A Sexual Standoff in the Naked City

In the last weeks of summer, fall clothes fill the display windows of Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. See the extra long knit wrap skirts, the wool jersey dresses, the roomy cashmere turtleneck sweaters, all in sullen shades of gray. For men, the windows are a sad signal that the scenic sex pageant of summertime Manhattan won’t last forever.

If anything characterizes the street scenes lately, it has to be the huge number of lovely women who just walk on by, one after the other. Following the successful reintroduction of the miniskirt and minidress, and with the advent of the belly shirt, the see-through blouse and extra-tight spandex tops, not to mention those fetching open-toed shoes, oh, what a paradise it seems! But with every pleasure afforded by the sight of each passing beauty comes a little pain.

While the happy gains of post-feminism may have given women permission to wear skimpy garments in the city heat, the earlier and more sober gains of feminism have made it very uncouth indeed for any civilized man to acknowledge the delights that meet his eye. And so there has been something of a standoff between men and women in the public spaces of Manhattan. The women are gorgeous, in their spaghetti strap shirts and sandals, and the men, in their sensible khaki slacks and Oxford shirts, are blithering dopes who find themselves in constant hummana-hummana mode all summer long. The women claim they’re dressing for comfort and they seem perfectly oblivious to the intense effect they produce in the men, who fall instantly and hopelessly in love with every woman who approaches, only to pass out of their lives forever.

“I often say to myself, ‘Oh, God! She’s so beautiful! I just feel like masturbating right now out of frustration!’” said Jonathan Ames, a novelist who wrote about such impulses in a recent column for the New York Press . “I’m shocked anew every summer, after a winter’s sleep-kind of like when you haven’t had sex in a while and then you have it, and you’re like: ‘Oh, my God! No wonder there’s all this trouble about this and excitement . It actually feels good . This is why I wanted to do this, I forgot .’ It’s the same thing with seeing all these naked bodies. What is going on here? Oh, that’s right-we want to procreate with them.”

“Does it frustrate you?”

“Yeah, because, unfortunately, there’s a biological thing going on, where we’re constantly wanting to procreate. So we see these great boobs and hips walking by and asses, and we just want to mount them and then, you know, sleep.”

Certain men will make a show of their frustration by offering up a dumb remark. “Can I go home with you?” one guy said to Rio Hyde, a 26-year-old knockout who was strolling down East 61st Street in a form-fitting T-shirt and a miniskirt held together with two little toggles. “It’s so overwhelming,” said Ms. Hyde, a graduate student. She was asked about her outfit.

“It’s funny,” she said, “because I was looking around and I saw these women wearing shorts- really , really short-and I was thinking, Now I don’t feel so bad. This skirt’s not so short. It’s a little short. It’s hot outside, it’s New York, it’s the summer, and it’s my style. It’s feminine and sexy and whatnot.”

“Who are you dressing for?”

“It’s really for me. I like groovy frocks that are different and interesting. I’m definitely careful about the fashion we have, because it’s just so revealing. You know what, I’ve worn long dresses down to my ankle and the comments are just as well the same. It’s worse when the wind blows and your skirt’s everywhere, which happened to me last week.”

“Does being beautiful get in the way?”

“It’s always in the way.”

Hold on a minute. Another knockout headed this way. Her name was Agnes Palczewski and she was 22. Born in Poland, raised in Brooklyn. She was wearing black Capri pants, high heels and a very tight black top. She ignored the stares she was racking up. A journalist should never fall in love with a story subject, but I was already gone and the interview had not yet begun! So why do women in Manhattan dress so sexy?

“Attention, attention,” said Ms. Palczewski. “They want more attention.”

“Is that what you’re trying to get?”

“Me? No. If I go to the store and I like this, and I put it on, and I think it looks good, I know I’m going to get some attention, but it’s not to get attention from men because, you know, it’s me .”

“How do you feel about men seeing you and going home to masturbate and stuff?”

“I don’t think that they would, no. No! Because right now you have too many phone lines, too many TV programs like that, so they can stick to that.”

Another block, another beauty. Wendy Bower, who’s studying to be an actress, walked into a Crate and Barrel store on East 59th Street. The top of her small white camisole-to the male mind-was like a pouch containing … happiness.

“Are women wearing less these days?”

“It seems like it,” said Ms. Bower, 24, pausing at the picture frames. “It seems more women are wearing more camisoles, less brassieres, wearing more skin than usual. It’s the 90′s. A little more risque and it’s more acceptable.”

“Are you trying to be sexy?”

“No, not really.”

“What’s it like being sexy?”

“Women are very intimidated by you. Men basically have one motive and it’s one motive only, so it’s really hard to find people you can trust. And I get harassed on the street and every other person I pass is watching me and I hide behind my sunglasses.”

“What if they weren’t looking at you?”

“Well, that would probably bother me, too.”

New York-based film documentarian Maggie Hadleigh-West has had it with the male gaze. In her new film, War Zone , she advances the notion that men should keep their beastly impulses in check. In the film, Ms. Hadleigh-West dons somewhat revealing clothes and walks around the United States armed with a video camera. Whenever she gets uninvited commentary, which she labels “street abuse,” she turns the camera on the offending brutes, who whimper apologies or act like belligerent boneheads. During a recent showing of War Zone at the Film Forum, the audience lustily hissed and hooted at the male villains.

“I think women should be able to wear anything they want any time they want,” Ms. Hadleigh-West said from her East Village apartment, “because everything in our culture tells us there’s something wrong with our bodies. We’re too fat, we’re too short, we’re too white, we’re too old, we’re too whatever. I’m totally an advocate of women trying to feel O.K. about themselves, and when we try to feel comfortable in our bodies, and it’s really hot out, we go outside and we’re treated like whores . We’re yelled out, we’re followed, we’re touched.”

The filmmaker conceded that some women get a charge out of showing off their bodies: “There’s a kind of liberation as you strip literally the layers away from yourself and, certainly, even I want people to think I’m attractive. I just don’t want a stranger’s ideas or ratings projected onto me.”

That line of thinking doesn’t go down too well with feminist pot-stirrer Camille Paglia. “There you have a good idea of the fascism,” said Ms. Paglia. “‘I can wear whatever I want! Doesn’t matter! And nobody has a right to look at me or to make any remarks!’ Meanwhile, these women are completely cut off, O.K., from the message they send. These white middle-class women don’t realize the degree to which they’re operating in their half-nude condition on the assumption that they’re going to be nurtured by the Giuliani law-and-order protectorate. There’s a kind of arrogance. I, a libertarian, feel that the streets are public space, shared space, and that anyone has the right to ogle and to speak in those spaces-so the women have no right, dressing as they are doing, and then saying ‘stop staring’ or ‘don’t say that.’ My feminism says, O.K., get real .

“I want to empower women, white women, to have the style of black women. You say anything to black women and she’s going to come back at you with humor, with scathing humor. These white women miss the humor of the banter and they miss how the black working-class women are able to put down any men, and to gain control through aggressive speech on the street. These white women want to be cool and they want to be silent. In my experience as a lesbian,” Ms. Paglia continued, “a very voyeuristic lesbian, I have to say that straight middle-class women seem to be totally clueless about their body language and the signals that they give sexually.”

On a corner outside of Barneys on Madison Avenue, six construction workers were playing out their traditional role. “Very nice,” said one guy to a passing beauty. “Wanna go to lunch? Dinner? How ’bout a late night snack?” Turning to his coworker, he said, “You saw the tits, right?” Across the street, two more construction workers were holding their tongues as a long-legged woman in miniskirt walked past. They ogled her and she ogled them right back.

“We’re not animals,” Matty Burke finally said. Mr. Burke, 47, was eating a sausage hero. “Women like to window-shop, we like to women-shop.”

I told him the women I had interviewed say they’re not trying to dress sexy.

“They gotta throw up their protective measure,” Mr. Burke said. “But don’t think we’re all not looking at it if you’re walking by and you have a 36 double-D breast size and you’re not wearing a bra in a tight cotton shirt.”

More testimony: Down in SoHo, Jamie Arvelo, 24, who works for a graphic design company, was walking out of the Whole Foods market on Prince Street carrying a roll of raspberry candies. She was tall and gorgeous in high heels, faded Levi’s and a tight black shirt that showed some of her belly. “I feel better about myself when I look sexier,” she said. “I don’t do it for other people’s enjoyment, I do it for my own.” She said comments she gets on the street range from ‘You made my day’ to ‘I want to taste your p–y.’ “I wish people wouldn’t say anything. That’s why we have our own minds and that’s why there’s something called thinking inside your head and something called speaking out loud. What goes on in your head doesn’t have to be shared.”

“Do you ever think it’s crazy to dress revealingly?”

“Yeah, I think it may be silly to choose some of the things I wear some of the time. But it’s like a weird balance. Why should I change because people are so stupid?”

Rabbi Andrew Bachman, the director of New York University’s Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, has given a lot of thought to the matter of New York summer fashions. “The way that people dress, I suppose, is to mate without touching, to show off the body,” he said. “It’s weird, because I wonder, as a religious person, to what extent people are actually getting into serious relationships with each other, and really truly learning to understand one another and confronting each other’s soul, as opposed to just gawking at each other’s bodies.”

He continued: “I think there’s a certain recklessness and freedom that comes with people celebrating the coming of the millennium: They feel that it liberates them in some certain way. And I think it’s an illusion. When nothing happens in the year 2000, people will understand that. This general freedom that people are celebrating you also see manifest in a certain kind of freedom they have with their bodies, whether it’s through tattooing or piercing or a risqué display of dress that somehow bears this illusion that people are totally free to do what they want their bodies to do and not using them for the sacred vessels that most religious traditions actually claim they are.”

That’s nice, sir, but doesn’t seeing a beautiful woman in a minidress put a bounce in your step?

“No more than a trip to the art museum does,” said Rabbi Bachman. “The body is a fascinating thing to look at, but so is a tree, so is a beautiful work of architecture. I look at them all as ultimately expressions of God’s blessing.”

Meet Debora Warner, a tall 27-year-old sound installation artist with legs that don’t quit. She was sitting on a Prince Street stoop, reading a book called Film Sound: Theory and Practice . Ms. Warner, who has been in New York for seven years, was wearing a very mini polyester skirt. “Ever since I’ve been here,” she said, “women have been barely dressed. Slips, transparent shirts, tight-fitting, and it’s probably 30 percent comfort, 50 percent fashion and the rest is sexy.”

“Is that your dress philosophy?”

“Nooo. I have clothes that show off my most flattering features, I guess, my legs, ha-ha ! But other than that, I dress for color and texture.”

“Get comments from men?”

“Ohhh! This is really bad, yesterday. I was in midtown. ‘Honey, I’ll eat you till you orgasm.’ I don’t like it when they push for a response from me, like when I don’t respond, they get angry. That really bothers me.”

“Is it ever crazy walking around half-naked?”

“You think I’m half-naked? Um, no. I mean, no, because everyone else is. And it’s so hot. It’s so hot!”

Comedian and WOR-AM talk radio host Joan Rivers isn’t buying it. “It has nothing to do with it being hot outside,” Ms. Rivers said in a phone interview. “It’s all about: ‘I’ve worked like hell on this body and you’d better appreciate it.’ You walk around and your stomach’s flat, somebody’s going to appreciate you.”

What about women not wanting to be noticed?

“Oh, yeah, you don’t want a man to look at you, honey? It’s very easy: Put on a big loose jacket and big chubby shoes. Trust me, honey, no one will look at you.”

Page Mellish, who for years worked as a feminist antipornography crusader on the streets of Manhattan, can’t believe what she sees around her every day. She has given up her old crusade and spends her days as an animal rights advocate. I found her on St. Mark’s Place. “Don’t breed!” she yelled. “Too many humans! Sign the petition!” I asked her about the summer fashion habits of women in the city: “I’m through with women,” she said. “I’m through with those ding-dongs! They dress like whores because they are whores!”

Dian Hanson, the sex expert who edits the pornographic magazines Leg Show , Juggs and Tight out of an office on lower Broadway, knows what the problem is. “I think women have always dressed revealingly in the summer-certainly, I did for years in New York-and the problem is, men think the street is the destination. They see the woman walking along in a little short skirt, no bra and spaghetti straps, and her boobs swinging around, and they look right past the bitter, set expression on her face and say ‘Whoa! This babe is wanting me to look at her.’ But the fact is, when you dress at home, I’m projecting to my destination. I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm, that guy in the office who I kind of like is really going to like the way I look in this.’ Unfortunately, the men who are most clueless are the exact sorts we least want to titillate: the unemployed street vermin, the construction workers who are so full of male self-esteem that when they see the woman walking by they think, ‘Hey! She did it for me ! She wants me to look, and, therefore, I will say something encouraging to her like, Nice tits, baby!’”

“Why can’t women admit they’re trying to turn men on?”

“I think it’s that huge gap between male and female sexuality. Men are more visually driven, and a lot of women never experience a rush of longing and desire. They never look at a man and feel what you feel when you’re looking at these women, and, therefore, how can they relate to the effect they’re having on you? They’ll say, ‘Well, why can’t you guys control yourselves? What’s wrong with you?’ It’s that sense that women are sexually superior because they are sexually less arousable. Women think that only bad men get excited, that you’re disgusting pigs if you get excited. After all, most men will control themselves. I’ve never had a guy in a suit yell, ‘Hey, baby, nice tits!’ Most men keep it in. So they just think the world is full of bad men and they don’t realize that all the rest of you guys are feeling the same way!”

Within weeks, those fall fashions will make their way out of the department store windows and onto the streets of Manhattan, and the lovely female pageant will finally come to an end, as will the male joy and agitation that goes with it … until that first or second hot day of 1999, when that first woman in that first spaghetti-strap shirt of summer steps out of her building and the whole damn thing starts up all over again.

Until then, sweet dreams, everybody.