The conservative Peter Hitchens’s kneejerk liberal comment on women’s dress

Sage McLaughlin writes:

What do you make of this comment from Peter Hitchens in a recent entry on rape?

“If women want to dress provocatively, then they should be free to do so, and I say thanks a lot to those who do.”

I find it typically British, in that he undercuts his serious point with a flourish of adolescent decadence.

LA replies:

The article as a whole, in which he said that women who are raped while drunk deserve less compensation than women who were behaving responsibly when they were raped, seems unobjectionable. But with his wink-wink approval of provocative dress, he undermines his entire position. His reasoning is: an intoxicated woman’s behavior will get her in trouble, while a provocatively dressed woman is not behaving in a way to get herself in trouble; men are still responsible for restraining themselves, no matter how provocatively women dress.

The distinction is too fine. Hitchens’s narrowly based argument fails to acknowledge the massive, over-the top (and almost topless) sexual provocation and challenge that women today are throwing in the faces of men, many of whom are not going to be restrained and who do not share any sense of common culture with the women going around half-naked. The way many women dress today, with half their breasts exposed, is an expression of total disrespect for men. Men are left with three possible responses. To grab the woman, which is illegal; to ogle the woman, which is socially unacceptable; or to affect not to notice the woman at all, which is emasculating. A culture that normalizes such female behavior—i.e. not only not noticing or objecting to it, but prohibiting any objection to it—is extremely sick.

And then Hitchens casts away any claim to seriousness when he suggests that the only alternative to women’s hyper exposed dress of today is to “compel women to dress like bats, as many Muslim countries do…”

Hitchens is another of these “conservatives” who promotes unexamined liberal assumptions. Also, as I am not the first person to have pointed out, he’s not very bright.

Sage McLaughlin replies:

Just so. And we have to remember that Britain is further than America along the path of grossly oversexualized popular culture. His comment regarding Muslim dress is the standard liberal tactic of responding to destructive social and political developments with, “You don’t want Jones back, do you?” The liberal status quo, which is itself entirely unacceptable and unsustainable for a free and moral people, is held up as the only rational alternative to an inhuman teetotalism. It’s the same old tiresome line—“Us or the fascists, take your pick.”

- end of initial entry -

Philip M. writes from England:

You write:

“The way many women dress today, with half their breasts exposed, is an expression of total disrespect for men. Men are left with three possible responses. To grab the woman, which is illegal; to ogle the woman, which is socially unacceptable; or to affect not to notice the woman at all, which is emasculating. A culture that normalizes such female behavior—i.e. not only not noticing or objecting to it, but prohibiting any objection to it—is extremely sick.”

Thank you. This was very well said. I wish men would think about these matters more, and take a stand against the way our women behave. I suspect British women are further down the road to oblivion than most American women, whom seem to have retained a degree of femininity.

The Hitchens’s column in question surprised me. I have read his book and his columns for a long time, and this was by far the weakest, most ill-judged article he has written. It seemed to be coming from a different man. He is not normally so flippant.

Contrary to what you say, Hitchens is far from ignorant. When not on the subject of race, he often has very insightful things to say about the state of the West. But I will be reading his columns more carefully to see if this heralds a new downward trend.

August 22

Michael S. writes:

You wrote:

“The way many women dress today, with half their breasts exposed, is an expression of total disrespect for men. Men are left with three possible responses. To grab the woman, which is illegal; to ogle the woman, which is socially unacceptable; or to affect not to notice the woman at all; which is emasculating.”

I agree with your first statement, as a general assessment. But I disagree with your alternatives. They represent extremes only, and thus are incomplete.

It is possible to notice an attractive woman as such, and think to oneself—and say silently to God—“what a lovely woman!” There is not necessarily anything wrong with that—especially if you also say, at least mentally, “Thank you, Lord, for creating such beauty among mankind.” And then you leave it at that.

It also possible to notice an attractive woman as such, and then let the fact pass from your mind, and not to give any public notice that you have made this mental note of feminine beauty as such. We are not obligated to make public notice of the perception of beauty, especially of beauty in this personally incarnated form.

Therefore, to affect not to notice the woman at all is not necessarily emasculating. It can be such, in some circumstances. But it is easy to identify conditions that make this refusal to “affect to notice” NOT emasculating—indeed, make it an exercise of manly virtue.

For example, I am a [Roman] Catholic husband. This fact implies a certain set of circumstances. It also implies a standard of discipline.

As far I can discern from your writings in this space, Mr. Auster, you claim to be an “Anglo-Catholic.” (If I have mis-read you with regard to this area of life, please correct me.) It seems to me that there are many problems with that identification, but that’s another question for another time. However, if you have any claim to being Catholic at all, you should be familiar with the idea of “avoiding the occasion of sin.” This avoidance can be external or internal. That means, for example, that if you see an attractive woman on the sidewalk (not difficult in Manhattan, as I can personally testify), you may make a mental note of the fact that she is attractive … but then you forget it. You do not permit your imaginative faculty to “play with” the idea. (Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done.) You may say to yourself, “what a lovely piece of work—thanks be to God!”—or you may say nothing. Either is acceptable.

Is this emasculating? No. If you are married, your loyalty is to your wife. If you are not married, then you have no business beyond praising God. If you wish to approach the woman and attempt to make her acquaintance, that is acceptable also. Chivalrous behavior is always acceptable.

There are alternatives beyond crass ogling and feigned indifference. Men are not, generally, indifferent to feminine beauty. But chivalry is always possible, even if only logically.

Is there a middle ground? Perhaps. But one needs to look to films from the 1930s, 40s and perhaps 50s to see any extant evidence of it. Given today’s climate, I am in favor of understatement. Expressions of sexual enthusiasm are best reserved for the bedroom—the bedroom of married couples, need I say, and the sexual enthusiasm in question should be for one’s husband or wife, as the case may be.

“A culture that normalizes such female behavior, i.e. not only not noticing or objecting to it, but prohibiting any objection to it, is extremely sick.”

I agree with this. But objecting to it presupposes noticing it, and isn’t noticing it the whole point?

Oh, I forgot … we’re not supposed to talk about it.

In any event, I hope I have expressed these ideas clearly. I apologize for my prolixity.

LA replies:

Michael S. is failing to grapple with the issue I’m writing about here. He’s writing as though we were, say, in the early 1980s instead of 2008. The subject here is not the generic subject of female beauty and how men respond to it and ought to respond to it; the subject is the female body exposed in public in a way that has never been the case before. For Michael to speak of the virtues of “male chivalry” in response to women who are exposing themelves as whores have never done is to be blind to what is new and (to use an overused word) shockingly different about the present. He is seeing the present through the model of a past, relatively more innocent, world, and thus not seeing it at all.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Your point that such outrageously provocative dress—which is now all but standard among American women, whether in the office, the gym or anywhere else—is actually disrespectful and demeaning to men, is one that is not made nearly often enough. I think you’ve really hit on it when you say that to pretend not to notice such things is actually emasculating. This touches on the basic fact that men, as men, are ineradicably interested in the sight of semi-denuded women. This is so basic to what men are that to disregard it is an open challenge to his status as a man, forcing him to pretend at being something other than what he is, compelling him to assent by his silence to an obvious lie. It is a companion to the morbidly sick insistence, now spreading in the Netherlands, that men should never urinate in a standing position. Men do not walk around half-naked precisely because it is obscene, and because women are not interested in seeing them dressed that way. For women to pretend there is no sexual component to dressing in ways so revealing that they go far beyond what is even practical or comfortable, is really just a quintessentially feminine, passive-aggressive kind of power play.

It is supremely weird that Hitchens, a grown man and ostensibly a serious human being, feels compelled to assure his readers that, in essence, “Of course I still like girls, so don’t get the wrong idea.” This is, as I said, behavior more befitting to an adolescent who fears being taunted by his peers for “acting gay.” I think many women are knowingly feeding on this insecurity when they walk around dressed in ways that are sure to provoke attention. I can say for myself that when I was a much younger man, I would not have dreamed of articulating any complaints about female immodesty, because I knew without being told that I would be hectored about my sexuality.

Anyway, it’s an interesting subject that we can rest assured will garner absolutely no interest from the kids sitting at the NRO cool table.

LA replies:

The intimidation that Mr. McLaughlin refers to is but another variation on the standard intimidation that has used since the Sixties to silence anyone who would protest any aspect of sexual liberation: “You’re uptight. You’ve got a problem with sex.” No human being wants to be told this, and so the liberationist culture has a stranglehold on those who would even think of criticizing it. Further, as Mr. M. points out, it is pitiful that Peter Hitchens, a middle-aged, well-established, “conservative,” and at least nominally Christian writer, feels compelled to rush to assure his readers that he personally has no problem with women going around half naked in public and in fact rejoices at the sight.

This shows how EVERYONE today, including virtually all “conservatives,” are under the sway of the liberal culture and do not stand on an independent ground from which they feel able to criticize it.

LA continues:

Look at the way I’ve been mocked when I’ve criticized, say, the inappropriate outfit Ann Coulter wore on the cover of “Godless.” What our present society requires is that we be “cool” with everything. But such coolness is another form of emasculation.

Jacob M. writes:

Here’s a further thought on Peter Hitchens and women’s attire, which Sage McLaughlin alluded to when he called women’s revealing dress a “passive-aggressive kind of power play.” I think it goes beyond being disrespectful to men; I think it’s calculated to emasculate men. It seems to me that women dress this way specifically in order to tease and intimidate men. It’s as though they’re saying, “just look at what you can’t have. That’s right, if you touch me you’ll be criminally prosecuted, if you stare at me or make catcalls you’ll be considered rude and beyond the bounds of decency, so you just have to sit there being tantalized, squirming in your seat and pretending not to notice, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!” This then increases their sexual power over men and their social standing vis-a-vis men, since they know that many men follow their instincts and can’t help but go out of their way to please or defer to an attractive woman.

This explains why feminists, who were formerly so enraged about women being seen as “sexual objects,” go into a fit of hysteria whenever someone criticizes women’s revealing attire. They know it’s a way for women to challenge and intimidate men.

James N. writes:

I sent this to you two years ago, on another subject [“Coulter and God”], but it’s on point for the Peter Hitchens thread, I think.

I wrote:

… I was very struck by your comment:

“And think of how unmanning it is to men, to have women to be exposing their bare bellies everywhere, like something lower than a whore, and the men are supposed to be completely cool about this, not even noticing it. The men are tacitly expected both to be inflamed by this whorish display, and not to notice it at all. And even men accompanying women dressed this way are not supposed to mind that their date or their girlfriend is exposing her body to the world. Non-responsive, non-judgmental, “cool” acceptance of whatever is going on is the required attitude of everyone today.”

I’ve remarked on this phenomenon, many times, and I don’t think it’s about non-judgementalism AT ALL.

I think it’s about power and control.

I was born into the Lost World in which exposure in a sexual way of part of a woman’s body provoked a physical response. This was why women, except for whores, did not do that.

NOW, that same physical response, so natural and automatic (unless it’s wanted, in the sole judgement of the woman in question) is a crime. You can lose your job, your home, your money, almost everything.

To live in a world where something as natural as breathing is a crime is profoundly alienating—it unmans men, which is just exactly what it’s intended to do.

The “hip, cool” posture just covers up how much mojo the hipster has lost. He’s been castrated, and he’s not supposed to care.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “To be always with a woman and not have intercourse with her is harder than to raise the dead.” Men in today’s society have their work cut out for them.

Rick Darby writes:

I registered a mild dissent I don’t believe I was mocking you concerning Ann Coulter’s cover photo. Once again, I think you’re stirring up a storm in a teacup. [LA replies: I wasn’t thinking of Mr. Darby in particular. I’d have to look up the original thread(s), but I remember comments along the lines of, “how ridiculous to notice such a thing, get a life.” There is always the response that there is something wrong with someone who complains about such things.]

The article by Peter Hitchens is about women who get drunk having to accept some responsibility if it leads to rape, and you agree with his stance. You object to an aside, a few throwaway lines, the totality of which is:

“If women want to dress provocatively, then they should be free to do so, and I say thanks a lot to those who do. Our society is based on self-restraint. We can be provoked and still behave ourselves.

“We do not need to compel women to dress like bats, as many Muslim countries do, so as to curb the unchained passions of hot-blooded menfolk.”

It turns on what he means by provocatively. You assume that he is talking about crude breaches of good taste in women’s attire, which I agree are distressingly common (in both senses), and maybe even more blatant in summertime England than here. Slutware is insulting to men; it’s an impossible-to-ignore tease, a kind of taunt (“Like what you see? Too bad, what YOU see isn’t what YOU get, ha ha”).

But why assume he means such extremes? Grown women always have dressed provocatively, and I hope always will. That is, they dress to be alluring, to give perfectly normal men a little thrill. It adds a touch of color and personality to everyday life. A bit of flirtatiousness is an art form, at which many Parisian women are artistes of genius. As long as it’s kept within reasonable limits, what’s wrong with that? I too say thanks a lot.

Now you may argue that if all Hitchens means is dressing attractively or to show off a bit, there would be no need to talk about self-restraint and behaving ourselves. Fair point. I think he is somewhat ambiguous, whether intentionally or because he was writing fast to meet a deadline.

As with Coulter’s photo, I don’t dispute your larger point. I just think you are inclined to be triggered by what are at most borderline cases.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes from Canada:

I agree 100 percent with your comments regarding what women are wearing these days. It of course gets especially extreme in the summer months. I once got really angry with someone who was making a scene about how a bus driver was ogling at her breasts. My point was “why are you dressed like that, if you don’t want people to notice it?” Everyone in the room (both men and women) thought I was being harsh, and agreed with the woman.

I myself, actually get uncomfortable with “under-dressed” women. I know it is a different kind of embarrassment for men, but it changes the dynamics of interaction for everyone when women show up in skimpy attire.

I also agree with Rick Darby. But, my experience with French women is that they don’t dress revealingly, maybe provocatively. There is always a great sense of style or flare that they possess (I’ve know this from visits in France). It is a pleasure to see and to emulate. I know that they wouldn’t think much of Ann Coulter’s fashion attempt. It is too plain, and too short, almost like she’d run out of material or her dress had shrunk in the wash! [Exactly.] And she gets the shoes wrong too.

My favorite fashion period is actually the late 30s, early 40s. They managed to put style and femininity with a great deal of practicality and “freedom.” It’s ironic that this freedom in female dress developed during such a difficult period. And they got the shoes right too. These days, it is very hard to find attractive, comfortable heels, their being mostly thin and pretty high. And it would be great if hats came back again.

The fifties fashion were too restrained, and not as free, but certainly very pretty. I think the thirties dresses were just a little too long.

LA replies:

Of course the 1930s were the greatest fashion period of modern times, for both men and women, maybe of all history.

But there’s something in human affairs that it can’t stop at something good. Starting around 1940, as you can see in the movies, the look started to change, especially with women’s hair and dress, and became relatively dreary. Not that I dislike the long-haired women’s look of the early ’40s; I like it. But it doesn’t compare to the ’30s. That’s the height.

(This discussion continues in the thread, “Sexual liberation and perversity have taken over the world and the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube.”)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 21, 2008 11:35 AM | Send

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