Breasts: florence williams’ unnatural history

Review of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about. Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

RV-AG805_BREAST_G_20120511012940Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about.

Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

And herein lies Florence Williams’ point of departure in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Williams leaves St Agatha’s breasts to wobble on a platter in the Louvre and turns to science to ask the ontological question of our age: Why is there something rather than nothing?

More specifically – and converse to the cry of tweenie angst – why are there breasts rather than no breasts? Or why was Jayne Mansfield (“a 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee – a lot more”) Jayne Mansfield?

Given that female humans are the only mammals to sport year-round breasts, regardless of reproductive status, it is a curious question. In the early 14th century, a surgeon to the king of France proposed, among other quaintnesses, that breasts existed to warm and strengthen the stomach. In 1840, a more forbidding physician speculated that fatty breasts “enable women of the lower class to bear the very severe blows which they often receive in their drunken pugilistic contests”.

In delivering a more sensible answer, Williams, an American journalist and writer, has a prominent anthropologist to slay: cue Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

The human shift to bipedalism had many advantages – it freed the hands, for one – but the loss of male “hindsight” that came from face-to-face sex was not, apparently, chief among them. The reason women have breasts, Morris informs us, is because our cave-dwelling forefathers preferred the fronts of our cave-dwelling foremothers to mimic their backs: “The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female,” Morris deadpans, “must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks, and the sharply defined red lips around the mouth must be copies of the red labia.”

(From which we may deduce that lips on men, if they be red, must surely be a most serious case of false advertising.)

The peculiar idea that men bred breasts in women out of a desire for front-buttocks went uncontested until, mercifully, someone cried bollocks. Breasts, Welsh writer Elaine Morgan argued in The Descent of Woman (1972), do owe something of their existence to bipedalism, but not for the reasons Morris supposes. The pendulous shape of the breast and its marvellous manoeuvrability – in humans the nipple is not anchored tightly to the ribs as it is in monkeys – allows a baby to feed while held in the crook of its upright mother’s arm.

If men are turned on by the resulting contours (and it must be acknowledged that across cultures not all are) it is not as architects of the breast but as beneficiaries of the infant’s – as Darwin put it – “struggle for existence”.

But Morgan’s argument, however sensible, has not dampened female efforts to exploit male infatuation with mammary glands. In the past century, women have lined up to inflate their breasts with everything from glass balls to ivory, paraffin wax to wood chips, peanut oil to honey, and goat’s milk to ox cartilage.

In 1962 the first silicone implant surgery took place in Texas, but less well-heeled women settled for silicone injections. In 1964 a topless go-go dancer had 44 such injections and made her fortune as “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”. Tom Wolfe immortalised her anatomy in The Pump House Gang (1968):

Carol Doda’s breasts are two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning-glories.

It’s hard to imagine, but these days there are more worrying things going into breasts than implants, and this is where Williams’ fascinating book turns deadly serious.

Breasts, it turns out, are not only receptacles for fantasy but also mirrors of our industrial lives, as Williams learned when she sent her breast milk to Germany for chemical testing. Her levels of flame-retardants came back 10 to 100 times higher than for European women, and she tested positive for perchlorate – a jet-fuel ingredient – and pesticides. These chemicals, deriving from household items – sofas, toys, electronics, play a dicey game with female and male estrogen levels. Against this backdrop, the human breast is un-gendered – a breast is a breast is a breast – and men are advised to ignore the lure of female breasts and pay attention to their own.

This article was originally published under the title ‘The mammaries linger on’ in The Weekend Australian (4-5 Aug 2012): 19.

Love against max hardcore

Review of Love: A History by Simon May; and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines.

Madame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”. Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

staelMadame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”.

Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

In the meantime, Simon May in his monograph Love: A History argues that desire is really only one of many expressions of love, all of which share the same basic structure: a yearning for what he calls “ontological rootedness”. Love, he says daring a definition, “is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life”. We will love only those people or things or ideas, he says, that can deepen the sensation of our being through the promise of a permanent “home” in the world.

May’s History tells the story of how love has been interpreted over the centuries in the particular collection of cultures we call “Western”. He traces our modern conception of love to the marriage of ideas between Hebrew scripture and Greek philosophy: Plato argued the idea of love as the path to wholeness, while Christianity asserted love as the path to the divine.

Since then love has undergone several seismic transformations. Having discovered an unprecedented power to love and achieve friendship with God, humans soon found themselves worthy of the sort of love formerly reserved for God. As the role of religion declined over the centuries, men and women came to expect their secular love to take over where God’s love left off. In their folly – indeed their hubris, says May – humans now believe that true love is unconditional, eternal, and selfless. In this sense, May’s history of love is a cautionary tale. Love has become overloaded, he argues, and our relationships are lumbering under these dangerous illusions.

May proffers his final conjecture with a trembling hand: even the idea that we love our children unconditionally is delusive. His reasoning is light on evidence – though perhaps a list of the derelictions of paternal duties on the parts of a good many of the philosophers whose works May discusses – yes, they’re all men – might have made his point more fully. Rousseau, to name but one, personally abandoned every one of his five children to a French foundling hospital because, he explained, they interfered with his work.

“It’s always nice to know”, Neal Pollack once sallied, “that no matter how badly you’ve screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse”. Indeed the biographies of these philosophers of love corroborate that a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are two different people. All May’s philosophers, as far as I’m aware, failed at love themselves. And most had no time for women: Aristotle thought they were “monstrosities” of nature and little more than tamed animals. “Women are meretricious schemers who lay snares”, Lucretius wrote. And in Schopenhauer’s masterpiece of misogyny, On Women, he opined: “The most eminent heads of the entire [female] sex have proved incapable of a single truly great, genuine and original achievement in art, or indeed of creating anything at all of lasting value”.

To redress the lack of a single female voice in May’s history of love, I raise the specter of Andrea Dworkin: “Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. The proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.” Love may be universal but its burdens, if we are to take her point, are not equally distributed.

Dworkin also serves as a transition to Gail Dine’s new book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, has been agitating against porn for twenty years but Pornland makes explicit that her current beef is with “gonzo porn”. The word gonzo is said to be Irish-American slang for the last man standing in a drinking contest. But Hunter S. Thompson brought it to prominence in the 1970s when he used it to describe the manic and gritty style of journalism he pioneered, inserting himself into the story with, he said, “total commitment, total concentration and a mad sort of panache”.

In the 1990s gonzo was applied to an emerging style of “reality porn” that not only acknowledged the presence of the camera in a scene but its operator was often made an active participant in the sex. Gonzo porn dispensed with the corny narratives of bygone porn and headed straight to the orifice action – preferably but not exclusively anal – which it cynically exalts in extreme close-ups and endless montages.

Over time, gonzo porn has come to connote extreme content in porn rather than camera technique. Dines offers a pithy definition: “gonzo porn is hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”.

This new style of porn was the subject of the 2001 documentary, Hardcore, that follows a 25-year-old, British single-mother, “Felicity”, to Los Angeles (porn capital of the world) where she wants to make it as a porn actress. First up her agent takes her to visit Max Hardcore who specializes in getting actresses to dress up as little girls and allow him to spit and urinate in their mouths, choke and gag them with his penis or fist, and insert gynecological instruments into their rectums in order to enlarge them to the utmost degree. “We have a saying around here”, he tells Felicity as he anally rapes her, “we’re not happy until you’re not happy”.

Felicity laughs but later flees the set in tears after a brutal off-camera session in which Max nearly suffocates her in a bout of oral sex. Nevertheless she soldiers on in her mission – I confess sometimes the behaviour of women confounds me – and takes part in a film directed by another gonzo impresario who boasts his movies “make Belsen look like a picnic”.

Gonzo porn is not vile because Dines says it is. It’s vile because Max Hardcore says it is. That’s how he – and his fans – like it. “By the time I’m done with them”, he says of his actresses, “they’re dead inside”. Depravity is Max Hardcore’s guiding aesthetic, or at least it would be were he not currently in jail on pseudo-child-porn (PCP) charges.

Given the clarity with which Dines maps gonzo territory in Pornland, you might be forgiven for thinking feminists would be among her most ardent supporters. But you’d be wrong. Dines conducts feminist ire like water conducts electricity.

I suspect (indeed hope) Dines’s feminist detractors are not acquainted with the gonzo genre. I suspect they’re fans of female-friendly “boutique” porn (to borrow the euphemism for worthy but unbankable literature) directed by female auteurs who are in no danger of drawing attention to themselves by making Forbes’s Richest People list. I suspect they find their porn-of-choice by googling “erotica for women” or “artful nude photography” and other such feeble yielders. Because feminists defending gonzo porn is like Occupational Health and Safety giving Jackass the thumbs up, or the Heart Foundation putting its tick on a bucket of lard.

On a talk show that aired on the ABC last month, an Australian–based ethicist (whom I’ll leave unnamed due mostly to my embarrassment on her behalf) challenged Dines’s attack on gonzo porn by unveiling a truism that most people don’t buy porn these days: “They’re watching things that other people produce and some of it is really quite sweet and quite hilarious. You know, I’ve seen stuff where, you know, there is like a little nightie hanging on the back of a door. It’s quite sweet”.

Was the Valley-Girl cum ethicist trying to outdo Dines with anti-porn imagery? Or did she accidently click on an outtake from Little Whore House on the Prairie?

But gonzo porn, so the apologist argument goes, is fringe. Max Hardcore, Ben Dover (don’t think about it), Seymour Butts and countless other sadistic clowns are extreme in anybody’s reckoning. But the file-sharing porn site Redtube.com isn’t fringe. In fact in 2009 it was ranked in the top 100 websites world-wide.

At the time of writing, the Redtube homepage is streaming, beneath thumbnails of predominantly anal sex videos, images of a man shoving a woman’s head into a toilet with one hand while giving the camera a thumbs up with the other; a prepubescent-looking girl in a headband sitting on a bed and holding a stuffed monkey to her flat and naked chest (I don’t dare click on it for fear of Task Force Argos banging on my door); and the double-anal penetration of a young woman whose contorted face is pinned to the floor by her penetrator’s foot.

Perhaps gonzo is more mainstream than anybody would care to think. Despite apologist claims otherwise, large sections of the porn industry now make no pretence of representing “healthy sexuality” and other such clichés: there’s simply no money in it. The degradation of women is its stock in trade. Porn star Nina Hartley – who in 2010 quipped, “I work with women who are younger than my breast implants” – admits: “You’re seeing more of these videos of women getting dragged on their faces and spat on, and having their heads dunked in the toilet”.

In How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale – which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2004 (if you need extra incentive to read it, each chapter is headed with a line from a Shakespearean sonnet) –porn-star extraordinaire Jenna Jameson explains: “Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films – in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills [LA] and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch”. If the girls are doing gonzo for the money, Jameson predicts their disappointment: “she’ll work for two weeks until she’s only getting paid seven hundred dollars a scene and then, finally, no one wants to use her anymore. So she’ll agree to do double penetration or drink the sperm of twelve guys just to stay working”.

“Say what you want about love but don’t say a word against porn”, a friend warned when I told her the books I was reviewing for ALR, “or you’ll be brandished a wowser”.

But there are worse things than that, I decided as I disconnected the Internet, hung my nightie on the back of the door, and exiled myself to bed, alone, perchance to dream of a good ontological root.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Love: A History by Simon May and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. First published under the title ‘Love Against Max Hardcore’ in Australian Literary Review (July 2011): 19.

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The peeping tom and other voyeurs

First published in Griffith Review and reprinted in The Age

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds—not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below.

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds — not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below. The courtyard walls were not that old, perhaps fifty years at most, but having been rubbed with cow dung and mud they blazed with lichen and stood, in their slow decay, with the silent presence of another age. Orchids and ferns grew from inside cracks, taking moisture from the air and nourishment from the crumbling rock, and draped their massive root systems down the sides of the wall. I was somewhere about here in my observations when a scalp of black hair rose inches above the wall’s rim, followed by a forehead, eyes, and then an entire face. I remember thinking, before considering its intent, that it was a nice-looking face, not just in the sense of it being attractive, but also in the sense that its owner would seem, by its gentle features, to be a nice person. I lay motionless in bed, but it took only seconds for his eyes — for the face belonged to a man — to lock with mine and then the face was gone.

The shock of seeing that face registered like a slap that shook me from illiteracy into the world of language and difference. If I had been at home in my own bed, I might have jumped up to confront the owner of that face — if for no other purpose than to assert some control or to dole out, for what it was worth, a measure of shame. But I was not at home, and in any case the large wooden doors of the bungalow were padlocked each night and not unlocked until breakfast. And this, being dawn, meant that breakfast was several hours away. But there was another reason I hesitated to act: I had already observed that punishments in this country often exceed their crime. Political instances aside — and they are many and brutal — a servant at the Estate where I am staying had recently been fired for the infraction of ‘dancing his way back to the kitchen’. In fairness, his dance was merely an instance of his broad-spectrum indifference to work, but I have to say when I heard the news my sympathies were with the dancer. I had seen animals, too — normally protected by the Buddhist precept of nonviolence — suffer the harsh consequences of their actions. In order to ease the minds of the Estate’s foreign guests, the staff are on order to kill any snake, poisonous or not, that winds its way into the vicinity of the bungalow. I regretted that I had already been the cause of two snake deaths: one, a thin black snake that I was certain was harmless, had run across my foot and coiled beside me on the verandah. I was trying to shoo it, when two men arrived and poked it with a long stick, so that the snake raised its diminutive head, spread an impressive hood, and was whipped to death. The other one, which I was uncertain as to whether it was a viper or a garter snake, drifted into my courtyard one morning, seemingly unconcerned that I had been there first (or at least I hoped I had). When I asked that the snake be removed, despite it being identified as harmless, it received the same treatment as the cobra. And so I made a vow, which thankfully has not so far been tested, that I would suffer the next snake I encountered in silence. And so this was my thinking in the long minutes after the face appeared and disappeared above the courtyard wall. I knew that if alerted my hosts to the Peeping Tom, as I came to think of him, he would not have been beaten or anything that Medieval, but he would possibly lose his job — as might his family, who were also employed by the Estate. Given the egregious poverty and unemployment in this country, that seemed something I couldn’t risk.

So I lay in bed, feeling the bile rise to my throat, yet unable to act. As a foreigner, I felt altogether too powerful — like a giant whose disgruntled yell could flatten a village. The Peeping Tom had maleness on his side, for I admit the possibility of rape had crossed my mind (it was difficult not to think about it, knowing that two female tourists had recently been raped at a nearby beach). Nonetheless, my foreign passport and more money in my pockets than most people here earn in a month seemed a lethal combination. For a moment I felt sorry for the Peeping Tom, feeling myself succumb, perhaps, to a mild version of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim falls in love with, and then protects, the kidnapper. But the feeling, as it arose, dissolved when I remembered what has since become the ‘sickening’ smile that rose with the face above the wall. I had that odd feeling people sometimes get when they have not been the victims of violence exactly but feel, nonetheless, violated. I had seen it once in the face of a friend, who returned home to find her house broken into and, although nothing had been taken, her underwear drawer had been rummaged and the knickknacks on her dresser rearranged. She felt sick, she said, and would rather the burglar had taken the television than have touched her underwear and personal possessions. Of course she quickly recanted: ‘well, not the plasma screen but maybe the CD player.’ She waivered again so I suggested the clock radio, and we both dissolved into laughter. But it was nervous laughter and that, too, soon dissolved. ‘It just makes me feel a little sick’, she said scrunching up her face.

And that’s how I felt as I dressed, brushed my teeth, and looked out at the lichen flaring on the courtyard wall: a little sick. But the truth is, the fact of the Peeping Tom didn’t really come as a surprise. The Lonely Planet had advised modesty for women travellers in this country and warned in the earthy register emblematic of that publication: ‘the sight of a woman, foreign but not necessarily, is enough to make a few men masturbate on the spot’. And there was another reason that it was not surprising, one that had to do with the bungalow itself. Situated inside three acres of jungle, it had been the private residence of a prominent architect, who had established a trust so that, upon his death, artists might stay here and work (which was in fact the reason for my visit). The architect’s bungalow intrigued me as much as his artist’s statement, which I will extract and reword to protect the implicated: ‘For myself a building can only be comprehended moving around and through it and by experiencing its intonations and its poetics of space, of light, as one moves through — from the exterior onto verandahs, into rooms, passages, courtyards — the view then from these spaces into other spaces, the view through to gardens and sky beyond, and from outside the building, the view back through rooms into inner rooms and central courts’. As I moved through the bungalow, experiencing its intonations and considering the play of light from the shaded inner spaces to the celebration of light in the courtyards, I considered the man who had created it. Being of the writerly persuasion and therefore given to creating characters from fragments and traces — a cynic might say given to conjecture and lies—I gradually understood that the prominent architect was a voyeur in the supreme. But this observation, however extreme and to some ungenerous, was not entirely of my own making. In an initial tour of the bungalow, my host had pointed out a small window with wooden shutters that, when opened, looked across an internal courtyard directly into the shower of one of the guest rooms. ‘He was a wicked man’, the host said, meaning by his tone that the architect was playful.

So in the bedroom I was granted for the duration of my stay, I knew to look for angles of vision that might lend to spying. I had surveyed the height of the courtyard wall and deemed it high enough to guarantee privacy, as was (I thought) the external wall of the open-air bathroom that housed, between it and the shower, a small jungle in which I saw, at various times, not only frogs but also an iguana, a possum, kingfisher, and hundreds of fireflies whose luminescence made the ‘fairy lights’ strung on trees in my home city seem garish and hopelessly mechanical by comparison. With each cold water shower, I knew the eyes of the jungle were on me, but it was human eyes that troubled me. I found myself asking, what is it the architect wants to see? And it was this question that led me to an undersized and seemingly unnecessary door near the bed. Examining it from outside the room, I found, in addition to an antique keyhole, three tiny holes that had been drilled into the corners of the door’s panelling. They  seemed too small to be of consequence, but having checked that there were no such holes on any other door in the house, I bent down to take a peek and there I found my answer. Each hole provided a telescopic view of the bed from a variant perspective so that, together with the keyhole, the whole room could be surveyed. Being conscious of my role as guest, I said nothing of my discovery to my hosts but plugged the holes with little wads of paper and hung my sarong over the inside of the door. I was happy enough knowing that anyone who tried to use the peepholes would not only be thwarted but would know I was onto them. And then, so I thought, I could relax.

And I did relax, until the incident of the Peeping Tom. Fear is easy to describe but it can be difficult to defend. Without our permission or even our awareness, it can set up residence inside muscle and along nerve fibres, and its release can be explosive. Where before my eyes had enjoyed the ruinous courtyard wall, with its lichens and orchids, now my gaze turned upward to the open air above it, and every view out became paired with the view in. The first evening after the incident, I grew uneasy so I closed the shutters, locked the windows, and drew the curtains against the night. Noises I had learned to live with — pole cats in the ceiling, monkeys in the bamboo, bats swerving close to a window — rattled me to the point of sleeplessness. In the darkness, my ears became my eyes, alert to the tiny, practically inaudible variations of sound that occur even in an apparently quiet room; to the sometimes invisible border between sound and silence; the almost imperceptible sense of time passing; and the usually insignificant interval between when we hear something and when it had actually happened. I like to think that I am not a fearful person, that I am somewhat savvy and confident, a person who lives many mental detours away from traditional female frailties, but this is not something my body that night was convinced of. And so when a frog strayed from the bathroom and leaped onto the lampshade near my bed some time around midnight, my body screamed so loud I frightened myself even deeper.

It had occurred to me, even before the incident of the Peeping Tom, that the pleasure of seeing is at odds with the fear of being seen. Everything in nature wants to be hidden, except perhaps when inviting a mate or warning a predator. Here in the jungle, where survival depends on seeing and not being seen, the law is perhaps amplified: the chameleon takes on the green of a leaf, the mantis the brown line of a twig, the leopard merges with the dappled light of the forest.  Anthropologists have argued that fear of the Other, of their eyes in particular, is fundamental to our survival and ties us with invisible strings directly to the caves and predators of our ancestors. Eyes, though long romanticised as ‘the windows to the soul’, bring with them the shock of the food chain, which Joseph Campbell says is the basis of the human need for myth. Even in the ‘concrete jungle’ of cities, we want to be hidden — we call it anonymity — and we fight and invent laws to protect our privacies. Exhibitionists might consider themselves exceptions but, given that their pleasure arises from their knowledge that they are being watched, they are empowered in otherwise powerless circumstances. Even the escalating number of internet ‘cam girls’, who broadcast their digital nakedness to the world, would fear, I think, the unauthorised gaze of a stranger’s camera. Men too, however much they may joke that they’d like to be object of the sexual gaze, are not immune — as I recently observed when a woman tourist stopped to watch a man loop a rope around his ankles and climb a coconut tree, stopping halfway up to catch his breath — his muscles glowing like glazed stone — he slid down the trunk, jumping the last two metres, when he saw that the woman’s telescopic lens was aimed directly, but unintentionally I think, up his sarong.

All tourists are guilty of voyeurism. We are pilgrims without a tradition, paying exorbitant airfares to circle the world in the hope of getting insight into another culture, of seeing its artifacts, its architecture, and its people. Which is why one synonym of tourist is ‘sight-seer’. The locals in any country resent, or at least ridicule, tourists for their gawking and picture-taking, but they suffer them for the money they drop on the community. Of course, the tourist’s gaze is not overtly sexual, though sometimes it is —as the local gaze can be, sometimes, when it stares back at the tourist. And I, although preferring a journal and pen to a camera, am also implicated. I came to this country to write, to be inspired by what I would see and experience, and moreover, as Jung phrased it, to see myself again ‘in the simple and forgotten things’. And that’s how I came to find myself where I stand now: on the worn steps of an ancient temple, taking pleasure in observing the people of this country observe their gods, observing the people observing me, and in my notebook observing the observation.

Which makes me, like the architect, a voyeur in the supreme. And also, in some weird way, like the Peeping Tom — who I had been doing well to put out of my mind with this visit to the temple. Which is not to say I came here because of the incident — to do so would be to conflate it to the point of melodrama — but I will say it was on my mind as I approached and saw, with more than my eyes, the beauty of the lime-washed temple protruding above the tree line, a beauty that comes out of time and tradition, that transcends transgression, and also the tenderness that time can bring despite its hard history. I saw too that there are times when we want not only to see but to be seen, times that have nothing to do with mating or warnings, but everything to do with presence. And that the view inward, of ourselves, our vulnerabilities and predilections, our hopes and imperfections, is as important as the view outward. Earlier, I had removed the plank that the Peeping Tom had used as a step to gaze over the courtyard wall, and I placed it in a rather obvious way on the ground nearby. I knew full well that this would not prevent him from reassembling the perch and peeping again if so inclined (though now, at the expense of the morning view, my curtains are drawn), but I did it with the hope that Tom, as I have come to think of him, will understand that he too had been seen. And that’s the best I can hope for — that our eyes will lock, metaphorically, in the uneasy balance of truce.

Originally published in Griffith Review (Summer 2006): 121–29. Reprinted in The Age   (3 Jan 2007) A2: 10–11.