Beauty / Wellbeing

In her eyes: what the male gaze means for women’s queer desire

Mimsy Farmer and Louise Wink in More, 1969, Rex Features.

The male gaze is a bind we're only beginning to loosen. Arca Bayburt explores what that means for queer women.

The thing nobody tells you about desire is, you have to learn how to do it. Liking someone can happen in a lot of ways. You never know what will grow out of a hello, which is a beautiful thing to think about. 

Then of course there’s the long-distance stuff; and I mean the kind of unrequited desire that leaves you yearning from afar, unable to do much, a sort of erotic paralysis that deposits you into an unrelenting purgatory. It’s here that a lot of us find ourselves, especially when there’s no framework for the desire we feel for someone else. There’s only you calcifying inside a thin veneer of shame and confusion. You search around in the dark, hoping to figure it out. 

Women who love other women are more likely to feel this paralysis; this inability to parlay their psychosexual state into some representation of reality. We’re left with all of this desire and we’ve no means to translate it into our actual lives. 

Women are often on the receiving end of desire or, at least, we are taught to be.

We are taught to repress and deny until the right person comes along, at which point we can allow ourselves to want without judgement. 

Heterosexual dynamics are as familiar to me as they are foreign. I was taught, by virtue of being raised in a mostly heterosexual society, that a woman must be careful at all times. Careful with her body, careful with her desires, careful with her company.

Women are the ultimate diplomats. We must know when and how to engage with men; men who carry the ultimate authority of violence over us. Each of our interactions are tinged with a promise of threat. I’m sitting at a bar and a man is talking to me, he’s leaning in too close, he’s touching my arm. I could tell him to fuck off, but first I must perform a thousand calculations, some subconscious and others a process of well-practised contingencies. Does he seem dangerous? How probable is it that this man would harm me? If I angered him would he escalate? If I told him to leave me alone would he persist? What are the chances he would respect my wishes to be left alone? How can I come up with the perfect way to protect myself while assuaging his ego so he doesn’t follow me to the carpark and rape me? 

The safest option is to allow some part of yourself to remain violated so as to stave off a potentially worse violation. So you’ll laugh at the jokes and you’ll graciously accept the compliments but really all you want to do is get the hell away; this is a most terrible transaction. 

And him? He might be completely oblivious. He’s never had to navigate a world full of human beings who could at any moment quite easily overpower him. He has also been conditioned to be the pursuer, the one who makes the move, who persists until he ‘wins over’ the woman and thereby completes the heterosexual mating dance that has been culturally programmed in us all. 

He also might be very well aware of what he is doing. Using your fear against you, knowing you, as a woman, will be too polite to do anything, so he may continue to harass you, to demand your time, to feel entitled to your attention. 

This is what it is to be a creep.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this dynamic is its diametric opposition. A woman must always say no. A man must always persist for the eventual yes.

What does this mean for a woman’s queer desire?

A witless observation made by a heterosexual friend went: “But if you’re both women, who makes the move?!”

I said, “Nobody my friend, they are simply inert until the end of time. Such is the fate of the universe, entropy is inevitable.”

She believed me when I said that. She believed in the passivity of woman. So to her, it made sense that two women were unable to engage in courtship. There was simply no catalyst. No man.

When I was in my teens, I knew I was a lesbian and I had no framework for my desire outside of the narrative of general deviancy. Upon becoming aware of my desire for the first time, upon feeling it for the first time, the response was panic, then fear, and then shame.

I had to re-learn how to desire – because the only way I knew to desire other women was to objectify them by adopting the male gaze.

That’s something that I didn’t want to do; none of us want that. It doesn’t fit us, it doesn’t work for us. It’s not right; we are something else.

Repressing desire imbues it with an almost biblical strength. It’s so difficult to move through the world when you have created inside of yourself a nexus of shame so extravagant, so exquisite, that one touch from another woman instantly makes you dissociate. 

I found myself, at the age of 24, unable to have sex without mentally disconnecting. At first I thought it was just some sort of homosexual anxiety, that perhaps I wasn’t doing it properly or wasn’t picking the right partners. Then after a while, I thought perhaps my body was incapable of feeling actual pleasure – which, as you could probably imagine, thrust me into a depression so deep and complete that I self-soothed with thoughts of suicide. 

When leaning into the termination of your own life becomes a comforting thought rather than an egregious one, you have to think that maybe whatever is happening inside actually needs some attention. 

Sweeping something under the rug only works for so long, before you’re tripping all over your lumpy fucking floor. It demands attention when it starts interfering with your ability to repress it. This Sturm und Drang is one that wreaks havoc on your psyche. It’s easy to feel like a lunatic when the people around you are stupefied by your inability to do the most human of things: love and want.

Actually, I had the wanting part down; the difficult part was the expression of that want.

I hadn’t even gotten to the part about accepting somebody else’s desire of me, a concept so preposterous I couldn’t bear to imagine it without inviting light tremors into my body, because the mere thought of a stranger returning my affections was enough to get my heart racing. 

Sex was like an adrenalin bath. I’d have it or attempt to have it and the rush would strip me of every last nerve until I was numb and nothing. Empty space where a person should be. What can this emptiness serve? Nothing. What can hurt and humiliate this emptiness? Also nothing.

And so with my body’s ancient protection protocols in place, I made my way through life with a sexual and emotional handicap so profound I sincerely considered myself subhuman. My anxiety served to protect me from harm and shame. This protection was a prison, of course. I couldn’t figure out how to dismantle the walls without compromising my safety. So I languished inside of it, unable to understand why it was there and what had created it. 

There was, of course, shame about being queer. I heard things that brutalised my soul, from the people I thought had love for me. Most of the abuse was insidious. It was the messaging of the heterosexual world.

The thing about hate speech is that it is spiritual pollution.

It’s noxious and cumulative and it will create emotional cancers that metastasise inside of you.

After years of being humiliated and made fun of, being told I couldn’t have sex because there was no dick involved, being told that the sex I wanted wasn’t real, being told that the love I wanted would never come, well, I suppose I just turned out the lights and let it be. I couldn’t really do much against all of this, this mass that had coalesced into a tidal wave of cosmic proportions. I stood on the shore and watched it come towards me, I had accepted that I would drown. 

A couple of years of therapy later and the answer that I had assiduously made my way to suddenly made sense to me. My entire sexual persona hinged on the idea that my desire was not only an undesirable thing in itself, but it was also innately predatory.

But the only way my desire would be creepy is if I felt entitled to the object of my desire. I’d finally found a way to hatchet every head off the Hydra that had dogged me since I was old enough to have any concept of desire. This symbolic decapitation set me on a path to righteous sexual freedom. 

Our appetites may be mired in anxiety. But we who love women need to understand that the male gaze is not the only way to conceptualise being attracted to a woman and queer desire need not exist in the abstract. 

As with anything complex and multifaceted, it takes time to peel away the unnecessary machinations of the inner self in order to clear the way for authentic self-expression. This takes immense courage and requires a prolonged state of ultra-vulnerability that few have the fortitude to sustain. 

But we sustain. We carry on and down the line, because we have to. Because the only way we can express our desire is to express our desire.

Somewhere in my late 20s, I had a serendipitous chat with an acquaintance about crushes. I told her that having worked through most of my lesbian shame, I still had a tiny voice in the back of my mind trying to stop me when I wanted to approach a woman, or tell her I liked her. 

My friend turned to me and said, “Arca, have you ever considered the possibility that instead of being disgusted by your wanting them, that they’d be flattered?” 

I hadn’t ever, in my entire life, up until the age of 28, ever had that thought occur to me in the first instance. 

And that says it all.