Media Circus - Victor's Secret

When a mail-order catalog poses beefcake models in slips, panties and garter belts, who's being marketed to?

Published June 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

unbidden, a plain manila envelope arrives in the mail. There is no return address -- just my name on a label and some mail-order catalogs within. It appears out of nowhere, like a Freudian slip, which would be a perfect name, I quickly gather, for one of the items in it: The Aprhs Noir Collection of Fine Lingerie for Men. Perhaps an "Oedipal Slip," instead. For these are a mother's undergarments or a French maid's or Little Bo Peep's: Lingerie, as the text suggests, "for boys who want to be girls." Victor's secret rather than Victoria's.

I like to think of myself as someone who is not a prude or a pervert, but some peculiarity in between. Being on virtually every mailing list in existence, I am a hardened veteran of the junk-mail pitch. Looking through the Aprhs Noir catalog, though, my defenses buckle. I feel my id creeping out through every available orifice, like snails on the sidewalk after a downpour, glistening slime in their wake. The one person modeling these articles is a fit, attractive, white man in his 30's who, in photo after photo, is wearing a trousseau of women's silky slips, panties, camisoles, garter belts and body stockings. Each is designed for "the masculine physique," I read, available in chest size 48 and waist size 42 for the full-figured, with extra large pouches for the well-endowed.

It is unsettling, deeply unsettling. I am reminded of the first shock of viewing pornography as a 12-year-old. But no private part is made public here: penis is invisibly tucked into lace panties, nipples discreetly covered by frilly corsets. Something else is absent in these photographs, too: I find none of the burlesque humor of a cross-dressing Milton Berle; the shame of an "outed" transsexual; nor the flamboyance of a raging drag queen. In their place, I see confidence and comfort oozing from a muscular man in a white see-through cat suit, a sense of fulfillment that comes from some unfathomable place.

The images have the opposite effect on me. With a mere slip of fabric, one's entire male identity can be changed, never to be the same again. It is this transformation that I find most threatening. If I wore this lingerie, the same would happen to me -- a proposition that makes my balls retreat. I can't help asking, Why would a man wear such things?

As the only boy in a family with five girls, I grew up in a household of women, where bras, panties, girdles and other fine washables were far too ordinary to be intimate, too available ever to be taboo. Each represented nothing more than a different pile of laundry. Being homosexual, I confess, must have increased my disinterest. (Or, should have added interest; I don't know.) Instead, it was all things masculine about which I fantasized -- jock-straps, Speedos, Y-fronts, catcher's cups. In this regard, no object was more fetishized in my mind than men's long underwear. Indeed, to this day: I am wearing some as I write this.

Forget all that you've heard about the possible genetic origins of sexual obsessions, whether homo-, hetero-, bi- or transsexual, or garden-variety, bewigged transvestism. This particular fetish was a clear case of nurture over nature. Long underwear figured prominently in my first erotic experience (at least, the earliest one my subconscious will cough up). At age 8, I was in the TV room at my friend Andy Parker's house, when his father walked in from a day of snow skiing. While talking with us, he stripped off his sweater, his turtleneck, his T-shirt, his boots, two pair of socks, his pants. He stood above me, harmlessly, in his white thermal long johns, then sat down to watch TV. I was transfixed by the plain sight of him, his stocky hairless body, the mixed scent of perspiration, fresh air and tobacco. I wasn't aware of a sexual impulse exactly. I simply knew that I, too, wanted to take off my clothes -- a response not unlike that which I might feel around a half-naked man today. And I knew that my desire was sinful. This conflict between guilt and yearning was not only undiscussable, but unthinkable. Which is why it still creeps to the surface over 20 years later, at the most unlikely moments, as when I am wandering through a sporting goods store. Or when the new Eddie Bauer catalog arrives in the mail.

So I suppose this is what the Aprhs Noir catalog is really selling: the costumes of sexual fantasy -- the frisson of a naughty little boy as he spies on his teenage sister, say, or accidentally catches his best friend's mom in her teddy. It has nothing to do with undershirts and underpants. It would seem to me, then, that this apparel is for men obsessed with all things feminine, not for boys who want to be girls (and who could more profitably use a good prosthetics catalog and a transdermal estrogen patch).

Direct-mail marketers have made a late 20th century science out of locating households for their products. It's nothing less than capitalist espionage: Zip codes are cross-referenced with magazine subscriptions, video rentals and who-knows-what other "confidential" information to create a virtual Frankenstein -- a perfect hit list of prospective buyers.

Somehow, though, the men's lingerie makers goofed. I'm afraid I'm just not part of their target market. Yes, I may be a consumer with a penis, a credit card and an appetite for thermal underwear: close but no cigar. And no sale.

Now, only two nagging questions remain: How do I remove myself from this mailing list? And what other secrets of mine does Victor know?

By Bill Hayes

Bill Hayes is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Details and other publications.

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