* ‘How’s the Englishness book going? What chapter are you working on?’
‘The one about sex.’
‘So, that’ll be twenty blank pages, then?’
THE KNEE-JERK HUMOUR RULE
I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard this response – or others like it, such as: ‘That’ll be a short chapter!’ ‘Oh, that won’t take long, then!’ ‘Oh, that’s easy: “No Sex Please, We’re British!”’ ‘But we don’t have sex, we have hot water bottles!’ ‘Lie back and think of England, you mean?’ ‘Will you explain the mystery of how the English manage to reproduce?’. And these were all from English friends and informants. Foreigners occasionally made similar jokes, but the English almost invariably did so. Clearly, the notion that the English do not have much sex, or have a laughably low sex-drive, is widely accepted as fact – even, indeed especially, among the English themselves.
Or is it? Do we really believe in the popular international stereotype of the passionless, reserved, sexually naïve, amorously challenged English? The bloke who would really rather be watching football, and his wife who would prefer a nice cup of tea? And, moving up the social scale, the awkward, tongue-tied, timid, public schoolboy character, and his equally clueless horsey female counterpart who cannot stop giggling? Is this really how we see ourselves? Is this really how we are?
In purely factual, quantitative terms, our sexless image is inaccurate. The English are human, and sex is naturally as important to us as to any other members of the species. Our sexually incompetent reputation is not borne out by the facts and figures, which suggest that we manage to copulate and reproduce just like the rest of the world. If anything, we start younger: the English have the highest rates of teenage sexual activity in the industrialized world, with 86 per cent of unmarried girls sexually active by the age of nineteen (the US comes a poor second, with 75 per cent). There are also plenty of other nations that are far more prudish and repressive about sex than the English, and where the English are regarded as dangerously permissive. Our censorship laws may be stricter than many other European countries’, and our politicians more likely to be forced to resign over what the French, say, would consider minor sexual peccadilloes, but in most respects, by international standards, we are fairly liberal.
Stereotypes do not come out of thin air, however, and one as widely recognized and acknowledged as the unsexy English must surely have at least some basis in reality. Sex may be a natural, instinctive, universal human activity, which the English must perform like everyone else – but it is also a social activity, involving emotional engagement with other humans, contact, intimacy and so on, which we have already established are not exactly our strong points. Still, our apparent readiness to accept this decidedly unflattering stereotype (we are much more patriotically defensive about our weather than about our sexual prowess) could be seen as somewhat bizarre, and requires explanation.
Looking back at my research notes, I find that I was continually struck by the difficulty of having any sort of sensible conversation about sex with English informants. ‘The English simply cannot talk about sex without making a joke of it,’ I complained in my notebook, ‘usually the same joke: If one more person offers to “help me with my research” for the sex chapter, I’m going to scream.’ The mere mention of the word ‘sex’ seems automatically to trigger a quip or witticism or, among the less articulate, a crude nudge-nudge remark, a bit of Carry-On-style ooh-ing and face-pulling, or at the very least a snigger. This is more than a rule: it is an involuntary, unthinking reflex – a knee-jerk response. Mention sex, and the English humour reflex kicks in. And we all know that self deprecating jokes are the most effective, the most widely appreciated form of humour. The ‘blank pages’ quips about my sex chapter were thus not necessarily a sign that we fully accept the sexually-challenged-English stereotype, but just a typically English reaction to the word ‘sex’.
Why do we find sex so funny? We don’t, not really: it’s just that humour is our standard way of dealing with anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. This is surely one of the Ten Commandments of Englishness: when in doubt, joke. Yes, other nations joke about sex, but none, in my experience or to my knowledge, does so with the same tedious knee-jerk predictability as the English. In other parts of the world, sex may be regarded as a sin, an art form, a healthy leisure activity, a commodity, a political issue and/or a problem requiring years of therapy and umpteen self-help ‘relationship’ books. In England, it is a joke.
If some evolutionary psychologists are to be believed, flirting may even be the foundation of civilization as we know it. They argue that the large human brain – our complex language, superior intelligence, culture, everything that distinguishes us from animals – is the equivalent of the peacock’s tail: a courtship device evolved to attract and retain sexual partners. If this theory – jokingly known as the ‘chat-up theory of evolution’ – is correct, human achievements in everything from art to literature to rocket science may be merely a side-effect of the essential ability to charm.
The idea of NASA, Hamlet and the Mona Lisa as accidental by-products of primeval chat-ups might seem somewhat far-fetched, but it is clear that evolution favours flirts. The most skillful charmers among our distant ancestors were the most likely to attract mates and pass on their charming genes. We are descended from a long line of successful flirts, and the flirting instinct is hard-wired into our brains. Even when modern humans are not engaged in mate-selection, we still flirt – all of us practise two types of flirting, which for shorthand I call ‘flirting with intent’ (flirting designed to lead to mating, and possibly pair-bonding) and ‘recreational flirting’ (flirting for fun, for other social reasons, or perhaps just for practice). Homo sapiens is, by nature, a compulsive flirt.
So, the English are genetically programmed to flirt, just like everyone else, and we probably do about as much of it as everyone else. It’s just that we do not do it with the same degree of skill, ease or assurance. Or rather, about fifty percent of us are noticeably deficient in these qualities. If you look more closely at the stereotype of the sexually challenged English, it is the English male who is most often singled out for criticism and ridicule in this department. A few of the standard jokes and quips allude to the supposed frigidity or ignorance of the English female, but the vast majority are about the alleged impotence, indifference or incompetence of English males. These failings of English men are often assumed to account for any sexual inadequacies or shortcomings among their frustrated womenfolk. In the early eighteenth century, a Swiss commentator described English women as ‘little spoilt by the attentions of men who give but a small part of their time to them. Indeed most men
prefer wine and gaming to women, in this they are more to blame as women are much better than the wine in England’. Many of my own foreign informants made much the same kind of remarks, although they substituted beer for wine, and did not complain about the quality of English beer.
The first two of these charges against English males – impotence and indifference – are unfounded and unfair; they are not based on fact or direct observation, but mainly on an impression created by the third defect of which English men stand accused: incompetence in the art of seduction. ‘Englishmen seem little made for gallantry,’ observed our Swiss critic, ‘they know no mean between complete familiarity and respectful silence.’
The average English male may be highly sexed, but he is not, it must be said, an accomplished flirt. He is not at his best when confronted with what one of my male informants called ‘a female person of the opposite species’. He is usually either reticent, tongue-tied and awkward, or, at worst, boorish, crass and clumsy61. In the belief that it will help him to shed his inhibitions, he tends to consume large quantities of alcohol: this merely results in a shift from awkward, tongue-tied reticence to crass, clumsy boorishness. From the perspective of the unfortunate English female, this is not much of an improvement – unless her own judgement is severely impaired, as it often is, by a similar quantity of alcohol, in which case chat-up lines such as ‘Er, fancy a shag?’ may seem like the height of wit and eloquence. And there, in a nutshell, or rather a bottle, is the answer to the mystery of how the English manage to reproduce. All right, I’m exaggerating – but only a little. The role of alcohol in the passing on of English DNA should not be underestimated.
With very high scores on Sociability and Alcohol, night-clubs should in theory be near the top of my English flirt-zone league table but there is a curious and apparently perverse new unwritten rule among a significant proportion of young English clubbers, whereby dancing – and by extension clubbing in general – is regarded as an asexual activity. Their focus is on group bonding, and the euphoric, almost transcendental experience of becoming one with the music and the crowd (which sounds like a version of what the anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘communitas’ – an intense, intimate, liberating kind of group bonding, experienced only in ‘liminal’ states). They take great exception to any suggestion that they might be there for the vulgar, crass purpose of ‘pulling’. In a national survey, for example, only six per cent of clubbers admitted that ‘meeting prospective sexual partners’ was an important part of these ‘dance events’ for them.
…among young English clubbers, particularly those who regard themselves and their musical tastes as ‘nonmainstream’, there is an unspoken ‘no sex please, we’re too cool’ rule. It is considered deeply ‘uncool’ to go clubbing to meet prospective partners, so clubbers will naturally be reluctant to admit to this motive. If they should happen to end up in bed with someone they met while out clubbing, this is a fortuitous by-product of the evening’s entertainment, not something they set out to achieve. The ‘no sex please’ rule seems to be honoured more in speech than in observance. We pretend not to be too interested in sex, but we still manage accidentally on- purpose to have quite a lot of sex. More of that lovely English hypocrisy. I found that gay clubbers tend to be rather more open and honest than straight clubbers about their interest in sex: although some subscribe to the ‘no sex please, we’re too cool’ rule, the majority candidly admit that flirtation, mate-selection and sex are important elements of clubbing for them.
Both ‘flirting with intent’ and ‘recreational flirting’ are common in most English offices and other workplaces. Surveys have found that up to 40 percent of us now meet our spouses or current sexual partners at the workplace, and some recent research findings show that flirting is good for relieving workplace anxiety and stress: the playful atmosphere created by flirtatious banter helps to reduce friction, and exchanges of compliments boost self-esteem.
We knew that, of course, but it needs saying, as workplace flirting may be under threat from puritanical influences imported from America, where flirting has been officially banned in many offices and other workplaces (an ‘unsustainable’ move on the part of the political-correctness lobby, as attempts to forbid behaviours that are as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as flirting are doomed to failure). At the moment, workplaces are still among the better flirting zones in England. Technically, they only pass two elements of the SAS test, as alcohol is not commonly available in offices or factories, but in practice work colleagues tend to find opportunities to drink together – and workplaces score very highly on the Sociability and Shared-interest factors. Training courses, sales conferences, academic conferences and other such work-related excursions and gatherings were highlighted by my focus-group participants as particularly conducive to flirting, combining all the benefits of common interests and ease of sociable communication with the added lubricant of celebratory drinking.
In the English workplace itself, however, flirting is usually acceptable only in certain areas, with certain people and at specific times or occasions. Each workplace has its own unwritten etiquette governing flirtatious behaviour. In some companies, I found that the coffee machine, photocopier or cafeteria was the unofficial ‘designated flirting zone’. In one it was a balcony mainly used by smokers, who often tend to be more sociable than non-smokers, or at least have a sense of defiant solidarity (one woman told me that she was a non-smoker, but pretended to smoke, because the smokers were ‘more fun to hang out with’).
Almost all educational establishments are hot-beds of flirting. This is mainly because they are full of young single people making their first attempts at mate selection, but they also pass all three elements of the SAS test – schools, colleges and universities score very high on the Sociability and Shared-interest factors, and while alcohol is not usually served in classrooms, students have plenty of opportunities for drinking together.
The Shared-interest factor is particularly important to English adolescents. Adolescents everywhere tend to be self-conscious, but English ones tend to be especially awkward, lacking the social skills necessary to strike up conversations without an obvious point of contact. The shared lifestyle and concerns of students, and the informal atmosphere, make it easier for them to initiate conversation with each other. Simply by being students, prospective partners automatically have a great deal in common, and do not need to struggle to find topics of mutual interest.
I found that the level of flirtatious behaviour among members of amateur English sports teams or hobby-clubs tends to be inversely related to the standards achieved by participants and their enthusiasm for the activity. With some exceptions, one tends to find a lot of flirting among incompetent tennis players, unfit hill-walkers, cack-handed painters and tangle-footed dancers, but somewhat less among more proficient, serious, competitive participants in the same activities. Even the most blatantly incompetent will usually pretend that they are really there for the sport or activity to which the club is ostensibly dedicated. They may even genuinely believe this – the English are masters of self-delusion – but the truth is that their tennis racquets, Ordnance Survey maps and paintbrushes are all primarily props and facilitators of sociability, and often come in very handy as flirting tools.
Even in non-sexual contexts, the English need to pretend that they are gathering for some reason other than just gathering, and the need for another ostensible motive is even greater when something as personal and intimate as mate-seeking is the real purpose of the event. Even when we are on a ‘date’, the English do not like to use this term; English males are particularly squeamish about the idea of ‘dating’ – it makes the whole thing too embarrassingly open and official. And too earnest. We don’t like being forced to take the whole courtship process too seriously: the very word ‘date’ seems to contravene the spirit of English humour rules.
There is also still an element of stigma attached to ‘organized match-making’. Singles’ events and dating agencies are regarded as somehow unnatural, too contrived, too artificial, lacking in the serendipity and spontaneity that ought to characterise romantic encounters. Many people are ashamed to admit to ‘resorting’ to dating agencies or organized singles’ parties: they feel it is undignified, an admission of failure. The truth is, of course, that there is nothing at all unnatural or undignified about organized matchmaking. It is a practice that has been the norm throughout human history, and is still customary in most cultures around the world. But the English obsession with privacy makes us even more reluctant than other modern Western nations to accept the need for such practices.
One of my English informants observed that: ‘You can have a sort of platonic flirting with people who are married or attached. In some situations it is almost expected – almost like you have to flirt to be polite’. This comment refers to an unwritten rule prescribing a special form of ‘safe’, ‘recreational’ flirting that I call ‘courtesy flirting’. This is mainly practised by men, who engage in mild flirtation with women as a form of politeness. (Women do it to some extent as well, but tend to be more cautious, knowing that men are a bit inclined to misread the signals.) Courtesy flirting is common throughout Continental Europe as well as in England, but there are some subtle differences: English men tend more towards playful teasing, Continental Europeans
towards gallant compliments. Both forms can be confusing for Americans, who often mistake courtesy flirting for the real thing.
Even when English males are genuinely interested in a female, they may often be reluctant to convey their interest in any obvious or straightforward fashion. We have already established that the English male is: (a) not an accomplished flirt, tending to be either awkward and tongue-tied or crass and boorish, and (b) somewhat uncomfortable with the whole concept of ‘dating’. Defining an encounter with a female as a ‘date’ is a bit too explicit, too official, too clear-cut and unambiguous – the sort of embarrassing ‘cards on the table’ declaration of intent that the naturally cautious, indirect English male prefers to avoid.
Even when full of Dutch courage, he is unlikely to use the word ‘date’ in his drunken amorous advances, generally opting for ‘shag’ (or some equivalent expression) instead. This may seem strange, as ‘shag’ might be regarded as rather more explicit than ‘date’, but it makes sense in the context of beer-sodden English male logic, where asking a female to have sex with you is somehow less personal, intimate and embarrassing than inviting her out to dinner.
Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal through a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated as to be almost undetectable. This ‘uncertainty principle’ has a number of advantages: the English male is not required to exhibit any emotions; he avoids entangling himself too soon in anything that could possibly be described as a ‘relationship’ (a term he detests even more than ‘date’); he does not have to do or say anything ‘soppy’, so he maintains his stiff-upper-lipped masculine dignity; and, above all, by never making any direct, unequivocal request, he avoids the humiliation of a direct, unequivocal rejection.
English females are accustomed to this rather vague, ambivalent form of courtship – although even we sometimes find it hard to read the signals accurately, and may spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the possible ‘meaning’ of some obscure hint or ambiguous gesture with our female friends. The uncertainty principle has its advantages for English females as well: although less emotionally guarded than our menfolk, we are easily embarrassed, and prefer to avoid precipitate declarations of amorous attraction. The uncertainty principle allows us time to gauge the suitability of a prospective mate before expressing any interest in him, and we can ‘reject’ unwanted suitors without having to tell them out loud that we are not interested.
Foreign females, however, tend to be confused or even seriously irritated by the elusive, uncertain nature of English courtship practices. My non-English female friends and informants constantly complain about English men, whose Protean behaviour they attribute to shyness, arrogance or repressed homosexuality, depending on their degree of exasperation. What they fail to understand is that English courtship is essentially an elaborate facesaving game, in which the primary object is not so much to find a sexual partner as to avoid offence and embarrassment.
The offence-avoidance element of this game is yet another example of English ‘negative politeness’ – politeness that addresses other people’s need not to be intruded or imposed upon, as opposed to ‘positive politeness’, which is concerned with their need for inclusion and approval. Many of the seemingly bizarre courtship practices of English males – the cautiousness, reserve and apparent stand-offishness that foreign females complain about – are characteristic features of ‘negative politeness’. The embarrassment-avoidance aspect of our courtship game may seem rather more selfish, but it is also to some extent a matter of courtesy. The uncertainty principle, whereby neither attraction nor rejection is ever made explicit, and advances and retreats are a matter of subtle hints rather than direct invitations and refusals, allows both parties to save face. The courtship game is governed by the fair-play principle just like other sports.
In most other cultures, flirtation and courtship involve exchanges of compliments: among the English, you are more likely to hear exchanges of insults. Well, mock-insults, to be precise. ‘Banter’, we call it, and it is one of our most popular forms of verbal interaction generally (on a par with moaning), as well as our main flirting method.
The key ingredients of flirtatious banter are all very English: humour, particularly irony; wordplay; argument; cynicism; mock-aggression; teasing; indirectness – all our favourite things. And banter specifically excludes all the things we don’t like and that make us uncomfortable: emotion, soppiness, earnestness and clarity. The rules of flirtatious banter allow courting couples to communicate their feelings for each other without ever saying what they really mean, which would be embarrassing. In fact, the banter rules require them to say the opposite of what they mean – something at which the English excel. Here is a verbatim extract from a typical flirtatious encounter, recorded on a bus, between two teenagers. The exchange was conducted in full view and
hearing of a group of their friends.
‘You gotta licence for that shirt? Or are you wearing it for a bet?’
‘Huh! Look who’s talking – I can see your knickers, you slag!’
‘It’s a thong, you nerd – not that you’d know the difference. And that’s the closest you’ll ever get to it.’
‘Who says I’d want to? What makes you think I fancy you? You’re such a slag!’
‘Better than being a sad geek!’
‘Sla – Oh, that’s my stop – you coming out later?’
‘Yeah – come round about eight.’
From the conversation among their friends afterwards, it was clear that this pair had been attracted to each other for some time, had just started ‘sort of going out’ together (in that rather vague, non-dating way the English do these things), and were expected to become ‘an item’ in the near future. Even if I had not heard this subsequent discussion, I would have recognized the exchange of insults as a typical flirtation – perhaps not the wittiest or most articulate flirtatious banter I’ve come across, but a normal, unremarkable, everyday English courtship sequence. I only recorded it in my notebook because I happened to be doing a study on flirting at the time, and was collecting examples of real-life chat-up routines.
I also noted that English teenagers sometimes conduct a special form of ‘group courtship’, in which a small group of males will exchange banter – consisting mainly of sexually charged insults – with a small group of females. This group-courtship banter is most common among working-class youth, particularly in the northern part of the country, where I have even seen male and female groups hurling flirtatious abuse at each other from opposite sides of a street. English teens and twenty-somethings can also be seen indulging in this peculiar form of collective courtship at holiday resorts abroad, where bemused local inhabitants must wonder how such raucous taunting and heckling can possibly be a prelude to love and marriage. (Although I can confirm that it is, I have some sneaking admiration for shrewd local males in Spanish and Greek holiday resorts, who rightly suspect that young English females might be susceptible to more conventionally flattering approaches, and often succeed in poaching them from their loutish English suitors.)
Among older adults, I found that flirtatious banter is less overtly abusive than in these teenage examples, but that the same basic rules of irony, teasing, mock-insults and so on still apply. English females of all ages might very well prefer a more chivalrous, less perversely oblique form of courtship – but the banter rules, like the uncertainty principle, are tuned more to the sensibilities of the emotionally inhibited and socially challenged English male than to those of his somewhat less inhibited and more socially skilled female counterpart. We females are, however, accustomed to complying with these rules, and generally do so unconsciously. We know that arguing is the English male’s primary means of bonding with other males, and that banter is thus a form of intimacy with which he is familiar and comfortable. We know that when a man persistently taunts and teases us,
it usually means he likes us, and that if the sentiment is reciprocated, taunting and teasing back is the best way to express this.
As with the uncertainty principle, foreign females do not have this instinctive, in-built understanding of English male peculiarities, and so tend to be baffled and sometimes offended by the banter rules. I find myself having to explain to them that ‘silly cow’ really can be a term of endearment, and ‘You’re just not my type’, uttered in the right tones and in the context of banter, can be tantamount to a proposal of marriage. I’m not saying that English men never pay straightforward compliments or formally ask women out on dates. They often do both of these things, albeit rather awkwardly, and they even propose marriage; it’s just that if they can possibly find a more circuitous way of achieving the same end, they will.
MALE-BONDING RULES – AND THE GIRLWATCHING RITUAL
The English male may not be an accomplished flirt, or adept at the finer points of pair bonding, but when it comes to bonding with other males, he’s in his element. I’m not talking about homosexuality, repressed or otherwise, but about the universal human practice of male bonding, of men forming close friendships and alliances with other men. Every known human society has some form of male-bonding practices, usually including clubs, organisations or institutions (such as the London ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ for which the English are famous), or at least special rituals, from which women are excluded.
It has been said that men’s need for such bonding is as strong as their need for sex with women. In the average Englishman’s case, it may be stronger. There is nothing wrong with the heterosexual English male’s sex drive, but he does seem to show a marked preference for the company of other men. This is not about the alleged closet homosexuality of English males: if anything, gay Englishmen tend to be more at ease in female company, and to enjoy it more. But it must be said that many of the English man’s male-bonding rituals appear to be devoted to proving his masculinity and heterosexuality.
Foremost among these is the ‘girlwatching’ ritual – the English version of that time-honoured and probably universal male pastime of exchanging comments on the physical attributes of passing females. You can – if you are interested in such things – watch variations on this ritual in pretty much any pub, bar, café, night-club or street-corner on the planet. The English variant is, as you might by now expect, conducted in code. Very few of the set phrases used are intelligible without some interpretation. The code is not, however, difficult to decipher, and most of the stock phrases fall into one of two simple categories: approval (that female is attractive) and disapproval (that female is not attractive).
The most quintessentially and convolutedly English of these stock girlwatching remarks is my favourite: ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’ This is a standard comment on any pair of females, one of whom the speaker considers to be less attractive than the other. As well as demonstrating that he can tell the difference (and has a healthy, redblooded interest in attractive females) the speaker is ‘laying claim’ to the more desirable of the pair, by designating the less pretty one as ‘yours’. Although technically reserved for commenting on a pair of women, ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’ is often used to draw a male companion’s attention to the unattractiveness of any passing female, whether or not she is accompanied by a more fanciable alternative. On one occasion, in a pub in Birmingham, I recorded the following exchange:
Male 1, glancing up as a group of 4 women enters the pub: ‘Don’t fancy yours much!’
Male 2, turning to look at the women, then frowning in puzzlement: ‘Er, which?’
Male 1, laughing: ‘Don’t care, mate – take your pick: they’re all yours!’
Male 2 laughs, but somewhat grudgingly, looking a bit put-out, as a point has been scored against him.
Another somewhat cryptic English girlwatching phrase, this time of the ‘approving’ variety, is ‘Not many of those to the pound!’ This comment refers to the size of the observed female’s breasts, implying that they are rather larger than average. The ‘pound’ means a pound in weight, not in sterling – so the phrase literally means that you would not get many of those breasts balanced like fruit on a grocer’s weighing-scale against a pound weight. In fact it is an understatement, as large breasts would probably each weigh more than a pound, but let’s not get too technical. In any case, it is a favourable judgement: large breasts are officially A Good Thing among English males; even those who secretly prefer small ones usually feel obliged to express approval. The ‘Not many of those to the pound!’ comment is often accompanied by a gesture suggesting the weighing of heavy objects in the hands: the hands are held out just in front of the chest – with palms upturned and fingers slightly curled in – then bounced up and down. Here is another overheard exchange, this time from a pub in London. It sounds like a comedy sketch, but I swear it is real:
Male 1, commenting on a very well-endowed nearby female: ‘Cor! Not many of those to the pound, eh?’
Male 2: ‘Sssh! You can’t say that any more, mate. ’Snot allowed any more.’
Male 1: ‘What? Don’t give me that PC feminist crap! I can talk about a girl’s tits if I like!’
Male 2: ‘Nah – it’s not the feminists’ll get you, it’s the Weights and Measures lot. We can’t use pounds any more,
it’s all metric now. You gotta say “kilos”!’
‘I would!’ is a rather more obvious generic expression of approval, the message being that the speaker would be willing to have sex with the observed female. ‘Definitely a ten-pinter!’ is a derogatory remark, meaning that the speaker would have to consume ten pints of beer – that is, be very drunk – even to consider having sexual relations with the female in question. When you overhear a pair or group of English men saying ‘six’, ‘four’, ‘two’, ‘seven’ and so on, while surreptitiously scrutinizing nearby or passing females, they may not be awarding the women ‘marks out of ten’, but referring to the number of pints they would have to drink in order to contemplate having sex with them. The fact that none of the women would be likely to give these self-appointed beauty contest judges a second glance is immaterial. The girlwatching ritual is a display of masculine bravado, performed entirely for the benefit of male companions. By reciting the stock phrases, participants in this ritual affirm their
status as macho, active heterosexuals. By tacit agreement, the assumption that they are in a position to pick and choose among the observed females is never questioned – and conspiring to promote this collective delusion reinforces the social bonds between the girlwatchers.