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Rites of spring

Why men can't - and shouldn't - stop staring at women Add to ...

He pauses. “I read that 26 is the peak of a woman's sexual attractiveness. I've got a daughter who's 26 – so I can't find someone that age attractive? That strikes me as a creepy argument. Women might not credit that a man can look at someone of that age without lust, but as the father of someone that age, I can.”

X believes men look at attractive women because attractiveness means the women are healthy, an evolutionary advantage.

“That's still seems unfair to the less attractive,” I point out.

“And it bites women a lot harder than it bites men. I'm conscious of it being unfair. But there's nothing I can do about it.”

“We could stop looking.”

“Would that help anything?”

“That's not an answer. Could you stop looking?”

“You'd have to pretty much turn out the lights.”

The trick is to look and keep what you see to yourself.

***

There are people sunning themselves all over downtown Toronto, glades of flesh and sunglasses. Ninety per cent of them are women. It's not as if they're hiding.

On the co-ed-strewn quad of Victoria College at the University of Toronto, I run into K, a businesswoman I know. She's here studying for a night course. She just turned 50, and is still attractive. But she admits looks from men are rarer. “Leering hasn't happened in years,” she adds wistfully. Visiting Italy 20 years ago with friends, “we were furious that the Italian men pinched your bum. When we went back, in our early 40s, we were furious that no one was pinching our bums.” This makes me as sad as it seems to make her.

She points out there is a difference between a look and a leer and disagrees with X's rule that eye contact with a passing woman can last no more than one second.

“Well, I'd say two or three seconds. A lingering look, especially if it's from an Adonis –that's, oooh. And you never see them again. A passing encounter. Or a bus encounter, glances and sidelong looks until one of you gets off the bus? That's the best.”

The first time she stepped out of the library this morning into the quad of semi-clad women, “I thought to myself, oh my god, do you remember what it was like to be able to expose your legs? It wasn't even sexual. But it was liberating.”

This is another thing that made the girl on the bike so appealing: she was free. It would be nice if we all were. Y, a 35-year-old married friend who still flicks his gaze at passing women the way other people flip channels, blames our national earnestness. “The problem for us as men is that we're in the wrong culture, and we're men at the wrong time. We're not a culture that empowers men with casual sensuality.”

He holds up his BlackBerry. “I don't see what's wrong with it. In a world where, thanks to this thing, I am only two clicks away from double penetration and other forms of pornographic nastiness, the act of merely looking at a girl who is naturally pretty – I mean, we should celebrate that.”

***

It's nearly dinnertime when I make my last stop at L'Espresso, an Italian café near my house. Even here, on a quiet patio at the end of the day, I can see five women I want to look at. It's almost, but not quite, exhausting.

Then I notice W and Z at the patio's corner table – the best view in the place. Both men are in their early 60s, both married. They're surprisingly keen to discuss the male gaze.

“Yes, I look at girls still, incessantly and unavoidably,” says W, the taller of the two. He still has a full mane of tossed-back hair. “And it's one of my greatest pleasures in life.”

“I concur,” Z says. Z is shorter, less ephemeral. “But I look and gaze at all women in the street, whether they're beauties or not. They're all interesting. And different men gaze at different women.”

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