On the Meaning of Sex 5: Such Creatures?

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]

I’ve got three major points of contention with Chapter 5 of On the Meaning of Sex.

1. Be Gone, J. Evans Pritchard, PhD!

In Chapter 4, Budziszewski outlined, charted, categorized, and ranked the varieties of love. In Chapter 5, he tries to do the same things with sexual beauty. He distinguishes beauty from sexiness, makes the case that a (straight) man’s appreciation for women is always sexual without necessarily being “all about sex,” and finally tries to differentiate “fully humanized sexiness” from “dehumanized sexiness.” In case you’re wondering, “dehumanized sexiness” makes a man think “it would be pleasant to have sex with this person,” whereas “fully humanized sexiness” makes him think “This is a nice person to marry, love, and have children with” (99). Oh, also, Budziszewski distinguishes between “girl-next-door sexiness” and “married woman sexiness” (99-102). He leaves out his feelings on the Ginger and Mary Ann controversy, and Betty vs. Veronica, but I’m sure those are somewhere in his drafts.

I think this chapter fails, for the same reasons that Budziszewski failed last chapter—to paraphrase Robin Williams’ character in the above clip, we’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about beauty. You just can’t do what he’s trying to do. You can’t, for example, cordon off desire from a man’s or woman’s appreciation of a beautiful body and you can’t taxonomize the different types of sexiness, at least not with any authority. Leave it to the poets.

2. Budziszewski and the Shopgirl

But, even though Budziszewski again acknowledges the difficulties of his task, this chapter bothers me in a way that last chapter didn’t. There’s just something ungainly about this 60-something-year-old man’s struggle to define “sexiness” for young women.

To excuse his one-sided focus on women’s beauty, he writes, “Since I am a man, it is more convenient to write about sexual beauty just in terms of female sexual beauty.” Fine. Unfortunately, the result feels sort of like an issue of Cosmo edited by a prudish (but also salacious) fogey.

On page 104, for example, we get Dr. B’s thoughts on accessories:

“I don’t agree with those strict people who would deny a woman a pretty dress or a touch of powder on grounds that adornment is artifice. Artifice need not be dishonest. We don’t call it deceitful for a baker to adorn pastry with frosting, or for a speaker to adorn lectures with jests—so long as the pastry and the lecture are really good. Neither should we call it deceptive for a woman to hang a modest pearl from her ear.”

And makeup tips! From page 106:

“I mentioned in chapter four that to some lovers, the beloved seems to glow. This kind of luminescence cannot be measured by photometers; the eyes are catching overflow from another kind of light. Even so, some styles of makeup seek to evoke it. These creams and powders pursue more than the shine of healthy skin. They are trying to simulate the aureole that enfolds the beloved as she is seen by her lover. How much better to be truly beloved, so no simulation is needed! Yet who would have the heart to cavil? At least the young woman is imitating something good!”

I’m sure the ladies are very glad to know what meets your standards, Dr. Budziszewski.

At best, it’s presumptuous of Budziszewski to assume this authority. Occasionally, it’s downright unbecoming, as on page 106 when Budziszewski shares his struggle not to stare at a provocatively-dressed salesgirl in a department store:

“One day in a department store I was surprised by a salesgirl whose slacks were unsnapped, unzipped, and folded open. Because I was trying to look elsewhere, it took a few minutes to realize that they weren’t really in the process of removal; they were made to look that way. The flaps were held open by stitching. It’s hard to believe that a girl would behave in such a way unless there were a surplus of men who were vitiated enough to like it—and perhaps a shortage of men who weren’t.”

Actually, unbecoming isn’t strong enough a word. Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has a great post on the paradox that the modesty-obsessed evangelical culture in which she grew up claims to respect women while freely expressing disgust towards women who fall short of its standards. She writes:

“The irony is that we were told that women who dress immodestly will be objectified by the men around them, and that dressing modestly ensured that you would be seen as a person rather than a piece of flesh when in reality we were actually actively taught to reduce women dressed “immodestly” to nothing more than their bodies, to see only midriff and cleavage and therefore disrespect and dehumanize them. We weren’t taught to see them as people but as sluts, whores, and home-wreckers. We were the ones objectifying, judging, degrading. We were the ones we were warning them about.”

This is the dynamic at work in Budziszewski’s interaction with the salesgirl. He reduces her to an article of clothing, and from that judges her to be a willing “tool.” She is damaged, he decides, and her revealing pants are “the outward sign of the inner reality of mutilated personality, spoiled honey that attracts wasps instead of bees” (105).

3. Such creatures?

But it isn’t much better for the women who meet Budziszewski’s standards.

On pages 96 & 97, Budziszewski writes that the “beauty of a lovely woman has three elements”: her humanity, her womanliness, and her personality. “When I speak of a woman’s sexual beauty, though,” he writes, “I am referring only to the second element, her womanliness.” He continues:

“In turn, although womanliness is a single thing, I may admire it in two different ways. As a rational being, I may respond, ‘How wonderful it is in itself, that such creatures exist!’ But as a man, I may exclaim, ‘How wonderful it is for such creatures as me, that such creatures exist!”

Stop and think about this.  Budziszewski is saying that a straight man’s sexual response to a woman—the thing that may give rise to his erotic love for her—is something apart from his response to her humanity and her personality.

This is how Budziszewski understands human sexual attraction: it’s not I am attracted to you. It’s The man in me is attracted to the woman in you. I’m not attracted to what makes you unique, but instead to what you share with all women.

And when he wants to formulate attraction, it’s not “How wonderful it is for me that you exist!” Instead, it’s (emphasis added): “How wonderful it is for such creatures as me, thatsuch creatures exist.”

Think about that.

To be clear, he’s not saying that what attracts a man to a woman is (or should be) purely physical. He writes that “all of those things about a woman that arise” from her potentiality for motherhood, “such as warmth, tender-mindedness, and sensitivity to the emotions of others, are signs of this potentiality. The more fully they are developed, the more intense and beautiful her womanhood, and the deeper its complement to manhood.”

But even there, attraction isn’t about you as an individual—it’s about how fully you embody universal womanhood. And, as we discussed regarding Chapter 3, the ways you differ from that ideal are still the ways you’re unlovely, even if they’re not physical. Are you competitive? Do you have an analytic mind? Those things aren’t womanly, and therefore they’re flaws.

Even the response to “fully humanized sexiness” is far from a response to the whole person: “This is a nice woman to marry, love, and have kids with.” Okay, he said love. But there’s no recognition that a man’s love for a woman can involve anything besides viewing her as an appropriate mother for his children. Which means it’s still a dehumanizing, instrumentalizing response.

Nor is it a very loving response. In the last chapter, Budziszewski rightly recognized love as “delight in the existence” of the other person. Presumably, that means delight in the whole of the other person—in who she is, in her entirety. And who she is, to go back to the Church’s language, is a “unique and unrepeatable” individual, with “unique life experiences, comparable to no one else.”

Speaking of unique and unrepeatable:

Next: Chapter 5 has almost as many softball one-liners as Chapter 2, so next week I’ll come back for some quick-hitters.

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