A couple decades ago, a good friend of mine started transitioning to reflect who he really is. Assigned female at birth, Floyd (not his real name) was the first person close to me to undergo that change.
I must confess, I made some pretty monumental and sloppy errors about respecting his name and gender. I’m thankful Floyd decided I was worth keeping as a friend. Then and now, we are both art and music geeks of sorts, skewering each other with our quick and irreverent senses of humor.
Back when he was just beginning to take testosterone (or “T”), he reported feeling like he was going through puberty, but as a grown man. Voice cracking and everything.
However, one particular experience that he shared made me think more about how my own body and my masculinity relate to each other. It made me consider the social narratives of how “unstoppable” male biological urges are — but also that, as powerful as hormones can be, we also determine what kind of men we are.
Floyd mentioned a time when an attractive woman walked by. All of a sudden, it was like he HAD to stare at her and at certain body parts. As if something in his brain might “actually break” if he looked away.
“My attractions [or] attention to women started to become much more physical and more insistent. … Instead of curiosity or appreciation or interest, it felt much more like an imperative. Where before I physically transitioned, it was like casually observing something I might be interested in, for example, ‘What movie would I like to go see?’ … After several months of ‘T,’ it felt like an un-ignorable command given from my body to my body. Like, my head is being held underwater and I must breathe, so I will do anything I need to get to air!”
Testosterone is a helluva drug, y’all.
I know the impulse he described — all too well. Like many mammals, cis-men are pretty much hardwired by testosterone (I should note women have it too, though in much smaller quantities) and other biochemical mechanisms to have orgasms in five minutes flat. Way back in the day, the very existence of humanity partly depended on procreating quickly.
To be clear, this isn’t a treatise to excuse men from ogling women because “we can’t help it.”
Of course, men have the ability to not let our jaw drop to the floor and gape at every woman that walks by. A lot of us use it while being out at an anniversary dinner with our partner. We know that it is very important not to gaze dreamily at the Lupita Nyong’o lookalike walking by while toasting your boo. Some of us mess up that moment. Others have partners who agree that checking out others is OK.
We can also control our sexual urges. It just takes the intention to get to know one’s body better, despite what seems to be pretty ancient bodily programming. We can slow down; breathe; do tantric masturbation techniques such as “edging”; not be so focused on one’s own pleasure; and pay more attention to our partner’s pleasure verbal and nonverbal cues.
I personally see this as a particular milestone of manhood, to move from the pubescent “just bust a nut” instant-gratification school into graduate levels of unhurried and empathic lovemaking.
I mention all of this to say that “nurture” can overcome “nature” whether we are talking about creepy stares, sexist comments or quick orgasms.
Floyd personally experienced unwanted male attention, which deeply influenced how he walks through the world now.
He said, “As a female person prior to transitioning, I was very clear on how it felt to be objectified. I knew and know that it sucks. And so while my experience of attraction changed from a more mental experience to an undeniable physical experience, I have always done my best to not be a creep. I think it is normal for men to notice folks (female or male or nonbinary) who they are attracted to and have a physical response that is akin to their body screaming at their eyes, ‘LOOK AT THAT!!!!!’”
Yet Floyd acknowledges that men have minds and can deduce what makes others uncomfortable. “However,” he explained, “the wages of patriarchy are that men are afforded the privilege of acting like idiots.”
Experiencing a surge in “wildly, vividly, overwhelmingly physical” attraction, Floyd made a commitment not to ignore others’ feelings and wellbeing in pursuit of manliness, “conquest” or any other number of bullshit goals.
He became a self-educated “expert in not-looking” and valuing other people’s humanity more than his momentary desires.
“I will not stare at a woman or a man or someone of any other varied gender presentation that I find attractive because coming across as a threat isn’t a great way to flirt. Why would I want a person I might pursue [for] either an encounter or a relationship to feel bad in all the ways that I know firsthand this objectification makes people feel bad?”
Well put. I too have trained myself not to contribute to the 24/7 onslaught of ogling and street harassment that most women start receiving from grown men as early as 13 years of age, sometimes younger. Rape culture and patriarchy create a fear-inducing atmosphere in these ways, way before any physical contact.
To be sure, what some people experience as ogling and harassment, others experience as flattering attention. But there is a difference between respectful, confident assertiveness and humanity-ignoring aggressiveness. I trust that deep down, most of us know and feel the difference.
You can look, smile and then look away. It gets easier once you start. And it’s worth it to 1) not give off vibes of being a stalker dude, and 2) help build a community where women and other folks don’t have to be on guard. I’ve had women approach me after I smiled and then studiously looked somewhere else.
Confronting insistent biological messages can make us more empathetic, respectful and mature persons. In turn, we’re better lovers, less self-centered and less focused on urgent satisfaction.
As men, we can ensure people don’t need to be vigilant around us. We can dismantle our comfort with patriarchy and the violence against women that’s its toxic symptom.
When you don’t look at people like they are dinner, you create a nonthreatening space to actually meet them.
Richard M. Wright is a healthy masculinity specialist, public speaker, author, counselor, educator and multimodal artist. He also identifies as a sci-fi geek and an intersectional Afrofuturist. His personal Wakanda resides somewhere between ‘80s Kingston & ‘90s NYC in his mind. www.richardmwright.com