Comes Naturally #33 (May 5, 1995):
Sexy Male Nudes: Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery, 1978; Collector's Photography, 1986; Cupido's Women Readers, 1995

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Spectator Magazine - May 5, 1995
(c) David Steinberg

Sexy Male Nudes: Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery, 1978; Collector's Photography, 1986; Cupido's Women Readers, 1995

Photographs of Sexy Men: What Turns Heterosexual Women On?

Cupido, the beautiful Norwegian erotic magazine I talk about so often, has done what I believe is the first survey asking predominantly heterosexual women what they like about erotic photos of men. The answers provide some interesting food for thought on what women -- or at least the Norwegian and Danish women who read Cupido -- like and don't like in sexy photos of men.

One of the most wonderful things about Cupdio -- aside from the fact that it's artistic, intelligent, and both sexually and socially progressive -- is that it features erotic photos of individual women, individual men, male-female couples, female-female couples, and malemale couples, all in one magazine. The only U.S. sex publication I know of that dares to print erotic male nudes alongside erotic images of women and couples is the one you're looking at. (You may applaud now....) My friends at Cupido tell me that Norwegian sexual culture is really no more progressive than what we have in the U.S., but at least when it comes to homophobia, the Norwegians seem to be well ahead of us.

Beauty, Thou Art Woman, and Woman Alone

The conventional wisdom among magazine publishers in this country is that Good Old American homophobia is just too strong to allow men to look at sexy pictures of other men without getting some nervous sweat under the collar, unless of course that man happens to be being sexual with a woman or two at the time. The sexual mythology seems to be that if a red-blooded American male looks at another man's naked body and acknowledges the man as attractive or sexy, he might/must be just a tad gay, which most American men seem to feel is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a guy.

The problem with this basically homophobic reaction is that it deprives men of being able to acknowledge and admire how beautiful and sexy other men's bodies often are, which in turn deprives men of acknowledging or admiring how beautiful and sexy their own bodies can be. Bodily beauty, sexiness, and sensuality become the exclusive domain of women -- of the Other -- leaving men woefully dependent on women for the opportunity to vicariously experience those aspects of being alive. I daresay that many of the men who worship regularly at Temple O'Farrell, New Century, or Kit Kat are worshipping the notion of Beauty as much as they are the notion of Woman. But why experience beauty (only) vicariously, when it's possible to have it (also) as one's own? Woman may inevitably, essentially, and irrevocably be Other to men; for Beauty to be Other is not inevitable at all.

Women, unafflicted with the virulent level of homophobia that infects most heterosexual men in our once-frontier culture, don't have to suffer this particular prohibition about appreciating reflections of themselves as both sexy and beautiful. Women can enjoy looking at other women, can find other women beautiful and sexy, can allow themselves to be turned on by seeing other women as erotic, without this simple appreciation bringing into question their basic sexual orientation. Women are able to appreciate the women in porn videos, magazines, strip clubs and the like -- even masturbate to them -- without interpreting their interest or fascination as some kind of profound statement about their sexual natures. Can you imagine men doing anything of the same kind? Guess not.

The Male Nude in U.S. Photography, 1978

In June, 1978, the Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in New York put on an exhibition of photography, titled simply "The Male Nude." The show was a beautiful collection of 140 photographs by 86 male and female photographers, spanning a full century of erotic, sensual, and simply aesthetic male nudes, including work by such well-known photographers as Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, George Platt Lynes, Berenice Abbott, and Minor White, as well as work by the then-barely-recognized Robert Mapplethorpe, Jacqueline Livingston, and Sally Mann. "The Male Nude" was well-attended and appreciated by the public, but universally trounced by the supposedly sophisticated and entirely male coterie of New York art critics. The show had breached the homophobic divide, demanding of its viewers that they acknowledge or at least get nose to nose with the unquestionable beauty and sensuality of the male body.

"When is a nude not a nude? When it is male," intoned a horrified John Ashbury in New York Magazine, reviewing the show. "Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed." For some reason indeed!

"The show is hopeless," cried Ben Lifson in the supposedly hip and avant-garde Village Voice. "It's all Priapus and no garden. A man's body doesn't lend itself to abstraction like a woman's," according to Lifson, because "everyday experience doesn't readily proffer... men with phallic symbols between their legs." (Take your hand off your phallic symbol, Johnny....)

Gene Thornton of The New York Times went so far as to say that "there is something to be said for pre-World War I prudery about the unclothed human body... when the unclothed human body is a man." Speaking of the "old-fashioned belief that men have a special responsibility for the protection and support of women and children, in return for which women and children owed them submission," Thornton notes that "now that this belief is being attacked by certain working women and their spokesmen [sic], men [in addition to women] are being presented as sexual objects." This bothers Thornton no end. "There is something disconcerting about the sight of a man's naked body being presented primarily as a sexual object," he pronounces, decrying as simultaneously "unpleasantly aggressive" and "passive [and] introverted" the male sexuality he saw in the show's photographs.

There it is, plain as day, spoken with a naive self-righteousness that would be unheard of today. Presenting women as objects of desire is to be lauded, in art and porn circles alike, but switch the gender shoe to the other foot and you might as well be performing a crime against nature.

It took the one woman reviewer of the time, Vicki Goldberg of the Saturday Review, to state the obvious. The male critics, she noted, were having trouble with the show because they were lost in their own "widespread fear of passivity, femininity, [and] homosexuality." As a result of homophobic perspectives such as these, she points out, "the male nude is essentially homeless. There is neither reverence nor fondness for it, nor even much public acceptance." Striking a positive note, she adds that it's possible that "women's frank appreciation [of the male nude] might be rearranging matters. It would be splendid, and ironic," she concludes, "if women were the ones to restore men's sense of the beauty and dignity of their bodies."

The Male Nude in U.S. Photography, 1986

Eight years later photographer Jeff Dunas inaugurated publication of a new, innovative magazine of imaginative erotic photography, Collectors Editions Review. (The name changed, a short time later, to Collectors Photography.) While the work that appeared in that magazine ranged from historical to contemporary, included the work of male and female photographers from all over the world, and portrayed a broad spectrum of styles, attitudes, and content, Dunas made it an absolute rule to publish photos of women exclusively. He even subtitled the magazine "The World's Finest Photography of Women," freeing potential readers and subscribers from any fear that they might stumble on some delicious naked man while they were in a state of semi-arousal from looking at the highly crafted images of beautiful women.

By this time, the feminist cultural revolution had spread far beyond Gene Thornton's fantasy of "certain working women and their spokesmen," and images of men as objects of erotic desire were not as revolutionary as they had been in 1978. In no time at all, Collectors Photography found itself in the midst of an ongoing debate about the male nude, as male and female readers alike wrote letters questioning why the magazine confined itself to images of half the human race.

"Why do you limit the magazine to photography of the female form rather than photography of the human form?" wrote Del Richardson of La Jolla. Kenneth Beaudrie of Denver agreed. "As a photographer, I would find your magazine more useful if you would be more versatile in your subject matter," he said. "Why not publish nudes of either sex using only the criteria that the photographs demonstrate an example of artistic photography of the nude?"

Melanie Suggs of Los Angeles elaborated further. "I think the male body is a beautiful object and worthy of the artistic attention that is usually focused on the female form. Beautiful images of males deserve to be seen too. Male figure photography is almost a 'new frontier,' and it seems only logical that a magazine of your caliber would want to cover the strides being made in that emerging field." Eldon Mitchell of Phoenix ("I love your magazine; so does my wife") chimed in, "I have always felt the male nude form to be just as photographically erotic [as the female]. I don't think women should get all the credit for stimulating eroticism." "Male nudes should be featured too," wrote Robert Thorson of Washington. "I don't take them, and really don't care to look at them, but to be totally fair to women photographers and readers, as well as my lady, you should include more of them."

Letters taking the other side of the issue were somewhat more vituperative. "On the subject of male nudes: Heck no, never!" wrote Hank Small of San Carlos. "It's about women; the beautiful women of the world. Count me out if you're going to put male nudes in Collectors Photography. I subscribed because the magazine was dedicated to the beauty of the female form. Let's go forward with women, not men."

"The male form may well have its place in art," wrote Dan Brooks of Washington, "but there is no place for male nudes [in this magazine]. That's when I and a lot of other subscribers cancel out." "Male nudity should have its own magazine and not ruin this fine one," agreed David Gaziano of Massachusetts.

After eight years, some signs of change, cracks in the monolith. Voices of women speaking of their own visual desires, and voices of men somewhat little less fear than before. Still, the roots of something as fundamental as homophobia run deep, says conventional publishing wisdom. Dunas played it safe and kept his magazine focused on lithe young women. After three years Collectors Photography folded.

Meanwhile, Back in Norway...

Maybe things are different in Norway and Denmark, or maybe Cupido is just more willing to push the homophobic envelope more than any U.S. publisher has been willing to do. Whatever the reason, the editors of Cupido take pride in combining erotic appreciation of men, women, and couples of all gender combinations in a single magazine. From its inception ten years ago (at the same time as Collectors Photography), Cupido has sought an audience that includes men and women of all sexual persuasions. "We take great pleasure," editor/publisher Terje Gammelsrud has said to me, "in knowing that when a man or a woman buys Cupido no one can tell whether they are buying the magazine to look at the men or to look at the women."

Recently Cupido went on a campaign to make the magazine more responsive to the tastes and appetites of its heterosexual women readers. What did these women want from erotic photographs of men? Discussions among the staff gave some insight about what these particular women liked and disliked about various photographs, but when it came to the public at large, Cupido staffers realized that they knew very little about what the details of what women wanted. They decided to take the direct approach: When in doubt, ask.

In late 1994, the magazine printed 17 sexy photos of men, taken by male and female photographers from the U.S., Denmark, France, the Netherlands, England, and Spain. Cupido asked its women readers to pick their favorite photos, to comment on what made particular photos sexy for them, even to editorialize on how the individual photos could be better than they were. The basic question was: "What do you demand from a good erotic photo of a man?"

"Cupido's women are strict and demanding in their criteria," publisher Terje Gammelsrud says of the responses received from women aged 17 to 53, "but their judgment is surprisingly unanimous." First and foremost, he notes, the women say "the men should be turned on, thank you very much! It is decisive that the women believe in the man's excitement and that they feel he enjoys being turned on." Women want "horny men with radiance and presence," Terje proclaims. "Male pin-ups who have nothing but a beautiful body to show off are considered a turn-off. Not even an erect penis can save the situation if all he does is give you the impression that he has no other thought in his head than the model fee."

"The man in the picture is more than allowed to fondle his own body or masturbate," Terje continues. As one woman respondent puts it, "I very much like watching a man fondle himself, a man who has allowed himself to enter the sexual room completely." While "none of the women want the man to be feminine, and some stress that they do not like photos where he looks like a gay stereotype," Terje notes with a smile that women "do not at all mind homoerotic photos where two men are engaged in sensual or sexual activities with each other -- quite the contrary!"

Interestingly, only a minority of the women mention the man's body itself as important in experiencing a photo as erotic. Many more were concerned with the man's face, his eyes, his emotional expression. "The face is decisive for women to determine the man's personality," Terje notes. Thus, one woman writes specifically that "the model should express lust, have a dangerous gleam in his eyes, or be teasing and vital, but there should always be a feeling of closeness and tenderness."

Women also like when the photos stimulate a sense of being a voyeur, "the feeling that she risks being caught in the act of looking at him."

Of the women who did focus on the men's bodies, most liked men who were "muscular and well-equipped," but they also wanted men who felt "natural," who looked like "an everyman." As for significant body parts, Terje laughs that "there is no doubt that women appreciate looking at the male member. To many it is important that this is shown in the photo. And there is an almost unanimous demand that if a penis is shown at all, it should be erect!" For the record, "very few of the women mention penis size at all."

As to other parts of the model's bodies, Terje says that "Cupido's poll does not permit the slightest doubt that his ass is a safe bestseller! But his chest, as well as his stomach, thighs, neck, and hands, can all turn women on."

Terje believes that "women are often searching for photographs that get their fantasies started, photos about which the women can ask, 'Where is he going? Where has he been? Who is he? Where is he? What will he do next?'"

All in all, says Terje, "our female readers demand photos of men who are aroused by them (the female readers), and ready to seduce or be seduced by them. Our readers will not be bluffed. They will not be impressed by a man's erection if he does not convince them, through his facial expression and personality, that his passion is real and sincere. We want photos of men bursting with heterosexual passion, if we can put things that way."

Put things that way they do -- ten times a year in Norway, six times a year in Denmark, homophobia be damned -- alive and well, men and women, young and old, fat and thin, playful and hot, all between the covers of one happy, burstingly passionate family. Almost makes me want to learn Norwegian.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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