But women are visual too – right?

But women are visual too – right? July 27, 2015

YDear Shaunti,

I am irritated by all these generalizations that women should watch how they dress “because men are visual.”  Well women are visual, too.  There’s a hot guy at my office who works out by running the complex in gym shorts and no shirt during lunchtime, and I sure want to stand and watch.  Or I catch myself daydreaming about him.  And yet when that happens, I force myself to stop.  But why is he out there in no shirt, anyway?   I am single, 23 years old, in good shape, and careful to dress professionally.  So I resent my boss telling the women in our office that we need to be conservative in what we wear because our male clients might be distracted.  Women are visual and get distracted too!  Why should men get a free pass, and all the responsibility be laid on women?

 –       Visual and Vexed


Dear Visual and Vexed –

What responsibility there is on this issue should be equally shared, and men should never get a free pass.  Period.

And yes, women are visual, too.  But here’s what we women don’t understand, and need to: we are not visual in the same way as men.  There is a magnitude of difference.

When a woman tells a man, “but I am visual too” it is like a weekend hiker going up to someone who has summited Everest, K2, and the Eiger and telling them, “I am a hiker, too.”   Technically correct, but so far off the mark that the Everest veteran can only politely smile and nod and think “this person has no idea,” while he hides the scars from his nearly-fatal fall into a glacier crevasse, and thinks about his buddy who never made it off K2.

Yes, women are visual in that we thoroughly enjoy the sight of an attractive man.  And yes because Hot Guy At The Office is tempting the women staff members to stare and daydream, too, he should have the self-awareness to put on a T-shirt for pete’s sake.

But that is where the similarities end.

When you see Hot Guy running in his little gym shorts, here’s what probably happens in your brain.  The cortical, thinking centers at the front of your brain light up like a Christmas tree and you think something like “Woah, he’s hot.”  You enjoy looking at him – I mean, how could you not?  But it also sounds like you try to be honorable and avoid letting yourself leer at him.  You look away.  And if you catch yourself daydreaming about what it would be like to hook up with him, you pull that thought down and try to go about your day.  Most of this process takes place in the front of your brain, the thinking-related centers.

Now let’s imagine that Hot Girl is also out running in a pair of little gym shorts and a sports bra.  Here’s what happens in the brain of Office Guy who sees her as she runs by.  His thinking centers don’t immediately light up.  Instead, a different center deep in his brain is activated: an area that sends involuntary biological responses to pleasurable signals.  This is the same area that lights up when you’ve skipped lunch and are absolutely famished and you suddenly see your favorite food across the room; before there is any thought or action involved, you are instantly overwhelmed by a very primal, gut-level “I want that” sort of feeling.  There’s a biological desire to consume that food.

When Office Guy watches Hot Girl running by, the same center in his brain is activated.  There’s a biological desire to consume that image.  Not a desire for the woman, exactly, but the image.   There is zero thought involved; that first millisecond of stimulation is completely involuntary.  And also in that first millisecond of stimulation, his brain wants to view it very sexually – for example, to fantasize about what she would look like without the spandex.  In this first millisecond, all that temptation arises from the deep pleasure centers of the brain.

But in the next millisecond, his cortical, thinking centers kick in.  This is where choice takes place.  So if he wants to honor his wife – and that other woman! – in his thought life, he makes the same choice you do.  He looks away.  He forces himself to think about the spreadsheet on his desk.  And very shortly, the encounter is out of his brain and he goes about his day.

Do you see the difference?  We as women have literally never experienced that back-of-the-brain, biological-pleasure temptation that men face every day.  So we don’t understand that it even exists for them.

Now take it the next step.  Imagine that Hot Girl is not running by in spandex shorts but dressed in a suit with a skirt that shows off her backside or a top that shows cleavage.    Now imagine that she’s making a presentation at a whiteboard to a team of people that includes men.   How much are those men hearing of what she’s saying?

Answer: not enough.  Because every time she turns around, that center in their brain is activated and they are desperately thinking look at her face, look at her face, look at her face.  Unlike the woman who was jogging by, they can’t just turn away or think about the spreadsheet for a moment until she jogs out of sight.

Do you understand now what the supervisor in your office was trying to explain to your female colleagues, using the wholly inadequate words, “men are visual”?   This is awkward, but it is real.  And it cannot be ignored.  It is one of the reasons Craig Gross and I wrote Through A Man’s Eyes: to help us women “get” the profound difference and understand the implications and what to do about it.

Yes, men absolutely must exercise the discipline not to look, not to stare, not to let their mind run on a sexual track.   And yes, someone needs to throw Hot Guy a shirt.  But women have a choice to make too: we have to decide whether we are going to help out those men who are trying, as best they can, to be honorable in their thoughts today.

Do you want Shaunti to share life-changing truths – including helping women understand men – at your event, church service or network? Inquire about Shaunti speaking, here.

Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women OnlyFor Men Only, the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriageand her newest book, Through a Man’s Eyes. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her findings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.

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  • Ed

    Hi Shaunti — after I read your answer to the lady above, I have to ask:

    Are you an advocate for men “bouncing their eyes” (the Every Man’s Battle strategy) due to the higher visuality that you say men experience in comparison to women?

    If so, do you think that women have a responsibility to bounce their eyes intentionally or are you saying that women do it automatically because they have female brains? (which sounds like what your answer is saying).

  • bccream

    Thank You Shaunti, I really hope more and more women read and understand this reality. As you said this is no excuse for us men not to be disciplined but the reality is that sexual pleasure is like a hunger/appetite for us men purely due to our testosterone hormones. I too as a man wish it was not like this and our male brain was as complex as women when comes to sexual pleasure. We perhaps would have only had 1/10th of the population and then perhaps would have still been rubbing logs to generate fire. Thank you!

  • Deborah West

    There was a study done back in ’08 or ’09 (sorry, I can’t find the link) that confirmed that women are JUST as visual as men. This was a medical study done with all the bells and whistles, electrodes, etc. Women were sexual aroused just as frequently and just as quickly as men. The difference – women looked away. Self control. So sure, men do look. And women look also. But men need to be in control of their self. Men need to realize that and quit trying to blame the way a woman dresses and blame their self instead. It became a huge problem with mass media, television. And who controlled the mass media??? Men. Men are the ones ‘sexualized’ the advertising of dishwashers, hand lotion, cars, etc. And now women are buying into that. But men started it. Again, don’t go blaming women, blame men. And now the mass media seems to have a crusade against good Christian men. They want to tell men that ‘looking’ is normal, looking is ‘right’, looking is their ‘entitlement’. In my opinion, only MEN can fix this problem. Only if men will stand up and be accountable, stand up and speak out. A lot of books try to push the ‘men are leaders, women are followers’ spill. Again, quit blaming women for the way they dressed, they only followed what MEN wanted.

  • Kim

    how in the world then are men gynecologists? They should not be doctors who see naked women. It is wrong for them to have those jobs if men are that visually out of control. They truly are victims of their sight.

  • Eric Breaux

    It’s very common, contrary to this articles shallow minded opinion, for females to talk about how attractive they think some males are, and there’s the problem a lot of couples have when the man in a marriage is not in the mood for sex as often as the woman. When women experience menopause, their libido gets weaker because of lower amounts of estrogen. They lose testosterone at a slower rate, which is why it’s unlikely that the more prominently male hormone is the sole source of sexual desire. They have no less sexual desire than men. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/estrogen-plays-key-role-revving-women-sex-drives-study-article-1.1330163

  • KTaylor

    Dear Shaunti,

    I believe you are probably asexual, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s time you at least come to terms with having an extremely low libido compared to other women. It’s okay to find someone visually appealing, but have no or little sex drive, And I don’t want to come across as negative towards that. However, I am annoyed that you’re writing a post like this making women feel like something is wrong with them for picturing sex with most men they work with. I would suggest not assuming all heterosexual women are somehow asexual-it’s a different sexual orientation. When I see a good-looking man, I will not be able to concentrate until I go to the bathroom and masturbate. I’ve gotten better about that, but still think about sex all day. I dream about sex at night. This is a normal part of being a young 20-something woman. Try reading a study by Kagerer et al 2014, it finds that women are just as visual.