see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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Chapter two of The erotic eye and its nude'

After having introduced the erotic eye in the first chapter, we should now concentrate on what that eye is so eager to see: the beautiful body - its nude. The beautiful body as such, though, will duly be dealt with in the following chapters. In this second chapter we first want to situate the erotic appearance in a broader – evolutionary, historical and social – context

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‘...toutes les hideurs de fécondité’
Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal).

The erotic appearance of man has everything to do with reproduction, but hardly anything with the strict act of copulation. Rather is it parental care that lies at the base of the erotic appearance of man: the eyes to look in, the warm and soft skin to touch, the soft rounding of the breast to hold, and not least the lips to kiss, are obviously derived from maternal care.

No doubt, also the reproductive organs play an important role as a kind of ‘sixth sense’: the act of copulation is not so much meant to fertilise, as rather to provide the pleasure of orgasm. But the genitals relate rather ambivalently to the erotic eye. With humans, the female reproductive organs no longer signal the fertile period. That is why the often impressive vaginal swellings of apes and primates (see
photo off-screen) shrink to the rather modest labia in the human female,


that go hidden behind the pubic hair,


and disappear between the legs as a consequence of bipedalism (walking upright) and neoteny (the persistence of foetal characteristics in the adult organism). The presence of a fertile cycle is only betrayed through menstrual blood. Also the smells that signal fertility are nearly perceptible with humans.

As a consequence, the erotic eye of man is sensitive to a wholly different kind of visual beauty: the optical qualities of the naked body replace the attraction of the vaginal swellings. The beauty of that naked body consists above all of qualities that allow to visually anticipate the pleasures of touching: the undulations of the body, the softness and flawlessness of the skin, the form and the colour of the eyes. And these qualities are totally different from the rather repellent wrinkles and folds on the genitals:

manuel laval


or the heavy pink, red or purple of the vaginal swellings and the erect penis, which are slimy at that:

martin vrabko

Only the colour ofthe lips, nipples and fingernails, and of the blush, remind of the preliminary archaic phase.

The human erotic eye, hence, is not so much out at seeing the reproductive organs, but rather at admiring the beauty of the naked body and its face, as in that most beautiful picture of Titian - a very exceptional case in which the beauty of face and body are in perfect harmony:


Only when the loving partners, attracted by each other’s visual beauty, begin to touch and kiss each other, does the arousal of the sense of touch elicit the readiness of the genital organs.

The whole shift from reproductive organs to naked skin is enhanced in that the sight of the reproductive organs reminds of rather negatively charged phenomena. With most mammals, the genital organs protrude from an opening or fissure in the fleece. That is why they remind of openings in the human skin, such as the inner side of the eyelids or the lips, if not of the threatening mouth of predators and the corollary wounds or raw meat.

Not for nothing do children lower their eyelids or protrude their tongue when they want to show an abhorrent face. Not only the form, also the colour of the genitals reminds of a wound: red is the colour of blood. Menstrual blood only enhances that effect. That is why non-informed onlookers often interpret the vaginal swellings of primates as wounds, if not as cancers. The slimy surface also conjures up associations with the archaic skin of reptiles, molluscs or fish .

rajko bizjak

The whole shift in the array of forms and colours explains why we often recoil when unexpectedly exposed to the sight of genitals, and why a certain reluctance – the primeval form of shame? - compels us to hide them from view in one way or another. The opposition between the unabashed exposure of the vaginal swellings by a bonobo and the modest gesture with which the Venus of Urbino covers her genitals speaks volumes. There is some truth in da Vinci’s saying that the act of copulation and the reproductive organs are so repulsive, that mankind would have died out long ago, were it not for the beauty of the human face – think of his Mona Lisa. And not for nothing does Baudelaire refer to ‘the sheer ugliness of fertility’.

The deep-seated reluctance to lay eyes upon the genitals and the corollary propensity to hide them from view, only enhance the already mentioned efforts of nature to hide the signals of fertility. They equally explain the propensity to overlook the vagina and to read it as the sheer absence of a penis. The association with a wound provokes a further misreading of such absence as the result of castration, above all in children.

We take a similar stance when unexpectedly exposed to sexual smells. The reluctance can extend to bodily odours as such, which lies at the base of the use of perfumes. And the reluctance also comes to encompass the odours of secretion, as is apparent from the old dictum ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur’ (‘We are born between piss and shit’).

That the visual appearance of our genitals is an avatar from our evolutionary prehistory, does not mean that they have become obsolete as means of seduction. Quite the contrary: the sight of the genitals exerts an often irresistible attraction on the devotees of the erect penis or the aroused vagina (see Tsukioka Settei’s print below). But it is only when the beauty of the body has sufficiently aroused the eye, that it is prepared to value the beauty of the genitals. And the genitals only unfold in all their glory when they are sufficiently aroused by the activity of the eye. That is worlds apart from phrasing - with Bataille - that the essence of the erotic drive consists in desacralising the beauty of the face through the exposure of the repulsive genital organs.


‘Eiusdem libidinis est videri et videre’
‘The desire to see and to be seen is one and the same’

In the animal world, beauty is the privilege of the sex that has to compete for access to the other sex. Which sex has to compete, depends on the distribution of parental care. The sex that invests most in the offspring is the most selective: it does not waste its energy to the bearers of inferior genetic material. Apart from exceptions – such as the meanwhile legendary sticklebacks or sea horses – it is mostly females who invest most in their offspring. That is why they are far more selective than males. Males, conversely, only enhance their reproductive success by fertilising as much females as possible. That is why they are far less selective and far more competitive (Schopenhauer, Trivers). The increased competitiveness between males and the corollary selectivity of females makes that, in the animal world, it is predominantly males who are the beautiful sex.

Human males play a considerable role in parental care. The role of the father is no longer limited to fertilisation. It comes to encompass the feeding and the education of the children. Father and mother proceed to a division of tasks within the frame of the ‘sexual division of labour’. This only enhances the importance of the father: only from his father can a son learn his role as a male. Thus, the reproductive investment of the father shifts from unrestrained copulatory efforts to economic care andeducation. Henceforth, the female has to compete, not only for the best possible fertile partner, but also for an economic partner and a father that will be willing to educate her children. This leads to an increased competition between women and an increased selectivity of males. Whence the rather exceptional phenomenon of two equally beautiful sexes in humans, which already puzzled Darwin. The evolution of the beautiful woman is the counterpart of the evolution of a protecting, feeding and educating father.

As a consequence, human seduction is no longer one-sided: it has to be reciprocal. Seduction elicits seduction and admiration admiration. The enamoured eye only gets to see the beauty of the beloved body when it is looking from a body that emanates beauty itself. Or to put it more technically: the scopic drive in the lover is elicited by the phanic drive in his beloved, and it elicits the phanic drive in the lover that elicits the scopic drive drive in the beloved in a wholesome self-inducing circular dynamic.

melvin moten

And there is more. Also reciprocal help - ‘economic’ care - becomes an expression of love, to the extent that we can rightly speak of an ‘economical coitus’. Sexual and economical coitus elicit one another and become one another's expression: humans have the irresistible propensity to sexually gratify their economic partner and, conversely, to also economically gratify a gratifying sexual partner. That is worlds apart from the so-called ‘sex for meat’, that governs the one-sided behaviour of many a primate (Symons).


‘Donner son corps, garder son âme’

How is it, then, that human females pass for the beautiful sex tout court, while male beauty all too often seems to escape female attention?

As opposed to many other species, with humans, there are as much fertile males as females. But, until recently, fertile females used to be mothers that were either pregnant or lactating. This drastically reduces the number of available women. Only in principle is the number of available males equally reduced in that they become fathers: a father is not visibly affected by fatherhood. Since a woman that is pregnant or lactating is not precisely attractive to a man, except for the father of her children, the number of sexually attractive males is considerably larger than the number of available females. Moreover, female beauty is far more transient, and it decreases with the number of pregnancies. Such relative scarcity of female beauty explains why, from primeval times onward, female beauty is in the focus of attention. Since time immemorial, the beautiful woman is surrounded by a host of males that are busy competing for her favours.

Equally since time immemorial, males are out at breaking the power of the beautiful woman that tries to subjugate them through her sheer beauty. They did so by increasing their economic and political power. The rather egalitarian economy of the tribe has gradually been supplemented and finally been replaced with barter between partners who are no longer affiliate through marriage or descent. Through subordination of other men, the economic and political power of a minority increases, to the detriment of an ever growing majority. It suffices to compare a pharaoh and a peasant, a feudal lord and his serfs, or a capitalist and a proletarian.

This dramatically affects the nature of male beauty. In primeval times, sexual and economic prowess found their natural expression in pure physical beauty – muscle, length, agility and skill - as it is widely enjoyed during the activity of athletes and sportsmen:

rupert beagle;

A remainder of such beauty can be seen on the David of Michelangelo, where the male is portrayed as a nude warrior.


But, since the advent of the ‘social division of labour’, the importance of purely external signs of economic and political power goes increasing. Bodily beauty is pushed to the background.


This is the more so, since physical beauty only decreases with age, whereas economic or political power only increase with it. Hence, a fundamental asymmetry comes to govern sexual relations: the exchange of beauty for wealth - or benefits of all kinds. Reciprocal sexual attraction and economic cooperation are no longer the foundations of love. Only after such reduction is the complex and reciprocal relationship between lovers reduced to the sheer exchange of ‘sex for meat’, which in many parts of the world still determines the relation between the sexes. Only this development explains why so many a woman leaves the beautiful male in the cold - at least as far as marriage is concerned: male beauty and male sexual prowess are still appreciated, as long as no enduring relation is at stake.


"Here I am, bent over the keyhole; suddenly I hear a footstep.
I shudder as a wave of shame sweeps over me.
Somebody has seen me.
Jean-Paul Sarte in 'Being and Nothingness'

Let us introduce the terms ‘voyeurism’ and ‘exhibitionism’. Although these terms, introduced by Krafft-Ebing and popularised by Freud, suggest otherwise, we are merely dealing with the one-sided descendants of the originally mutually dependent scopic and phanic drives. As opposed to the lover who admires ànd seduces her lover, an exhibitionist is only out at being admired. She is not at all inclined to admire the beauty of her admirer – let alone to yield to his advances. Conversely, a voyeur is only out at admiring. He does not even consider the possibility that the admired might admire his beauty in her turn - let alone admit him within the confines of the temple.


In Dürer’s print above, the reciprocal seducing and admiring is replaced with the one-sided gazing at someone who only displays his beauty. The symmetric space of love (see chapter I) is replaced with a one-sided - perspectivic - space. Therein, a body appears that displays its beauty solely for the eye of an onlooker, who gazes at it from outside the picture, as in the image below:


The first lever that dislodges one-sided voyeurism and exhibitionism from their original reciprocity as mutally dependent scopic and phanic drives, is the exchange of beauty for benefits of all kinds. Under such regime, man only admires female beauty, while woman has only eyes for his economic power, not for his beauty. The display of female beauty is turned into a pure exhibition that only masks the reluctance to really surrender. Conversely, male admiration is reduced to pure voyeurism. Since not his physical, but only his economic and political power elicits female exhibitionism, he cannot make love with a sexually excited partner. It can be justifiably said that man reduces woman to her body, as long as the corollary reduction of man to his economic and political power is not overlooked. For centuries, women have been turned on by the sight of crowns, uniforms and titles or other attributes of male power, such as castles and villas, carriages and sport cars, parks and swimming pools. The reduction of man to purely external attributes is if possible worse than the reduction of woman to her body.

Not only the asymmetry of the exchange of beauty or benefits dislodges voyeurism and exhibitionism. Differences in beauty have a more devastating effect. Women are not equally beautiful. The more contacts between people are increasing, the more such differences catch the eye. Only the most prestigious man can get the most beautiful woman. The less mighty and less wealthy must be satisfied with lesser beauties. They can only dream of the most desirable women. In the real world, they have to content themselves with the purely visual enjoyment of their beauty. Which certainly lights the fire, but provides no firewood. The desired body does not desire, and the desiring body is not desired. In such soil is rooted a structural voyeurism: under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits and of differential beauty, a majority of men is doomed to only voyeuristically enjoy the beauty of a handful of scarce women, monopolised by a minority. They may find solace in the idea that this minority cannot consume the firewood either. Until recently, the keepers of a harem had to protect their treasure by an army of eunuchs, and in our era many a rich man is cuckolded by his gardener or porter. In the following chapters we will describe how the beautiful woman becomes still more unattainable when she appears in the image.


‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit
Beneath is all the fiends;
There’s hell, there’s darkness,
there is the sulphurous pit -
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption,
Fie, fie fie! Pap, pah!

Shakespeare, King Lear.

With humans, the nude body comes to replace the seductive role of the genitals. Still, male genital organs remain visible, whereas female organs are by nature concealed. Thus, the shift from genital organs to body is far more completed in woman.

The beauty of the female body is further enhanced in that male beauty is in many respects the opposite of female beauty. The beard and the bald skull of the old man are the sheer negation of the beautiful mane and the naked chin and cheeks of the young girl.



Where the female body shows its utmost treasures – the eyes, cheeks and lips in the face; the breast, womb and the buttock on the body – the male body only shows up a beard and hair, muscle and bone.


konrad gös

Especially with white men, the haired male body strongly contrasts with the alluring beauty of a completely hairless - nude - female body.


yvan galvez


One can measure the effect of the hairless smoothness of the nude by imagining a woman with hair on her breasts, womb and buttocks…

From a purely optical point of view, hair, muscle and bones are merely the counterparts of soft, nude undulations. But the eye also sees the delights of touching. And that makes the difference. A soft cheek is worlds apart from a unshaven male jaw, and not only children prefer nestling between warm breasts or in a soft womb, above hurting on hard muscle and bone. Since male beauty is in this sense not so much the opposite, as rather the negation of female beauty, many a female beauty prefers an ugly man: it only enhances her beauty by contrast. That is the truth in the story of the beauty and the beast. The rumour goes that Spanish queens delighted in being accompanied by apes in order to highlight the beauty of their faces. Nowhere is the opposition – enhanced through the opposition between the old man and the young girl – so manifest as in the drawing of Luis Royo below.


It comes as no surprise that male beauty is often modelled after the female model: the chin is shaved, the mane abundant, the skin hairless and the flesh soft, while the erect frontality, as in David’s Napoleon above, is replaced with the charming slight deviations of the vertical and horizontal axe.

albrecht dürer

But this cannot prevent the penis from remaining exposed, especially when aroused. Even when the power of an erection cannot fail to elicit female desire, the contrast of an organ that is not precisely the paragon of beauty, with the in essence female beauty of the body catches the eye all the more.


From the point of view of visual beauty, the opposition between male and female crystallises around two oppositions: the female genitals as negation of the penis, and the male body as negation of the female nude.

These two oppositions are often condensed in the one fundamental opposition between the hard, veined penis of the male and the soft, nude body of the female. In its crudest form, the opposition is shown in Tsukioka Settei’s print – whereby it is interesting to know that the ‘female’ is in fact a male transvestite.

tsukioka settei

With Thomas Kreyn Kreyn, a man-sized penis is opposed to the beauty of the female body:

thomas kreyn

With Michelangelo, a swan – the only bird who has something that begins to resemble a penis - replaces the male, reduced to his penis. That allows the artist to replace the glans with the far more aesthetic horn of the beak, and the veined shaft through the equally more aesthetic white feathers.

after michelangelo

The same aestheticising trend - which will be dealt with extensively in chapter III - is already apparent in the photo of Shakhabalov in the beginning of this chapter: it suffices to compare his photo whith the off-screen photo of the bonobo, to see how the artist is here completing the evolutionary trend.

The archaic nature of the penis makes it unsuitable for purely optical enjoyment. Even when the erect penis is not entirely devoid of aesthetic charms, many a woman prefers the muscled body, but above all the external signs of wealth and power – the sceptre in the first place: it never fails to stand upright and has a far but archaic appearance (see David’s Napoleon above). The shift from penis to body to attributes is the more welcome, since many a woman prefers prestige to orgasm, let alone fertilisation, of which the penis is after all still the instrument…


Du bist eine Frau wie die andere.
Die Häupter sind verschieden. Die Knie sind alle schwach.
So geht es bei den Tieren.
B. Brecht, Baal.

Ideally, sexual and economical coitus reinforce one another. Sexual attraction is an expression of the overall reciprocal dedication of the partners to each other. Where beauty is exchanged for wealth or prestige, and the lesser beauties are secretly longing for a better partner, an opposition between ‘homo economicus’ and ‘homo sexualis’ is installed. Soul and body are no longer two subsequent manifestations of one and the same being, they come to oppose one another as two irreconcilable antipodes. This becomes manifest in the opposition of the portrait in which the eyes as the mirrors of the soul are seated, and the nude.



Where body and soul are continuously transformed into one another as two manifestations of one and the same being, the eyes and the face are eventually submerging in the overall erotic appearance of the body. In Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ above, the curves of cheeks, eyes and lips come to echo the curves of the exposed body. Only when the erotic incarnation is forced or faked do the eyes refuse to submerge in the erotic appearance. They continue to gaze at us: they question, accuse or defy the onlooker, or are turning away or hiding behind lowering eyelids (see chapter IX).

That is why, under the regime of the exchange of beauty for wealth and benefits, many an erotic eye prefers its nude to be faceless - a mere trunk. The incarnation has become an ‘embodiment’ in the literal sense of the word.

Compare four nudes. Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (above) is willingly displaying herself before our gaze. The desiring expression of the face only confirms the willingness with which the body is displayed. With Giorgione below, the body is unabashedly exposed, but the gaze goes hidden behind lowered eyelids – which enables the curves of the face to echo those of the body.

Manet’s Olympia is looking at us with a gaze that forbids any undisturbed enjoyment of her body.

And in Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’ we lay eyes only upon the trunk with its legs spread wide. The face, containing the gaze that does not want to become appearance, is bluntly zoomed out.

The inner counterpart of the appearance as a body without a face, is the experience of sexual surrender as a loss or a destruction of the soul or the person - genuine lovers only experience a thrill when, after having cared for each other economically, they can now finally sexually enjoy each other's body.

The echo of such opposition between face and trunk is the complaint of many a woman that she is only loved because of her body, not because of her personality; that she is reduced to a pure object, delivered to the leering look of a sovereign male subject. That complaint is justified as long as the complementary rape of the male being is not overlooked. The very woman that is reduced to a body conversely refuses to let the male body appear. Male embodiment is restricted to a pure descent into the eye: the ‘en-oculation’ of man as the counterpart of the ‘incarnation’ of woman. The entwining of the loving couple is transformed in the unhappy encounter of an eye without a body, that is doomed to gaze at a body without a face and that is directly connected to an erect penis desperately seeking a womb wherein it could come to rest.

Of such unhappy encounter, Hokusai’s octopus with its greedy eyes and voluptuous tentacles is an unsurpassed representation: it even has two eyes on the tentacle that kisses the mouth. And the woman, turning her face backwards, is supposed to enjoy the proceedings.


The decapitation of woman and the en-oculation of man are merely the prelude to the epiphany of the all-seeing eye of God.

From heavenly heights it looks down to the en-oculated being that peeps through the Sartrean keyhole at a body without face lifting the eyes up to heaven. Of such God, Moses – with whom we will have to deal extensively in chapter XI - is merely the representative on earth.

Thus we have come full circle.

© Stefan Beyst,October 2003

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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