Why Do Men "Creepy Stare?"

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“The eyes of men converse as much as their tongues” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Guest Writer: Richard Shore

It’s pervasive and inevitable. Every woman has experienced it. You’re walking down a street or down a hallway or really anywhere and a man is walking in the other direction, towards you. You avert your eyes, pretending to be deep in thought, but as he gets closer you can feel his eyes on you. As you keep walking, he continues to stare and his eyes drift down towards your breasts and torso. If you even glance at him for a moment, you can see the intensity of his attention directed onto you. Regardless of how many times during a single day that this occurs, each time the relief from him simply continuing on his way and not confronting, engaging or harassing you, is palpable. 

Every man has experienced precisely the same scenario, but in an almost entirely different way. You’re walking somewhere and see a woman well ahead of you, maybe more than 50 feet. From this distance it’s impossible to even tell if you find her attractive. But you are curious as to what she looks like, so you watch her approach. If you find her attractive (or frequently, even if you don’t) you try to make eye contact.  You glance at her body because that’s the way you’ve always looked at women, at least when you could do it surreptitiously or without repercussions. If she glances up, you intensify your gaze and try to hold her attention. As she passes, you almost immediately look for the next woman.

Behaviors that persist over time do so for a reason. People tend to repeat actions that accrue benefits and eliminate or diminish activity that does not. So what exactly is the value to men of this “creepy stare”? Women almost without exception, react to it badly. If it’s an attempt by men to meet or pick-up women, it’s certainly an abject failure in that regard.  Has a man ever picked up a woman by locking his eyes to her body? A number of theories have been posited to explain why men gaze at women in this way. Nearly all of these theories focus on the desired impact that men hope to impart on the women they encounter. None of these suppositions adequately explain why men who would otherwise be horrified that they were objectifying women, continue to do so. To effectively examine this phenomenon, it is necessary to look more directly at the motivations for non-creepy men to “creepy stare”.

Men often assert that they simply “can’t help themselves”. That staring at women is instinctual and that they could no more prevent themselves from doing so than they could stop themselves from breathing. Somewhat surprisingly, there is empirical data that would suggest that this is not so farfetched. Social interactions among nearly all types of primates are regulated in large measure by visual behavior. The stare is an essential part of displays of dominant behavior for a wide variety of primates. Chimpanzees, monkeys, langurs, baboons and gorillas all utilize the stare as a threatening gesture that is intended to induce submissive behavior from the recipient. Though humans are able to communicate verbally in ways that other primates cannot, visual behavior nevertheless is widely used to convey messages of authority and control. 

Masculinity and power are inextricably tied and socially acceptable behavior for men is very narrowly defined within Western culture. To avoid censure by other men (and even by most women), males must be strong and emotionless.  In order to effectively adhere to this narrow form of masculinity, men must constantly display the proper attributes. They need to look, sound and carry themselves in a way that is consistent with a “manly man”. Displaying and constantly reprising their dominance over women plays a major role in effectuating the proper appearance.

Expressions of power and dominance would certainly seem to provide a partial explanation for why men so readily fix their gaze on women.  By staring at a woman and causing her discomfort, men are able to assert their supremacy. This inclination to dominate proliferates throughout daily social interactions and is firmly entrenched within the workplace. It is in fact, an inevitable outgrowth of the patriarchal society in which we live.  Whether women are working in completely different occupations or doing different kinds of work within the same occupations, they are paid less and have less authority than their male counterparts. Men are accustomed to women “staying in their lane” and accepting the fact that regardless of their qualifications, they are to assume a subordinate position. This mindset can’t help but bleed into everyday interactions. Feeling entitled to gaze at women is at least in part, an explanation for the “creepy stare”. It does not explain, however, why many men who do not feel a need to assert this dominance, stare at passing women in just the same way. 

Perhaps the conduct is not instinctual at all, but simply an extension of learned behavior that has been ingrained and practiced throughout men’s lives. Men have grown up gazing at women and their bodies. They enjoy it and are at times, aroused by it. When it can be done surreptitiously and without apology, all the better. The proliferation and mainstreaming of pornography is one of the defining characteristics of the 21stcentury. Adolescent boys no longer need to sneak a look at their father’s Playboy magazine or even sheepishly rent an adult film at a video store. The internet has allowed boys (and girls) to watch pornography as frequently as they want, on the privacy of their I-pad or even their phone.  Not surprisingly, this turns out to be extraordinarily often. Studies show that nearly 90% of men have watched pornography since they were teenagers. When the opportunity to stare at a woman presents itself on a street or almost anywhere, men revert back to what they’ve become accustomed to and take advantage of it. It’s not shocking that many women feel “visually undressed” by men walking by. That’s exactly what the men are doing.

Research on the objectification of women through the concept of a “male gaze” was initiated by Laura Mulvey in her essay entitled, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.She postulates that the film industry has created and profited from a narcissistic way of portraying women as objects for men.  The “male gaze” according to Mulvey, can be seen as creating active and passive roles that satisfy the spectator. The spectator role within a patriarchal society is a man and this makes the spectacle a woman.  She is an erotic figure whose role is simply to fulfill fantasies for men. When a fantasy can be fulfilled so conveniently- just by walking down the street-it’s nearly impossible to resist. 

This “spectator” hypothesis, however, does not seem to provide a complete explanation for the pervasiveness of “creepy stares”. A glance or even a slightly longer gaze would provide plenty of opportunity for a man to thoroughly examine a woman and receive the visceral sense of pleasure that might be obtained from looking at someone that he finds attractive. But the intensity of the stare that men often fix on women seems to be of a different nature. It’s more than just looking; it’s in some way seeking. The pertinent question becomes, what exactly is being sought and why?

Adolescents and young men traverse the world differently than they do when they grow older. In particular, their casual interactions with women are filled with sparks of sexual tension or at least it’s potential. Almost every circumstance seems to present an opportunity to display the youthful traits and characteristics that generate their inexorable belief that they are worthy of attention; that they are exceptional or will quite soon be achieving that status. These sparks continue largely unabated through their 20’s, but they don’t last forever. As men age, the power inducing vestiges of masculinity invariably fade.  Women no longer seem to notice when you walk into a party and the new hostess at your favorite restaurant can’t seem to even remember your name. As Orthan Pamuk wrote in The Museum of Innocence, “Age had not made him less handsome, as is so often the case; it had simply made him less visible”. 

It is this fear of becoming invisible to women that men find so difficult to navigate. Growing older encompasses a wide range of indignities, but at the top of the list is diminished virility. In a society that values strength, aggression and power, its absence can feel devastating.  The joy of walking down a street feeling sexy and desirable becomes harder and harder to conjure. Longing makes us feel sad, but it also makes us feel human. It is the shadow of this potency and the sensation of continuing to be alive and relevant that men are often seeking when they stare at women.  It is a plea for recognition disguised as licentiousness. The question these men are trying to answer is not so much, could I sleep with her, but rather, would she still consider sleeping with me? Of course, for women on the receiving end of this creepiness, this is truly a difference without a distinction. It is also unlikely to engender too much sympathy.  Women have always known and understood this sensation of invisibility. In fact, they have often felt it more acutely.  While men can maintain their attractiveness through money or power, women are often depleted of their social currency when they age and are deemed to be less physically desirable. 

There is obviously no quick cure or remedy for the “creepy stare”. It has been occurring for a very long time and is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Our culture places a premium on traditional masculinity and the media has played a pivotal role in shaping attitudes regarding manhood. Men who show emotion or seem bookish or vulnerable are deemed weak and less worthy of respect. Film characters such as Rambo or James Bond present heroes who exemplify toughness and virility. It is difficult to convince most men that the loss of these traits is not profound.

In order to begin to do so, both men and women need to be willing to reject the idea that men who display sensitivity are somehow inferior.  The “creepy stare” is the product a culture that sets males up for failure as they age. As virility inevitably wains, they are forced to act in ways that provide assurance that they are still relevant.  Though it’s true that vigor and potency often dissipate with age, many other valuable characteristics do not. Men who are compassionate and caring don’t lose these features as they grow older. Teaching children that these attributes are ultimately more valuable than physical strength and aggressiveness would encourage behavior that facilitates connectedness. Parents must remind themselves that cultivating physical prowess in their boys does not necessarily beget happiness. Most men don’t want to act or be seen as creepy. Reordering the priorities within our culture for what constitutes an attractive male will go a long way towards reducing the dysfunctional behavior that men today are prone to displaying.

About Richard Shore:

I am a professor of Gender in the Sociology Department at Temple University and a practicing attorney in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have previously published essays in Two Sisters Magazine.