When you hear the phrase “sexual double standard,” you might think of the stereotype that women who have many sexual partners are “sluts” while men who do the same are “players.” That’s a sexist assumption that is definitely worth debunking. But there are other, related sexual double standards we don’t talk about as much.
From inconsistent views of nudity to stigma around sex toys, here are a few sexual double standards that we need to debunk.
Female Nudity Is Alluring, Male Nudity Is Embarrassing
Depictions of nudity in movies and on TV tend to follow a specific formula: If the naked person is female, her body is supposed to be an object of erotic pleasure, typically for a male character whose perspective the audience is expected to share. If the naked person is male, his body is supposed to be a joke, and his nakedness is supposed to be embarrassing for the audience because, once again, they’re expected to take the man’s perspective.
This is, needless to say, a very limited way of looking at people and their bodies. It assumes that everybody will identify with a heterosexual male perspective - so much so that it makes this perspective out to be universal.
It isn’t, though. Although 76% of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s nudes were female in 2012, male nudes were the norm in ancient Greece and Rome, and they were often eroticized. Phallic symbols abounded, with specific beauty ideals placed on the penis (small ones were considered more aesthetically pleasing). Male bodies not considered gross or unsightly.
It’s unclear exactly where the conception of women as the “fair sex” came from, but the phrase was first used in the 17th century, and today, there seems to be a widespread idea that women are more pleasant than men to look at. Through this ideal, a subjective heterosexual male perspective masquerades as objective reality.
The erasure of any erotic form of male nudity is also an erasure of many women’s desire, as well as many other people’s. In fact, there are people of all genders and sexual orientations (even straight men) who get aroused by looking at male bodies.
Universalizing a heterosexual male perspective of what’s pleasant to look at fuels the universalization of male perspectives in other areas like politics and the workplace. By making the effort to portray a wider range of sexual desires, we’d be sending the message to everyone that their desires - and they themselves - matter.
By making the effort to portray a wider range of sexual desires, we’d be sending the message to everyone that their desires - and they themselves - matter.
And by making female bodies out to be more than masturbation material - by showing that they, too, can be embarrassing, gross, utilitarian, and other qualities attributed to male bodies - we’d also humanize women. Rather than prompt them to look at themselves through outsiders’ eyes, we’d validate their own perspectives as multidimensional people.
Female Masturbation Is Hot, Male Masturbation Is Gross
Along similar lines, male masturbation is typically used as a joke in TV and movies, while female masturbation is considered sexy, once again an object for the male gaze. Or, at its best, female masturbation is deemed a wild, rebellious act, which doesn’t help normalize it either.
This may sound contradictory, because male masturbation is more normalized than female masturbation. But while it is considered normal, it’s not really considered positive. Men are expected to do it, for better or for worse. It’s spoken about like some sort of natural disaster. It’s not always convenient or wanted - it just is.
Female masturbation, on the other hand, is viewed as less natural, since women are supposedly less sexual and, therefore, it’s assumed to serve some higher purpose. Sometimes, this purpose is a performance for the male gaze. Other times, it’s a personal or political awakening.
Take the movie "American Pie," for example. From getting walked in on with a sock around his penis to humping a pie, Jason Biggs’ masturbation attempts are considered equal parts humiliating and humorous (although perhaps not humorous for him). But when Nadia, a female classmate of his, masturbates, it’s considered hot. A group of boys is spying on her (as if that were OK), and she sensually undresses and caresses her body as if she were trying to put on a good show for them. This depicts female masturbationas, like everything a woman does, a performance for men.
Other times, masturbation is used as a signifier of how freaky a woman supposedly is. In In the movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," for example, the protagonist goes home with a woman with the intention of having sex, and she begins to masturbate in her bathtub. “This girl is a freak,” a friend who has come to stage an intervention warns him. After they pause to listen in on her squeals, he sarcastically replies, “Oh, you think?”
When it’s not depicted in one of these ways, female masturbation is often depicted as some sort of emotional or spiritual quest. In the movie "Pleasantville," Joan Allen’s masturbation session causes an awakening in her that makes the world fill with color.
Even on the progressive, feminist show "Broad City," the protagonist Ilana’s masturbation ritual involves putting on lipstick and a sparkly bra and lighting candles. The idea of a man getting all primped up and setting a romantic mood to masturbate would be laughable.
Both the view of female masturbation as abnormal and shameful and the view of female masturbation as a statement or performance shortchange women. They make it seem like masturbation is not natural to us, which actually contributes to the taboo.
We also shortchange men by depicting their masturbation as animalistic and unsavory, when it can be just as exploratory and emotional as female masturbation.
Using Sex Toys Is Normal for Women, But Creepy for Men
The movement to destigmatize female masturbation came largely from sex toy companies. Feminist sex shops like Babeland and Good Vibrations have normalized female masturbation by selling women sex toys and holding workshops to teach them about their bodies.
Men never had such a thing, largely because they didn’t need it as much. As I mentioned, male masturbation has long been viewed as normal.
But this has led to a stigma against men using sex toys. If straight men are interested in exploring prostate play or anal stimulation, their sexual orientation is questioned. If they use a toy like a Fleshlight that mimics female genitalia, people tease them for not being able to find a real woman. If they use any sex toy at all, they’re labeled as kinky or feminine.
The differing views of male and female sex toy ownership stem from misconceptions about the purpose of sex toys as well as stereotypes about male and female sexuality. Too many people believe male sexuality is so simple, there’s no reason they’d need anything but their hand, while female sexuality is so complicated, they require the assistance of a gadget.
Neither of these views is accurate: Sex toys are not necessary for women to have fulfilling sex lives but make fun additions to the sex lives they already have, and men (like everyone) always have many new avenues of their sexuality to explore. Sex toys don’t have to be tools to fix a broken sex life; they can be what their name suggests: toys, for the purpose of fun.
Sex toys have given women the chance to experiment with different kinds of stimulation and learn about their bodies, and men deserve that opportunity as well.
Men Who Have Casual Sex Are Getting What They Want, While Women Are Being Used
When I used to see a guy and a girl making out on a dance floor in college, I’d make an assumption: that he was getting what he wanted, and she was giving him what he wanted. While my negative knee-jerk reaction to a woman supposedly being taken advantage of was coming from a good place, it was also coming from a lot of assumptions.
One of these assumptions was that while men are always on the prowl for casual sex, women are secretly hoping their hookups will lead to flowers and candle-lit dinners.
This stereotype is often evoked in critiques of dating apps and hookup culture. “Females have always sought long-term commitment from males,” Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote in an article titled “How Hookup Culture Hurts Young Women.” “Although women may be equal to men, we're not the same – especially in matters of mating, sex and intimacy.
But the fact of the matter is, women are often active, enthusiastic participants in hookups. They’re using their partners just as much as their partners are using them. Women are sexual beings, and some want sex for its own sake.
Of course, there are many women who feel unsatisfied with or conflicted about hookup culture and crave relationships. But there are many men who feel this way as well. In fact, more college men (71%) than women (67%) said they wished they had more opportunities for serious relationships in one University of North Carolina study.
When we assume that in a heterosexual hookup, a man is getting what he wants while a woman is being used, we treat women like children without sexual agency. We may want to protect women from being objectified, but assuming that the encounter is all about the guy and she has no desire for it is objectifying in and of itself.
Any time you look at the same behavior and interpret it differently based on the gender of the person involved, it’s a good idea to examine your assumptions. The binary of masculine/feminine governs how we see the world more than we realize, and the only way to see people for who they really are is to look beyond this dichotomy and treat everyone as an individual.