Gay Men’s Sexism and Women’s Bodies

For this week, we would like to introduce Yolo Akili’s brilliant article: “Gay Men’s Sexism and Women’s Bodies, in which he looks at how gay men treat women and their bodies in a way that problematically reinforces male sexism and male privilege.

At a recent presentation, I asked all of the gay male students in the room to raise their hand if in the past week they touched a woman’s body without her consent. After a moment of hesitation, all of the hands of the gay men in the room went up. I then asked the same gay men to raise their hand if in the past week they offered a woman unsolicited advice about how to “improve” her body or her fashion. Once again, after a moment of hesitation, all of the hands in the room went up.

These questions came after a brief exploration of gay men’s relationship to American fashion and women’s bodies. That dialogue included recognizing that gay men in the United States are often hailed as the experts of women’s fashion and by proxy women’s bodies. In addition to this there is a dominant logic that suggests that because gay men have no conscious desire to be sexually intimate with women, our uninvited touching and groping (physical assault) is benign.

These attitudes have led many gay men to feel curiously comfortable critiquing and touching women’s bodies at whim. What’s unique about this is not the male sense of ownership to women’s bodies—that is somewhat common. What’s curious is the minimization of these acts by gay men and many women because the male perpetuating the act is or is perceived to be gay.

An example: I was at a gay club in Atlanta with a good friend of mine who is a heterosexual black woman. While dancing in the club, a white gay male reached out and grabbed both her breasts aggressively. Shocked, she pushed him away immediately. When we both confronted him he told us: “It’s no big deal, I’m gay, I don’t want her– I was just having fun.” We expressed our frustrations to him and demanded he apologize, but he simply refused. He clearly felt entitled to touch her body and could not even acknowledge the fact that he had assaulted her.

I have experienced this attitude as being very common amongst gay men. It should also be noted that in this case, she was a black woman and he a white gay male, which makes this an eyebrow-raising dynamic as it invokes the psychological history of white men’s entitlement to black women’s bodies. However it has been my experience that this dynamic of assault with gay men and women also persists within racial groups.

At another presentation, I told this same story to the audience. Almost instantly, several young women raised up their hands to be called upon. Each of them recounted a different story with a similar theme. One young woman told a story that stuck with me:

“I was feeling really cute in this outfit I put together. Then I see this gay guy I knew from class, but not very well. I had barely said hi before he began telling me what was wrong with how I looked, how I needed to lose weight, and how if I wanted to get a man I needed to do certain things… In the midst of this, he grabbed my breasts and pushed them together, to tell me how my breasts should look as opposed to how they did. It really brought me down. I didn’t know how to respond… I was so shocked.”

Her story invoked rage amongst many other women in the audience, and an obvious silence amongst the gay men present. Their silence spoke volumes. What also seemed to speak volumes, though not ever articulated verbally, was the sense that many of the heterosexual women had not responded (aggressively or otherwise) out of fear of being perceived as homophobic. (Or that their own homophobia, in an aggressive response, would reveal itself.) This, curiously to me, did not seem to be a concern for the lesbian and queer-identified women in the room at all.

Acts like these are apart of the everyday psychological warfare against women and girls that pits them against unrealistic beauty standards and ideals. It is also a part of the culture’s constant message to women that their bodies are not their own.

It’s very disturbing, but in a culture that doesn’t see gay men who are perceived as “queer” as “men” or as having male privilege, our misogyny and sexist acts are instead read as “diva worship” or “celebrating women”, even when in reality they are objectification, assault and dehumanization.

The unique way our entitlement to women’s physical bodies plays itself out is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gay cisgender men’s sexism and privilege. This privilege does not make one a bad person any more than straight privilege makes heterosexuals bad people. It does mean that gay men can sometimes be just as unthinkingly hurtful, and unthinkingly a part of a system that participates in the oppression of others, an experience most of us can relate to. Exploration of these dynamics can lead us to query institutional systems and policies that reflect this privilege, nuanced as it is by other identities and social locations.

At the end of my last workshop on gay men’s sexism, I extended a number of questions to the gay men in the audience. I think it’s relevant to extend these same questions now:
How is your sexism and misogyny showing up in your own life, and in your relationships with your female friends, trans, lesbian, queer or heterosexual? How is it showing up in your relationship to your mothers, aunts and sisters? Is it showing up in your expectations of how they should treat you? How you talk to them? What steps can you take to address the inequitable representation of gay cisgender men in your community as leaders? How do you see that privilege showing up in your organizations and policy, and what can you do to circumvent it? How will you talk to other gay men in your community about their choices and interactions with women, and how will you work to hold them and yourself accountable?

These are just some of the questions we need to be asking ourselves so that we can help create communities where sexual or physical assault, no matter who is doing it, is deemed unacceptable. These are the kinds of questions we as gay men need to be asking ourselves so that we can continue (or for some begin) the work of addressing gender/sex inequity in our own communities, as well as in our own hearts and minds. This is a part of our healing work. This is a part of our transformation. This is a part of our accountability.
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Yolo Akili is a writer, counselor and educator. He can be reached at YoloAkili.com and via twitter: @yoloakili

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11 Responses to “Gay Men’s Sexism and Women’s Bodies”

  1. Avatar of elfen_berzerker
    elfen_berzerker December 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    This sense of entitlement does not stop with gay men and how they deal with women.

    In my life I can not begin to count the times I have had a straight woman or lesbian put her hands on me in a way that made me uncomfortable. It used to surprise me but now I expect it. Discuss work with female coworker… have a hand on my chest. Sitting across from a female talking… at some point my leg will have her hand on it. Sitting at a table minding my own business and a woman walks past me… hand on my neck/shoulder area or my neck rubbed/squeezed. Standing side by side… hand on my back (maybe rubbed).

    None of this ever happened when I was a teenager but as I went through my twenties and now in my thirties this has become the norm in my life. It’s so normal that I actually expect it to happen now. I used to make comments about it but that didn’t work out. I’d ask questions like “Why is it ok for you to put your hand on my chest while we’re talking? What would happen if I did that to you?” And I’d be met with something along the lines of “I’m a girl so it’s ok” followed by them explaining that they’d press charges if I touched their chest while we were talking. I’d say it made me uncomfortable and there would be a forced apology and an explanation that they’re just like that but nothing would change. Considering how many women in my life have talked about mens’ arms and chest being big turn ons for them and how many times I see it on TV, in magazines and on the internet where women talk about those parts of a man’s body I can’t believe that there’s nothing to the touching. I’d like to believe that but I can’t.

    Straight women aren’t the only ones that do stuff like this to me; Lesbians do it too. And I’m not sure if their explanations (When I did vocalize my discomfort back in the day) were better or worse than the straight women. It was always “I’m not into guys so there’s nothing to it”. So because you aren’t into guys touching a guy is ok? Do straight women molest other women and it’s ok because it’s not sexual?

    Now I don’t bother saying anything. I don’t ask how they’d feel about it if they were on the receiving end or tell them it makes me uncomfortable. It still happens to me all the time with women I know and don’t know and of all ages, races and orientations. I just pretend I’m ok with it, like it or don’t even notice that it’s happening. I do not return the gesture though because I know that if I do that’s going to end all kinds of bad for me because of what’s hanging between my legs and our society’s refusal to acknowledge women as offenders.

    And to continue what someone else said about different cultures I’ll share an experience I had several years ago at a concert.

    My girlfriend and I were at Ozzfest several years ago and we managed to weasel our way into a band/staff only area to meet a few of the bands. One of the bands that was in the area when we got back there was an Italian goth-metal band Lacuna Coil. Having been raised in Texas I shake your hand when I meet you. I don’t hug you or kiss you… I shake your damn hand. Well apparently those Italians don’t stop with handshakes and I ended up with the male members of the band hugging me and kissing my friggin cheeks. And pouring booze down my throat. Awkward.

    Even more awkward was the female lead singer kissing me on the lips. Just a little peck like you see on TV BUT STILL! To make it more awkward… it was in front of my girlfriend. Is the singer absolutely gorgeous? Yes. Did I want a random gorgeous woman that I have only ever seen on TV hugging and kissing me? Well… ok maybe that’s a fantasy of most every man that has ever seen this woman BUT IT IS NOT A COMFORTABLE THING WHEN IT REALLY HAPPENS!

    Would that situation have happened if they were American? The booze part probably but not the hugging and kissing part.

  2. Avatar of Mersci
    Mersci November 18, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    This is timely, certainly have experienced gay male hate and although its chalked up to “just kidding,” found it demoralizing, patronizing and above all downright-disrespectful. Perhaps its just me, but our entire culture is okay with demoralizing women for being any number of things, amongst these all too disgusting labels are the c word, the s word and the all time male favored whore-label. The English language in of it self contains more denigrating terminology towards women than any other language spoken, precisely because it has depended husbandry to expand its influence out into the rest of the world, and despises the medium by which it has accomplished this; its women. Whether through complicity or capitulation by and of women, the grand scheme is carried out, and used against them to hold the pattern course, but if the current conscious were to awaken it self and turn about, then the course of human history, along with repression, would alter. To that end, bombard the US Dept of Education to change standards of curriculum – women are sick and tired of being misrepresented – then they have got to take a stand and know where the start of it all begins: education, the manner by which minds and hearts are molded- this above all, cannot be left to tyrants.

  3. Avatar of stacqui
    stacqui November 13, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    There is also on the flip side of the issue, the pressure placed on gay men to appear as women-befriending diva fashionistas. Whilst in no way this pressure excuses assault, it is a sort of behaviour encouraged by society and the media as it makes The Gay Man a sexless threat, and in no direct competition with the alpha straight male for the woman’s attention.
    I think that people need to stop with that gay stereotype (along with the butch lesbian one), as it is highly unrealistic and destructive.
    I know gay and lesbian people, and some of them are flamboyant, and some are what could be considered ‘butch’, but that is because they are unique individuals, not because of their sexual orientation .

  4. Avatar of deannie
    deannie November 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    So as part of our accountability, can’t we say simply: Treat others as you would want to be treated? This cuts through sex, race, everything.

    • Avatar of fertala
      fertala November 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

      No, because that presumes that everybody shares likes which they don’t. There are huge cultural differences when it comes to preffered treatment in situations as well as personal ones. For example, I like hugs and if I were to treat my friend how I would like to be treated I would hug her a lot but I know that my friend likes personal space and would be uncomfortable if I were to do that so I refrain. A better idea would be to respect people’s feelings in how you treat them.

  5. Avatar of saeraisartsy
    saeraisartsy November 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    I just read this, it’s a very interesting article..and its very true, and yet I dont see a problem, and hope to express why, so here goes. I had the bestest (if that isnt a word it should be;) friend in high schooo. It was a guy friend, he was gay. And he was the most caring, wonderful individual and I wont attribute that to his gayness because I dont want to sound as if Im being patronizing, however he had more support for me as a female, more understanding of my emotions, and he was far kinder and communictive than the high school jock boyfriend I had for a year.
    He stayed a friend for years. I really got to know him..he was a good persn, that goes without saying, gay doesnt always equate to good person any more than straight does. So Im not sainting him, but I will say this, he was wonderful and the best friend I ever had. He never betrayed me, like two of my best girlfriends, he never did one thing to try and bring me down in as a matter of fact, he tried in everyway to show me that self esteem, (in high school at times it was always bout looks, I have them but they are not the end all and be all to me;) and to build it and use my intelligence. I learned a lot from him he was kind of like a mini dad, and I also dont use that word to disparage him its humor, he was quite an influence on me. Neither was he worshipping over masculinity, but he was very masculine in looks dark haired, blue eyes, really really just was himself. He talked to me for hours on end, and listened too. I loved him adored him, for the person he was. He touched me yes, but we never were intimate. I knew when I was with him, he cared bout me and vice verssa not for anything other than the two people we were. He and I sadly lost track of each other as life went on, but to this day, I can say this. I dont think he was an awesome person just because he was gay, he was an awesome person…but because he was gay, he also seemed more in touch with me, and my feelings and when he did touch me, I never minded, and he never was doing it in any disrespectful way, and he was playful too. We were friends, and the kind of friend I miss to this day though I do have a good one, who is straight, ane he too, has a kind good understanding, and cares bout my feelings. So either way, gay or not, when it comes to touching, its how its done, and the secure knwoledge that person has your best interests at heart and is just being affectionate in their own way. When he gave me advice just fyi, as the article above says one gave, it was always right too:). He never grabbed my breasts, or did anything hurtful or inappropriate, Im just making a point, that people are individuals, whereas that man may do so, other gay men may not,and addressing this issue is a good thing for those especially who feel that its ok to mush or grab hurtfully a womans breasts, but wouldnt you think that goes without saying?
    and also girls are the same, some might even do that give advice and others wouldnt, I wouldnt like a gf to grab me and squeeze my breasts either. As for gay men, the only one I knew and his best bf, they never did that, they did give me advice but for the most part, they were really gentle and good to me. I hope the issue of those that do get overly touchy or hurtful, is seem as helpful because honestly nobody should do that, not even kids when it comes to females in shcol. Its an issue I think that has spill over, because its not just gay men who have been know to do that, so to me, its an individual thing..maybe not gays. Trying to put on gay men that they grab or hurt females in giving advice, in my experience, and I met all of my friends best male gay friends, never did anything to hurt me or physically assault me and yet more than one straight man has. Just saying, from a straight woman who knew some really nice gay men, and the majority, nothing like that ever.

    • Avatar of saeraisartsy
      saeraisartsy November 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

      And just to clarify for those with certain minds, he never touched me in an intimate way, ever, nor did his friends ever invade my space, they were respectful, nice, friendly funny and in fact treated me like a princess. I wasnt visiting to come on to any of them, and most were professionals, and the fact that they let me join in their dinner, it was not some wild party but it was a lot of interesting discussion and just a wonderful evening. I was surprised and delighted, they weren’t being phoney and I felt again like some princess, I dont exaggerate or embellish nor, do I detract or put a spin on this. I was a wonderful get together. Maybe my experience was unusual, but I felt it was the norm. I was treated absolutely with respect whenever my best friend and I dropped in. I still had a love life of my own, just fyi..but twice, I was treated far worse by straight men and their tempers and bullying, controlling etc, and never like that by my gay male friend. He never tried to control me, never bullied me, never ever tried a thing, but to be a good friend.

      • Avatar of Fredrik
        Fredrik November 27, 2012 at 9:14 am #

        Yes, unfortunately, the fact that you “felt it was the norm” does not make it so. It was a lovely story and I’m sure you had the best time ever, but this does not in any way change that others feel completely differently about this issue. I mean, I haven’t seen much of the problem the article discusses, but does that in any way mean that the problem doesn’t exist? Nope.

        I know you started out saying that the article was “very true” but then you went on to saying that this wasn’t a problem, followed by a story that told me you actually do not know anything about the problem. I can only conclude that what you think you know is based on assumptions that are, in turn, based on what you personally have and have not experienced. Again, saying that you haven’t had any problems does not in any way mean that others haven’t had problems.

        In response to the article; I have known a few gay men and they have been, well, people. I’ve never seen this issue actually appear anywhere I’ve been in Sweden, but then again I don’t spend a lot of time clubbing where I’d imagine a lot of unsolicited touching may take place. The fact that this problem exists, however, makes me deeply concerned. Honestly… the fact that you’re gay does not mean you can violate personal boundaries. Nothing gives you the right to do that.

        Seems like it should be pretty self-explanatory.

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