Before we discuss why it is men can't and shouldn't stop looking at women in the street, I'd like to explain about the girl in the miniskirt on the bicycle.
It was the first of the warm spring days that inflated Toronto this week. I was on my way to work on my bicycle. Two blocks from my house, I turned right and found myself 10 feet behind a young woman.
I use the word “behind” hesitantly.
She might have been 20. I am 58. She had long blond hair, and was wearing a short putty-coloured jacket, nude hose – I didn't think anyone wore nude hose any more – and a white miniskirt, trim but straining, tucked primly beneath her.
My first sight of her felt like a light blow to the chest. Her body held my interest, but so did her decision to wear a miniskirt on a bike, along with her youth, her loveliness, even the fleetingness of the six blocks I kept her company – she turned right, and she was gone. We owed each other nothing.
The inevitable backwash of guilt arrived, as all men know it does. I have a daughter her age. I am married but spent several minutes gazing at a pretty girl's backside. I could hear the charges: objectifier, perv, pig, man.
But it was such a beautiful day. And so I decided to spend the rest of it cruising the city, investigating the famous male gaze, to find out just how ashamed we lads ought to feel. These days, with women charging so fast past us, we're happy to feel anything.
Details that catch my attention: lively calves, French blue puff skirts with white polka dots, red shoes, dark skin, olive skin, pale skin, lips (various shapes), curly hair (to my surprise). A pretty girl with too much bottom squeezed into her yoga pants – and, mysteriously, twice as sexy for the effort. A slim blond in enormous sunglasses carrying a banana peel as if it were a memo. An expensively dressed and tanned woman climbs out of a taxi, so vivacious I panic and can't look at her. Slim girls, curvy girls; signs of health, hints of quiet style. Coloured headbands. A rollerblader in white short shorts does nothing for me: Her look is the sexual equivalent of shopping at Wal-Mart.
But each woman makes you think, parse her appeal. The busty brunette in her 20s is wearing a rich emerald-green ruffled blouse, but it's sleeveless and obviously not warm enough to wear outside. Is she a bad planner? Would she be a sloppy mate?
I ask a woman sitting in an outdoor café if she minds being looked at by men. Her name is Ali – a 26-year-old student with an Italian boyfriend who looks at everyone. That used to bother her but doesn't any more. “Just looking, I don't think it's offensive. But I think it's offensive if there's comments.”
Every woman I speak to says the same thing, without exception. So why does girl-watching have such a terrible reputation? Maybe because it's an act of rebellion.
X meets me for lunch at Ki, a downtown sushi restaurant frequented by brokers and lawyers. A big-time lawyer married to the same woman for three decades, he's father to three children – the opposite of a player. But he, too, spends hours gazing at women. He claims he spots at least two stunners a day. We've been discussing the girl on the bicycle.
“I don't get this complaint that you can't look at an attractive woman who's the same age as your 20-year-old daughter,” X says.
I'm having a hard time concentrating: Ki's waitresses are brain-stopping. Cleavage seems to be the prix fixe. One of them catches me looking at her, and then catches me looking sheepishly away, my store of hope fading the way a car battery dies. But a little bit of shame is good: you can't take your gandering for granted.
“It's because you could be her father,” I finally manage to say.
“Yeah,” X replies. “But you're not.”