Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Catherine Millet is a 54-year-old French art critic with a very unusual hobby. Since her teens, she has performed housework for literally thousands of men she has never met. She especially enjoys doing laundry, but cooking, cleaning, polishing, tidying--she loves it all, and has done it for strangers (sometimes several in one day) for decades, with abandon and panache. She says she'd never become a professional maid--she has no taste for such "mercenary" domesticity--but, as she writes in her recent memoir, she "cannot put a number on those" whose homes she has cleaned.

Okay, I lied a little--Millet actually performed sexually, not domestically, for those thousands of strange men. But how much of a difference does that make, really? Sure, the number of women who list sex among their favorite activities is probably higher than the number citing housework. Still, there are women who throw themselves into domestic chores with at least as much energy as others devote to sex--though, in both cases, usually in the context of the proverbial "committed relationship", or (among some) for material reward, or (if single) alone, strictly for personal satisfaction. Yet Millet the nymphomaniac is either lambasted as a harlot or applauded as a brave bohemian, while a hypothetical Millet the promiscuous scrubber would most likely simply be dismissed as a prize chump. Why the difference?

The key distinction is that the downsides of cleaning--discomfort, exhaustion, sensual unpleasantnesses--are inherent, whereas the costs to women of sex--pregnancy and disease risk, possible social opprobrium, the danger that a strange male will turn out to be violent--are conditional on circumstances. And from Messalina to Catherine the Great, there have been powerful women in a position to insulate themselves from these costs, some of whom have then chosen to indulge themselves in Milletian levels of casual sexual promiscuity. Such behavior has thus acquired something of an aristocratic association quite lacking (needless to say) in housework.

As I have mentioned before, During the sixties and seventies (before AIDS), the combination of penicillin, prosperity and the pill created a set of circumstances that made Western middle class women, in this respect, a kind of mass aristocracy. Those inclined to follow their ravenous urges were thus suddenly quite free to do so without substantial risk--indeed, acquiring a distinct aura of elite invulnerability in the process. It is that mystique which now provokes such strong reactions from those who read Millet's story (and separates her starkly from, say, a common housecleaner).

The risks of promiscuous sex never disappear, though, and they are more widely recognized and better understood today than they were, say, thirty years ago. In that light, Millet seems to have been making quite a significant sacrifice for the sake of her string of anonymous liaisons. She may in the end have turned out little the worse for wear, but given all the risks she took, she might well have been wiser, in retrospect, to have confined herself to dusting all those men's homes instead.

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