There are certain conversations that I have with people which I find extremely aggravating. The reason for this is because they always go in exactly the same way. The reactions of people I talk to in these conversations is so predictable, so certain, and at the same time so insulting, that I want to shed a tear for how prevalent this mentality is. One of these is talking to heterosexual men about whether or not topless sunbathing should be made legal. I have had this discussion four different times, with four different groups of men, and it has gone the exact same way, every time.
Topless sunbathing has been legal in Italy for a very long time. It is so normalized that I had no idea that it was not also legal in the majority of Western countries. This is the primary reason why I get dragged into these conversations, because people who want to discuss whether or not it should be legalized in their own countries are curious about the perspective of someone who already lives in such a country. Every time, the conversation goes like this:
Me: Laws against bare breasts are stupid, because it’s not about the breast, it is about the nipple. Cleavage, side boob and under boob are all legal, but female nipples are, for some reason, considered obscene, when they look exactly the same as male nipples, except they’re not hairy.
Men: Yes, but, boobs are sexy! It would be tough for men, who grew up in countries where topless sunbathing is illegal, to get used to it. I couldn’t help but look at them. I wouldn’t drool and stare, of course, but a small part of me doesn’t want to get so used to boobs that I don’t find them sexy anymore.
Me: Yea, trust me, Italian men are still perfectly capable of sexualizing boobs despite the fact that they see them in a casual beach setting. You wont lose your boob love just because some women decide to sunbathe without a top on in your vicinity.
Men: But, then, how do they avoid getting a boner at the beach? I would be afraid of looking like a perv! I would be afraid of either panicking and having to stare at the sand all day, or being chased down by an angry mob for getting a stiffy! It would make me super uncomfortable.
Me: … you realize that most women don’t look like super models, right? I mean, the majority of the women who sunbathe topless in Italy look like your Mom, or your Grandmother. There are a few young pretty women who do it, but everyone goes to the beach, not just swimsuit models.
Men: Ew! Gross! I don’t want it to be legal anymore! I don’t want to see that!
And this is the part where I seriously risk losing my shit.
Me: You realize that women don’t exist for the purpose of your viewing pleasure, do you? Personally, I would rather not see old fat men with back hair wearing speedos, but you know what I do when such a person goes to the beach? I don’t stare at them. It would never cross my mind that those men had any less of a right to be there or to wear what they want than I do.
Men: (looking sheepish) yea… well… of course I know that… I didn’t mean… I was just kidding
We usually leave it at that, but these reactions annoy me on a deeper level than the assumption that women exist to please men. It is indicative of a deeper and, in my opinion, far more insidious mentality that is never really addressed. I like to call it the Invisible Women Syndrome.
In my frequent talks with my heterosexual male peers, I noticed that Invisible Women Syndrome is responsible for many of the idiotic statements that baffle my heterosexual, female peers. Things like “I would be flattered if random women complimented me on the street!”, or “It’s so easy for you women. We have to work exceptionally hard to get laid, while all you have to do is raise your hand in a bar”, or “Statutory rape is different between boys and girls! When I was 14, I would have loved it if a 20-year old teacher had seduced me!” There are other factors at play here: like the fact that teenage girls are not considered to have sexual desires (not if they’re proper girls, anyway), but Invisible Women Syndrome is at the heart of many of these assumptions.
It comes down to the fact that, when these heterosexual men say or hear the word “women”, they think about the kinds of women they see on magazine covers, in television ads, in movies or on TV shows. Most of whom are very attractive, and most of whom they would love to sleep with. It seems to escape their notice completely, that the women who fall into this category represent a far smaller percentage of the population than TV would lead you to believe. Replace “wedding ring” with “women you don’t find attractive”, and this scene from Scrubs pretty much sums it up.
I came to realize this, because I am an Invisible Woman. I was overweight for the majority of my life, and as such I had a very hard time with men. I have never had a one night stand, not because I never wanted one, but because I have never been attractive enough for it to be so easy. When I was 14, if a 20 year old Will Smith-looking type had tried to seduce me, I would have been over the moon about it, and I would have jumped into that sexual relationship with both feet, feeling like I was the luckiest girl on the planet. (Note: please don’t take this as me condoning statutory rape. I don’t, at all. I just don’t think that the double standard between male and female victims should exist).
I have been battling with Invisible Women Syndrome ever since I started trying to get my heterosexual male peers to empathize with how women feel about catcalling, or about being rubbed up against on the bus. It was never enough to say “How would you like it if women did that to you?” I always had to say “How would you like it if a very unattractive woman who is old enough to be your grandmother who is missing a few teeth and stinks of cabbage did that to you?”. Not that all the men that catcall look like Igor, but it was necessary to frame it that way to get any response other than “I would love that!” Many of them even look shocked that an old, unattractive woman would ever dare approach them in a sexual manner, as if they should know that they are an Invisible Woman, and they should therefore remain, well, invisible.
I am also aware that, in this highly lefty forum, the number of men who are afflicted with Invisible Women Syndrome will be fewer than the number I meet in my day-to-day life. However, I also want to note that Invisible Women Syndrome is not something that only afflicts overtly sexist, self-important men. It is often a subconscious assumption, but one that can shrivel up and die if a light is shone on it. That is the main reason why I wrote this post, because I want as many people as possible to ask themselves if they do this too. Ask yourself:
- When I say “picture a woman”. What image of a woman pops into your mind?
- Does this automatic image of what a woman looks like influence your thinking when you enter into discussions about sexual encounters and the “differences” between the sexes?