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Shifting the Gaze: How women wish to experience desire


In 2018, I had just shifted to Chennai for my Masters. As I was just finishing dinner with two newly-made friends in their paying guest accommodation, everyone was of the opinion that I should leave soon. My friends were worried that I would have to travel alone at night with auto drivers who would most definitely be men. We started talking about the various measures we take to safeguard ourselves. All three of us, women, who had never spoken about the perils of being a woman before, agreed that on an isolated, dark road, we would walk with a big stone in our hand. We also knew that we would have to continue taking this measure in Chennai, though none of us had lived in this city before. But we just knew.

Most of women’s experiences in relation to men and the world at large are fraught with fear and anxiety. I often wonder, if we, as women, were not so preoccupied with how to safely transport our bodies from one place to another, if a sense of panic wouldn’t set in every time a man walked too close to us on the sidewalk, if we could simply exist without worrying about who is leering at us –and there are a hundred other ‘ifs’ –how would we experience the world?

Such intense levels of anxiety can exist in women on a usual day, doing regular things like catching a bus. This awareness of the status ascribed to women – the status of being the objects of men’s desires – affects every aspect of a woman’s life. Desire then, in particular, becomes an aspect of a woman’s life where navigation becomes tricky.

Desire is an experience of passion, of aching hunger, of longing and yearning, of play and curiosity, of intention and action. It is a driving force within all of us. But for women, desire is also a space where they are often hurt, violated and objectified. Their experiences of sexual encounters with men are often a double-bind situation of the ever-looming threat of sexual assault and loss of bodily autonomy whilst trying to navigate their desires in a society that attributes to them only the position of being the objects of others’ desires. So, imagine those mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness when you ask a person out for the first time ever. Here, you are able to explore and act upon your desire whilst still feeling the fear of rejection or humiliation. Now, replace this fear of rejection with the fear of being physically harmed, or worse –this is the experience of desire for women in our society currently. This gives you the recipe for a rather dichotomous situation of trying to find pleasure in a place of danger and pain. So, while desire is a sweet longing to engage in play experienced by both men and women, its expression is the most dangerous playground for women.

One of the ways in which we may understand this vexed relationship between women and desire is the notion of sexual objectification. The sense of this objectification process is, in fact, internalised deeply by women. In their article, Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks (1997), Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts suggest that women are so keenly aware of being under observation at all times that they begin to look at themselves from an observer’s point of view. They know that every aspect of their physical being – their shape, size, complexion, hair, facial features, amount of makeup, the length of a sleeve, the length of a skirt – absolutely everything is under careful scrutiny and for the pleasure of those who care to gaze, and many do. We must not forget how men do not stop at just gazing at our bodies, but hold enough entitlement to believe that even our actions and daily lives are for their pleasure and within the ambit of their control. Ever since the dawn of history, women have been considered the objects of men’s desire and men have been awarded the entitlement to do as they please with these female ‘objects’. Women are completely stripped off of agency. They are not to desire, but only to be desired. Hence, a woman walking down a street, busy or deserted does not matter, is not just a person trying to get from one place to another. She is a stimulus for the man standing on the sidewalk, his hands fast approaching his crotch and stroking himself with the speed and vigour that an Olympic athlete could only wish to achieve in their sport. Such deep awareness of always being looked at is something that maybe celebrities, and actors on camera experience. However, we women have our own spotlights at every point of our life, a spotlight we do not enjoy being in.

I interviewed three women for this article. When asked the question that if given a safe space, how would they wish to experience desire, each of them explained how they would exhibit more agency in their choices and would be able to express themselves more freely in such a space. They described that such a space would be somewhat a room of one’s own. It would be a space where they learn to shift the gaze from that of the perspective of a man’s, to their own. A space where they and their partners interact with their bodies with intention and kindness, where they unlearn the stories of shame and stigma they have internalised about their bodies and about women expressing desire. They felt they were missing an essential part of experiencing desire, which is the experience of letting their guard down to feel a sense of adventure accompanied by a healthy dose of risk taking, uncertainty and butterflies in their stomachs. They felt they were so preoccupied with ascertaining their safety – a sense of safety which extends beyond the ambit of physical safety – that they could not truly experience this excitement and playfulness within the realm of desire. This reminded me of the video of a study done in 1965 which found that babies who were anxious could not engage in play, rather they spent their time trying to gauge the reactions of the adults in the room. The women I spoke with, like the babies in the study, are weighed down by a certain sense of anxiety because of which they have been missing the playful aspects of desire. Desire till now has been a carefully trod path with one too many caution signs for these women – and it is safe to say, for women at large. For this path to become one which is safe, and even pleasurable, for women, we still have a long way to go.

Cover Image: Photo by Jonathan Wards on Unsplash