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Of dust and lust

Swerve magazine
Shannon Rupp


I used to dread the arrival of spring as the only season to which the word “cleaning” had been attached—until I learned about the erotic implications of not doing housework. Apparently, there’s lust in that dust.You doubt me? You need only look at the fifth-season opener of Mad Men, which featured Don being seduced by the new Mrs. Draper as she began to tidy a filthy post-party living room in naught but her black scanties (at right). Within seconds they’re rolling around on the muck-encrusted white broadloom, all thoughts of virtuous order forgotten.

Mad Men often taps into taboos and this was a perfect salute to spring, not least because it was a relief from the relentless parade of magazine articles, TV shows and merchants campaigning for the war on filth. They remind me of evangelists, and not just because they have the cheery zeal of the devout. Religion’s enthusiasts have long connected cleanliness with moral purity, and both the Puritans and the 18th-century Methodist preacher John Wesley have been credited with some variation on the slogan, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

“Around here, it’s next to impossible,” my mother used to snap, pointedly, at my adolescent self as she collected the heaps of clutter strewn in my wake. A promiscuous reader, I delighted in quoting Quentin Crisp’s view on housework to her: “The dust doesn’t get any deeper after the first four years.” But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, wasn’t merely being witty; his indifference to polishing floors hints at what he was willing to polish to a gleam.

That cleanliness and morality are deeply intertwined in modern life is revealed by the way we talk about dirt as a character failing. We sneer at the filthy rich. We’re advised against washing our dirty laundry in public. And we enthuse over “good, clean fun,” as if we need to distinguish it from the usual dirty kind. The kind the Drapers are having.

Of course, once we’ve established something as virtuous or sacred, it’s never long before someone gets off on defiling it. Trust the Victorians, history’s most prodigious pornographers, to find the kink in a dish-choked sink. Infamous housemaid Hannah Cullwick gave new meaning to getting down and dirty when the diary of her mopping exploits surfaced in the 1950s. All through the 1860s and ’70s she sent saucy letters about her way with a feather duster to a wealthy gent named Arthur Munby, whom she eventually married. Cullwick wiped chimney grates and buffed floors in the buff, and then regaled her upper-class lover with the details. When she visited Munby, she smeared her face with grease and soot as a seductive alternative to conventional lotions. You might think this is an isolated case of repressed Victorian weirdness but, judging by British slang, I suspect not. The point at which sex and housekeeping collide was brought home to me in my youth when a friend’s English mother dropped by, saw the state of her apartment and declared, “Oh Rosie, you are such a slut!” 


I slid Rosie a look that said “How does she know?” My friend quickly clarified that her mother meant “slut” as in slattern—a slovenly housekeeper. (Then she kicked me under the table.)

“Scrubber” is old British slang for a sexually easy woman and it always crosses my mind in warm weather when I see those sweet young things in bikinis scrubbing cars at fundraisers. Most English speakers still use “smut” to mean pornography, although it originally meant the flecks of coal that dusted the air in 19th-century London. The term “skank” is common for a promiscuous woman but it also means filth, as in “the floor is covered in skank.”

The erotic housekeeping that inspired Cullwick and Munby’s cleansing romps still lingers in the little French maid outfits found today in seedier lingerie shops and those naked-cleaning businesses. Calgary’s Craigslist advertises beauties who will clean topless or in bikinis for $75 an hour—which seems pricey, given that Sexy Maid in Montreal offers similar dust-and-lust services that include a variation in lingerie for $45 an hour.

While most of us appreciate a level of sanitation that keeps us this side of Hepatitis A, if we’re honest we’ll admit that we suspect compulsive cleaners of sublimating their other urges. At least that’s the impression I got when I read Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House (1999). Cheryl Mendelson’s 884-page doorstopper takes on a moralistic tone as she chides us about how our “inadequate housekeeping” can be connected to everything from obesity to divorce. Mendelson comes across as a broom-wielding Prohibitionist, claiming the decline of society is caused by that demon, dirt. “As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met (for food, comfort, clean laundry, relaxation, entertainment, society, rest), domestic skills and expectations further diminish, in turn decreasing the chance that people’s homes can satisfy their needs,” she sermonizes.


Mendelson never explains just what sort of relaxation, society and entertainment she fears people may be finding outside their homes, but I have a hunch. And given that the woman brags about owning two antique mangles—large, dangerous machines for ironing sheets—I can understand why her family might want to flee her dominatrix tendencies in search of a sociable slattern with a nicely rumpled bed.

If you’re still in any doubt about how we’ve connected sexual purity to domestic cleanliness, Margaret Horsfield’s witty history of housework, Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework (1998), devotes entire chapters to the subject. She reports that a vintage version of Mendelson’s book, the 1844 Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, suggests the pairing of dust and lust may have been more common that we imagine: “Cleanliness has moral as well as physical advantages…it is an emblem, if not a characteristic, of purity of thought and propriety of conduct.”

In what others view with caution, I find inspiration. Suddenly, neglecting the laundry isn’t a sign of laziness, but a declaration that I embody the very sort of impurity of thought and impropriety of conduct that should be celebrated!

Certainly, the great feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir believed that cleanliness was next to celibacy, as she detailed in her classic 1949 tract, The Second Sex. “It is noteworthy that the rage for cleanliness is highest in Holland, where the women are cold, and in puritanical civilizations, which oppose an ideal of neatness and purity to the joys of the flesh,” she wrote. In the Mediterranean, de Beauvoir assured readers, they live in a state of “joyous filth” because “the love of the flesh and its animality is conducive to toleration of human odour, dirt and even vermin.” 

I’m not sure who should be more offended, the Dutch or the Italians. Although I suppose de Beauvoir knows whereof she speaks, being French. She and Jean-Paul Sartre had the sort of open relationship now referred to in trendy magazines as polyamory, which means her floors were probably a scandal.

After years of fretting about why my closets are not photo-worthy, I’ve finally found a good reason to let dishes stack up and dustbunnies breed. I figure there’s more than one way to give spring a fresh sparkle. So when a gentleman friend commented on my chaotic kitchen last week, I threw him a meaningful look and replied: “It’s spring—I have better things to do than housework.”

First published in Calgary's Swerve magazine (Postmedia) March 23, 2012

23 Mar 2012