men, masculinities and gender politics


Is Masturbation a Sport? Thoughts on the continuing inanity of the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue.”

Is Masturbation a Sport? Thoughts on the continuing inanity of the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue.”

Splashed across the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” is the picture of a 19 year-old woman in a barely-there bikini.


I guess I do have some questions. The first one is: if Kate Upton lowers her arms or turns her body at all, would not her pendulous breasts flop right out of those little slingshot supports? And as for that tiny triangular patch of fabric that barely covers her nether regions... how in the world does that thing stay on when she goes swimming?

For those who may not be familiar with this annual orgy of female objectification, the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” is a glossy pictorial of shot after shot of young females in various states of undress. (Think of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie catalog – but with more erect nipples clearly visible.) The Swimsuit Issue was invented nearly 50 years ago as a way to generate advertising revenue during the slowest sports month of the year – February. February presented a real dilemma for the publishers. What could they do during this sports drought in order to amuse men, to entertain men, to titillate men, and (most importantly) to take money from men?

So they decided to get some hot looking women, fly them to tropical locations, pose them in bikinis – or even topless! If they couldn’t thrill men with sports, they would excite them with boobs!

Personally, I find it more than a little offensive that magazine publishers and advertisers would actually think that we heterosexual men are so unsophisticated, so immature, and so removed from reality that we would actually be satisfied with (and would even enjoy!) the move to substitute real stories about real athletes with photos of a bunch of scantily-clad, ridiculously positioned, heavily-airbrushed (and now photoshopped) models representing nothing more than some 13 year-old heterosexual boy’s idealized sex fantasy!

I mean, how ridiculous is that idea?

Unfortunately, not very. During the past 50 years the annual Swimsuit Issue has become an advertising goldmine. And it has spawned countless spin-offs in the form of calendars, coffee table books, and documentaries that mindlessly record the minute details of each photo shoot.

It turns out the publishers were right. Most men would not only tolerate this annual sexual deviation from an all-sports diet, they would actually come to celebrate it! And each winter for one week – or even longer – many North American men simply become drooling 13 year-old boys again.

I find that pretty damn depressing.

And I guess I have another question, too. When a sports magazine publishes an annual girly issue, what exactly is the sport that they are promoting? For women, it would seem to be going to some sandy beach some place and posing like a supermodel in an awkward stance – for hours. (Which is actually pretty hard work).

For men, on the other hand, the only physical activity that the Swimsuit Issue seems to promote is masturbation.

The role of the Swimsuit Issue in the life of teenage boys. When I was a teenage boy, there was a good deal of excitement when this issue would come out. My family had a subscription to Sports Illustrated and I well remember eagerly awaiting the arrival of this annual display of boobs on beaches.

Unfortunately, I had to fight my older brothers for the right to spend time with these women.

We fought over who got look at it first.

And then we fought over who got to look at it... later.

We kept these magazines around for quite a while. Old issues were put in a drawer, where they discretely covered a stack of actual porn magazines that were secreted below. But the difference between the old swimsuit issues and the porn magazines was actually quite small. Of course, one form of objectification (the Swimsuit Issue) was more socially acceptable than the other (the real porn).

But either type of magazine could get the job done.

One February, at school, in order to pre-empt the boys who would race to grab the magazine and rip out certain pages to keep for themselves, the librarian dissected the magazine and put the photos in a locked display case where all of the boys would have the chance to gather and drool over them. And in between classes many of us did just that. We did it right up until the decision to display these scantily clad images was reversed, and the porny photos suddenly disappeared.

We were boys. We were young. We were foolish. And we were trying to figure out our sexuality in a world that inundates young men (and women) with the message that what is desirable in a woman is a thin body with big breasts, bulbous lips, long hair, and a sculpted ass. (And erect nipples, of course. Never mind that these women’s hard nipples were probably the result of the cold water, the sea breezes, the electric fans often used in the photo shoots, and perhaps even a little extra physical tweaking for just the “right” look. We all preferred to believe that these chilly women were actually sexually aroused.)

I try to forgive my younger self for the role that the objectification of women played in my sexual development. We were kids, and society handed us these artificial images and told us: This is what is sexy.

In the “nature vs. nurture” discussion about male sexuality, we almost never talk about the nurture piece. And we almost never talk about how to nurture healthy sexuality in our young men. Instead, we simply turn pre-adolescent boys over to a sexualized, commercialized, and pornified flood of media images designed not to help them develop their sexual selves, but rather simply to take their money. Then we declare that the twisted version of hetero male sexuality that emerges from this onslaught of objectification of women is somehow the way that men naturally are. But there is nothing "natural" about it.

And a lot of us guys – if the continual adult heterosexual male interest in the Swimsuit Issue (and its spin offs) can be taken as any measure – never move much beyond an adolescent boy’s desire to have sex with these two-dimensional bikinied models. As boys we were trained into craving these images. Even though they are airbrushed. Photoshopped. Primped and preened, nipples tweaked, doused, and chilled until suitably erect. The women are unnatural. And they are silent.

This is what boys (and girls) are told is sexy. And many of us never recover from our intense exposure to this commercialized, commoditized, packaged, and artificial version of sexuality.

This year’s issue. Over the last half-century the Swimsuit Issue has seen some changes. None of them for the better. After seeing the issue come out year after year after year with essentially the same formula (boobs on beaches), I thought I might not have anything new to say about it.

I was wrong.

In most ways the 2012 issue is little different from the previous 48 years worth of magazines. Like its previous iterations, it too features many women with bikini tops that are often untied or even absent. Some wear wet t-shirts with no bra. As in previous years, the photo shoots occurred in various places around the world. In Africa the women pose with exotic animals. Elephants. Zebras. One model grabs a lion by its tail. Another walks a cheetah on a leash. Shoots also took place in Australia, the Seychelles, in Panama and on the US gulf coast.

While the locations may shift year to year, one thing that has not changed one bit is the idiotic text – the sort of thing that 13 year-old hetero boys just love:

It begins with a beautiful girl... in a bikini... against a perfect sunset... standing on the edge of the world’s most breathtaking waterfall... WILL NATURAL WONDERS NEVER CEASE?”

Will we heterosexual men ever mature from an adolescent stage of life where we think this kind of stuff is clever or funny? Will we ever see it for the ridiculously sophomoric “humor” that it is?

Of course the internet age has impacted the Swimsuit Issue as well. Now the magazine is full of web addresses that you can enter into your browser and see little video clips in which the models all talk about how much “fun” it was to do the shoots. (There is no mention of the grueling shooting schedules, the hours upon hours spent in uncomfortable poses, and of the monotony involved in producing the glossy rag.)

This year there was even a documentary that aired on cable t.v. called “The Making of Swimsuit 2012.”

It was shown on Valentine’s Day.

How romantic.

Absolute evidence of sexism. Every year people argue back and forth about the extent to which the Swimsuit Issue is “sexist.” But by any measure, the 2012 iteration of the magazine is pretty bad. This year’s issue actually features some real athletes, both male and female. But if there was ever any doubt about the sexist ideology that underlies the Swimsuit Issue as a whole, one need only look at how these two groups of athletes are treated.

The 3 male athletes (tennis player Rafael Nadal, basketball player Chris Paul, and swimmer Michael Phelps) are pictured shirtless, but they all wear comfortable, modest shorts. (And, of course, in modern culture, a shirtless man is not considered to be naked – whereas a topless woman is.) And in this Swimsuit Issue, not even Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps is pictured in a bathing suit – the very uniform of his sport!!! Instead, he gets to wear comfortable shorts that keep his privates... well, private.

In the section that is devoted to the male athletes, female models in tiny bikinis (or topless but with strategically placed hands or tennis rackets covering their breasts) drape themselves over each man. The guys stand there solidly while the women hang off them like adoring groupies. The women are only there as decoration. Pure arm candy.

But further along in the magazine one finds the section where the women athletes (soccer player Alex Morgan, golfer Natalie Gulbis, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin) are featured. And they are treated far, far differently than their male peers. Unlike the men, the women athletes are pictured alone. And topless. And bottomless! The women athletes’ breasts, buttocks, and crotches are (barely) masked by a thin paint job that is only meant to look like a swimsuit. And it requires no imagination whatsoever to picture these women’s breasts and their asses. The paint they wear obscures nothing.

U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan, who scored two goals in last year’s Women’s World Cup, is actually interviewed about the experience of posing for the magazine. Asked about whether she thinks she needs to “capitalize” on her looks, she insightfully replies: “It’s difficult because women don’t get paid the same as guys do. So we do need to branch out and look at different avenues to make more for ourselves.”

Then, when asked whether she was more nervous playing in World Cup final or posing basically naked, she replied: “Definitely posing naked.”

Unlike the men, the women are not there just because they are world-class athletes. No, the women are only there because they are world-class athletes who also happen to look like models. And, in order to be included, they had to agree to be naked. And Morgan, for one, agreed to do it because she needs the extra money that modelling brings in.

Sports Illustrated is more than willing to use this situation to the magazine’s advantage. Rather than work to increase funding for women’s athletics, the magazine is facilitating the exploitation of these women. Clearly the SI editors have no problem with embracing the role of pimp.

Males’ stunted sexual development. Nor does any of this seem to bother Zach Rymer, who reviewed the body paint photo spreads of the three women for the popular sports website Rymer observes: “This is the first time we've seen any of them in body paint, and it will presumably be the last time as well. This is the very definition of an original experience. It's an experience to be enjoyed and cherished. I probably shouldn't have to remind anyone to do the first part, but just in case.”

That Rymer (or anyone else, for that matter) would think that looking at these photos is anything even remotely resembling “an original experience” strikes me as kind of tragic. That something so artificial, so exploitative, and so mass-produced could be seen as some kind of authentic event shows just how warped the process of heterosexual male sexual socialization truly is. As any woman who has lost her boyfriend to the clutches of porn addiction can tell you, many men who stare at these images soon confuse fiction with fact and fantasy with reality.

I want to shake Rymer – and any other man who thinks that staring at computer-enhanced images of women who are there only because they can’t make a decent salary in their athletic career constitutes a “original experience” – and get them to wake the hell up! I want them to understand that these pictures that they are drooling over are no more real than the huge explosions they see in action movies. You know, like when alien giant robots try to take over the earth and get blown to smithereens? That shit ain’t real. And neither are these pictures. And it makes me sad that you think that they are.

And as for Rymer’s admonition that we should all enjoy and cherish this experience... well, that is both deluded and more than just a little bit creepy. These photos are nothing to cherish. And whether or not we “enjoy” them is none of his damn business! But again this suggests that male sexual development is not a “natural” thing, but rather a coerced and pressured way of being. Rymer, like most of society, is actively telling boys and men: “Guys, this is what is sexy! Now get yourself busy enjoying it!”

If these images of painted women truly were innately sexy, would we hetero men need to be reminded to enjoy them? I don’t think so.

50 years old. And yet still not grown up. Next year will be the 50th year of the Swimsuit Issue. I can already picture (with dread) the “celebrations” that will occur, and all of the expensive commemorative items that men will be invited to buy.

I find it depressing that in 50 years the Swimsuit Issue has yet to grow up. That the only real change that has occurred in the magazine over the years is that the pictures have gotten more revealing and increasingly salacious.

In truth, I find it depressing that the swimsuit issue even exists at all.

And it depresses me even more that so many of us heterosexual men have not yet grown up when it comes to what we experience as sexually stimulating. The very real world that real women inhabit has changed dramatically since the early 1960s, but the fantasy world of heterosexual men has remained largely the same for at least half a century. After all this time, we are still wont to drool over a 19 year-old cover model, our eyes feasting hungrily on every inch of her nearly-naked, computer-enhanced body.

And next year, when the 50th anniversary issue hits the stands, grown men who “enjoyed” and “cherished” the old issues way back when will get to do so again. For a week or so they will be just like the 13 year-old boys they once were.

The only difference this time around is that their thorough "appreciation” of the magazine may require a dose or two of Viagra.