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Vol. 10, No. 5, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman. In Defense of Prudes originally appeared in The Awl.

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 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.

If 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.

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 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 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 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.

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 from 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.


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