Friday, February 21, 2014

"Every Man Does Not Look Like Brad Pitt"

Dave Zirin interviewed the gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis for The Nation, and alas, Davis (who is "now the executive director for the You Can Play Project", which indicates he thinks he's some kind of spokesman) didn't do a very good job.  When the inevitable "objectification" (aka "What do I do if a gay guy looks at me in the shower?") question came up, Davis said:
You know, it all comes down to having experiences. I guarantee that if Jonathan Vilma has a chance to sit down with myself or any other gay person, he’d be like, “You know what? These old ideas that I had about gay people… they really aren’t true.” It’s not all Jonathan Vilma’s fault. Our country has a very monolithic way that they show gay men—the Modern Familys and what not. The exposure’s great, but let’s have some nuance to show that there are different types of gay people, so Jonathan Vilma’s mind can expand and he can say, “Oh, every gay man doesn’t want me.” Most guys look terrible naked, and I should know. And, straight guys look too… there’s a perception that straight guys don’t check out other guys’ penises, and that’s a lie. The one difference is that some straight guys get uncomfortable and think that every gay man wants them. Wrong. Every man does not look like Brad Pitt.
The best thing here is Davis's pointing out that "straight guys look too."  It's not necessarily erotic, it's more the expression of competitive anxiety over penis size -- though such anxiety doesn't necessarily exclude erotic interest.  But yes, having spent some years in locker rooms, whether under compulsion for high school PE or of my own free will when I was working out, I know that if every man who looks at other men's bodies in a locker room is gay, there are hardly any straight guys in locker rooms. 

But aside from that, Davis's remarks are a mess.  What "looks terrible naked" is open to considerable variation, and you don't have to "look like Brad Pitt" to be desirable.  (Not all gay men want Brad Pitt in the first place.  Or Channing Tatum, or whoever.)  This is just more of the same old garbage which puts down everyone who doesn't look like a model or movie star as too ugly to fuck.  Luckily, those of us who don't look like models or movie stars still do get laid, and checked out in the showers for that matter.

Besides, I wonder how many straight men really will be reassured by being told that they're too ugly to fuck.  Again, in my experience, many straight men -- and not only straight men -- are disappointed when they find out that a given gay man isn't secretly seething with lust for them.  And some, especially athletes like Vilma, may still want to ask "But what if some gay guy does want me?"  That's easy enough: you say, "No, thanks" or "Yes, please," depending on your own wishes.  It may help to reassure them that no matter what they look like, not all gay men will want them.  On the other hand, some straight men enjoy being admired and desired.  The real problem for people like Jonathan Vilma is that they think that just being looked at, admired and desired, unmans them.  But there's nothing much they can do about that, since they'll be looked at, admired and desired even when they're fully suited up for the game.

Zirin and Davis use the word "objectification" for this, but that's too easy: not all desire objectifies, and indeed objectification doesn't have that much to do with erotic desire -- it's about control, about seeing erotic relations as a power struggle from which the man must always emerge the victor.  (For many gay men, of course, being a bottom is victory.)  Should Zirin and Davis have gone into this?  If they're going to touch on straight male anxiety about being "objectified," yes.  I don't think we're going to be able to resolve homophobia and antigay bigotry unless we can think about such things.  About thirty years ago Joanna Russ wrote:
I’ve always thought that patriarchal male sexuality must be a rather difficult business. To over-simplify: A partner’s hostility or boredom is ordinarily a real turn-off – and yet this is exactly the situation under patriarchy, where so many women are not interested, not excited, not participants, and not happy. Yet men must penetrate and ejaculate if there are to be any babies – and so the problem for patriarchy (whether you think of this as a one-time invention or a constant process) is to construct a male sexuality that can function in the face of a woman’s non-cooperation or outright fear and hostility.
As long as that's the case, and I think it is the case, it's not surprising that the existence of openly gay or bisexual people is going to generate anxiety among many heterosexuals.  That means we not only need to talk about such issues, we need to do some hard thinking about what they mean in people's real lives.