Yes, an unusual experience, for many reasons. I have been a very unconventional looking gay man for the majority of my life. My head is large, my ears protrude, my eyes cross, and my paunch wages a constant battle with my inner thin man for control of my somatic psyche. I am not, given the particular standards and values of the gay community, a looker. I do not recognize myself in our glossy magazines or on the television shows that desperately pitch gay stereotypes, however gorgeous, to a public looking for decorating tips. But I’ve held my own, now married with my partner of over 20 years. And I go to the gym regularly, but not because one of my closest gay friends, another middle-aged gay guy, says I should. I will never have a slim figure; my teen twink days are long gone, and I won’t do what it takes to get them back, no matter how over-valued such a body type is among some gay men. Instead, I will always be something of a bear (a larger hairy gay man, for those not in the know). And I’m good with that. I exercise to keep myself flexible, for, as we age, the body tightens, the joints wanting to solidify. I’m not done yet, I tell my body — keep moving.
I have learned to love my crossed eye.
Other people seem okay with it too, or at least I surmise as such from the uptick in interest I’m experiencing. At first, it startled me, the somewhat blatant commenting on my body at the gym, such as a middle-aged woman’s frank interest. “Hey, that’s a heavy weight — you’re making great progress! … Hey, looking good! … Hey, I’m keeping my eye on you!” I didn’t know how to respond so am afraid I came across as dismissive. “Oh, thanks,” I muttered as I returned to my bicep curl. But really, I was more perplexed than anything. And then the even stranger come-ons from young men, at times actively pursuing conversation at, say, my hipster barbershop, then asking for my name while perusing my body up and down, giving me a good old-fashioned look over.
But perhaps the biggest surprise came when, lounging in the sauna one evening after a workout at my gym, a young shirtless blond kid started cruising me. I say “kid” for he must’ve been in his early 20s, so a kid to me. But he was a hot kid. Slightly tanned, very toned, his sauna-induced sweat riding the curves of his muscles, wending its way down valleys left vacant by the readily apparent absence of fat. We were alone in the sauna, and he started pacing a bit, periodically catching my eye. Sauna etiquette — in this mixed-gender, suburban gym — dictates that I turn away, look elsewhere, study my fingernails, and I did, but he was hard not to eye aslant; he was just that good looking. And then he started doing pushups, balancing himself on a wooden bench, the pushups intensifying as he propelled himself off the bench to clap his hands and then back down again, pressing himself into the wood. He flexed his taut buttocks, the fabric of his silver shorts perfectly cupping his glutes. Then another sideways glance, just to see if I’m looking. How could I not? He was clearly performing for me. And then he flipped over, supporting himself on his palms, his obvious erection filling the front of his shorts.
At that point someone else walked into the sauna, a middle-aged Asian woman who took a seat and studied her lap. The boy moved over and commenced flexing his muscles practically in front of my face. Eventually, recognizing perhaps that I wasn’t taking the bait, he grabbed his towel and walked out, but not before a quick backward glance.
I have called this scene one of “being cruised,” though, to be completely fair, I cannot tell exactly what this young man’s intentions were. I’ve seen many men flex their muscles in the sauna. Hell, I’ve done that myself, though always with my shirt on. Perhaps he was just enjoying the heat, getting in a little extra exercise, working up a bit more than the usual sweat. He may not have wanted to engage me sexually at all, or perhaps he just wanted to show off a bit and enjoy some attention. Some people enjoy being watched. Then again, if I had commented, perhaps he would’ve been repulsed. Maybe he wasn’t thinking of me at all, and any interaction with me would’ve been not only unwanted but a cause for alarm on his part. When I related this story to my husband, he was adamant: “No, you were being cruised. That kid wanted some daddy action.” But maybe this is my husband’s own projection, his attraction to me now vectored through my story of this hot young man showing off his muscles in the sauna.
This is the challenge of cruising. What did he want, if anything? Or is the interest all in my own head? Certainly I was intrigued. Perhaps I’m not used to the protocols of cruising and don’t know how to read the cues, and I am now misreading the cues, or reading into the cues, which aren’t even cues at all. I certainly have little experience in responding to them positively; I am unpracticed in casual sex.
But I would be lying if I said that the scene wasn’t a little bit exciting. I’m coming to enjoy being looked at, having spent so much of my life oblivious to the potentially erotic interest of strangers, driven as I was by my own homophobia-fueled sense of my unattractiveness and being unwanted. It is, to the say the least, a delightful change of somatic pace to find myself … of interest.
It’s also a little bit frightening, in part because I don’t always know what’s going on. I sense the interest, but don’t know how to decline it politely. I’ve been married too long, off the market, out of circulation. But I also recognize — more profoundly — the gaping hole left by our fundamental inability to interpret someone else’s intentions. Take the kid in the sauna, for instance. I was intrigued but also a bit scared. He’s flexing, pumping his body, prowling that small wooden room. He seems, at points, frankly dangerous, his young animal body caught in a cage, looking for an out. The presence of the Asian woman intensified my inability to “read” this situation. We’re in a shared, mixed-gender public space, so the “cues” are harder for me to interpret. I couldn’t help but think about what she must have been thinking of this young stud, sexually charging this tiny space with his gyrations, his cock on display. And perhaps that's yet another twist: the young stud might be enjoying teasing me a bit in the presence of yet a third person, who can observe this little silent drama unfolding.
The drama, such as it is, occurs almost entirely in these varied invitations to look and the exchanges of looks that generate tension because they are not being interpreted or clarified through verbal articulation. I sneak a look at the boy who catches my eye who catches me watching him while another watches. Just looking opens up a world of possibility. Looking is all potential.
One of the most startling scenes of the power of looking occurs for me in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece, L’Avventura, in which our heroine, Claudia, helping her love interest track down a missing friend, finds herself in a square in a strange city. A crowd of men gather around her, following her, their sexual hunger palpable in their eyes. No doubt, the young Monica Vitti was worth looking at, but the scene is overplayed, purposefully so. The lovers are searching for their companion, a search reflected more basely in the searching eyes of the men practically stalking Claudia. The scene is a study in the male gaze, a disturbing invitation itself to gaze at that gaze, to be unsettled by it.
Such a scene likely prompted theorist Roland Barthes, in his 1980 letter, “Dear Antonioni,” to meditate on the power of the gaze, and the ways in which artists like Antonioni proffer invitations to reflect on how we look at the world around us, and at one another. Barthes suggests that an “aspect of fragility for the artist, paradoxically, is the firmness and insistence of his look. Power of any kind, because it is violence, never looks; if it looked one minute longer (one minute too much) it would lose its essence as power. The artist, for his part, stops and looks lengthily…” Barthes understood that much atrocity and violence has likely been committed because perpetrators haven’t bothered to look carefully enough at what they were doing, whom they were harming, how their actions were damaging others. If they looked steadily at the suffering they were causing, would they continue? How much pain has been caused by our willingness to, as we say, turn a blind eye? What suffering is furthered when we turn away from misery? What terrible power is enacted by not looking closely enough at what we are doing? In L’Avventura, the men are watching Claudia, but they aren’t looking at her. They aren’t seeing her. They see an attractive woman, but not the person herself on a quest, searching, grappling with the complexities of friendship, intimacy, and love.
Some of us are subject to gazes that size us up, measure us, and invite us to internalize such measuring. I grew up with such gazes, my thin and gangly body, coupled with my somewhat effeminate mannerisms, lured the hostile gazes of jocks and bullies throughout my schooling. I was taunted and ridiculed, identified as a faggot long before I had conscious sexual thoughts. Even some of the adults at my Catholic boys school who witnessed this bullying turned away, withholding comment. The deep braid among body, identity, and eroticism was tied into a dense knot of self-hatred that has taken me most of my life to untangle. People were definitely looking at me, but they weren't seeing the damage they were inflicting — or they didn’t care. So no wonder that, years later, personal success aside, I still react skeptically to interest in my body. “Who, what, me? I don't think so.” I was trained early on to expect that the most my body could elicit in others is castigation and punishment, not interest, much less desire.
But I think Barthes didn’t quite see the whole picture in that scene in L’Avventura. Yes, it’s a bit disturbing, the male gaze creepily intensifying as more men join the throng tracking Claudia through the square. But Claudia moves through them without comment, as though she's not even noticing them noticing her. Perhaps she’s naïvely unaware of the danger she might be in. Perhaps she’s secretly delighting in it. Perhaps she just understands it as her due as an attractive woman. The power of the scene might ultimately lie in the presence of intense looking that generates dramatic tension without resolving it.
So, thinking through this scene, I now recognize that I wasn’t entirely truthful earlier. Surely, I go to the gym because, as a gay man in the greater Los Angeles area, I don’t want to be fat. Even though I’m not “on the market” and am happily married, I’ve nonetheless internalized some somatic sensibility about what a normative gay body looks like. One might call this the Foucauldian panopticon in operation, working at the level of a gay community policing its bodies to impose standards of attractiveness. But I might also understand my own attention to my body as a desire to proliferate the possibilities for looking. I want to be cruised. I desire the desiring gazes of others. In part, I'm working against the narrative of looking that I learned as a kid: that the only gaze I deserve is one of hostility. I want now a different narrative, an expanded set of possibilities.
Without a doubt, there are some exercises of power that stem from a conscious failure to look closely enough, that elide the human subject and suffering in the execution of violence on other bodies. I forced myself to listen to the daily news report of the trial and sentencing of Larry Nassar. I wouldn’t turn away from hearing the awful details as one woman after another came forward to speak of their abuse. I felt a human obligation to bear witness, even from afar, to what happens when someone fails to see the human before him, and sees instead a tool for his gratification.
If I return to that sauna room, I also see the operations of looking and power at play … but not in any simple way. The boy seemed to be presenting his finely sculpted body for objectification, wanting to be looked at, his shirtless torso admired, his gluteal globes pulsing with his pushups. I have a hard time imagining that one flexes and grunts in a sauna, nearly naked, without some desire to be appreciated. However, in the absence of a clear invitation (“Hey, do you want to touch my taut ass?”), how am I to read his body, his performance, even his glances at me? Is he just checking to see if I’m looking, and might he be thinking something more vicious, less invitational? Something like, Why is this old faggot staring at me? And maybe he’s right to think that. Maybe in looking at him, however furtively, and then again in writing about him here, I’m contributing to the objectification of his body, delighting in my adjectival portraiture of his form, and thus failing to see him as a person.
But no. I am trying to imagine what he might be thinking, to sift through the possibilities of perception, not just in my mind but in his as well. And even further, I’m trying to imagine what’s going on in the mind of the woman who joins the scene, walking into this silent drama, this unspoken narrative. I’m trying to imagine what she too is thinking and feeling, how she might be experiencing his dance, and my silence.
Part of the thrill of such situations lies precisely in the speculation, in the possibility that, if I were to make a move on this boy, I could be wrong in my interpretation. Moreover, all of this speculation is embedded in a public space, where I’m perhaps not supposed to be acknowledging or responding to (much less initiating) sexual contact. That’s part of the excitement. The erotic charge is built on the dual unknowability and illicit nature of the space. Indeed, without articulating our sense of what’s going on, how can I know what someone else is thinking or feeling or wanting or desiring — provided, of course, that they will be truthful in the telling of their own needs and wishes?
Herein lies the complexity of cruising and being cruised. Cruising implies that we are just passing through, looking around, checking stuff out, window-shopping as it were. Will we or won’t we? Even if we are the ones doing the cruising, we might not ourselves fully know what we are looking for. Part of the pleasure comes out of the play of possibility, not always the follow through.
We want to look, and we want to be looked at. We want interest, and we want to be interested in others. There can even be some fun in being objectified; I know that I haven’t minded some appreciative appraisals, even if the interaction stops there. I can be someone’s gay daddy, even if just in his own mind. I value such fantasy. I am surprised at times how much of waking life is composed of moving through spaces with the drama of the possible permeating how I see the world around me and interact with people and things in it.
At the same time, as delightful as such play is, we must always be conscious of how such looking and interest carry with them the limitations of our own perceptions. All of our eyes are a bit crossed. We don’t always know how the other will understand our actions, our words, our gyrations in the sauna room, our looks askance, our stroll through a crowded square — or our gazes on someone else moving through that square. But just at the moment when we are paying such necessary attention to what is appropriate and not when we look, desire, and might want to reach out and touch, when we are becoming more conscious of how we see and sometimes objectify one another, I hope we can leave some room for cruising. Being cruised has been, for me, strangely but deliciously reparative. I didn’t realize that I needed that scene in the sauna room, even as I needed to meditate on it, even as I may have needed to pick up my towel and walk away.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He has authored or edited 13 books, including the critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).