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SMH offers enculturation argument about topless lust

2 January, 2009

The Life and Style section of the Sydney Morning Herald has a fascinating article by Sydney-based writer Emily Maguire about the way culture trains men and women to respond in particular ways to their “biological responses to beauty.” Here’s an excerpt:

…boys are not taught, as girls are, that their bodies could have a disruptive effect on people around them, that they should wear looser clothing so as not to distract their classmates. They’re not told that how they look could incite nasty rumours or prevent them advancing at work or cause them to get raped. They aren’t told that the sight of their flesh may cause grown women to turn into mindless brutes.

But the fact is male bodies can have the same effect on women as female bodies can have on men. That far fewer men than women are harassed or attacked by people claiming sexual provocation is not because women aren’t visually aroused, but because women have learnt that their biological responses to beauty are not an excuse to commit acts of violence or discrimination.

The context is a recent attempt by conservative MP Fred Nile (Parliamentary Leader of the Christian Democratic Party in New South Wales) to ban women’s topless bathing on Sydney beaches.  Here’s what Maguire has to say about that:

Women’s learnt ability to deal with inappropriate lust brings us back to those topless sunbathers. In supporting Nile’s proposal, the NSW Labor MP Paul Gibson revealed his deep discomfort with both women’s bodies and the language used to describe bits of them when he asked, “Do you want somebody with big knockers next to you when you’re [at the beach] with the kids?”

Plenty of beach-loving mums can relate: there you are, rubbing sunscreen into your toddler’s back when a delicious slab of man meat lays his towel down right beside you. What to do?

How about this – remember that the person lying there is a human being whose hotness does not negate their right to bake unmolested. If the kids ask awkward questions like, oh, “What are those?” You say, “Nipples, we’ve all got them. Cool, huh?” Then you stop being a creepy perve and concentrate on the sandcastles and surf.

In a culture which is fascinated by biological arguments about the differences between men and women, it is awfully refreshing to hear a wittily argued rejoinder that lust and reactions to naked bodies are shaped by culture.

–L.L. Wynn

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 January, 2009 1:08 am

    Yeah. So brilliant. Men love the visual stimulation of porn and women don’t because of culture. Nothing to do with biology. And the electrode studies that show strong reactions from gay and straight men to dirty pictures, with smaller (sometimes unmeasurable reaction from women)? Culture.

    Porn class in grade school. That was the pits. Spending years and years learning to be turned on to porn was a painful experience, wasn’t it? All that cultural inculcation. Just so that the very first time I saw a Playboy it would hit me like a freight train.

  2. 3 January, 2009 1:09 pm

    Wow, Thras, that was a really thoroughly reasoned response, thanks.

  3. 8 January, 2009 4:12 pm

    She has a point. But it seems to me that she naturalises physical desire in women and men. The difference is that women are culturally encouraged to sublimate their horniness while men get to act on it. Consider the way women are characterised as being socialised in a certain way while socialisation for men is portrayed as an absence rather than a positive construction of identity:

    Meanwhile, boys are not taught, as girls are, that their bodies could have a disruptive effect on people around them, that they should wear looser clothing so as not to distract their classmates. They’re not told that how they look could incite nasty rumours or prevent them advancing at work or cause them to get raped. They aren’t told that the sight of their flesh may cause grown women to turn into mindless brutes.

    I.e. boys are “not taught” a lot of things, suggesting that they are more free to act upon “natural” desire. Do we end up with a sort of hydraulic theory of repression that Foucault was so critical of?

    And am I overinterpreting a light-hearted piece of fun? Quite possibly.

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