THE PRUDE UP AGAINST THE PRURIENT
Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo
and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman. In Defense
of Prudes originally appeared in The
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 likely 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.
we really value all this open-mindedness and tolerance like
we say we do, presumably people just get to be total squares,
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
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.
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 behaviour 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
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.
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?
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
Provoked Wife from immorality and profaneness, 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 for hypocritically dragging everyone
through the mud on whatever pseudo-moralistic crusade.
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.
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 from of there.
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.
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.
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.