After my recent post about strategic ways that women can signal their attraction to men, we discussed how tricky it can be to walk the fine line between signaling interest and initiating. Women coming of age today have been raised to pursue achievement in service of their goals. So it seems backward to relegate ourselves to an indirect approach – we’d like more control of our love lives. Yet women continue to strongly prefer male leadership in dating.
We believe that it is our job is to inspire the male to initiate. Instead of asking a guy out, we objectify ourselves – we wish to be perceived as an “object of desire.” Of course, we can refuse to play along with traditional gender roles and expectations. But then we risk winding up with men who also don’t play along, leading to a female-dominated relationship. Most women want to avoid that.
Researchers Bogaert and Brotto have studied the theory of the Object of Desire Self-Consciousness, the perception that one is romantically and sexually desirable in another person’s eyes. Though this concept plays an important role in the mating activities in both sexes, “object of desire self-consciousness plays a particularly important role in heterosexual women’s sexual/romantic functioning and desires.”
Men are far less likely to view themselves in this way, perhaps because they understand that women are less visual and select mates based on the additional criteria of social behavior and resources/status.
A Key Sex Difference in Mating
The paper lays out the biologic nature of the sex differences. First, they define the two distinct elements of mating, courtship and relationship formation:
- Romance: feelings of infatuation and emotional attachment
- Sex: a wish, need, drive to seek out sexual objects or sexual activities
Two different brain systems handle romantic and sexual processes. Researchers believe this is because they evolved at very different times. Initially, homo sapiens was promiscuous, and later transitioned to pair bonding. We know from fossil remains that at about this time, reproducing males got smaller and less dominant. It’s believed that women shifted their preference to men who would invest in their offspring, both emotionally and by providing resources.
Romantic processes, or “affectional bonding”, evolved relatively recently from the attachment system. In contrast, sexual processes evolved long ago from mating and sexual attraction systems. For women, these processes produce mating scripts that are often tightly woven, for example:
ROMANCE ———>SEXUAL ATTRACTION AND DESIRE
SEXUAL ATTRACTION AND DESIRE ———–>ROMANCE
This two-way interaction of romance and sex scripts is far less prevalent in men.
According to the researchers, women’s mating goals are best served by their being as attractive as possible to as many men as possible.
Object of Desire Self-Consciousness is ascertained over a lifetime of processing information that gives us a sense of our mate value. We are socialized from the earliest age to overtly appeal to men, and we spend a great deal of time and resources on maximizing our physical appeal.
“It is to a woman’s advantage to stimulate as much sexual desire as possible from potential male suitors because this “demand” for her (as a sexual partner) raises her “price” in the sexual marketplace and ultimately determines what she can expect from men (in terms of resources) in return.
ODSC can be construed, then, as an important “signal” that one has stimulated high demand from a potential suitor(s). ODSC is a valuable, self-regulatory tool allowing women to demand an optimally high price for her sexual resource.
That many women, on average, devote considerable time and money to maintaining or enhancing their beauty and sexual appeal speaks to the importance of achieving ODSC, and its regulation, in the sexual marketplace.”
We tune in carefully to cues of male attraction. Researchers have found that female sexual fantasies are heavily oriented towards being gazed at and wanted by males. The most common theme is that women imagine being “a beautiful object of desire.” In fact, looking at the sexual fantasies of both men and women, the only “illegal” activity women regularly fantasized about was exposing themselves while men watched them. (Men fantasized about rape and having sex with minors.)
Another common theme in women’s fantasies is that of being the victim. In this context, the man is unable to resist the woman and overpowers her. It is her irresistibility that appeals to her and arouses her.
The Female Gaze?
Women report that how they feel about their own bodies plays a larger role in their sexual arousal than the appearance of their partner’s body. When they feel attractive enough to inspire desire, that desire is their source of arousal. This explains why women sexually tease men – it increases male desire.
“Graham and colleagues (2004) did not report that women have a preference for, or are particularly turned on by, seeing their partner’s body. Thus viewing a man’s bodily features (e.g., his genitals) may have limited appeal for a woman during a sexual episode.
…However, seeing a man’s erection may have some sex appeal to a woman indirectly, because it shows her that he is aroused (to her). Thus the “turn on” may derive from her ODSC and its link to sexuality, in that it shows that her body and the activities she might engage in are effective as objects of desire.
In short, the context of the erection (“He is turned on by me”) may be more important than viewing the erect penis in and of itself.
In contrast, men’s interest/arousal in women’s bodies (e.g., breasts, buttocks) while engaging in sexual activity (or not) are likely much more independent of the context in which those displays of body parts are occurring: they are turn-ons in and of themselves.”
I Feel Sexy
When women feel sexy, what they are really saying is that they have successfully inspired desire. “Sexy” is the adjective that indicates the ability – and intention – to produce feelings of sexual desire in others. Men rarely describe themselves in these terms.
“When a person says, “I am feeling sexy,” it is often as if he or she is saying “I am feeling sexually attractive, and am therefore feeling sexual.”
They perceive themselves as a (potential) sexual object of desire in other’s eyes, and this is a turn-on.
It is interesting that this phrase indicates more than just knowledge that one is/can arouse sex feelings in others. It is now a true sensation or a feeling.”
Most women are unlikely to say they feel sexual, or horny. For a woman to say so, she must be willing to initiate sex on her terms, which happens primarily in relationships, or among unrestricted, sexually aggressive women.
In view of how dramatically women’s roles have changed in society in recent decades, how should we manage our evolved ancestral romantic and sexual systems?
How do we take charge at work, then go out in the evening and relegate ourselves to the passive role of inspiring the male gaze?
What is the impact on romantic relationships today? How do guys feel about this strange dichotomy?
Do you feel confused about your role in romantic and sexual contexts?
There’s a lot to unpack here, let’s discuss!