"Oooh, I like that G-string," said Sallie. We were being girlie-girls, standing in our underwear in her spacious London bathroom -- dabbing on eye makeup, trying out each other's hair gel, discussing with pointed skepticism why MAC had sneakily inserted a "sell-by" date on their lipsticks. "Now, where did you get that?" She snapped the satin cord that stretched above my hip.
"At Victoria's Secret," I said with some shame. "This was before all the Tyra Banks and Stephanie Seymour television commercials that make any woman -- unless she's a complete masochist -- think twice before venturing into a Victoria's Secret ever again." I rubbed one of her lipsticks on my hand. It produced a bluish-red smudge, similar to a bruise.
Sallie glanced over and we wrinkled our noses in unison. "I don't know what that is, Victoria's Secret," she said. "A knickers store, yes?"
"Sort of the Gap of lingerie. Phew." She was trying a hair gel of mine that had the unfortunate smell and consistency of sperm. "As disgusting as that product may seem, it really is great," I said. "It seriously changed my life."
I sat on the bathtub and watched her preen. She was dressed in a satin claret-colored bra and matching G-string, a version of which she wore every day -- confirming again my belief that British women are more visually sexual than their American sisters. "Do you wear a G-string all the time?" I asked, thinking of my own myriad collection, which has plenty of G-strings but also its fair share of five-for-one specials, Costco all-cotton fullbacks and those wonderful Baby Huey semi-diapers worn only when the laundry situation is on red alert.
"Why ruin a wonderful pair of Prada trousers with visible knicker lines?"
"What does Trevor think about your sexy knicker and bra sets?"
"Well, I don't know." She paused, about to wipe off some eye shadow that made her look as if she'd gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. "Ask him."
Now clearly, Sallie is an exception -- she seems to wear lingerie for her own purposes, and not as a prelude for sex. My drawers are full of silk teddies, lacy get-ups and other impractical items received from various boyfriends over the years. I never wear any of it unless I have something very specific on the agenda, namely getting laid. Left to my own devices it's the all-cotton jobbies or simply ... nothing.
Could women really enjoy wearing sexy lingerie for its own sake, and not as a facilitator? And do men really find it as visually stimulating as we are led to believe?
"Pass me the sick bucket," was Trevor's reply when I asked him about garter belts and stockings. "And as for the frilly, lacy things -- I can't stand it. To me there's nothing more ridiculous-looking than a woman in some skimpy flimsy piece of nothing."
"Really," I said, somewhat startled. Sallie's underwear is indeed elegant but it certainly could come under the skimpy-flimsy-piece-of-nothing category too. "Any kind of women's underwear you do like?"
"Athletic knickers," he said firmly. "Or if that's not available, some simple old-fashioned nudity. I mean, who designs this stuff, and for whom?"
"Good question," I said. I called La Venus in San Francisco, an elegant women's lingerie store specializing in French and Italian silk numbers. "We get about an equal amount of men and women customers," said Chantee, the store's very pleasant co-owner. "Women find it really hard to buy nice things for themselves. They want the husbands or boyfriends to see it first, but women do know what they want. Now, men are pretty indecisive. They gravitate toward slips or sheer things, but then they always pick it in black. Oh, and always a thong cut. One time, this older man came in with a younger woman. She picked out a bra and panty set, and when I asked if she wanted the thong cut, he interrupted -- not one bit shy about it -- and said, 'Well, what's the point without the thong?'"
I thanked her and plowed on. I'd heard something similar from another man, who confessed that one of his great pleasures when purchasing sexy lingerie for his girlfriend had nothing to do with sexual anticipation, but stemmed from his pride at no longer feeling embarrassed. I wanted to find someone who found it a genuine turn-on, but so far my investigation seemed pretty fruitless.
"It doesn't do much for me," said another male friend. "It's mostly the way it frames the good parts -- nice cleavage, a butt cheek, a slender inner thigh. I think men buy sexy lingerie mostly to satisfy women. I don't know. What do you think?"
"I think I'm having déj` vu," I said with some weariness. Was the procuring and wearing of sexy lingerie another silent bit of mutual altruism, like having sex in public? "Good God."
"Most guys would be happy with a pair of Hanes briefs," he continued. "Frankly, all I want to do is tear them off."
"My problem with sexy lingerie has always been that it is simply not very comfortable," I said. "It's always scratchy. It pokes you in weird places. After an hour, I can't wait to get out of it."
He looked at me -- understandably -- as if I were a moron. "Need I point out the obvious?"
Perhaps this was coming down along age lines, with men my age gravitating toward the athletic jockey briefs and those of the older persuasion -- perhaps in their sunset years -- desperate to revisit the Jayne Mansfields and Betty Pages of yore. But then a man in his '50s swiftly popped that theory, stating categorically, "My idea of a bra is a T-shirt." He thought for a moment, then added, "Having said that, I must admit those front-clasping bras that arrived during the Reagan administration provided some interesting tensions and releases of those in the 34C-36B range."
I wondered if there was any correspondence between my proclivity for not wearing underwear and the present White House administration. But that will be an investigation for another day.