Straight eye for the queer gals

Why do men love to see women kissing? It's about self-loathing -- and the lusciousness of the female body.

Published August 27, 2003 7:45PM (EDT)

"I agree with both of them." That's how, on an episode of "Mad About You," Paul Reiser answered Helen Hunt when she asked the question that has baffled, angered and amused women for years: Why do men love lesbian scenes?

The standard answer to that question goes something like this: Porn is aimed at a straight male audience. (Which is true enough, but already we're on shaky ground; how do you account for the straight women who are also watching it, comprising, in some estimates, 49 percent of porn renters?) For those men, lesbian scenes offer sex without any male competitor. And that's where, if you have any knowledge of porn, the logic of the argument simply falls apart.

If straight men are so threatened by the sight of a penis, why are there any penises in porn? It's not just the makers of gay porn that market the size of the male stars' members to the potential audience. Go to any adult video store and you'll find video series with names like "Girls Who Crave Big Cocks" or some variant. The biggest-selling porn video of last year was "Brianna Loves Jenna," the title alone promising that the viewer will get to see Brianna Banks and Jenna Jameson in hot girl-girl action. Why, then, does the package make a special point of advertising that the picture contains Jenna's first boy-girl scene in five years?

There's no doubt that many male viewers who love watching lesbian sex project themselves into the scenes, imagining the attention of those girls devoted to them alone. The New York Times recently reported on the popularity of the line of virtual-sex DVDs in which the female star talks directly to the camera and all we see of her male partner is a disembodied penis or hands. A menu on the DVD allows the viewer to choose the type of sex (vaginal, anal, oral), the position and even the demeanor of the girl (naughty or nice). The appeal is meant to be that with the female star addressing the camera directly, the male viewer can imagine it's his cock being serviced, his hands doing the caressing. In essence, that's not so different from the way sex scenes have always been filmed in other porn. The focus is never on the men, it's always on the girls, with the men, for most of the duration of the scenes, appearing as nothing more than a thrusting or ejaculating cock.

Even the presence of men in porn is shot in such a way that allows male viewers to project themselves into every situation. If anything in porn is going to threaten a man's masculinity, then surely it should be lesbian scenes, which, after all, show that you don't need a penis to satisfy a woman. It makes no sense to argue that men can glory in their raging manhood in scenes where penises can be so easily replaced by digits or fingers or tongues. And in a way, I think that disposability is the key to why men love lesbian scenes, which has more to do with male self-loathing than male self-glorification.

Men are taught that admiring the male physique, or even taking pleasure in their own looks, is inherently homosexual or at the very least narcissistic. Straight men may feel boastful about their strength, their muscles, the size of their dicks, but that's different from taking aesthetic pleasure in them. To put it bluntly, lesbian sex makes aesthetic sense to men in a way that straight sex does not. We're so infatuated with women's bodies -- the smoothness, the curves -- that we wonder how anybody could resist them? There's a scene in the great B-movie "Freeway" where Brittany Murphy, as a whacked-out juvie hall daughter of Sappho, asks Reese Witherspoon, "I just don't see how anybody can go through life and not be into girls." Amen, sister. We hear ya. For straight men, lesbian scenes are the confirmation of every aesthetic prejudice we hold in favor of women's bodies.

If men have a hard time copping to that, it's not only because admitting that we think negatively about our own bodies means admitting to the unmasculine notion that we think of them at all. (Why do so many men dress like shit? Because we've been told it's unmanly to care about how you look.) It's also because we have been told again and again that the male gaze is by its very nature rapacious, brutal, insulting. It can be. Some men never learn that there are discreet and polite ways to look at the beautiful women they see on the street or the subway. If I were a woman, I wouldn't feel great about a guy who stops in his tracks on the sidewalk and turns around to follow the sight of my ass walking away from him. But men have been made to feel that any sort of looking -- at live women or images in movies or magazines -- is disrespectful.

In her Village Voice review of the new movie "Thirteen," Laura Singara says the scenes of the two female teenage protagonists kissing will make it a "male-gaze DVD must have." Try to imagine anyone (particularly in the Village Voice) writing so disapprovingly about the straight women who enjoy gay porn. Oh no, they're subverting the sexist/male-gaze/ phallocentric/military-industrialist (add patriarchal modifier of your choice here) complex. But any man who might be turned on by the sight of two girls kissing is inherently some grubby Humbert masturbating into his grimy Burberry.

The biggest complaint made about the lesbian scenes in porn is that they don't represent real lesbian sex. As a lesbian friend of mine told me, the girls are too lacquered, too made up, and the thought of those manicured nails anywhere near their tender parts is an immediate "ouch." She's absolutely right. But of course there's no reason why sexual fantasy should have to conform to reality (uh, that's why it's a fantasy). The only thing fantasy has to conform to is the aesthetic sense of the watcher.

A friend of mine told me she can't stand the porn that's produced for lesbians. When I asked her why, she said, "Because the women are all so unattractive." What does she watch, then, not liking lesbian porn and finding the lesbian scenes in straight porn silly? Gay male porn. In real life, she wouldn't want to be in the same block as a full-on "dinger" (as she calls them). But in gay porn the sex is hot and the guys are good-looking. In other words, she's responding to it with something like the same aesthetic sense that draws men to lesbian scenes (though without the component of self-loathing).

There are places where straight male taste and lesbian taste coincide. No lesbian scene has done more to satisfy both of those factions than the love scene in "Mulholland Drive." Talking about it with my friend, I found out that we were both turned on by the same things in that scene, primarily the fact that it included lots of hungry, lingering, full-lipped, open-mouthed kissing. And the fact that it's a love scene, the emotional culmination of the Nancy Drew meets "Sunset Boulevard" story the movie has been until then.

Inevitably there will be disagreements. My buddy can't stand the sex scenes between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in "Bound." As for me, it's a male-gaze DVD must have. (It seems to be for some other lesbians as well. I know a lesbian writer whose partner's mother, a sweet old Scottish lady, purchased it as a Christmas present for her "daughter-in-law.") When it comes to sexual fantasy, we have to follow our own tastes.

It's tough to own up to your own taste, though, when male love of lesbian scenes is considered so politically incorrect, such an arrogant display of male power. All that view really proves is the power of ideology to trump common sense, to obscure the evidence that's right in front of your nose. There's something fundamentally silly about arguing that men are reveling in male power in scenes in which male sexuality is completely absent -- moreover, completely unnecessary. Straight men who dig lesbian scenes are abandoning male power, bowing down (or, um, standing up) before their own sheer awe at the beauty of women. Jan and Dean sold their fantasy of surfing utopia by promising two girls for every boy. For many straight men, pornotopia may be one girl for every girl. And unlike Jan and Dean's fantasy, no woodies allowed.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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