By Amy Alkon
Q: My boyfriend “loves women.” When we’re out, he’ll check out and comment on every hot girl. I get that he’s just “appreciating their beauty,” but it makes me feel really bad—angry and insecure. How can I get him to stop? Why does he need to do this? I sure don’t.—Unhappy
A: Like the “g” in “gnarly-ass dickhead,” the, “Whoa … wouldya look at the Humpty Dumplings on her!” is supposed to be silent.
You might take your boyfriend’s babe-ernecking less personally if you recognize that male sexual attraction is visually driven in a way female attraction is not—which is why strip clubs catering to men are big business while those for women are largely a bachelorette party novelty. Sure, women like a nice view if they can get it, but if they have to make a trade-off, they’re likely to go for the weak-chinned, self-made gazillionaire.
This is reflected in research by anthropologist John Marshall Townsend. He showed men and women photos of hotties and homelies of the opposite sex, dressed in either a Burger King uniform or biz exec-wear and a Rolex. When he asked which they’d go for, men were indifferent to how the woman was dressed—picking the hottie no matter what she was wearing. Women, on the other hand, went for the homely business dude, and tended to nix even a hookup with the hot hamburger helper.
There are also some indications that, just by looking at those on the babe squad, parts of the male brain’s reward circuitry get activated in ways women’s do not. In brain imaging research on both male and female subjects, cognitive scientist Jasmin Cloutier found that only men looking at photographs of hotties got the lights turned on in the orbitofrontal cortex—part of the brain that’s thought to suss out potentially rewarding stuff on our horizon and give us a, “Yoo-hoo! Over here!”
Reward circuitry aside, there’s “window shopping” and then there’s “window announcing.” Though—sorry, ladies—all men look, the kind, loving ones don’t get caught (and especially don’t marvel aloud). In other words, what’s worrisome about your boyfriend’s behavior is what it says about the kind of partner he is to you. When somebody loves you, they want to make you feel good—not like you’re comparing poorly to half the female pedestrians jiggling down the sidewalk.
The way to approach this is to explain how much this behavior hurts your feelings. As the father of behavioral economics, Adam Smith, noted, evoking somebody’s empathy tends to motivate them to try to make things better. Telling them what to do, however, tends to backfire, leading to cries of, “Vive la Revolution!”
As for how you’d like things to change, let your boyfriend know that you just don’t want to see him gaping or hear about it. OK, he appreciates women as these moving pieces of art. Museums are quiet. Men aren’t yelling at the Mona Lisa, “Hey, girl, I’ll give you something to smile about!” Likewise, in a relationship, there are legit cries for help, but one of them is not, “Help, I’ve fallen down her cleavage, and I can’t get up!”
Q: I know my boyfriend’s into me, and he’s generally very loving, but I get far more compliments about how I look from guys I’m not dating. How do I get my boyfriend to let me know that he likes the view?—Uncomplimented
A: There’s a reason that the Miss World pageant lacks a mathematics category, in which contestants come out smiling and waving and then do one of the world’s great unsolved math problems in their head: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll watch as Miss Uruguay proves that the 196-algorithm does not terminate when applied to the number 196.”
Obviously, beauty isn’t everything. In fact, according to research by economist Jeremy Greenwood, a smarty-pants, highly educated guy is more likely than ever (compared with, say, 1960) to require his bride-to-be to be similarly smarty-pants and highly educated. What hasn’t changed is male sexual desire. Because it’s intensely visual, it’s reassuring for a woman to hear that the way she looks is driving a guy wild—as opposed to driving him to pluck his eyes out with barbecue tongs.
Men like to know that they’re making a woman happy—or at least how they might have some hope of that. So, put it in those terms: “Baby, you know what I’d love … ?” rather than, “Buddy, you know how you’re failing me … ?” (Gently remind him until he gets in the habit.) A positive approach like this tends to be the most effective, tempting as it may be to hint that noncompliance will lead to severe sanctions: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, if you ever want a blow job again, you’d better say something nice about my outfit.”