It’s so often said that “men are visual.”
This is used both as an explanation for difficult behavior and for self-flagellation/self-doubt.
Men are not inherently more “visual” than women.
After all, it is women who guide purchase behavior of most “visual” products. Women’s fashion is a great example: most of us aren’t buying more clothes out of need, but instead buy a new dress out of a desire for visual interest, artistry, and a new piece of wearable art. Most home furnishings are purchased by women, for it is not typically men who require colored throw pillows on the couch or bed. In the world of visual arts, there is nary a category that isn’t driven by female purchasing behavior.
What’s happening instead is that men are given one culturally appropriate form of visual enthusiasm: women’s bodies. Our bodies are their art. This is the “nurture.”
The “nature” part of what’s happening is biologically driven by a delineation between “responsive sexual desire” and “spontaneous sexual desire.” Responsive sexual desire requires input and stimulus: a meal, a conversation, a connection. Spontaneous sexual desire is present even when there are no stimuli; it’s enough to simply catch a glance at someone and feel an urge.
These sexual desires are not 100 percent correlated to gender, but the responsive type tends to be more present in females and the spontaneous tends to be more present in males.
The issue with the “men are visual creatures” statement is that it erases the nuances and opportunity to learn why men are aroused without the additional stimulus of a long conversation. It also doesn’t help women learn to navigate the often confusing world of advice suggesting that we give men a chance but we just aren’t feeling that attraction.
So should we?
Bodies are my professional business. Last year, I did a body image workshop for professionals. The facilitator posted two blank sheets of craft paper on the wall, asked for a volunteer, and then invited us to call out what “perfect” features of an “ideal” woman entailed. Large breasts, long legs, long hair, round bum, tiny waist—all the expected stuff. The volunteer drew a stick figure of a woman with these features, which rather resembled a famous 1950s doll.
When our volunteer artist started on the “ideal” man, the women in the group started listing features that were razor-precise: square jaw, blue eyes, thick eyebrows, brown hair, broad shoulders, six pack abs. Enter G.I. Joe.
When it comes to describing, in detail, what we find attractive about the opposite sex, both genders are equally specific. And women actually place a higher standard of specificity on what makes a man “sexy” than what’s required of women. Men are not concerned with whether a woman’s hair is blonde or her eyes are blue. It’s not a dealbreaker for men, but it sure seems to be for the ladies.
This idea that men are visual can devastate us after a date.
We must not be thin enough. We must not have worn the right outfit. We must have turned him off because we have wrinkles or a bit of a mommy tummy.
It doesn’t work that way. Women are actually more visual in every category and actually more particular about what we find sexually appealing if we are going to draft our perfect partner.
What we are not, as much, is filled with spontaneous sexual desire. What we are, to a greater extent than our date, is responsive with our desires.
Can you let go of your “ideal man” for a date or two or three and see if your responsive sexual desire system starts to respond? Can you chuck your “tall, dark, and handsome” list? Can you be open to leaning more about these two types of desires so that you can understand your date more if he doesn’t call you back?
After all, he can’t help who he is instantly responsive to.