When I first came out to myself as a gay man many years ago, I was completely clueless about the gay lifestyle. Like any culture, I quickly came to learn that the gay community has its own norms and practices that differed to lesser or greater degrees than what I’d experienced in the mainstream heterosexual world that we all grow up in and internalize.
Living in the suburbs of Chicago where few resources existed for learning about and meeting other gay folk, I established a friendship base in the Windy City itself, which houses a fairly large gay metropolis. It was here that my virginal journey into gay society began. So naïve I was in learning all the social nuances involved in this new land I was venturing into! I amusingly recall one day walking through the gay ghetto with one of my friends, just chatting away about this and that, when all of a sudden in mid-sentence, his neck spun around in a double-take (very similar to Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”) when a striking man in a tank-top walked past us. I found myself a little startled and taken aback by his behavior, which seemed so overt and untamed by my conventional standards with his eyes bugged out and tongue wagging. As I quickly came to learn, this commonplace ritual is called “cruising”, an important social skill that all single gay men quickly learn to develop to snag themselves a potential date or casual sex partner for the night.
My continued immersion into the gay brotherhood brought an interesting tidbit to light about gay socialization; that is, this whole “gay gawking” phenomenon of sizing up with the eyes of one’s attraction to another is not exclusive to the singles’ scene. It’s not unusual for gay couples to partake in this activity, either together or separate from one another. And that is the topic for this article, spurred by an interview I gave for journalist Diane Maples who was writing a piece for MSNBC.com on the practice of “ogling” that occurs and its impact on monogamous relationships. The following includes some of the content I offered during the interview for her story.
You know what I’m talking about! You see that hot guy coming towards you as you’re walking down the sidewalk. Your eyes connect briefly, hold slightly, and then the gaze is diverted. He walks past you and you turn around ever so slightly to see if he looks back. And he does..bingo! Or maybe you and a friend are sitting at a restaurant having dinner and you find yourself mesmerized by the hunk at the table just opposite you; you can’t help staring at him in awe until your friend kicks you under the table to snap you out of it before the restaurant runs out of napkins to soak up your drool. Having the eyes pulled in the direction of a good-looking or intriguing person is a natural part of attraction and all its mysteries. “Gawking” isn’t isolated only to gay men; it’s also very rampant among our heterosexual counterparts as well. You see plenty of our straight gal pals smacking their boyfriends in disgust when their eyes wander to the exotic woman that walks into the room. It’s a normal human response, though does tend to be more of a “man thing” (gay or straight), as we men tend to be more visually stimulated in our erotic orientation.
So this is all well and good if you’re single and available, but what happens if you’re already in a relationship with someone and you become gripped with this magnetic draw? Is it OK for a gay man in a committed partnership to appreciate the beauty of a good-looking man who’s not his own lover? Are there varying degrees of “gawking” that are acceptable versus violations? Or is it completely taboo to even look at another specimen other than your husband? These are the ultimate questions…and in actuality, there is no necessarily right or wrong answer. What it comes down to are values and conducting yourself in such a way that you remain in integrity with yourself and your relationship for what you believe to be the best option for you. To say what is right or wrong would be a value judgment, imposing one’s beliefs on another without permission or consent. We have enough of that in our society! I believe it is up to each individual and each partner in a relationship to define their own values about this particular issue and behave accordingly to stay within the confines of health within their personal worlds. It is also important to ensure our behavior doesn’t violate the boundaries or rights of others; therefore, “gawking” behavior should also be kept under wraps and controlled so as not to embarrass, humiliate, or offend the receiver of our attentions. It truly is an issue of respect.
Gawking & the Gay Couple
While “to gawk or not to gawk” remains a personal dilemma and choice, I will offer some viewpoints about this phenomenon as it pertains to gay couples in committed relationships. These are personal and professional biases; it is always up to each partner to make their own decisions regarding the role this type of behavior plays in their relationship. Though I’m generalizing here, I believe that “gawking” is probably less of an issue in gay relationships than straight unions for a number of reasons. Due to the male tendency toward the visual, there may be more acceptance and understanding among gay men to disregard the occasional “straying-of-the-eye” and not view it as a threat to the stability and commitment of their relationships. Because of our marginalized status, gay relationships also tend to have a less defined structure and more flexibility of roles than the straight blueprint for how relationships are “supposed to be run”, thereby making things looser and more relaxed. Additionally, an unfortunate drawback of gay culture is that looks and appearance are glamorized and emphasized as a prime value, therefore there tends to be more focus on what somebody looks like and this reinforces “gawking” tendencies. Just some theories!
Another important point to emphasize about “gawking” and committed relationships is that we’re human! Therefore, noticing and acknowledging someone’s good looks is a normal function of being alive…we’re hard-wired that way and it’s a chemical reaction. Also, just because a partner finds someone else attractive doesn’t mean that he will or even create a temptation to cheat. Issues of respect and boundaries will need to be defined in each relationship around attraction, behavioral conduct, and involvements with others and is specific and unique to each couple’s situation.
Tips For Managing the Gawking Impulse In Your Relationship
*In the very beginning of your developing relationship, it’s important that you both set clear boundaries from the offset about issues like monogamy and commitment and what that would look like and be experienced as. “Gawking”, flirting, and becoming involved with others could also be discussed in casual conversation to ensure you’re both “on the same page” and to lay the proper foundation. You could forgo this and bring it up in the event that a behavioral infraction actually occurs as a natural segue for a discussion, but to err on the side of caution by planning ahead to avoid hurt feelings and resentment is usually best. Communicate your thoughts and feelings directly and assertively, as this is a way to teach your partner how you like to be treated. In the early stages of your relationship formation, every couple could benefit from creating personalized relationship ethics around all types of issues, not just “gawking”, and continually revisit them throughout the course of time to determine if these values remain the same or if any revisions are required due to the fact that both individuals and the relationship itself can change.
*As a “gawker”, try to understand your motives for this behavior. If it’s a natural, spontaneous, harmless reaction, that’s one thing. But sometimes partners will intentionally “gawk” for the purpose of inspiring jealousy in their mate or as an act of control. Is it a symptom of unmet needs or problems in the relationship? Are you bored? Do you do it to feel needed? Some men also do it because it’s validating if the other man reciprocates the attraction or interest with a mutual “gawk” in return; this gives them an ego or a self-esteem boost. If this is the case, it’s important to find healthier ways to obtain this validation within the context of your relationship and through your own personal growth work. Try to see what the purpose is behind your “gawking” tendencies to see if there’s anything underlying it.
*The stage of relationship you and your partner are in is likely to be impacted by “gawking” behavior at various levels. For example, if you’re just starting to date someone, staring at other guys while you’re in his presence would be deemed disrespectful and rude. Or if you and your partner have gone through a crisis state in your relationship and trust is a little shaky, “sizing up” other guys would probably not be a good idea until more security is reestablished. Following common courtesy and good manners is always a good rule-of-thumb.
*Noticing other attractive men could potentially enhance your love-life with your partner by inspiring fantasy and increased desire. This is done in much the same way that pornography and erotic art is used to bring about more spice and excitement to one’s bedroom antics. The only prerequisite with this, however, is that these should never be used as a substitute for intimacy with your partner, should only be used intermittently and in moderation, and that your relationship with your partner should always be the primary focus with no competition from outside sources.
Determining your values around “gawking behavior” in your relationship and communicating your needs and feelings about this to reach a mutual agreement will be important in minimizing any potential conflicts that could arise. Boundaries are essential for keeping your relationship on track and respect for yourself, your partner, and your relationship must always be kept in the forefront of your mind to avoid acts of poor judgment that could sabotage what you and your partner have built together. And while you may not be able to resist sneaking a peek at that hottie at the laundromat or finding your heart skipping a beat when that handsome waiter approaches your table, never lose sight of the attraction and devotion you have for your partner. An intimate and committed connection with your loved one holds much more value and power than a fleeting moment of hormonal desire for an unknown stranger. Get into the habit of “gawking” at your partner and just watch the benefits that you’ll derive from this simple strategy. Just remember to come up for air!
©2007 Brian L. Rzepczynski
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