When is it OK for a woman to ogle a man? At what point is it acceptable for her to make suggestive comments, to give him the full up and down with her eyes, or just stand there and drool?
The answer, we are increasingly told, is “never”. A phrase I regularly hear from male friends when a woman comments on a man’s physical attributes, or registers her sexual interest, is, “If I were to say that, I would be called sexist.”
These are confusing times for men, it’s true. After centuries of being in charge of absolutely everything – which, along with politics, business, education, medicine, religion, the arts, includes women and their bodies – they must now look on as said women, on getting a glimpse of these same privileges, indulge in a little role play.
Last week, the writer Caitlin Moran made a fruity acceptance speech after picking up a prize at the Glamour Awards in which she recalled writing columns on the dangers of being “a bit drunk and horny when Sherlock’s on”. She recounted how she would sex-tweet Benedict Cumberbatch with such choice phrases as: “Benedict Cumberbatch, I would do you until security pulled me off … and then w*** at you from behind a door.” Or: “You could make my face look like a painter and decorator’s radio.”
This is the same Caitlin Moran who wrote a poignant column last year in which she responded to criticism of the “muppet face” she pulls for photographers by saying: “I would rather cut off my head than try to look attractive in a photo. I don’t want to enter that competition; for that’s what it is, when a woman dresses, and poses, like that. She gets rated.”
Does this mean that Moran has one rule for male actors, and another for herself? Such hypocrisy! Burn the witch!
Another instance of this apparent double standard is that of George Clooney, who was recently in London to publicise his new film. Clooney is, of course, famous as an actor and humanitarian but also for being ridiculously handsome and causing women everywhere to temporarily adopt the guise of horny builders in their expressions of unabashed lust.
When the radio presenter Jenni Murray dared allude to his looks in an interview with him on Woman’s Hour, men cried foul. Indeed, The Independent's columnist Terence Blacker has declared his exasperation at “how idiotically media women act towards [Clooney]” and noted “how reductive it is of women generally, this myth… that one man’s looks have to be mentioned at every opportunity”.
And let’s not forget the BBC drama Poldark and its star Aidan Turner’s very own Mr Darcy moment, when he was seen skinny dipping in a sun-dappled cove, leaving female reviewers aquiver. “There isn’t enough sea off the coast of Cornwall to cool a woman down after that,” said one, presumably while supine with a cold compress on her nether regions.
Male commentators got hot under the collar, too, but for different reasons. “Why do women get to perve over Poldark?” they wailed. “Why is there one rule for men and another for women? IT’S NOT FAAAAAIR.”
There is, perhaps, an element of payback here. In the same way that one might, when one is sufficiently grown up, sit victoriously on the chest of an older sibling after years of being literally and metaphorically sat on, there is a certain satisfaction in giving men a taste of their own medicine.
But there is far more to this than the settling of scores. It’s worth noting that, for many women, the ability to even express sexual interest in another person, let alone say it out loud, is pretty new. Because, as well as being historically silenced and shamed and denied basic human rights, there has long been an understanding that women should be demure and passive beings whose sexual appetite must remain hidden, lest it make her seem – oh, the irony – unattractive to men.
It’s also about ownership and power. In the same way that African-Americans, after centuries of bondage, have claimed the language used against them, women are claiming and subverting their historical status as vessels of gratification. In the case of Moran’s Cumberbatch fantasies, such pronouncements are a deliberate subversion of the rules.
Of course, whether the joke is funny naturally depends on who is telling it. Were a man to climb on stage and publicly express his desire to, ahem, unburden himself over a woman’s face, then he would a) be stealing Moran’s joke and b) be gross and completely wrong.
Unfair? No, because a man saying it is reinforcing his own power, while a woman saying it makes a statement about that power while clawing some of it back for herself.
The potential of threat is also important here. When a woman lists the things she’d like to do to a man in bed, these things can only really happen with his consent. When a man tells a woman what he’d like to do to her, he’d better be sure that she wants to hear it first because otherwise there’s an implicit violence in what he is suggesting.
All of which is getting rather heavy about something that is meant to be throwaway and funny. That we have reached a stage where women can be celebrated, collect prizes and make daft gags about fancying the pants off a famous actor, or in which female reviewers can gasp at the burnished bum of a man in a tricorn hat is, in itself, progress.
So, gents, forgive us our lady lust but, really, there’s no harm done. We’re just working through some issues here. You’ll be the first to know when we’re healed.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies