It was a question I got all the time during my time at Playgirl, where I eventually became editor in chief. I knew what it implied—that no straight woman in her right mind would actually volunteer to look at naked male genitalia. But the magazine, which has been a cultural icon since its inception in 1973, is not just for gay men. Some women like their beefcake, and others (like me) prefer the skinny rockstar look. But I was pretty sure that all of us, at some point, want to ogle naked men. Because I felt so certain that there was a female audience for Playgirl and because there was little demographic research made available to me, I began to seek these women out.
One of them was Sarah, a divorced single mother from the Midwest who had entered our "Win-a-Date with the Centerfold of the Century" contest. On a hot summer day, I picked her up at LaGuardia and she chattered non-stop all the way to her complimentary hotel in Manhattan about how excited she was that she was actually going to meet Jean-Michel. (Yes, that was really his name.) Petite, young, and attractive she wasn't the type I expected. But she and our hunk got a couples' massage, took a carriage ride through Central Park, and to my knowledge, stuck to the clause in their signed contracts agreeing not to have sexual intercourse.
Then there were the throngs of women the other editors and I met on a night out scouting for new talent at Hunkmania. I figured stuffing dollar bills into the G-strings of hunks with enough oil on their chests to keep us from fracking for at least a decade was the enterprise of bored suburban housewives, but these were hot young 20-somethings cheering and screaming for the guys. At the office, when I opened our Centerfolds' fanmail, the envelopes were addressed in girly, bubble handwriting. Along with glitter and confetti, out of these letters spilled all the dirty things these women wanted to do with our hunks.
And although the men in our magazine were never my cup of tea, it bothered me that people would repeat the old refrain that "men are visual" and women require an emotional connection in order for their panties to get wet. The idea that women ARE visual when it comes to sex makes people uncomfortable.
It's a lot safer to say that women prefer erotic fiction ("he put his hand on my pulsing sex") or the images found in a silly romantic comedy montage: couples holding hands, feeding each other strawberries, and taking long, luxurious bubble baths together. The idea that we want to be visually turned on, that we expect potential partners to be visually appealing (and not just good providers or charming jokesters) is, to many people, pretty threatening.
A recent study at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis backs up my theory. Study leader Andrey Anokhin measured the brain activity of women while they were viewing erotic images. Anokhin expected the women's response to be slower compared to men, which would align with previous research on the subject, but in fact it was just as fast. "Women have responses as strong as those seen in men," he said.