WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS
They had all come along to hear Richard Boyle discourse on peace, and were sitting or standing about in groups and pairs in the philosopher's crowded living-room. Boyle, tall and elegant, faced directly onto his guests, his voice clear above the combination of muffled traffic noise and faint murmurings, not to mention occasional fidgetings, which formed a background, as it were, to his discourse - the one outside, the other inside the room.
Standing on the edge of this room between the jambs of its single door, now ajar, Samantha Carey and Stuart Roach surveyed the scene before them, the former with a degree of amusement, the latter in deadly seriousness, as was his habit where gatherings of this nature were concerned. And yet, despite the presence a few yards in front of him of Brendan O'Day, his one-time rival for Samantha's affections, Stuart felt curiously detached from it all, as if he were really on the edge of things in more senses than one! No doubt, Samantha was partly responsible for this, since she exerted quite an attraction on him with her hair tied-up free of her nape and a pleasant scent emanating from behind her tiny ears. Besides, she was wearing a very attractive dress, the most salient features of which included a plunging neckline and clinging bodyline, with a rising slit at the back. Such a combination was bound to produce a deleterious effect on one's concentration, or so Stuart thought as he cast a furtive glance over his girlfriend in order both to confirm this impression and seek a justification for it at the same time. Tentatively, he placed the hand nearest to Samantha on the curve of her rump and ever so gently ran it over the silken surface of the dress in question. Although, to all appearances, his attention had now reverted to Boyle's commanding figure in front of the window, he was able to note, out of the corner of his right eye, that Samantha's facial expression had undergone a faint transformation seemingly relative to his behaviour, and now harboured the gentlest of gratified smiles. Clearly, she wasn't entirely absorbed in Boyle's discourse either! So that made two of them. Nevertheless, as though by contextual association, the situation was beginning to present itself in a philosophical light to Stuart, who was by no means impartial to independent speculation, and he began to investigate it while continuing to gently caress Samantha's silk-covered rump.
Here she was, standing close to him in the doorway of this crowded living-room, with no-one behind her. She was dressed in unequivocally feminine attire, even down to her dark stockings and glossy high heels. He, by contrast, was in a dark cord suit, perfectly masculine. As far as appearances went, there existed an absolute or, at any rate, near-absolute sexual distinction between them. He looked a man and she a woman. Unconsciously he had responded to this fact by placing a hand on her rump and allowing himself a modicum of sexual indulgence. She had apparently responded to this behaviour in a way appropriate to her appearance, not forbiddingly (though the intellectual gathering of which they were ostensibly a part might well have justified a negative response!), but in tacit gratification, one could almost say encouragingly, whether because the act itself had been responsible or because she was growing bored with Boyle's discourse ... she alone could say. An impartial observer would have noted a woman's positive response to a man's caress and, if not philosophically inclined, might have left it at that. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, even in the aforementioned circumstances.
Stuart Roach, however, was philosophically inclined, and now that he was attempting to put himself in the position of an impartial observer he realized that even this at-first-sight relatively trivial act was imbued with profound significance, implied certain value-judgements each partner took for granted. Like, for example, that a man was entitled to treat a woman as a sexual object when she appeared to be such and, in consequence, responded in an appropriately positive way to his sexual advances. By dressing in a dress, in an absolutely dissimilar fashion from himself, a woman was exposing herself to being treated as a woman, treated, in other words, not as an equal ... but as a creature to caress - in short, a sexual object. A man would not, as a rule, caress another man in such or indeed any fashion, but simply regard the other as an equal. What reason, however, had he to regard a person who unequivocally affirmed a sexual absolutism as an equal, and thus provided him with a pretext, even a duty, to treat her unequally, or as a member of the opposite sex? Clearly, none! And for that reason he was justified in behaving towards her in a sexist manner, in response to the sartorial distinctions which existed between them. This was why, despite his knowledge of the fact that Samantha generally tended to regard herself in a liberated light, Stuart hadn't hesitated to treat her unequally a little while ago, and, indeed, to persist in doing so even when his thoughts and attention had turned elsewhere. Clearly, while Samantha liked to be regarded as an equal, she had no desire to be so regarded all the time, on an absolutist basis, but was prepared to relapse into more traditionally feminine postures and appearances as mood or circumstances dictated. There were certain times and contexts in which she still wanted Stuart to treat her unequally, as a woman, and to behave towards her in an appropriately masculine fashion. One could even gauge such times and contexts from the way she dressed - an unequivocally feminine attire, such as she was wearing this evening, making it more difficult for a man to treat her as an equal than would a comparatively masculine attire, like a pair of jeans or slacks with tee-shirt or sweatshirt, such as she wore at certain other times.
Whether Samantha was consistently methodical about all this, however, had to be a debatable point. For Stuart had no firm reason, from experience, to believe that she was. Tonight, for instance, could hardly be described as a suitable occasion to emphasize an absolute sexual distinction in matters of appearance! After all, they were at an intellectual gathering, and by no stretch of the imagination could that be described as a pretext for encouraging sexist behaviour! Yet, in dressing as she did, Samantha had undermined her right to be treated as an equal and would have been at a distinct disadvantage in arguing against or defending herself from sexist infringements on her person. That was one of the reasons why, despite the social incongruity of the context, Stuart had felt so little inhibition in offering her, albeit furtively, some sensual attention. Perhaps, from her point of view, that was one of the main reasons why she had responded positively, being unable to condemn an act which she herself had indirectly encouraged by dressing so sexily. Just as one should not bite the hand that feeds one, so one should not turn away the hand one has tacitly attracted. Else one will be acting ... irrationally.
Yes, the situation provided ample food for thought, and although Boyle was still discoursing vigorously and, to all appearances, convincingly ... to the assembled guests at this informal symposium, Stuart had enough work cut out for himself endeavouring to digest it, not to want to turn more than a peripheral or perfunctory ear on the discourse in question. He was coming to the startling conclusion that a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal, or effectively as a superman, would do well to do everything in her power to appear equal and thereby minimize the risk of being treated unequally, as a woman, which (risk) could only be the greater the more unequivocally feminine she appeared. Otherwise there would be an element of hypocrisy, not to say unreasonableness, in any complaint she might level against certain men for treating her less as a relative equal than as an absolute 'other', in the event of sexist discrimination.
On the other hand, a woman who wanted to invite such discrimination couldn't be regarded as superhumanly liberated, but was behaving, when dressed sexily, in a traditional feminine manner - the absolute 'other' of sexual relations. Here, it seemed, lay the chief distinction between a woman bound to her basic femininity and one who was relatively liberated. For whereas the former played a seductive role on independent feminine terms, and could therefore be described as a sexual predator, the latter, dressing in a masculine fashion, behaved passively towards men and accordingly left it up to them to make such sexual advances as they thought fit. In functioning as a liberated woman she did not seek to enslave men but left them free to establish and enter into sexual relations with her, if they so desired. Her social relationship to men was intellectual rather than sexual, as befitting the unisexual context in which liberated women and free men usually lived. Only where there was a blatantly heterosexual antagonism between the sexes would a woman consciously strive to draw sexual attention to herself, in conformity with her status as an absolute 'other', or sexual opponent. Such an antagonism, it needs to be emphasized, was relevant to but a limited period of evolutionary time. A truly post-atomic age would never countenance sexual discrimination!
For Stuart Roach, however, there could be no question but that his girlfriend was dressed very much as a woman this evening, and as he stole a glance at her from his position to her left he wondered anew why she should have chosen to assert a heterosexual distinction between them on such an occasion, in complete defiance of her ordinarily liberated habits. He noted a faint smile on her lips and thought, at first, that it owed something to his sly attentions, both visual and tactile. But after another glance he realized, with dismay, that this wasn't so, since her eyes, far from being fixed on Boyle (as had at first appeared to be the case) were fixed on someone or something closer to her in front of where the philosopher still stood.
Adjusting his own vision accordingly, Stuart discovered the face of Brendan O'Day, his former rival, half-turned towards her with an equally faint but evidently meaningful smile on his lips. And, suddenly, it dawned on him why Samantha had adopted such a blatantly seductive appearance this evening, and, no less significantly, why she was now smiling! He felt the blood rush to his head as the fact of Samantha's betrayal burst into his consciousness. She had not been interested in or indeed conscious of where his hand was, but only in Brendan O'Day! That was why she had smiled and was still smiling. Automatically, he withdrew it from her rump and ceased to speculate. Boyle's discourse was, in any case, drawing to a logical if predictable conclusion. He would soon be free to leave.