Men get to be Animal House while women get Girls Gone Wild. It’s not fair. And it’s about power.
It was spring break and I was in New Orleans partying on Bourbon Street when some old dude yelled, “Show me your tits!” from a window above. Plastic gold and yellow beads dangled from his wrist. “Show me your dick!” I retorted in an attempt to “take-back-the-power.” He didn’t and I was relieved.
Men, or rather, boys, had shown me their bits before unprompted. Senior year of Christian high school a boy I had a crush on mooned me as I was running late to Bible study. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” I said jokingly as I took my seat at the front of the class. I made sure I said it loud enough that others could hear. Sure enough, the next day I was in the principal’s office being interrogated on how much I saw (“Was it a whole moon or half?”). For real.
It wasn’t that being mooned was particularly offensive or assaultive, but it wasn’t something that I asked for or was prepared for. John was cute, sure, I wanted to see him naked, sure, but not in that way.
Male nudity has a function and narrative radically different than female nudity in our culture: Men expose. Women are exposed. Men are voyeurs. Women are objects.
Take streaking for example. “Streaking” is a sporting phenomenon that was coined during a 1973 University of Maryland mass naked run where 533 students ran naked. According to reports at the time, this caused a local reporter to exclaim, “They are streaking past me right now! It’s an incredible sight.”
Of course, women have and do streak. But the vast majority of streakers are white men (here’s an entire website dedicated to it), which is why our mental image associated with that word is a middle-aged white dude with a cape and mustache. Don’t get me wrong; there is something incredibly silly and even liberating about seeing a person streak. While researching this article, I watched numerous videos from the ’70s-on of dudes dodging security only to be tackled (I hope it wasn’t AstroTurf). And I laughed. I giggled. It’s funny.
But something bothers me about this phenomenon.
Why do men feel so emboldened and humorous when stripping down and exposing themselves to us? Why do women often feel vulnerable and sexualized? Out of the few notorious “female streakers” as they are called, I can’t help but notice all are young and fit-bodied, fitting into mainstream beauty standards. While the men, the men are everything ranging from skinny freshman to that creepy uncle you avoid during the holidays.
Even the crowd, security guards, and sports announcers’ reactions reaffirm this difference: “That’s gonna leave a scorch on my retina!” jokes a male announcer after being forced to see a man’s wagging penis on a soccer field. Meanwhile, a crowd boos as a young naked woman is covered up and escorted off the field. After all, they were enjoying the show!
Why the difference?
Contrary to what mainstream pop culture would have you believe; male nudity isn’t inherently silly and gross (think Forgetting Sarah Marshall). And, Alfred Hitchcock be damned, women are not constant objects of voyeurism.
We have constructed a culture where, overwhelmingly, male bodies are humorous (because to sexualize them would be homoerotic/feminine) and female bodies are consumable. Men get to be Animal House while women get Girls Gone Wild. It’s not fair. And it’s about power.
This is why, even if a man is trying to get laughs or just be plain shocking, I almost feel angry when I am forced to see and be close to a man’s naked body without my consent or prior knowledge. It feels assaultive. Men’s bodies have power in ways that women’s do not in a culture where one in three women are sexually or physically assaulted and one in six raped/attempted to be. Unexpectedly seeing a penis, unbeknownst, feels like degradation on some level.
Why is it that streaking, mooning, and naked photobombing are almost entirely a white male occurrence? Is it because men, especially white men, feel empowered and entitled to expose themselves? Is it because they are not afraid of being scrutinized, sexualized, and animalized?
I remember another “indecent exposure” incident that happened at my Christian high school. This time it involved a young girl wearing a red tank top visible from across the gym. She was new at school and it was the first basketball game she’d ever attended:
“I can see your cleavage from all the way across the floor!” It was my Bible teacher; the same who taught the class I was rushing toward when I was mooned in the hall. Two years later the senior picture I had chosen with my mom and dad was pulled from the yearbook. It showed “too much cleavage.”
Jessica Schreindl is a freelance writer and TV producer in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Mic.com and has been published on Feministing.com. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking.