People watching is easy. You find a spot with a good view and you start staring. The difficulty comes when you don’t want anyone to know what you are doing, when you don’t want to be the creepy guy ogling strangers like they’re a car wreck on the side of the road. So you’re stuck with sideways glances and quick peeks and pretending to be nonchalant as you devour all the details you can find. Because when you spend enough time wondering over how people look and who they are and what they are thinking, you eventually begin to wonder how you look to them and what they think of you, whether they can feel you staring and know what you are up to. It’s enough to make you extremely self-conscious. Of course, that doesn’t stop me.
I people watch for the same reason, I imagine, as some people bird watch: because human beings are fascinating, strange, diverse, and elusive creatures. Some of them are beautiful; all of them are interesting. And because I write fiction, which is to say that I make up humans and the things they do, I need to know my subjects. Why this should feel creepy and be done stealthily is harder to say. Birds might flee when they notice an observer, but I’m quite certain they do not judge. Beyond mere self-consciousness, I think our discomfort comes from our false association of beauty with sex. When it comes to looking at people, we are apparently unable to see anything other than lechery. If our eyes are always looking for sex, then every peek is a personal invasion. It is telling that this applies only to a certain age range. No one will think you odd for watching a young child or smiling at an old lady.
Not everything is about sex. This can’t be said enough in the culture of hookups on Tinder, half naked instagram shots, unlimited free porn, and sexting. I’m far from a music connoisseur, so I’m sure there is better art out there, but everything popular, everything I hear on the radio and in coffee shops, has only one theme: love and sex and romance. Even when addressing wider ideas it can do so only through that lens. We are a totalizing people. We want to believe in one Thing that explains everything. In nature, this becomes Physics. In nations, it is Economics. In society, everything is about Politics. In people, Sex. Darwin, Marx, Machiavelli, and Freud find such willing audiences in us. Each presents itself as the underlying reasons for the interactions of its domain, and they are invariably the most basic, most natural, most animal forces. The higher is a manifestation of the lower. Altruism is a byproduct of survival. Freedom is the servant of oppression. Peace is the result of fear. Beauty is the desire for sex. It’s the exact opposite of the truth.
The sexual drive in a man may be his most animal instinct, but animals have shared this same impulse far longer and have never, as far as we know, arrived at an appreciation of beauty. A dog will just as soon take to your leg, if it’s available. And humans can have an understanding of beauty and attraction that is not at all sexual. It is possible to admire the Mona Lisa without wanting to have sex with the canvas. A mountain vista may evoke many feelings, but lust will not likely be one of them. Why should all of that be reduced when dealing with another human? Human beauty can be appreciated for its own value. A particularly beautiful person is like a rare bird, but there is something unique and beautiful in every person.
It is natural that we should also want to join with someone who is beautiful. Sex at its highest is about union, about joining with another person and experiencing unity with them in the deepest way possible for physical beings. Is that not in some sense what we also desire when we are overwhelmed by the beauty of art or the splendor of nature or the wonder of music? An intimate experience with something greater than ourselves? That is how we can speak of art or sex as transcendent. Transcendent in that it points to a higher union, but a sign is never equal to the destination. Unlike with a painting or a landscape, it is possible to lust after baser things with another human. It is also possible, I dare say, not to. We can arrive at our destination without passing that sign. Not all appreciation of beauty need pass through lust.
Even when sex is involved in our visual interactions, lechery is not the only possible mode. I don’t doubt it happens, but I’ve never understood men (or women) looking at someone and undressing them with their eyes or imagining having sex with them. That’s the impression we get with words like ogling. It’s a metaphor of touching or physical violation. Perhaps my imagination is insufficient or my experience lacking, but that strikes me as an unlikely response to your average encounter. It’s too complicated. I can appreciate an attractive person whom I pass on the street without thinking about sex at all, much less fantasizing about some specific act with that specific person. It’s the same way I can admire a painting without knowing the artistic principles that went into creating it. It’s the same way I know that I love breasts, even though I can’t explain exactly why. You don’t have the think about something to enjoy it, you just do. Thinking too much often destroys the enjoyment.
Complicated fantasies necessarily attach themselves to a singular object. Maybe that’s why although you can have multiple sex partners, you don’t often hear of people having more than one real crush at a time or falling deeply in love with a new person every night. When I start thinking about sex, for any reason, I inevitably start to think about my wife. I know no other object of my sexual desire. For those with multiple partners, perhaps it varies or focuses on a favorite, but I doubt it is ever really the person who passes before our eyes. People watching, in that sense, is a mostly innocent pastime. Maybe it can even help us appreciate the beauty in all those around us. Certainly, it is not the creepy violation we imagine. Lust takes time to develop, but beauty is always everywhere apparent.