Let’s tackle a myth that’s been floating around since the Dark Ages: the idea that men are more drawn to visual stimuli than women. You know, the notion that men’s eyes pop out of their heads cartoonishly at the mere sight of a shapely figure or sliver of skin, while women remain blissfully unaffected by desire. The truth is, much like other myths around gender and sex, it’s total BS. In this blog, let’s set the record straight and drop some truth bombs—backed by science, of course.
So, how did this myth even get started?
Blame it on outdated gender roles, societal expectations, and misunderstanding of sexual responses. Back in the day, it was believed that men were the hunters, actively seeking out sexual encounters, while women were cast as the passive receivers of affection. As a result, the stereotype of men as insatiable visual beings was born. Throw in some problematic media representations, and you’ve got a misconception that’s hard to shake.
To understand the reach of the visual creatures myth look towards the “male gaze” in pop culture and the damaging effect it can have on relationships IRL. The term, “male gaze” refers to women being depicted on screen in a way that satisfies men’s visual attention, and holds hands with the longstanding myth that men’s interests and desires are purely driven by what they see.
Thankfully, science has come to the rescue on dispelling myths and misunderstandings about how people relate to visual stimuli. Through the available research, it shows time and again that men aren’t the only ones with an eye for desire.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal experimented on nearly 2,000 men and women of various sexual orientations, showing each a series of erotic images and videos while analyzing their brains via fMRI machine. Scans showed the regions of the brain kick-started by the visuals, including the “insula, middle and inferior occipital and fusiform gyrus, amygdala, caudate, claustrum, globus pallidus, pulvinar, and substantia nigra.” This process is referred to what is called the “arousal network.”
Both men and women were found to have activated similar patterns of visual interest, based on the type of sexy content they saw, and regardless of their own gender. Another study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, dug even deeper into the relationship between visual stimulation and sexual desire. Again, men and women reported similar levels of desire when exposed to sexual stimuli. In other words, it turns out, visual desire isn’t so gender-specific after all.
Sex therapists have long understood that desire is a complex dance, influenced by a strong cocktail of psychological, emotional, and contextual factors. It’s not just about what you see but also what you feel, smell, hear, and (for many) the connection between you and a partner. Our senses and the meaning we attribute to them work in concert to generate desire.
Deconstructing Myths About Sex
The messages and myths we absorb about sex, especially at young and influence years of our development, can significantly shape the way we understand and relate to sex and the way we understand ourselves as sexual beings. It can be difficult work to do, but deconstructing the myths can free people from rigid understandings of sex, which can lead to a more authentic relationship with sex and how we connect sexually with partners.
Many of the myths we are inundated with usually come from a place of gender roles, traditionalism, religion, and patriarchy. As such, the myths can feel like they are promoting a type of sexuality that is conditional and rigid in expectations.
You might try talking to your partner about myths you both have believed about sex and the ways believing those myths has impacted your sex life, if it has. Having these conversations can lead to a deeper connection and clarify expectations you each have around sex. Being able to have the sex you want, instead of the sex you’ve been told to have can be extremely liberating for individuals and couples.
When it comes to desire, men are not naturally more visual than women. Women should reject the myth, along with the pressure to conform to outdated norms. We’re not missing out on some secret visual superpower. Exploring desires with an open mind (and open eyes!) allows us to embrace a more inclusive understanding of human sexuality. We’re all unique individuals with our own impulses and turn-ons—it’s time we celebrated that.