Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 07, 2009

On Girlwatching

Entropy is still thinking over something I said a while back, and since it ties in with a post title I've had sitting in my drafts bin for some time I thought I'd respond with a post, if that doesn't seem like making too much of a conversation. Hey, it's Friday, over 100 degrees, and it's been a long week. Not a bad time for some light topic matter.
I keep thinking about Darwin's explanation for why it's ok to check out women:
...she's probably making some sort of attempt to be ornamental -- at which point a strictly aesthetic appreciation is not necessarily out of order....
It sounds like a fancy way of saying she's asking for it. When you say it like that it brings up all sorts of nasty connotations.

I can't quit thinking about it because I think he's right, she is asking for it.

But I also think he's wrong. If she is dressing provocatively on purpose, that doesn't necessarily make it ok. Do two wrongs (if appreciating--ogling?--is a wrong) make a right?

Now, I hope Entropy won't think me rude to quote a post to which she's given the tag "more questions" but also "embarrassing myself", but this gives me a chance to talk about something which I think often underlies Catholic (and more generally Christian) discussions of modesty.

The starting question, I think, is what one means by "appreciating" or "ogling". I would tend to classify those two words as meaning rather different things: gentlemen may do the former, but only fellows like our lupine friend to the left do the latter.

Conflating the two is, I think, the source of a lot of talking at cross purposes in discussions about chastity and modesty, because I would maintain there is a moral difference between the two. I would think of ogling as being "looking lustfully" at a woman -- an act which is essentially one of trying to take from her, though without her knowledge. I am reminded of the one Beavis and Butthead cartoon I ever saw (someone in college thought I needed cultural broadening) in which the two anti-heroes get themselves beat up as a result of their herculean efforts to get a peek down the blouse of a busty hair stylist. It's a good example because an ogler who is trying to see a few extra square inches of breast by looking down a woman's shirt as she leans forward is trying to take something which is not offered -- and in a subtler sense, the man who is staring at a woman because he's mentally undressing her or because he finds staring at her actively arousing is deriving something from her which she is not (one hopes) trying to give. Even if she is trying to give such an effect (say, if she is the sort of young woman whose profession involves swinging about on a metal pole) a relationship between virtual strangers is not one which ought to involve providing arousal as one of its exchanges.

Now, where I think the more enthusiastic modesty advocates go off the track is in assuming that ogling (as defined above) is the only way in which a man can admire a beautiful woman. We have little doubt that people (male and female) can admire a work of art or a scenic vista without lusting to possess it. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that one can do the same with an attractive person as well. A gentleman who admires a passing lady is not seeking to take anything from her with his gaze, or glimpse anything he's not meant to, but rather appreciating her for what she is.

Of course the difficulty is, the ogler and the admirer are physically doing my the same thing, looking at a woman who passes by, although mentally and morally they're behaving rather differently. This is, I would say, where the gentlemanly rule that you may look, but you many not be seen to be looking, comes from. If a woman sees you blatantly staring at her (and the more so if your eyes are focused too low to meet her gaze) she is likely to assume the worst, and since ogling is essentially a means of taking an unwanted intimacy with someone, she will naturally feel uncomfortable.

So I'm not here to defend any slack-jawed stare-ers, but at the same time I'd say that a man who doesn't find his attention focused on a beautiful woman as she crosses his field of vision is not so very much of a man -- and one who does is not necessarily a cad. So I would say that yes, when we dress attractively, we do "ask for" attention -- though so long one is "looking one's best" rather than "dressing provocatively" I don't see that as a problem. Indeed, there's a socially self-giving element of "looking one's best" for others, just as there's something mildly insulting to society when one purposefully looks slovenly. For instance, when a middle-aged man jiggles into a shop in a sea-side town wearing shorts, ancient deck shoes, and no shirt -- he's essentially telling everyone present: "Sure, this may be the worst sight you've seen all day, but I can't be troubled to put on decent clothes for the likes of you."

While I think it's important to observe the line which divides "attractive" from "seductive" or "provocative", I do at least want to stand up for the social virtue of being attractive to one another -- and for the gentlemen who notice, though hopefully unobtrusively, when that virtue is acted on.

11 comments:

Clare Marie-Therese Duroc said...

*thumbs up*

That's about as clever as I can be today, but I think it sums up my feelings accurately. :)

Kate said...

It's easy to see the distinction if you frame it from the other side - since women are rarely accused of ogling (but are certainly not adverse to admiring a handsome man). A woman's reaction to the sight of Clark Gable in a well-tailored suit is likely to be (and ought to be) one of appreciation for an attractive and aesthetic appearance. Men are as capable of this appreciation as are women, and it is a deplorable double standard to think that any male attention is necessarily lascivious.

CMinor said...

Point granted (I'm assuming this is MrsD posting under Darwin's account). Still, I think Darwin with teenage daughters may lose some appreciation for the appreciation of the feminine form. At least when it's teenage guys appreciating his daughters' feminine forms. It happens to most dads.

mrsdarwin said...

C,

No, no, this is Darwin's post, though I concur with what he said. (And we do have some accidental cross-posting which confuses the issue.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I am reminded of a conversation I overheard when I was still wandering about in Business school. One of my classmates was describing his own sister as "sexy," and one of his friends (also male) called him out on it, saying that only a pervert would think of his sister as sexy. The first guy got confused--and a little bit defensive--as he struggled to explain that he had merely come to see that a huge number of men in the world (or at least our part of the world) would find his sister hot.

CMinor said...

D'oh! (slaps brow)
The third person threw me.

Betty Duffy said...

I am noticing now that you make the distinction between ogling and appreciating, that the gal in the picture you chose here is much more "appropriately" dressed than the "provocatively" dressed woman in the first post, and the midriff baring woman in another related post. I can see why Entropy would think your appreciation veered towards ogling. A problem with your argument however is that many women do dress provocatively, even when they are not slithering around a pole. Things are being offered, and in many cases, we cannot refuse them whether we want to or not. And I've been told that the physical response to such images can be involuntary. Is there a point to "guarding the senses?" or is that only for the less erudite observers of the female form?

Darwin said...

I am noticing now that you make the distinction between ogling and appreciating, that the gal in the picture you chose here is much more "appropriately" dressed than the "provocatively" dressed woman in the first post, and the midriff baring woman in another related post.

Well, I didn't really have time for picture hunting, so I just dropped in a "runner up" picture I'd found when writing the summer skirts post.

I'll say: I didn't think any of the pictures I posted were of the "guaranteed to create lust whether you like it or not" variety -- at least not for me. Though at the same time, I must confess to a certain pleasure in tweeking sensibilities when talking about modesty within what I know is generally a conservative Catholic audience. Late night college discussions with people who thought the Sistine Chapel was sinful and all that.

All that said, I would agree that provacative dress and behavior puts on offer that which should not be exchanged -- though at the same time I think most guys are pretty capable of keeping their mental cool (or looking away if necessary.)

And just to complicate the topic a bit: I'd hold there are things which should be avoided, not because they're guaranteed to induce lust, but simply because they're tawdry. So for example -- I think most guys can handle the sight of a hot woman in a bakini with relative calm (if they try) but at the same time I'd say that a gentleman would never own a swimsuit calendar. Not just that, but seeking pin-ups and such is likely to gradually deform your sensibilities such that you eventually won't be able to look at a woman in a swimsuit as anything other than the object of lust.

Does that make any sense?

Marie said...

If I'm reading you right, it's o.k. to appreciate as long as it's an aesthetic appreciation? So, would it be fair to say that if a man appreciated a woman's beauty in the same way a woman would he's in the clear, but if he does it in a way that no woman could, he's probably walking a fine line? If a man can fairly say that he admires the beautiful lines of the woman in the picture in the same way he admires the flowing lines of Mother Theresa in a sari, he should be o.k., eh?

Darwin said...

So, would it be fair to say that if a man appreciated a woman's beauty in the same way a woman would he's in the clear, but if he does it in a way that no woman could, he's probably walking a fine line?

I don't think I'd say that -- in that how we react to people is formed by our sex. Men are generally attracted to women, and women to men, so men have more of a capacity to be attracted by women, and less likelihood to instinctively see an attractive woman as "competition".

So no, appreciating as I'm thinking of it is not unmixed with attraction, but it's certainly not only attraction, and to the extent that it involves attraction it's not "I want that person" or "I'm deriving arousal from that person" so much as just as "Mmmm... Beautiful."

Jokah Macpherson said...

"...seeking pin-ups and such is likely to gradually deform your sensibilities such that you eventually won't be able to look at a woman in a swimsuit as anything other than the object of lust."

I'm already there. It is a wonderful place to be.