April 21, 2007

Pandora's Box

A few words of introduction for those who don't know me. My name is Cass and I normally hang my hat over at Villainous Company, a den of vile knavery and ill repute just across the blogosphere. Oh, and don't worry. Not all my posts are this long.

Sometimes I really get carried away...

The words, read several months ago but never forgotten, lie unquietly in the back of my mind. Though I never wrote about them, they refuse to go away:

Some of my best friends are women--heck, I am a woman--but I've come to the conclusion that we've seen too much of the fairer sex. For me, the final straw came last month when Britney Spears jauntily revealed her waxed nether-regions to waiting photographers as she exited her limo. Britney's stunt made her the Internet smash of the season. But in providing America's workers with this cubicle distraction, Britney was doing a lot more than making her own privates public.

In fact, Britney was following to its logical end what has become the first rule of contemporary American girlhood: to show that you are liberated, take it off. Liberty means responsibility . . . to disrobe. Paris Hilton, Britney's BFF (Best Friend Forever), taped her sexual escapades with an ex-boyfriend, though even she was tactful enough to pretend that she hadn't meant for the video to go public. Courtney Love, Lindsay Lohan and Tara Reid have also staged their own wardrobe malfunctions. But flashing is hardly limited to celebrities. The girls-next-door who migrate to Florida during spring break happily lift their blouses and snap their thongs for the producers of "Girls Gone Wild," who sell their DVDs to an eager public.

Nor is it just young female flashers who are driven to expose themselves to the masses. Older women, whether because of lingering traces of reticence or doubts about the camera-readiness of their intimate anatomy, use the written word to bare all. There are legions of women bloggers who write about last night's bed tricks, their underwear preferences and their menstrual cycles (yes, Virginia, there is a tamponblog.com). More sophisticated exhibitionists turn to tasteful erotic memoirs. In "A Round Heeled Woman," Jane Juksa gives us a detailed description of her varied sexual adventures after, at age 66, she advertised for sex in the personals of the New York Review of Books. In "Surrender," the ex-Balanchine dancer Toni Bentley tells of the spiritual transcendence she experienced during the 298 times she had anal sex with a former lover--making this the first transcendent sex ever to involve a calculator.

Now, this is the point at which the enlightened always begin grumbling: What's wrong with women showing that they are "sexual beings"? In this vein, the show-or-tell-all is an act of bravery, demonstrating a woman's determination to throw off society's taboos against full expression of her sexuality.

...But this Puritans-are-coming! stance, validating, as it does, someone as cracked as Paris Hilton, finally implodes. The problem with a Britney or a Bentley is not that they are floozies. It is rather that they are, paradoxical as it might seem, naive. They underestimate the magnetic force field created by intimate sexual information and violate the logic of privacy that should be all the more compelling in a media-driven age. People in the public eye always risk becoming objectified; they are watched by hordes of strangers who have only fragmentary information about them. When that information includes details that only their Brazilian waxers should know for sure, it's inevitable that, humans being the perverse creatures that they are, all other facts of identity will fall away. Instead of becoming freer, the exhibitionist becomes an object defined primarily by a narrow sexual datum.

It is perhaps the crowning irony of my short life that, though I heartily share Ms. Hymowitz's distaste for Britney's Brazilian moment, I can't help but wonder why it is we women love to go picnicking on each other? Is this really the best argument we as conservatives can make against such displays; that the acts of today's new age sexual Fem-Warriors should be judged by the reactions of the madding crowd, that where they erred was in making themselves 'too available'?

Would not a better argument be that these women have, perhaps, betrayed their own values? Or even just values worth upholding?

Oddly enough, the fact that Ms. Spears soon depilitated another part of her anatomy in a gesture oddly reminiscent of the ritual humiliation meted out to whores suggests she may not have been too proud of her own actions. Why, then, do Ms. Hymowitz's words continue to fill me with such disquiet? My mind drifts back to a balmy evening under the stars. It seems almost a lifetime ago.

I am lying on my back in the cool grass on the campus green in Hanover, NH, staring at the night sky with a young man from my karate class. The day before he broke a tiny bone in my foot as we sparred in class. Since then, I've been hobbling around gamely on crutches which I'll soon throw away in irritation. He's been hovering over me contritely (after initially telling me the whole incident was 'my fault', a remark which set off a characteristic bout of eye-rolling on my part and which, I suspect, also caused the mildly annoying behavior of the last two days).

We are talking about the future, about having children. I say I want sons. This is not surprising for I like men very much. Most of my friends are male.

He wants daughters.

This does surprise me, for he freely admits he neither likes nor trusts women (present company excluded, he magnanimously allows). He thinks women are manipulative, meaner than men, and spoiled rotten. So... I ask, not really wanting to hear the answer: why does he want a little girl?

So he can spoil her.

I stare at the sky quietly, feeling intensely sorry for his future wife. And they say women are illogical? Finally, I ask him, "So, how do you think these girls you dislike so much get that way?" He cheerfully admits men like him cause the problem when they raise spoiled, self-centered daughters. But let someone else worry about that. He had to put up with it, now he is going to get "his".

I left college not long after that, stunned by the collision between my somewhat rose colored view of the world and harsh reality. Then, too, I realized I simply was not ready to buckle down and work hard at my studies. I lacked direction, and the temptations of 24/7 Animal House hedonism were not something I cared to abandon myself to. Even at eighteen, if I was going to destroy myself I needed a better reason than a wild streak and way too much time on my hands.

A short three years later I was a young wife, married with a small son while my friends were still in college. The Virginia belle who used to go out partying every night of the week now stayed up late every night working on various projects.

She sometimes didn't see a beer for ages. She didn't even talk to other men, or look at them, or frankly, even miss all that male attention most of the time. She was just too busy making a home for her family, taking care of her children, welcoming her husband back home when he got back late at night after months away, smelling of sweat and dirt and the unfamiliar world of men and big guns. Life was good. Anyway, she was busy.

Every now and then the Spring winds would blow and she would feel restless for a moment, remembering those heady girlish days, some crazy midnight escapade. But in those days life moved at a slower pace. The outside world didn't press in so insistently from every conceivable angle: the 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, cable TV, movies on demand. The world was immediate, limited to what was around you: your family. Your neighbors, friends, perhaps a trip to the mall on Sunday or a leisurely drive down to the city to see what the Other Half were up to, what you might aspire to if you worked hard enough and were patient and diligent.

In such a world, the actions of one person had a limited effect on others because communication was slower, more limited, less instant. Now Britney Spears bares her privates and half the world instantly has access to live Britney-cam. Do we really need to see this? To discuss it? To blame Britney for giving us what we so desperately want?

Because that is what bothers me so much about Kay Hymowitz's essay.

Like my friend under the stars that night, for months I have listened to conservatives berate women young and old for exercising their newfound sexual freedoms, for doing what good old mother nature programmed them to do: seduce men who like to look at pretty, half-clothed women. I listen to them hypothesize that young women who play the field (as young men have done for centuries) are, by definition, "low in self esteem". No one ever seems to worry about the self esteem of the young men they sleep with - multiple conquests being an esteem-enhancing thing for men, you see. I hear them weep and wail over the shameless dress of today's women, yet don't you dare suggest that advertising, or cable TV pornography, or any of the myriad cultural influences one might logically expect (and show marked correlation over time with the rise of such behaviors) have anything to do with such phenomena. Apparently young women dream these things up on their own from some natural desire (heretofore undiscovered) to impress other women, who for some odd reason must be titillated by fake DD breasts and skimpy clothing. The same people who shake their heads at Britney will scream like banshees at the mere suggestion that perhaps - just perhaps - their disapprobation might be equally well trained on the hordes of men who flocked like lemmings to leer at her.

Why on earth do they think she did what she did? This is, after all, a two-sided coin. Why I wonder, is the age-old answer, whether you are a conservative American from the National Review or a Muslim scholar from Islamabad to tell women we have "seen enough" of them? Does it never occur to these people that if flashing her privates were truly considered a shameful act, she would not have done it; that if she'd garned no attention for exposing herself, there would have been no reason to go there? That society sees nothing really wrong with what she did, though we don't want our family, our daughters to do it. But the same man who would punch you right in the mouth for looking sideways at his daughter doesn't think twice about looking up Britney's beaver shot. Offensive, isn't it?

The truth is, Britney gave America what we wanted to see and in classic American style, we despise her - and ourselves - for it. Like my friend on the green that night, we don't really respect women who give too freely of themselves, but we reward them anyway because they give us exactly what we want to see. And the really despicable thing is this: we tell ourselves that men are just being men. That they're programmed by nature to enjoy looking at women. And this is true.

But there is a darker truth we don't really want to face. We women are programmed by nature too: the Madonna-whore complex wasn't made up from whole cloth. Except it's not really an either-or proposition.

Not long ago I found myself again fighting back tears of fury after reading the comments over at Ace of Spades. I can't remember the post. I liked what Ace wrote, but then I often find him to be unusually, incisively, even bitterly thoughtful. Some of his commenters, however, made me want to scream. They are what reminded me so sharply of that young man thirty years ago on that balmy evening.

Sometimes I read remarks from married men to the effect that women stop liking or wanting sex as soon as they are married. I invariably wonder what planet they are from? To me, the glorious freedom to enjoy - nay, wallow, even - in that aspect of life in an atmosphere of trust has been the most wonderful thing about marriage. I often think such men don't really like women much, don't want to know them as people. A women doesn't want to give herself to a man unless she trusts him. I don't think most men appreciate how much, even though we may feel perfectly independent and capable in our own right, we want and need someone strong and masculine to shelter and protect us? Someone who, in turn, we would die for. Someone to "belong" to. I think this need is deeply ingrained in both sexes, albeit in very different ways, and all the modern thinking in the world can't train it out of us.

If try to ignore these needs and remove the cultural traditions developed over centuries of human experience to fulfill them, our bodies propel us in the same age old directions but this time with no purpose. Is it any wonder we end up feeling empty and betrayed?

Proof that the sex lives of college women remain an object of intense cultural fascination can be found in a book like Laura Sessions Stepp's Unhooked which documents the semi-anonymous "hooking up" that is now the norm. Stepp's intention was to study this phenomenon open-mindedly, "hoping to understand rather than intending to censure." But journalistic objectivity was soon replaced by alarm and even horror. She found girls who were "exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually" by the practice. The girls' behavior is starkly contemporary, but the adult's characterization of it -- and of the specific ways that sexuality can deplete a woman -- could have been lifted from a 19th-century tract. In placing the blame for these developments on three forces ("the ethic of female empowerment; parental expectations for academic and professional achievement; and reluctance on the part of authorities on campus to intervene in students' social lives"), Stepp occupies the squishy middle ground where many progressive women unhappily find themselves: Yes, yes, yes to female freedom and empowerment, but Jesus Christ, why are these girls giving blow jobs to guys they hardly know?

She pulls herself together long enough to conclude the book with a "Dear Daughters" letter. It's the kind of "sex is a beautiful thing, when it's between two loving people" lecture that has been making young girls want to jump out of the nearest window from sheer embarrassment since the early 1970s. (My lecture arrived, in my mother's Palmer Method handwriting, on my bedside table midway through 12th grade, and the extent to which it mortified me -- my mother was a nurse and knew how to draw a fairly precise medical illustration -- cannot be overstated.)

I'm sure that lectures from Mom on how to have super great sex don't always fall on deaf ears. But Mom's voice becomes a distant whisper once a young woman arrives at college, where she will no longer be regarded as a cosseted girl-child in need of protection and limit setting. It is impossible to imagine nonreligious colleges involving themselves in the kind of sexual decision making that concerns Stepp, because to be an undergraduate today is to be treated as a fully independent adult, as even a cursory glance at the admissions materials of most schools demonstrates. (I would never have attended a college that monitored my sleeping arrangements; like most of my friends in the women's dorm, I often spent the night at a boyfriend's apartment.) Obviously, the young women Stepp describes in her book were almost all nice girls raised by nice parents in nice neighborhoods. But just as obviously, they changed in some ugly ways when left on their own. Given the coarsening of the culture, the intense peer pressure and corresponding desire to fit in that have always marked college life, and the way very young women are defined today as at once independent and exploitable, the bitter pill for many parents sending their daughters to college is that there is no possible way to protect them from what they will encounter once they have been dropped off at the freshman dorm.

That last line, the part about protecting girls, is what rankles. Why protect girls, and not boys? Do they have no needs worth protecting? And why should women need protecting from our own sexual desires? There is something a bit dishonest is this prescription, this black-and-white view of men and women. Despite my lifelong distrust of feminism, there has always been more than a grain of truth in the feminist message. It's just that like many movements, feminists only tell us half the truth

Yes, society has always tried to repress and control women. But society has always tried to channel the natural desires of men, too. As I commented long ago, society rightly fears unbridled masculinity; thumos or male aggression and adventurism. So, too, we instinctively fear and seek to limit the unrestricted hedonism and sensuality that lie in the hearts of women. We do this by cherishing and reinforcing the ideal of female purity with morality laws, church, with corsets and layers of restrictive undergarments, purity rituals, debutante balls and symbols of chastity, white wedding dresses, quinceaneros parties. When a woman marries, we bury her in yards of white organza and baby clothes and mounds of household appliances. And so we lull entire parts of her being to sleep, and then we wonder why she doesn't feel like doing the Dance of the Seven Veils after running the kids to soccer practice and cooking a three course dinner? The final insult comes when we accuse our wives of being joyless scolds who don't like sex, when inside each of them is that same young girl, dying to get out, who slipped into the back seat of that Chevrolet on a summer night years ago and made your heart explode inside your chest. She never went away.

You just stopped calling her name.

We can't protect our girls against their natural desires any more than we can protect our boys and it is insulting to them to try. We would do better to recognize that they are driven by ancient forces no less powerful than those which drive our sons. A better response is to teach both our sons and our daughters to couple their desires to moral ends; that sex is fun, but it is even richer and better when there is love and trust and commitment between two people. That like anything else in life, you get out of your sex life what you put into it - perhaps if you're bored, you're not working hard enough. That if you cherish her, she will do anything for you. That it is wrong to bring an innocent child into the world without two loving, committed parents. That sex and feelings cannot always be divorced from each other, even for young men.

We would do better to teach our young that we open Pandora' box when we think we can do whatever we please with no rules. There have always been rules and there have always been consequences. Adults know this. And adults know that the rules apply to both sides and not just to women.

Looking at the clash between Islam and the free West, it is not hard to see why the jihadists fear unrestrained democracy. We are rapidly dismantling age old human institutions with nothing to replace them. They rightly wonder what will become of society when the stabilizing forces of marriage, of religion, of public morality, of respect for law and civil authority are gone and there is nothing to restrain our darker natures?

Posted by Cassandra at April 21, 2007 1:55 PM | PROCURE FINE OLD WORLD ABSINTHE