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Dirty Old Men

I used to be ashamed to admire female beauty. Isn't that a sad, strange thing? I mean, what if I said the same about beauty in general? What if I was ashamed to go into an art gallery, or to admire the beauty of mountains and trees and flowers? And, I think a lot of men have had the same experience (see here, for example). Not all men, maybe, but a good fraction. How does it happen that so many of us are ashamed of this simple pleasure?

Certainly I wasn't ashamed of it before I started to notice girls, because before that there wasn't any “it” to be ashamed of.

After that … well, I don't think it took long for shame to take hold. The earliest memory I can come up with is from a visit to my grandparents. See, they had this fancy new thing, cable television, and when we watched it during the day, we'd see ads for the movies that would be showing that night. And, some of the movies had naked women in them! (I say “some”, but there were really only two movies I was interested in, The Blue Lagoon and Cat People.) So, obviously I wanted to watch them, and obviously I couldn't just tell everyone that, because the movies were, you know, dirty. I imagined sneaking downstairs late at night to watch them, but I don't think I ever did, and in fact I still haven't seen The Blue Lagoon.

I think that gives a fair idea of how the shame originated. On the one hand, I wanted to watch these movies, just because my visual system recognized them as nice to look at. On the other, I already knew that they were dirty and forbidden (which, of course, only made me curious and gave me another reason to want to watch them). Still, so far, there was no shame. When I imagined sneaking downstairs, though, of course I also had to imagine getting caught, and that's where the shame entered. That, then, fed back into a reason for sneaking, so that the whole thing could practically take off by itself—I sneak because I'm ashamed, and am ashamed because I sneak. Thus does the original egg of stealth give rise to the chicken of shame!

The same logic applies to representations of beauty in other media. The obvious examples are magazines and the internet, but there are plenty of others, including non-photographic forms like drawings and cartoons. (I think the representation does have to be visual, though.)

Instead of “representations of beauty”, above, I started to say “pornography”, but that wouldn't have been correct, for two reasons. First, the connotations of the word “pornography” are too strong—it is the essence of all things dirty and shameful, and since I'm trying to say that admiring beauty isn't shameful, I can't even use the word without contradicting myself. Second, even if you can get past the connotations, the meaning is wrong—pornography is about sex, not beauty. The two are connected, but they aren't the same thing.

Just for fun, here's how my dictionary defines pornography.

The presentation of sexually explicit behavior, as in a photograph, intended to arouse sexual excitement. [< Gk. pornographos, writing about prostitutes : porne, prostitute + graphein, to write.]

It would be nice if there were a word for “representations of beauty”, but I can't think of one.

Returning to media for a second, did you notice that I left out two important ones, paintings and statues? The same logic ought to apply to them, too, but somehow it doesn't. Maybe it's that paintings and statues about sex (rather than beauty) are, at least, rare? That, of course, begs the question of why they're rare, but I don't have anything to say about that.

Now I can loop back and improve the argument I made earlier. I was ashamed because I knew the movies were dirty and forbidden … but why were they considered dirty? The example of paintings and statues points to the answer. Paintings and statues are about beauty, not sex, and they're not considered dirty, so perhaps movies with naked women are considered dirty because they're about sex? But, that's not quite right … rather, they're considered dirty because some such movies are about sex, and it's easier to condemn them all than to figure out which are which.

That, in turn, leads to the question of why sex is considered dirty, but I'm not going to try and answer that, except to suggest that religion plays a large role.

I know this essay isn't a model of clarity, so let's stop and see what we have.

  • Sex, and things about sex, are considered shameful, for unspecified reasons. Later, in another essay, I will argue that they shouldn't be.
  • Beauty, and things about beauty, are considered shameful because of their connection with sex. Here, I am trying to argue that they shouldn't be.

Well, maybe I haven't been trying to argue that, but now I will. The idea is, it's entirely natural for men to enjoy seeing female beauty, so it's foolish to pretend otherwise, or to be ashamed of it. That's the whole argument, but it's hard to see it in context, so let's imagine the same argument in another context. Suppose everyone claimed feet were shameful, and went around wearing loose-fitting burlap sacks and pretending not to have feet. That would be foolish, wouldn't it? But, the fact that the male visual system recognizes beauty is as much a built-in feature of the mind as the fact that people have feet.

Another way to say the same thing is to describe the situation as an example of not fighting your mind. If you're male, you're stuck with the fact that your mind recognizes beauty, so you might as well go ahead and accept it. But, you should be careful to distinguish not fighting your mind from doing whatever you feel like, and that brings me around to the next point I want to make.

In my little story about movies, you may have noticed that the shame came from the (real or imagined) disapproval of other people. (I think “social construct” is the correct jargon.) Now, I don't think it's productive to disapprove of admiring beauty, since that's a built-in feature of the mind, but there are related actions that it seems reasonable to disapprove of. If, for example, instead of a representation of beauty, I'm admiring the beauty of a woman who is actually present, I know I have to be cool about it and not stare, otherwise I'll probably make her unhappy.

On the other hand, there are also related actions that it seems unreasonable to disapprove of. Just as with admiration of beauty, you can't let general approval or disapproval guide you, you have to judge each action on its own merits. The action of going to a strip club is a good test case—I don't see that there's any harm in it, and yet people generally disapprove.

To summarize, here's what we've added.

  • Some actions related to beauty are considered shameful, for unspecified reasons. I claim this is justified in some cases, but not in others.

Speaking of general disapproval, there are a couple of conditions under which admiration of beauty is considered especially shameful: first, if the admirer is married or otherwise spoken for; and second, if the admirer is a lot older than the one being admired. And that, finally, brings us to dirty old men, and to the site Dirty Old Men's Association International, where I found a nice essay that says many of the same things I have been trying to say here.


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@ October (2003)