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Scenes From the Exhibitionists


Scenes From the Exhibitionists

January 12, 2007
OtherCulture & Society

Some of my best friends are women—heck, I am a woman—but I've come to the conclusion that we've seen too much of the fairer sex. For me, the final straw came last month when Britney Spears jauntily revealed her waxed nether-regions to waiting photographers as she exited her limo. Britney's stunt made her the Internet smash of the season. But in providing America's workers with this cubicle distraction, Britney was doing a lot more than making her own privates public.

In fact, Britney was following to its logical end what has become the first rule of contemporary American girlhood: to show that you are liberated, take it off. Liberty means disrobe. Paris Hilton, Britney's BFF (Best Friend Forever), taped her sexual escapades with an ex-boyfriend, though even she was tactful enough to pretend that she hadn't meant for the video to go public. Courtney Love, Lindsay Lohan and Tara Reid have also staged their own wardrobe malfunctions. But flashing is hardly limited to celebrities. The girls-next-door who migrate to Florida during spring break happily lift their blouses and snap their thongs for the producers of "Girls Gone Wild," who sell their DVDs to an eager public.

Nor is it just young female flashers who are driven to expose themselves to the masses. Older women, whether because of lingering traces of reticence or doubts about the camera-readiness of their intimate anatomy, use the written word to bare all. There are legions of women bloggers who write about last night's bed tricks, their underwear preferences and their menstrual cycles (yes, Virginia, there is a More sophisticated exhibitionists turn to tasteful erotic memoirs. In "A Round Heeled Woman," Jane Juksa gives us a detailed description of her varied sexual adventures after, at age 66, she advertised for sex in the personals of the New York Review of Books. In "Surrender," the ex-Balanchine dancer Toni Bentley tells of the spiritual transcendence she experienced during the 298 times she had anal sex with a former lover—making this the first transcendent sex ever to involve a calculator.

Now, this is the point at which the enlightened always begin grumbling: What's wrong with women showing that they are "sexual beings"? In this vein, the show-or-tell-all is an act of bravery, demonstrating a woman's determination to throw off society's taboos against full expression of her sexuality. "[F]emale exhibitionism act of female power," Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice has written. "We should redeem the slut in ourselves and rejoice in being bad girls," Naomi Wolf once urged (but has since modified now that she has an adolescent daughter). It follows that reservations about self-exposure are a sign of anti-sex, anti-woman prudery. They may just be the first step in a long-planned, mandated return to the missionary position, female frigidity and meatloaf dinners, cooked and served by apron-clad wives.

But this Puritans-are-coming! stance, validating, as it does, someone as cracked as Paris Hilton, finally implodes. The problem with a Britney or a Bentley is not that they are floozies. It is rather that they are, paradoxical as it might seem, naïve. They underestimate the magnetic force field created by intimate sexual information and violate the logic of privacy that should be all the more compelling in a media-driven age. People in the public eye always risk becoming objectified; they are watched by hordes of strangers who have only fragmentary information about them. When that information includes details that only their Brazilian waxers should know for sure, it's inevitable that, humans being the perverse creatures that they are, all other facts of identity will fall away. Instead of becoming freer, the exhibitionist becomes an object defined primarily by a narrow sexual datum.

The writer Daphne Merkin offers the perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of giving the public Too Much Information. In 1996 Merkin published an essay in the New Yorker describing the erotic pleasure she found in spanking. Her sensational article hardly stalled her career; if anything it increased her name recognition. Understandably Ms. Merkin doesn't regret her essay, which she continues to believe to be "both intellectually and emotionally daring." But she kids herself when she says "I'm known more for the rigor of my thinking...than I am for revelations about my erotic preferences." Her article is still the major fact of her public identity; she will forever and always be Daphne Likes-To-Be-Spanked Merkin. This is not because the shocked public wants Ms. Merkin to cover herself up. It is because Ms. Merkin has invited us to know her by information that has far more power than her insights into Virginia Woolf.

It was doubtless for this reason that Susan Sontag hesitated to write about her romantic relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. After her death, many accused Sontag of cowardice and hypocrisy for avoiding the l-word, but this seems an unlikely charge. A woman who braved the brutes of Kosovo, Sontag was probably less fearful of having it known that she was in love with a woman than of having it become the defining trait of her public identity; she must have dreaded being boxed in as the "lesbian writer Susan Sontag." Note that Sontag never shied from advancing a public persona on her own terms. On the contrary, that famous shock of white hair brashly announced that she was a woman with a talent for self-dramatization. But as an authority on the camera as well as on Western literature, she knew that the public gaze was always inclined to trivialize the complexities of identity.

Some people believe that it is lingering misogyny rather than naïve exhibitionism that leads the public to define women by their sexual anatomy and proclivities. Perhaps there is something to that. But the exhibitionism surely doesn't help. It seems that men, despite their reputation as braggarts, actually don't find self-exposure all that appealing. Where are the male counterparts to Britney Spears and "Girls Gone Wild"? Jessica Cutler, the D.C. sex-blogger known as Washingtienne and a one-time congressional intern, is now being sued for $20 million by one of her gentleman callers, who for some reason preferred that his bedroom antics remain, well, in the bedroom.

In the highbrow world, Philip Roth clearly writes autobiographical novels, but it took a bitter ex-wife—the actress Claire Bloom—to rip off the fictional veil and give us the private Roth. Tom Stoppard, interviewed recently for the New York Times Magazine by Daphne Merkin (she once wrote an article about being spanked, by the way), hopes that his biography will be "as inaccurate as possible...I flinch when I see my name in the newspapers."

Why men have become more discreet than women, assuming they have, is one of those cultural mysteries that is yet to be solved. But the fairer sex might want to take a lesson from Mr. Stoppard, who notes that it's not any sense of modesty that makes him reticent; rather it "has to do with not making myself available." To throw your intimate self before the public is to risk having your identity mauled by a mob of hyenas, and you will probably suffer for it. As Samuel Beckett said to Doris Lessing's lover when he heard that the novelist had used him as a model for one of her characters. "Identity is so fragile. How did you ever survive?" He peered at the man. "Or did you?"