On looking (and not touching)

As children, we’re taught it’s rude to stare, the implication being that to look for too long is vulgar, even invasive. “Visibility,” Foucault stated famously, “is a trap,” and it’s a fact now universally accepted that a person is weakened, rendered almost powerless by their having been seen.

This opinion has always struck me (for want of a better-phrase) as a little short-sighted. Certainly, there’s a degree of submission involved in being watched (and a whole host of pleasures attendant to that.) But there’s also a complexity to this power exchange I find intriguing. After all, if I catch your attention, unbutton my blouse, shift off my skirt, unfold before you, am I not the one in control? Similarly, if I hold your gaze, straddle you and sway until everything else in the room falls away, am I not the one who has absorbed you? 

The novelist Siri Hustvedt posits a slightly different notion. “The spectator,” she argues, “is the true vanishing point.” I’m inclined to agree. In the past, as a spectator, I have experienced a gleeful sort of annihilation inherent in my outsider status. In trysts involving more than two parties, I have delighted in sitting back to observe as people have carried on having sex without me. Undoubtedly, this point-of-view is powerful – even dominant – but my submissive side delights, too, in the humiliation provided by exclusion, the exquisite pain of the periphery. You can look, it seems to say, but you cannot touch.

These days, we can practically quantify how much we are seen. On social media, our ‘likes’ are collated, presented to us as evidence of how many people have given us an approving glance that day. As a result, I often find myself craving the old-fashioned allure of the deep, in-person gaze. In an economy of eyeballs, undivided attention is at an all-time premium. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about encounters with lovers old and new. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a single, significant glance is infinitely more valuable to me than a hundred virtual views.

Emotion, too, is tied to perspective. I’m continually fascinated by the transformative power of perception. After all, we don’t enjoy getting bent over desks simply because they give us something to hold on to. No, a desk implies authority: your boss, your teacher, a particularly domineering professor. The way we look at objects can change them, endow them with a far kinkier second purpose: a pool table becomes a spanking bench; ice cubes, instruments with which to torment a lover; a leather belt – well, the options are endless. With a simple shift of viewpoint, everything around us can become animated, multilayered, imbued with erotic possibility.

Go top