objects. ”

      I think that’s a big part of it. I’ve always been uncomfortable with women being objectified, and it’s because it seems so diminishing, exposing and disrespectful.

      Years ago Brigham Young University hosted an exhibit of Rodin’s sculptures. They were fine with the female nudity but were uncomfortable with male nudity.

  17. Reading about this made me think about shifting and different perspectives on sexuality and identity. From my personal experience, many of the guys I know are comfortable in their sexuality and don’t feel the need to prove manliness or strictly adhere to traditional norms. It isn’t weird hearing heterosexual guys talk about how some other guy is hot, and people generally don’t feel the need to unnecessarily assert themselves. The people around me are generally really comfortable around each other and secure in their identities, so that their identities aren’t often challenged. I grew up in an environment that was relatively accepting and where following traditional gender roles was not as important as in other places. I know that these views are not representative of everyone, and I wonder if these views are representative of a general shift in young people, a product of the my surrounding environment or something else.

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