Thursday, July 7th, 2011

In Defense Of Prudes

There is little refuge from the explicit for today's prude. What with the ever-increasing gross-out quotient of TV and movies, and the unending barrage of sordid "news" about the private lives of public figures, nearly everywhere you look you're seeing something that makes you want to leap right out of your skin. It's asking for trouble even to admit to being a prude, of course, but if a prude is a person who is like to die of embarrassment about something or other almost all day long, then definitely I am one. And if I were to say further that modesty ought to be reconsidered as the virtue it is, I would be letting myself in for all kinds of grief. Still, though. Modesty ought to be reconsidered as the virtue it is.

If we really value all this open-mindedness and tolerance like we say we do, presumably people just get to be a total square, shy and reserved without fear of censure. They don't, of course. Maybe they don't want to see the Apatow movie, maybe the very idea of The Human Centipede sends them shrieking into the next room, maybe they don't like to go to the strip club. In practice, though, this kind of reluctance is liable to be treated as inferior, defective even, plus politically incorrect because if you say that you don't like to go to the strip club, this might easily be taken to mean that you're stuck up and narrow-minded and don't have respect for sex workers, plus probably you will be told that you're so inhibited personally that sleeping with you must really be some kind of ordeal. On balance it's often easier to just go along to the heinous performance art or endure all the farting and whatnot in the Apatow movie than it is to deal with the smackdown if you don't. Shyness is a personal thing, not a public one, involving just one person's prefs. for his own surroundings; lots of people just can't help getting the heebie-jeebies, the creeps and/or the willies from half what goes on.

So, I have come to take back the knife on behalf of us prudes, who quite often are only reserved, shy, terribly square people whose native restraint and weak knees are, in fact, generally accompanied by a deep love of personal freedom and diversity of opinion. Prudery comes in for a lot of flak because people imagine that the prudes want to impose limitations on the behavior of others, but they particularly, especially do not. The wimpy and yikes-prone, far from wishing to restrict or even to express an opinion regarding anyone else's private practices, are in reality possessed of a fervent, if doomed, desire to know as little about them as possible.

A violent case of the willies is not the same as condemnation, and is in no way irreconcilable with real tolerance; on the contrary. The shock of the prude is generally just an acute form of exasperation; a matter of TMI, that feebly-joking acronym behind which many retreat, yipping and wincing, in an attempt to put on the brakes, because prudes are fond of their privacy, and they'd like everyone else to have their privacy too.

This is where the freedom part comes in, because real freedom means the right to choose for yourself how to go about things. Because there are countless philosophies and belief systems, many of which are in total conflict with one another, modesty and reserve are hugely valuable to promoting that freedom. Modesty encourages us to keep our own policies and practices somewhat under wraps, and also to extend that same level of consideration to others. When everything is forced out into the open to be judged, then there is pressure for all to adhere to some particular way of thinking, "permissive" or otherwise. Where is the freedom, or indeed the permissiveness, in that?

There is also an important distinction to be made between prudery, which is modest, and prurience, which is not. The prurient really do want to ferret out other people's secrets in order to pass judgment on them, whereas the prudes are running away at top speeds from anything that looks as if it might prove gnarly. There is nothing modest about such moralists as Rick Santorum or Fred Phelps. Theirs is a very old story. In 1698, the playwright and architect John Vanbrugh went after the prurient parson Jeremy Collier in A short vindication of The relapse and the Provok'd Wife from immorality and prophaneness, in words that might easily be applied to quite a number of our own politicians and divines: "[A]n obscene thought must be buried deep indeed, if he don't smell it out." Actual prudes detest the prurient most of all, more than anyone else does, for hypocritically dragging everyone through the mud on whatever pseudo-moralistic crusade.

And another thing. For all our vaunted permissiveness, there is an inflexible code of conduct promoted in our current media; we are all bound by very rigid parameters. Ask Anthony Weiner, who committed no crime and yet was forced to resign from office in disgrace for having crossed some invisible line, a line made even more difficult to understand when you consider the kind of stuff that goes on on reality television. And when The Smoking Gun website reported in May that a 25-year-old man was arrested for wanking on an airplane (and no detail of the terrible story was omitted) this indiscretion was in no way seen as an irrepressibly sex-positive act. In a movie, such things might conceivably be greeted with guffaws; IRL, handcuffs and criminal charges.

All of a sudden, successful comedies starring women are featuring nonstop mortification of every kind—not just sexual license but also drunkenness, flatulence and pretty much every kind of ill the flesh is heir to. Stuff that if it were really to happen to anyone you know it would be pretty terrible, and not funny at all. That the centuries-long battle for gender equality and personal freedom has ended in this, the freedom to be depicted pooping in the street (Bridesmaids) or being wasted all day long (Bad Teacher) is not so much empowering as it is bewildering. Some claim that the getting-down-and-dirty is an aid to reshaping old attitudes toward women, that getting them "off the pedestal" is a good thing, and maybe that is so. I don't know! I can't help but think there must be a less harrowing way to climb down off of there.

With respect to that weird phrase, "sex-negative," so often used against the modestly-inclined, whether they are second-wave feminists or merely inclined to go "ew," I will note only that prudes aren't so much sex-negative as privacy-positive. If there's not a "right" way to go about things as deeply personal as sexual practices (and there's not); if equal license is to be permitted to both the licentious and the restrained, according to their own inclinations (and it should be), then surely it is counterproductive to depict anyone's particular habits in detail and then single them out for praise or blame.

Modesty serves the vital social purpose of saving everyone from having to judge or be judged; the fear of which judgment has a chilling effect on decisions that, in an ideal world, would be made freely and in private.

So are we prudes really as we are often depicted, all wearing granny underpants and never ever having any of the incredible sex they like to brag about in magazines? Maybe! That is for us to know and you to never, ever find out.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

BadUncle (#153)

In all things, less is more.

cherrispryte (#444)

Ooh, this is gonna be good. Popcorn, anyone?

pot-pourri (#722)

Smart, yet poorly-written.

Bittersweet (#765)

@pot-pourri: +1 for incorrect hyphen use in a critique of someone's writing ability. We all appreciate irony around here.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Bittersweet Touche (acute accent) !

pot-pourri (#722)

@bittersweet true! Except I am neither a writer nor an editor. But thank you for correcting me.

helenread25 (#7,397)

@pot-pourri It reminded me of David Sedaris. She made me laugh out loud several times, maybe you're just jealous.

zidaane (#373)

The hugless child.

alorsenfants (#139)

Well I saw "Bridesmaids" the other night. When it was over, I checked back to see what Manohla thought of it — I was trying to suspend my disbelief, and hoped I might find another intelligent voice that would back me up. Well she didn't: she somehow reveled in the 'empowerment' and all.

"Empowerment". Really? Two mundane women with about the class of a three dollar bill, talking about bleaching their anuses as if it was just like walking to the bank?

I guess… and of course they have in fact walked to the bank.

Don't know if I am technically a prude. But appreciate your sentiments.

Would you care to expound on hip-hop or Gaga next? (If the New Yorker doesn't fire Sasha Frere-Jones soon, I may kill myself?)


jetztinberlin (#392)

@alorsenfants Dargis is, sadly, very often a member of the good ol' boys club a lot more than a lot of actual boys. Cf. that horrible duologue between her and AO Scott about the incredibly sexist, weird, effed up appearance of ladies in "feminist" action films where really it is 137% gratification of male fantasies, where Scott was saying he was horrified, has a daughter and didn't want her to see any of this exploitative, retrogressive crap, and Dargis responded with something along the lines of "Meh, stop making such a big deal of it."
(Not that all women need to toe the party line or anything but siiigghhhhhhhhhhhh.)

Screen Name (#2,416)

Call me a prude, but I still can't bring myself to remove my pants when I pay the transvestite hookers to fart on me.

cherrispryte (#444)

@Screen Name I think that's just poor manners on your part.

Bittersweet (#765)

@Screen Name: Stop hating on people who want the freedom to remove their pants to get farted on! Intolerant bastard.

David (#192)

Just wait 20 years. Every 9 year old today has their own Tumbler account (and they know all about the Search function), which is far different from their predecessor's finding a small number of Playboy magazines in their father's closet back in 1979.

Matt (#26)

All about how the search function doesn't work?

Matt (#26)

Oh God is it strip club week again? This is all Brad's fault.

cherrispryte (#444)

@Matt That was last week, on The Hairpin. And may we all pray to whoever that such things never happen again.

sunnyciegos (#551)

Find/Replace : Prude/Introvert

Annie K. (#3,563)

@sunnyciegos Find/Replace: Prudish/Civilized

metoometoo (#230)

@sunnyciegos As a shy and reserved introvert with a preference for vanilla sex and an aversion to raunchiness, I resent this article's implication that I'm a prude.

Smitros (#5,315)

Were I not already married I might have to propose to Ms. Bustillos on principle.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Never have I so regretted the inability to post images in Awl comment threads.

Matt (#26)

Says the habitual non-photo-reply enabling Tumblrer.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@Matt I already have enough pictures of Batman.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Brilliant and spot-on as always.

iantenna (#5,160)

i live down the street from a middle school so i can relate to this all too well. "IT'S 8:15 IN THE FREAKING MORNING, WHY ARE YOU MAKING OUT ON MY FRONT STEPS? ALSO, FLAMIN' HOT CHEETOS FOR BREAKFAST? WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?!?"

goodiesfirst (#3,448)

@iantenna I live on the ground floor apt directly across from a middle school. When the windows are open (and even when they're not) charming phrases like "She was tickling my nuts!" are shrieked one-foot from my still-trying-to-sleep self in bed. I have become immune to "fucks" or the n word first thing in the morning.

Thanks for this. I watched the first episode of Game Of Thrones and found myself "yipping and wincing." I'm paraphrasing but the line "I'd let his entire army boink you if that's what it takes to regain what's rightfully mine," was particularly gratuitous and willies inducing. Not sure if that makes me a prude. Really, it's none of your business, if you please.

DP@twitter (#15,438)

@snackychocolate This is the problem with prudishness – it interferes with the enjoyment of wonderful things. Like Game of Thrones.

cherrispryte (#444)

@snackychocolate It's Game of Thrones. If it wasn't gratuitous and "willies inducing" it would have been done improperly. That world is not all snowflakes and direwolf pups.

Also, how else are you to know that you're supposed to hate Viserys if he doesn't say shit like that?

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

I am "sex-negative," but it doesn't stop me from trying!

@SidAndFinancy My last results were inconclusive!

SeanP (#4,058)

@SidAndFinancy It's been quite a while since I've been tested.

jetztinberlin (#392)

Maria, this was every kind of excellent. If you turn this into a magical Libertarian platform to run for President and create a blissful utopia where no one knows virtually fuck-all about anyone else's private privateness, I will canvass for you.

@jetztinberlin : Provisional motto: "I may approve of your genitals, but I will not defend to the death your right to wag them."

palliata (#15,443)

Meh. Too each their own.

HelloTitty (#830)

I would tell you I love you Maria, but it would just embarrass us both.

Dave Bry (#422)

(Psst… HelloTitty, your bow-tie is crooked. And, forgive me for bringing this up, I don't mean to embarrass you, but it seems your blouse has fallen off.)

I love this, too. Especially the connection between modesty and reserve and freedom of thought.

I am a prude. However, I don’t ask you to change your ways around me, but I ask you to let me ignore what I will and don’t force me to open up about things that I don’t want to. Basically, you’re free to say, to act, and to watch what you will but you ought to respect my boundaries. Which a lot of people don’t because apparently my inhibitions and proclivity towards not wanting to show off my underwear is something that a few people thinks needs to be fixed. And frankly it ends up making me feel very awkward and uncomfortable.

Go ahead and make fun of my reactions to any discussion about sex, everyone else does too.

HiredGoons (#603)

I go to strip bars, but only because my straight friends buy me drinks in exchange for ambiance and slurry wit.

Kokopuff (#15,456)

You are confusing prudishness and taste. One can only be judged a prude in the privacy of their own home. If your lover considers you a prude, then you probably are. Otherwise, you are just exhibiting good taste and restraint elsewhere.

@Kokopuff Exactly my thoughts. At some point, the genuine prude will be judged as such in private. Which, fine, I don't care to know if that happens. I think prudishness in private is almost always problematic, unless both parties are inclined to be that way.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I immediately regret a couple of my raunchier comments. There is a time and a place and I enjoyed this perspective. It's considerate to not gross people out all the time.

Lili L. (#6,216)

Maria, as a fellow prude, I love this and want to flock together with you in a flurry of ruffled feathers. That said, I'm also one of the defenders of that moment in Bridesmaids, which to me was less about "the freedom to be depicted pooping in the street" than it was about acknowledging the fact that pooping in wedding dresses is a deeply embarrassing but oh-so-real thing that happens. The fact that in Bridesmaids it happens outside, in a gutter, is an amplification of that awfulness when you realize you have to carry your virginal white self into a stall and somehow do gross stuff without bathrooming the age-old garment of purity.. It IS terrible. (I think it was terrible in Bridesmaids too, even though it was played for laughs.)

I'd argue that stuff like that is much much more terrible when it's unthinkable and undepictable. Here's why: shame isn't gone; it's just switched objects. Since we live in a culture that's become SO prudish and SO reality-TVish at the same time, the result is that people are mortified by body hair and the fact that they poop, when maybe they should be mortified by the fact that they're on reality TV and are terrible people.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@millicent Thanks for this–a good point, and well made. I guess I think it is a little too metaphorical, the subject scene. In the service of some abstract acknowledgement that women too are fleshly and not "angels" in the old way (GB Shaw is SO awesomely great on this point in The Quintessence of Ibsenism btw, also cf. Jonathan Swift, Nor wonder how I lost my wits; / Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!. And Wallace talked about it too in Infinite Jest, w/r/t Mildred Bonk. But then consider Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun' which addresses the same question in a way any prude or lover of literature could endorse. All indicating, if nothing else, that this battle is liable to go on forever.)

helenread25 (#7,397)

@millicent I agree with you. I remember in the 70's when people were too embarassed to talk about all the issues that have always existed.Because it seemed to be the consensus opinion that they were "unthinkable & undepictable". I do prefer the open dialogue, so people can get the advice they need to hear, so they can change their ways, and break the vicious repetitive cycles. It's just refreshing to hear a callout for prudery. Self-control really is the height of style and it always will be my ideal. Recognizing human frailties is important, but striving for strength is admirable.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Maria, I am generally on Team Prude too, but I think one thing you are missing here is that feminists have spent a lot of time deconstructing the public/private divide, and I think their arguments somewhat undermine your claim that "prudes aren't so much sex-negative as privacy-positive." The point there is that often by terming things "private" you end up marginalizing them as activities. The typical example here is housework, which, having typically been classified as a "private" activity, was thought of as undeserving of remuneration.

But to give you an example more on point I think we'd both agree on: using the reasoning you've outlined here, you can end up condemning Pride by maintaining that you have no problem with the activities involved but you just do't see why your face has to be rubbed in them, these are things that ought to be private, etc. But for the people marching in Pride, it is a very integral part of the activity that they confront the public with their existence. It's an integral part of shedding the "shame" associated with the activity that the public have to deal with it, so to speak.

I'm not saying I don't agree with you sometimes, esp. on the raunch comedy end of things. Only that I think you can't get out from under the negative/positive problem so easily.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MichelleDean Hmm yes, thank you. My point isn't really to do with having one's face rubbed in this or that so much as a lament over the idea that "freedom" isn't extended to all; c.a.d. one is liable to be berated for reserve even more than for in-your-faceness. As for Pride, you know… it isn't explicit? I mean kissing in the street isn't explicit? Or dressing up and dancing. I think the West Hollywood one is lovely and fun, at least whenever I have been. (Just one prude's opinion, of course.)

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Great post, Maria, and you weren't missing one damned thing. What insufferable groupthink.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

@barnhouse I don't think Pride is explicit either. But I think that's a view that's evolved over time, I guess I'm saying? That at one time that kind of PDA was not something one "did in public"? And the reason that's evolved has a lot to do with people busting open others' ideas of what's properly "private"?

I don't know, it's not that I disagree with you, notwithstanding my famed admiration for groupthink and the popular line.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Oh come on. Have the courage of your dogmatism. Put up your dukes.

"Scientists have proven, using test tubes and/or sophisticated reasoning, that one mustn't go calling lady things private because then they get all marginalized; these scientists have tenure!"

C_Webb (#855)

I'm as liberal as they come (HAHA) but I could not bring myself to say the word "fart" until I was over 30, and I still cringe. This trait appears to be genetic; I have passed it down to 50% of my two children. So … yay Maria.

nomorecheese (#15,517)

I registered here just to express how much I loved this article. And I really can't. It says perfectly and poignantly everything that almost no one in my life understands. I really, really would like to meet more prudes like the one who wrote this article.

Maria–I'm on the same page as you in many respects. My girlfriend and I describe it as our "Inner Republicans" tugging at our awareness of the world at large and expressing tacit disapproval of phenomena including but not limited to: men who wear khakis and polo shirts to weddings; people who wear pajamas on planes; head shops; facial tattoos; people who curse loudly and freely in the presence of other people's children; teenage girls who post photos of themselves smoking weed in their underwear on Tumblr.

So yeah, I guess you could also call it "taste."

@The Defeatery Oh yeah, and Katy Perry. How could I forget Katy Perry.

TimChuma (#9,158)

And of course I am looking at "the Tank thong" banner ad at the top and to the right of the article that shows bare butt…

Bunknees (#24,561)

Do whatever your prude self wants, but don't begrudge others their chaos or culture or what have you. I agree that privacy in certain personal realms can lend one its own sort of freedom, but there is also a distinct freedom in being judged unflinchingly, before no matter how many people. I don't think it's a matter of how you're "wired," so to speak. Or maybe that metaphor is o.k., but I think we can manipulate those connections with a little effort. The grotesque, inappropriate, and abject can all be meaningful in and of themselves, simply by existence, can they not? I you stay aware, I'd think it's possible to watch and enjoy a silly movie without poring over whatever it's message may be. As long as you are on the lookout for an underlying theme, you can identify it and then choose to refute it in favor of vapid, joyous laughter.

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