A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dan shared this article on Facebook, which is probably one of many pointing out that women’s clothing choices are not responsible for men’s boorish behavior. These articles proliferate during the summer when women dress seasonally, wearing fewer clothes and are forced to endure increased verbal harassment from men. I think the article is spot on, men aren’t acting on uncontrollable impulses, but more needs to be said.
That we have to debate the issue of “is lust uncontrollable” is a big loud patriarchal signal as is the fact that some treat lust as entitlement. Lust certainly can be uncontrollable, and it can lead to profound sexual bliss when that uncontrollable lust occurs mutually between two consenting partners; but let’s hazard an unscientific guess: that scenario probably accounts for less than one one hundredth of one percent of all occurrences of lust. So perhaps we should address what to do with all the other 99.99% or thereabouts of lust rather than what not to do.
I have a lot of life experience with this. My family moved from Chicago to Dallas in 1974, when I was 14. We moved in late June too, so summer was blazing away deep in the heart of the Lone Star State. Also we were going from hippy dippy, very integrated, lefty liberal Hyde Park/Kenwood in Chicago to pristine, mostly White, almost suburban Walnut Hills in Dallas. My Dad is from the Mississippi Delta, so as a cautionary tale, I was told of the horrors of Emmett Till often. My head could be on a swivel, but my lips needed to be sealed at all times. My Dad needn’t have worried too much. I was stone cold nerd. I was good at chess; I played cello; I had the quarterback rating of every NFL signal caller memorized. Pretty and sexy women, hell, outgoing people were in such a league of cool kids so far beyond me that I couldn’t imagine talking to them presumptuously, if at all. On the other hand, I did like learning from people who were good at stuff I wasn’t. So I often observed the cool kids keenly thinking of what I might gleam from the way they moved.
When I was 17, I was working at Tom Thumb, a massive grocery store in my neighborhood. It was my first commercial gig (I volunteered for the McGovern campaign ’72 and worked in a recycle center in Chicago; citing this experience often was met with quizzical stares from my fellow Dallasites). Anyway, this Tom Thumb was located near a town house complex with lots of young people and typical of Dallas in those days, a big swimming pool. We had a steady stream of customers who came in for snacks and beverages. The stream of clientele from the apartment complex was young and often scantily clad. I was pleased to look but didn’t dare communicate for the reasons mentioned above.
Then one summer afternoon, Loy, a ninth grade classmate of mine, walked in wearing a floral bikini. Loy was an honors student, and at that moment she looked like she’d stepped out of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. I had not yet rejected the cultural norm that maintained that women had to be either beautiful or smart; in fact, it’s hard to be beautiful if you’re not projecting intelligence and in very many ways beauty is a reflection of broadcasting one’s smarts. Loy and I had gone to different high schools starting in Tenth Grade, so my second impulse was to say hello and find out what the road not taken was like. Evan, a coworker of mine was also staring from our station. When he found out that I knew her, he invited himself to our conversation. We caught up to her in the parking lot probably heading back to the pool. We chatted amiably about our different high schools and our college ambitions. The idea of trading phone numbers wasn’t even remotely on my agenda, so I was about to head back into the store when Evan blurted out “that swimsuit is cool.” Loy cocked an eyebrow, a good go to move for any smart woman who suspects she’s being objectified. “Oh thanks,” she responded and then offered this killer, “it is 104 today,” as she looked witheringly at our store uniforms, heavy full length jeans, a white, long-sleeved collared shirt and a tie.
“She has a point,” I remember telling Evan as we rounded up a couple of shopping carts and headed back into the store. “I ain’t wearing no bikini,” he huffed.
Evan’s final response and Loy’s straight outta Bette Davis withering gaze have stuck with me for decades and they inform what I think when I see a woman in attention getting clothing. While Loy may well have been “naughty,” her outfit was straight up functional, and it pointed out that ours was adamantly not. As I looked at the clientele of the store, there were women in short shorts, halter tops, rompers, and cool sandals. The guys wore suits, Marlboro Men outfits, and every now and then you’d see some cat in jeans a t-shirt (usually coming from the pool),. Most of the men wore boots—cowboy and other varieties—12 months a year. 100 degree days are the norm in Dallas during the summer, yet it was as if men were in some sort of sweaty denial about the world around them.
Evan’s remark seems odd today, but it wasn’t at the time. In fact, we often discussed music because, hey we were teen-aged boys in Dallas; there were three things to talk about, music, cars and the Cowboys, and we often talked about David Bowie. The Midnight Special (damn, am I dating myself of what?) had recently rebroadcast their entire show with Bowie who was wearing a dress for many of the numbers. Evan’s response was that liked the music but wasn’t wearing a dress. And yes, he felt the same way about the New York Dolls. Our life paths diverged before Rick James hit the scene with a hit album that featured him in tights and a high heeled boots on the cover, but you get the idea. The concept of masculinity was MUCH more fluid in those days.
That encounter forty years ago points to the need to lose several tropes, and the first one is that a woman dresses the way she does to get a man’s attention. I’m sure that’s true in a handful of cases, and it may be a secondary agenda in some women’s clothing choices, but to assume its universal all but assumes that women exist to please men. In my experience, most women have a far more complex and independent agenda.
Another trope we need to abandon is that women are dressing provocatively because they need attention. Attention isn’t a uniquely feminine desire; it’s a human desire. So let’s not look down on someone because they are human. Secondly for all the shit that is heaped on women about their bodies, if some woman feels good about hers, then she should celebrate by wearing what ever she damn well pleases and it really isn’t up to anyone else to judge her. She’s aced over that panel already.
Thirdly we need to get over the idea that it’s not tasteful. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. People in public have the right to dress as they please and while it may not be how you or I or someone else (remember Evan’s “I ain’t wearing a bikini” remark) choose to dress. It’s their right, and neither you nor I nor anyone else has the right to dictate other people’s style.
If we lose these tropes, then we also lose the idea that women have a responsibility to maintain the social order via their behavior and appearance. We ALL have that responsibility. Instead, we might appreciate that millions of women are creating their own lives and defining their own style archetypes, bikinis to pantsuits and beyond and everything in between.
Meanwhile men since the days of David Bowie in a dress have narrowed our range of archetypes and institutionalized the same sort of inadequacy issues that most women parse constantly then beat to a pulp with a club every morning. No, most men are not are not Idris Elba, David Beckham, Jared Leto, Pierre Trudeau, Connor McGregor or Drake, but rather than rebut the fact with some stylish statement about how those handsome dudes aren’t them either, the usual tack to is dress toward some sort of slightly hip if intentionally dull conformity that says “chillin’.” Jaden Smith and Earvin Johnson III are style revolutionaries today; when I worked at Tom Thumb, they’d be just another couple of guys.
Women dress to express their bodies; for better and worse, it’s demanded of them. Men are almost the opposite; most of the masculine style statements are above the neck (hairstyles, beards and mustaches) or below the ankle, which is why some Air Jordans cost more than Manolo Blahniks.
I think this situation enables a basis for what to do with the other 99.99% of lust, and an opportunity to facilitate more reasonable communication from men to women. Color, fit, accessorization are all issues that women figure out and men could learn from. Personal presentation is but one of dozens of things that women routinely do better than men (and no, it’s not genetic, Cab Calloway and Humphrey Bogart were indicative of their era), and it’s a good starting point for communication; in other words channel lust into admiration. Even a five year old boy with a doting Mom understands that women don’t exist to please men, so basing societal dialogue on that fallacy is beyond stupid. Changing the conversation and its structure is essential to moving forward.
Fourteen years after my encounter with Loy, I met Lissa Spiller (follow the link about18 graphs down for her appearance in the linked story), a real estate professional, who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I worked at fancy food stores part time to support my freelance journalism habit. We met on another hot summer day and she was wearing only a lycra briefs and bra ensemble. I remarked that she was dressed for the weather (and I again was wearing full length jeans an a long-sleeved shirt, food business uniforms are never seasonal),and we became friends. She alternated workout wear with Alaia dresses, Chanel suits and other razor sharp ensembles. Her arsenal also included fantastic pendants, necklaces, chokers, and cuffs, but her favorite accessory was usually a disheveled copy of the Times. Over more than a decade of dialogue, my favorite takeaway from my conversations with her was that she led with her brain most of the time; her spirit insisted that she led with her body some times. I took that as my credo and got in shape and spent my late 30s and early 40s feeling like I was dancing through New York City rather than slogging around looking for some situation that my chess skills would enable my success.
I never dated Lissa, but I did date a half dozen women I met in this way and friended many more. Observing their example enabled me to get beyond denial of the doubts I had about my own significance, adequacy and how to express myself more articulately in the world. I’m told every writer has worthiness issues but their example helped confine those issues my to when I was sitting in front of my computer rather than letting them consume my life. It seems to me that more men, especially those who might see an attractive woman and think only of sex (talk about setting yourself up for failure!) would do well to follow this intellectual path of channeling lust into admiration.
So yes, from my observations and personal experience (Lissa and Loy are extreme lust inducing examples but this applies to my reaction to all women), I feel that lust is a controllable emotion and even a fantastic energy source. If we change the paradigms in which we view women, and men stop thinking of women solely as prey rather than mostly as peers, we can get beyond one of the most tortuous rituals of the season and change some seriously outdated paradigms.