A humourless approach to sex (and female underwear)

'One girl I know wears red knickers because they cheer her up when she visits the Ladies'
Click to follow

Germaine Greer has been getting her lack of knickers in a twist. She's published an eloquent philippic about the redundancy of lingerie and the folly of those who wear it. She finds it ridiculous that women should for a century or so have forced themselves into a ridiculous array of uncomfortable garments.

She asks some pertinent questions. Why do we wear lingerie when we're no longer afflicted by the cold or obsessed by modesty? Why is our culture obsessed by it? How did something as "inappropriate" as the brassiÿre take over the world? And how did the "awesome imagery of the mother" get eclipsed by the imagery of prostitution?

Reading the article was unsettling because the piece was accompanied by a shot of the great feminist in a classic soft-porn pose, sitting on a bed naked except for her pearl earrings. Her professorial specs lie accusingly beside her.

It's not clear what her intention was in posing like that. It may have been her way of demonstrating that, with a body as glowingly healthy and (as far as one can see) succulently proportioned as hers, there was never any need to "tackle" up in a bra, suspender belt and stockings.

But she rather subverts the effect with her expression - a look of utter distaste, as if she has spotted something really horrid in the loo. "Look at this," her expression says, "look at me being sexy. Isn't it just too absurd and pathetic that women should have to look like this?"

The answer is, of course, yes and no. The sexual display involved in posing in black lacy D-cup frillies is slightly ridiculous, as are the games one plays in the bedroom, but it's not pathetic. Just as there is something absurd but incontrovertibly there about all men's voyeuristic impulses. When Leopold Bloom in Ulysses forgets himself on seeing Gerty McDowell's knickers on Sandymount beach ("O sweety all your little girlwhite up I saw dirty bracegirdle made me do love sticky we two naughty..."), it is gross, embarrassing, and all too true.

Men's interest in ladies' underwear goes back a while. Adam only got it together with Eve when she started wearing the first fig-leaf thong. But men do not, repeat not, fancy the fetish clothing for itself, any more than they would be turned on by a pair of disembodied breasts that arrived in the post. It's the heavenly combination of person and package that matters.

Dr Greer is surprised that her Italian lover would, when they went out, pull the top of her dress to him, look down the vertiginous drop to her feet, and curse if she was wearing no underwear. She doesn't say why - a sense of decency? A fear of other men clocking her nipples? But chaps know why: he'd been looking forward to the later fumble and unclasp, the letting-them-out, the sliding-them-down, the objectifying of Germaine's doubtless delicious bits by the slightly hammy act of concealment.

Germaine Greer is uncharacteristically humourless when she complains that the image of maternity is being replaced by the iconography of whoredom. But are they not related? Dr Greer does not need me to remind her that the hips and tits of childbirth and nursing are the same hips and tits accentuated through the centuries in order to attract men. And it is disingenuous of her to wonder how women got persuaded, somewhere around 1900, to strap their breasts into a harness; the reason was that it was a damn sight less oppressive than having to cram your whole chest and abdomen into a corset, then lace it up until your ribs cracked.

If you ask women about underwear, you get replies that encompass the practical, the hygienic, the sexy and the routine. One girl I know wears red knickers because they cheer her up when she visits the Ladies. Another wears stockings to work because she likes the sensation when she crosses her legs. Many agree that modern bras seem designed more for cuteness than comfort; but as one told me, "Underwear isn't about comfort. It's about silk and lace and buttons and little bits of rubber." Some don't wear knickers; some look down on girls who don't wear knickers ("It's a bit sluttish," said one, "a bit 'drip-dry', know what I mean?"). But none displayed for a second the "passivity and vulnerability of the female subject of male erotic interest".

How Edwardian! It's truer to say, I think, that men and women gradually discover they have a secret pact with each other, of mutual indulgence. They way they dress and undress is governed by choice rather than social prescription. They ironise their display of sexual characteristics, just as Germaine Greer ironises a cheesy glamour pose. The difference is, their intention is to get laid, while Dr Greer's is to make a point about bodily propriety.

I agree with Germaine about one thing, though: Wonderbras. Now they really are a disgrace.