Sympathy for the prude
Prudery and its variants are pejorative. Maybe in some contexts they describe something positive, but the default connotation is negative. I don’t think prudery is quite as bad as we generally would have it. And in this post I shall ask you reconsider when and why we criticize the prude.
What is prudery?
By prudery, I don’t mean “fastidiousness” or extreme modesty, although that’s the most common definition I’ve found online. 1 What I mean, and what I think most of you mean, is something like the following:
A prude is a person who exhibits discomfort and shock at natural bodily functions, especially sex or bathroom habits, and condemns most references to such functions so as to discourage or prohibit people from talking about them or portraying them in art or other entertainment.
I believe that my definition gets at what most people think they’re objecting to when they’re objecting to prudery. It’s not only the discomfort or shock that the prude feels about certain topics. It’s the prude’s willingness to go public with expressing that discomfort and to prohibit or marginalize certain ways of talking about the body.
Playing with mottes and baileys
My motte: one person’s prudery is another person’s actions have consequences
If we’re talking about sex, that which is prudish is often that which is prudent. Real life offers evidence why we should approach sex with caution. It’s not only a question of STD’s and unwanted pregnancies, although even today’s Malthusian drills have fully eliminated the risk of neither.
It’s also a question of less tangible risks. Consider the article “10 Good Reasons to Save Sex Until Marriage.” 2 You (and I) may disagree with some of the reasons offered and disagree with the article’s ultimate message about abstinence. But some of what the article says–especially what I take to be the underlying point that sex creates entanglements that are hard to get out of–makes sense.
Out in the bailey
Of course, “actions have consequences” is not really what anti-prudes object to. It doesn’t even fit my own definition above. So I’ll suggest something bolder. Anti-prudes are opposed to the very existence of the prude and wish to vilify anyone who harbors any suspicion or discomfort about the body.
Anti-prudes will claim that they don’t care how others feel. Anti-prudes simply don’t want prudes imposing their own views on anyone else.
Still in my bailey, I’ll do now what I’ve recently chided others for doing and say the anti-prudes only half-believe their own objections. They don’t like it when someone else deviates from putatively healthy views about sex and the body. They object to someone having different comfort levels about some of the most personal aspects of being alive. They’ve identified a group of freaks, and the freaks will have to pay the price for their freakishness. Maybe prudes can feel however they feel, as long as they never voice their prudish concerns whatsoever.
Arrows from the motte of the anti-prude
Arrow #1: #NotAllAntiPrudes
Arrow #2: Prudes force their views on others, regardless of any deep hatred anti-prudes harbor. Prudes derail sex ed. They censor. They shun and shame others for the most basic and natural feelings and inclinations. In some cases, prudery or something akin to prudery (e.g., “gay panic”) motivates people to assault and sometimes murder others. Entire populations have suffered discrimination and worse for the simple fact that their sexual preferences or gender identity strike others as strange, weird, or icky.
Arrow #3: We’re punching up. We’re not targeting the 14-year old who’s confused about puberty and as a result might express discomfort about their body. We’re targeting people who have been largely successful in their efforts. Maybe some strands of popular culture defy prudish tastes, but many, many strands cater to them. We’re offering a counterpoint to challenge the stranglehold prudes hold.
(Almost?) everyone’s a little bit prudish
I can defend myself from those arrows only partially. While I believe in my heart of hearts that many (most?) anti-prudes harbor a deep revulsion against the prude for being a prude, I can’t prove it and even if that revulsion applied to all anti-prudes, that doesn’t negate the very harm that prudes have done.
Stereotypical prudes are hypocritical philistines. They scoff at the idea of “safe spaces” for others and yet wish to make the entire world a “safe space” for themselves. They are often successful.
I can’t “no true Scotsman” the prude. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. 3 I’ll concede that prudes’ demonstrated hypocrisy, lack of introspection, and eagerness to impose their beliefs on others make anti-prudery necessary. I have been harmed in some ways by prudery, my own and others’. I have, through commission or omission, harmed others with prudery as my instrument. It’s probably the case that for every way I’m aware I’ve harmed others, there are at least five other ways of which I’m unaware.
But what if we’re among friends or acquaintances–or part of a community in which we undertake to respect each other? Is it so bad for someone to state publicly that that they’re discomforted by certain ways of speaking or representing the body? That person shouldn’t have a veto on all discussion–or perhaps any discussion. But that person isn’t bad for feeling the way they feel and isn’t always wrong to state what they feel.
And maybe what the anti-prude thinks is “punching up” isn’t, or isn’t always. We don’t know why the prude is a prude. Or if we think we do, we probably don’t know the whole story. Maybe that person has suffered abuse and prudery is a coping mechanism. Maybe the person is just temperamentally disposed to find certain things disgusting. Maybe the person’s seemingly prudish values prove, on closer inspection, to serve important functions or have deeper rationales than merely the belief that “sex is dirty.” 4
And frankly, many (most?) of us hold certain things deeply important that at first glance seem to cut against what feels natural. Many (most?) of us find certain attitudes or practices disgusting even if those attitudes or practices don’t harm non-consenting parties. Many (most?) of us have sometimes not kept such feelings to ourselves, but voiced them, perhaps cloaking them in some other rationale. If the anti-prudes look at their own actions and beliefs, they might find a touch of prudishness as well. That’s hardly surprising, considering we’re talking about something as emotional, personal, and culturally inflected as the body and sexuality.
We’re all snowflakes now
I’m asking for something more than merely respecting the fact that different people have different needs, although that would be a good start for some anti-prudes. I’m asking for something less than accepting absolutely everything the prude does or says.
One thing I hope for is a recognition that we all need safe spaces from time to time. While it’s probably usually better to have our views and comfort levels challenged, there’s often a real value to being safe from challenge, or being able to titrate the challenges into manageable bits. If we can recognize the prudes’ need for safe spaces, maybe we can also convince them to recognize others’ need for safe spaces. I propose that that mutual recognition is more likely to come from taking the necessary risks for understanding instead of the mutual name-calling and mutual denunciations in our current cultural/political wars.
Maybe you’re not ready to do that yet. It’s not your responsibility to engage in someone else’s internal demons. I’m probably asking more from the anti-prudes than I’m asking from the prudes. And even if you are ready and do engage and even if I let go of some of my anti-anti-prudery, the best we can probably hope for is ratcheting down some of the conflict, not ending it. But ratcheting down and mutual disarmament can be their own reward.
Photo Credit: Beware for the Birth of Venus! By Le.Met, taken July 28, 2010. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic. (CC BY-NC 2.0).
- Dictionary.com: a prude is a person who is excessively proper or modest in speech, conduct, dress, etc.; Merriam-Webster online: a prude is a person who is excessively or priggishly attentive to propriety or decorum; especially : a woman who shows or affects extreme modesty; Cambridge Dictionary online: a prude is a person who is easily shocked by rude things. The Urban Dictionary offers a definition close to the one I plan to use here, but I won’t link to it because of the homophobic language it uses.
- I believe I may have found this article through something Will Truman linked to, but I don’t remember for sure if that’s true or from where he would have linked it.
- Actually, two reasons. The first is that members of the stereotyped group often act in ways consistent with the stereotype. The second is that the one doing the stereotyping is usually looking for those behaviors in the first place and could find that for which they’re looking in almost any population.
- And let’s remember that sex is indeed dirty, in the sense of messy. It’s physically messy, and it can be emotionally messy. Perhaps that messiness doesn’t merit the term “dirty” with all the baggage that comes with that term. But I can see how others might see it differently.