Putting sex back in the closet where it belongs

In today’s Marin IJ, there was a little squiblet asking people what they like about summer.  One 24 year old man was blunt — women in their summer clothes, he said, are what makes summer good.  By that he meant young women in almost no clothes.  He’s certainly right about the clothes.  Summer attire for girls here — nice, middle-class girls — consists of super-short shorts and tank tops.  That’s pretty much it.

Thinking about how even nice girls put all the merchandise on display, I couldn’t help but remembering JB Priestley’s book Lost Empires, which is now better remembered for the 1986 Masterpiece Theater adaptation starring a very young Colin Firth.  Colin Firth plays Richard Herncastle, a young man in pre-WWI Britain who finds himself traveling with musical hall performers.  Some are good, some are sleazy, all are rather interesting, and one is a beautiful older woman (in her late 20s or early 30s) who casts her eye on this innocent young man.

Both book and TV series are written as reminiscences by an elderly Richard Herncastle, writing in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and looking back upon his youth.  In the book, and maybe in the TV show (I simply can’t remember over a distance of so many years), Herncastle makes a point I’ve never forgotten:  His first glimpse of the older woman naked completely overwhelms him.  In those days, women’s flesh was suggested, not flaunted, and it was a magical moment to see that pearlescent skin for the very first time.  He went on to say that modern young men, reared on endless vistas of naked female flesh, have lost something special.

Although less romantic and graceful in tone, Woody Allen (the man who turned his son into his brother-in-law) made a similar point when he was still funny:  “The psychiatrist asked me if I thought sex was dirty and I said, ‘It is if you’re doing it right.'”  Up until recently, at least, part of the pleasure of sex was how intensely private Western culture made it.   Animals do it in fields.  Civilized humans start with public romance draped in mystery, and then go to an intense privacy that should, ideally, be shared only by the two people most intimately involved.

Old movies, constrained by the Hayes Code, pulsated with sexual excitement without ever going beyond chaste kisses.  Rather than seeing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh doing a boring and embarrassing simulation of sex amongst skillfully draped blankets, with suitably hazy lighting, we got to see a nighttime shot of the manly Rhett carrying Scarlett upstairs, followed by a morning shot of a kittenish Scarlett smiling with satisfaction in her bed.  Adults got it; children, thankfully, didn’t.  Most people still remember the excitement of that scene although, by modern movie standards, nothing actually happened.

An equally romantic scene, yet one that shows nothing, occurs in the wonderful 1934 version of The Merry Widow, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. The two meet at Maxim’s in Paris, and the virtuous widow leaves the amorous Danilov with the strong impression that she’s one of the light skirts who frequents Maxim’s. Some singing, a chaste kiss (by modern standards), and some flirtation that leads . . . nowhere. It’s ridiculously romantic — and, again, I think more romantic than watching some body doubles writhe obligingly under some sheets on behalf of the big named stars.

I know I’m old-fashioned, but I do think young people, especially young women, would benefit so much from a more chaste society. I’m not advocating imposed burqas (God forbid!). I am saying, though, that young people could discover that a culture of romance and respect is much more exciting than a culture of sex.

With that in mind, I’m not at all surprised that one of the hottest acts in the Western world right now is Britain’s One Direction. These young guys have figured out that if they sing songs about admiration, the girls will find them and buy their music:

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  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    I completely agree….we’ve created a disaster for both young women and young men with all this “freedom”.
    Wendy Shalit wrote a GREAT book about this:

  • Kevin_B

    I’m probably, at least by some, get some labels (like ‘perv’ or something along those lines) stuck on me for what I’m going to say, but here goes nothing.
    First, I have the book Earl references. It’s not a bad read and Shalit definitely makes good points, but I do not, by far, agree with her entirely. A good book, but I wouldn’t call it great personally.
    Second. I think women are probably God’s or Nature’s (take your pick) finest creation. I like women, as I guess many men do. And yes, I admit I like to watch women. I don’t mean that in a lustful, degrading way… rather, an appreciating of their beauty. In this respect, I can’t say I really don’t like the skimpy clothing. That would be a lie. I think many men appreciate it in some way.
    However, that is not to say, that I don’t like something else more. There is definitely something to be said for some modesty, mystery and class. That can still be attractive and, in a way, sexy. I don’t believe ‘sexy’ is necessarily always wrong, and classy may even be more sexy than letting it all hang out. Classy is good, simple may be depending on the circumstances. Wholesome and appropriate for the setting are two more. I do prefer a more classy, wholesome, modest look than letting it all hang out.
    But, I don’t think we need to take it to extremes. Certainly, nikabs and burqas, or potato-sack dresses are not the way to go. There is, I believe, a happy medium to be found, which is attractive and classy without being dowdy, let alone degrading. Regarding the shorts and tank-top: take it up a step. Looser or more modest (tank) top, or T-shirt/button down shirt. Longer shorts or skirt between knee and mid-thigh lenght. Or a summer dress. I would think that sounds better, more modest and more wholesome. In any case, I think Bookworm alluded to something similar as what I’m trying to say in a post I read, regarding the late Whitney Houston and nostalgia.
    When it comes to sex… yes, probably there’s too much of it. Certainly, there’s too much ‘bad sex’. Jersey Shore is one glaring example, and there’s many more. Sex isn’t treated right, or with the reverence and respect it deserves. I could go on about this, but I will not, for now. My opinion is that bad sex, bad depictions of sex and bad attitudes are rather ubiquitos.
    How to do something about this, I don’t know. I quite firmly oppose censorship or ‘government control’ on movies, television et cetera. It just does not sit right with me, and I presume, Bookworm, you wouldn’t be in favor of it either? I certainly cannot approve of it as a solution. I also don’t think there should be any government instructions to pull some tv-shows, or ban certain books, et cetera. I remember reading and hearing about something called the PMRC (led by the then-wife of Al Gore) and it’s censorship of music… while they go the ‘parental advisory’ labels to stick until this day, they sounded a pretty dismal affair to me.
    Coming back to the clothes… however much anyone may dislike them, people have a high degree of freedom in deciding how to dress, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. People are – however much we may dislike it – allowed to dress in skimpy clothing. Women can wear shorts and tank-tops. Can we legislate against that? Well, probably. Should we? I’m not so sure. I would certainly oppose any kind of ‘modesty police’ being instated. I think we all know which countries have a ‘modesty police’, and how backwards and often downright evil these countries are.
    That’s my thoughts, and there may be more, but this is getting too long already.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Freedom is Slavery. Remember that line? Now recall the times when the Left said sexual freedom must be granted to women. Really think about that for a second. If you didn’t understand that doublethink example in 1984 before, you might be able to now.

    In Japan, Chinese dresses are seen in a particular style and I have to say that I really like them when worn by women. Including yukatas.

    If you aren’t familiar with these designs, they are almost full body enclosures but have a fit that highlights the feminine shape or grace. Women in less clothes in the summer, may have the skin but not the shape or the grace. Thus they make up for one deficiency with another.

     It’s ubiquitous because it is “intentionally engineered” to enslave humanity. Always remember that important point. The idea was never to grant freedom. The idea was always to gain power. For the achievement of the Leftist utopia in which everyone lives under a totalitarian system.

  • JKB

    No need to legislate. If the young women can be shown that modesty can be of value, they will embrace it.

    Long ago on a tropical isle called Oahu, I frequented a new commercial center on the waterfront. They had installed a Hooters but across the way, there was some similar establishment where the waitresses wore shorts and polos rather than the Hooters-like attire. It struck me how much nicer the modest place was than the Hooters even though they were really few differences than the sex on display sell. Although, upon reflection, I suppose a girl of modest bust size could excel, flirt and generally achieve the level of attention the sophomoric minds lavished on the size to small tank tops at Hooters. Of course, the girl in a polo must depend on her quick wit and smile.

    As for the hidden being alluring, after my sojourn in the tropics, I was stationed in Seattle. My office afforded walks in a lakeside park. Along about Spring, the co-eds would appear when the cloud broke. Having been under the low clouds of the Northwest, they exposed porcelain flesh to the sun and society. Girls in bikinis I was jaded to but for some reason these girls showing what had been so long hidden even in somewhat modest dress almost seemed pornographic in comparison to the common sight of Hawaii.

    Paola Franco: Desire begins in the mind.

    A line from Dangerous Beauty, that while containing gratuitous nudity, really is about a woman who learns not to be like the common maid lying back lifting her shift, but to create desire in men’s minds, desire that lasts beyond lust afforded flesh.

  • jj

    Things tend to happen for a reason – as we’re often prone to forget.  You’re too young to remember growing up in a chaste society – actually and, I suppose, more accurately; you were too young to notice society was chaste, or care much about it because it didn’t directly affect you – so it’s more of a concept than a reality to you.  When you were old enough to pay attention or genuinely care, things were already changing.
    But I’ll repeat: things tend to happen for a reason.  Society, since the calender flipped from BC to AD, has spent 90% of its time, in 90% of its places, being chaste.  Often stiflingly so.  There were always moments of ribaldry and bawdiness, of course – but most girls kept their skirts down and most boys kept their pants zipped throughout most of what we know of human history.  And everybody was very bored, and life was very uninteresting, and everybody read a lot.
    Women changed all that.  (It’s always women who change society.  If you haven’t noticed that, you haven’t been paying attention.)  In the western world they began changing it early in the 20th century when they started to agitate for the vote, which they shortly got.  (From republicans, by the way: democrats were rigidly opposed.)  They detoured a bit when they decided they were sick of daddy coming home bombed most nights, and led us into prohibition for a while – a 100% female idea – from which men had to rescue the country; but it was pretty much progress all the way from that point.  (“Progress” defined as a steady loosening of society’s previous mores and rules, as women not only voted; but bought and drove their own cars; wore slacks; smoked in public; went out unescorted in the evening; filled in for the boys in factories during WWII; bought their own houses; entered into contracts, etc., etc.)  And membership in convents dropped to just about nothing.
    So by fifty years later the girls had changed – or eliminated – most of the rules.  Then in the 1960s they decided they were fed up with clothing as it existed, so Mary Quant and a couple of like-minded friends – all ladies – decided: “suck it up girls, get ready to be comfortable with the concept that the entire world’s going to be looking at your underwear because here comes a skirt you can not control” – and women, after centuries of recoiling in horror at such a prospect, said: “fine.  Bring it on – just design us nice underwear since everybody’s going to be looking at it.”
    Now – that sounds funny, but that was a big one.  That was really the last barrier down.  Ladies of a certain age: you will remember when the entire point of female clothing and the wearing thereof was a dedicated struggle to keep your underwear concealed.  You were taught how to sit down – remember?  Taught how to cross your legs, and taught not to climb that staircase with those boys standing down there, and taught how to control your dress in the wind.  It was a BIG DEAL, keeping your underwear out of sight, because revealing it – OMG!  Pillar of salt!  Reduced to ashes!  Straight to hell! 
    And then here comes Mary and friends, and with them the miniskirt.  I recall watching women who’d never in their lives owned a skirt that wasn’t a few inches below their knees trying to deal with their first one that was six inches above them – holy cow!  They had to think about things they’d never in their lives had to think about before, and – amusingly for us boys – of course they couldn’t do it.   The first thing that happened was that stockings instantly vanished, replaced by pantyhose.  Stockings, and all their attendant tackle, had no chance of survival – and there went a couple of more shackles.  Okay, they were tiny shackles, and supposed to be invisible; but they were shackles nonetheless – and they were swept away in an afternoon.  And after millennia of woman terrified to let anyone see their underwear, now they’re throwing it in your face.  It’s unavoidable.  It’s everywhere.
    And this is, it seems to me, a not unusual or unexpected reaction to all those years, centuries; of repression and rules and strait-laces.  Things tend to happen for a reason, and the reason, I suspect, was a need to throw off some of the straitjackets, get Mrs. Grundy out of your face, and reach for some enjoyment in life.  Like all such reactions, the pendulum has swung so far the other way it’s uncomfortable in itself.  Well – it always is.  Reactions to tyranny (of a sort) always lead to the excesses of French Revolutions (of a sort) as the rules are swept away.  The pendulum will swing back.  It’ll find a center and stop there – it always does, after the excesses wear off.  I doubt we’ll ever return to the idiotically stiff and mannered-to-the-exclusion-of-all-normal-human-interaction societies we once were, but some level of manners will make a comeback, and some level of decency will return.  They always do, and it always does.
    If you liked Lost Empires, try The Good Companions, also by JB.   

  • JKB

    I would contend that your believe in chaste times is misplaced. Discreet times, publicly modest times, to be sure but chaste, not.

    When I was a kid in the Seventies, there came the amusing riddle as the “chaste” times still lingered. “If all the boys are doing it, but none of the girls are doing it, how’s anything getting done?”

    I found a book on the Internet Archive published in the early 1800s, or was it early 1700s (I forget) but it was a ‘sex’ survey of a sort of America in the waning years of the previous century. They used the books of the churches as source material, a bit of a bias but still. Skimming through, I found nothing spectacular from times we consider chaste. One thing did strike me though, an awful lot of entries, 6 to 8 months after marriage of young couples confessing before the congregation to fornication. The evidence often in the young ladies arms as she proffered her sin for forgiveness. I didn’t see any evidence of the solo young lady offering such. Either they were cast out or the issues were sorted before the evidence was revealed.

  • Charles Martel

    I mentioned this probably a couple of years ago, two juxtaposed photos I’d seen in an essay or a book by somebody like Wendy Shalit. I don’t remember the writer/juxtapositioner, but I sure remember the commentary.
    The photos were of the same stretch of beach, somewhere on the French Riviera, taken 100 years apart. In the first photo a large extended family is seated around a bench in the sand, children cavorting about, everybody dressed in the voluminous cover-almost-everything-up style of the late 1800s. There is not a bare ankle, nipple, or pudenda to be seen. Yet to a man, woman and child—and this photo was not posed—there are huge smiles. Everybody there is having a great time, and everybody else there knows it.
    The juxtaposed photo is of the same strand, sometime around 1998 or 2000. It is now a nude beach, populated by incredibly beautiful people, all tanned, toned, and naked. But while there are no clothes, there are also no smiles. Everybody has assumed the pose of the jaded sophisticate for whom the nearby presence of thousands of pounds of willing, concupiscence-inspiring flesh is not enough to rouse any indication of pleasure. In a tell-tale sign, the only covering anybody has on is dark glasses. In fact, they’re all wearing dark glasses, perhaps the better to have one small place where they can retain privacy. 
    You would think that having shed the confining clothes and sexual inhibitions of the 1890s that the naked beach goers of the 20th century would be more than just smiling—they would be laughing, romping, feasting, flirting, seducing, and openly drinking in one another’s beauty.
    Guess not.

  • Danny Lemieux

    So, Kevin_B, to build on Charles the Hammer’s point, a question: in my own EUropean family, I see people less and less getting married but cohabiting. Marriage seems…immaterial. These are young people with kids…but I see a very casual attitude to the idea of families.

    Do you see the same in Belgium? My impression is that male-female relationships have pretty much focused on sex rather than family. It’s happening here in the U.S. as well but it has been a slower process and I see much societal pushback, perhaps because we are still a religious nation.

  • Kevin_B

    Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but I spent the past two days on a heavy metal festival. Not exactly a place to find a lot of modesty, but that’s an other matter entirely.
    Anyway, Mr. Lemieux, I guess you’re probably right. The trend is certainly there. I have mixed experiences. In my immediate and wider family, by my knowledge all couples with children are married – and there are marriages which have been stable for quite some years. My parents will be married 25 years in about a month. We’re not a religious family, by the way. But I do also know cohabiting couples and non-married couples with children.
    Marriage has definitely gotten (and sometimes still gets) a bad rap. However, the younger generation (mine and younger) still want to get married… even if they don’t have a very good outlook on marriage. My younger brother (21) and his girlfriend have been together for over 4 years now… they want to get married when they are both out of school. I really hope they do. Marriage has taken serious blows, but it’s still there. I’m not entirely sure if Europeans really do have a very casual attitude towards families. I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at here.
    Yes, I do see some of these things too, here in Flanders/Belgium. My experiences are mixed in this respect.
    As for the relationships: I personally believe sex IS a very important part of a relationship. Sexuality is good and wonderfull, but I belief it belongs in a relationship, and at the very best within marriage. I also think sex is part of ‘family’ as well. But, I get your point. I don’t think it’s just sex though … I think many people are too focused on their own, personal good and individual(istic) goals, rather than on common goals with a partner or something larger.
    Kevin B.

  • Beth

    The cohabiting vs marriage choice:  I think it’s because marriage is hard work.  It takes a lot of giving to get to the point of saying ‘I do’ and it can come undone in no time at all.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Marriage pools people’s wealth together so they can accomplish goals easier. It’s like getting an interest free loan for a business.

    The lower classes have divorces because divorces Cost Money and keep them in poverty. This is advocated by rich Hollywood and other social elitist type classes. But the social elitist type classes, you notice, don’t divorce. They keep their money and grow it. Bernadine Dohr kept her marriage to terrorist Bill Ayers. Those Democrat politicians cheating? Didn’t get divorced either. Neither did HIllary Clinton.  It’s not all for power. It’s because they understand that the alliance is mutually beneficial and a DIVORCE IS DISASTROUS. Yet… they go out of their way to make marriages for others fail. One wonders about that… perhaps the competition is a little bit too stiff? Too many working class graduating to middle class or upper class, warranted Lyndon Johnson to put the hammer on those black families. Which worked. They are no poor as dirt.