I have a hazy childhood memory that seems so clichéd, I suspect that it must be, on some level, the psychic creation of my own brain as opposed to an event that actually transpired in the girl’s locker room of my Arizona middle school. But the memory—however genuine—illustrates my general adolescent attitude toward naked male bodies. This is the scene: We are changing before gym class. A group of girls is crowded around a magazine featuring a muscular man wearing only a white towel draped expertly over his groin. (He is, in my mind, Cosmo’s monthly “Guy Without His Shirt.”) One girl speculates about what he’s got going on under that towel. The locker room erupts in a wave of nervous laughter. Appreciating the male form was one thing—we had all seen the Calvin Klein ads—but an actual penis? Ew. Weird. Gross.
As a kid and later, a teenager, my relationship to naked men could best be described as “bystander,” not “active participant.” While my male peers were getting together to flip through Playboy magazines and, later, shoot porn videos to each other over AOL Instant Messenger, I was cut off from those male networks of sexual imagery; my female friends and I spent our free time having destructive conversations with each other about our own bodies, and what they meant for our potential as sex objects.
In the just-released Titanic, Jack drew Rose in the nude, not the other way around, and that lesson was seared into my 12-year-old brain over three trips to the multiplex. Sitting in a circle one night in a friend’s backyard, sipping from a plastic cup of secret Schnapps, one girl asked if we’d ever dreamed about growing up to become porn stars. I had not considered this career option, which I was soon told was an unusual lack of imagination on my part. On some level, the girl told us, every woman wants to give it a try. We may have never actually seen pornography, but we were now considering whether we’d step in front of the camera, given the opportunity. We were 13.
My first exposure to porn finally came when my high school boyfriend gathered my best friend and I in my bedroom, opened up a grainy video file on my clunky desktop, and showed us footage of a man bending a woman over the side of a bed in a beige suburban bedroom and thwacking away. The camera zoomed in on the peen. I was privately fascinated, but our initiation to the world of pornography was not meant to be a sexy thing—my boyfriend watched on amusingly as our faces crumpled from deer-in-the-headlights mode and into a fit of giggles. Men’s bodies were funny or disgusting, but definitely not hot. (At least, not when my boyfriend was watching.) Later, in my first year of college, I ended up seeing more penises without my consent—a man exposing himself on the Metro; a dude masturbating in broad daylight in the middle of the sidewalk—than I did by choice.
I concede that I was a late bloomer. But my general experience is one shared by many women of my generation and earlier. While the pathway for discovering and consuming female nudity was ingrained in the adolescent male experience, girls had no such network for viewing sexy images. When we did see them, we were positioned to think about ourselves in front of the camera, not behind it; when we watched porn, men watched us. Daniel Bergner is asking female readers this week whether they are legitimately turned on by the sight of naked men. I am—I have now advanced to watching porn all by myself—but when it comes to penis appreciation, I feel like I was never really given a fair shake. I grew up in a world where I was repeatedly told that those types of images were not for me, and where male nudity was framed in the context of male assault as much as it was female desire.
I will say this: Around the time my boyfriend cued up the porn on my computer, I got my hands on a copy of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and watched it all alone in my room. It was maybe the first time I had really engaged with sexual media outside of the gross-out male context or the romantic Titanic one, and I found myself intensely curious about what was going on underneath the male lead’s clothes. James Spader still does it for me.