Saints and Scoundrels

A moral romp through the triumphs and travails of prominent Westerners.

Our Swimmers, Our Sex Objects

NBC challenges us to call it pornography.


It's difficult to pinpoint precisely when it became socially acceptable to ogle nearly-naked college men. The American photographer Bruce Weber gained influence and work offers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, doing shoot after shoot of men with no visible body fat. In the 1990s, a radically refigured Abercrombie & Fitch caught the ball and ran it down the field of voyeurism. And then yesterday, NBC published a photographic peek-a-boo game entitled "Ab Fab." One of our nation's most powerful cultural forces has waved the starting flag over a new playfulness.

http://www.nbcolympics.com/swimming/photos/galleryid=156776.html

The "game," such as it is, invites readers (who are actually viewers on the network's Web site) to guess the owner of the abs we see. First, a close-up of a swimmer's upper torso sans face appears, then the same shot with the young man's face and pelvic region. The news, such as it is, is that swimmers often possess strikingly statuesque bodies. Any gay man in the Western hemisphere who has perused Match.com or its equivalent already knew how effective it was to claim having "a swimmer's build." Who knows how many gay men in the Western hemisphere emailed the URL for the racy NBC piece to their friends yesterday. We can be reasonably sure, though, that almost everyone had already heard that swimmers look good naked (or in a Speedo).

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Once upon a time, the New York Times trembled before using "Ms." for the first time. Some fifteen years later, the New York Times decided to begin publishing same-sex wedding announcements. Now NBC has joined the game, thrown caution to the wind, and invited us to see what we could already see anyway. This is social progress.

Should a race to the bottom ensue, we'll see even racier photographic montages just before the 2012 Games. The American network will flash a close-up of a male swimmer's crotch or backside and invite us to identify the elite athlete. As for the parents of said athletes, silence or feigning ignorance of the whole thing might be the easiest way out of embarrassment over hearing your progeny publicly praised as "hot."

Women swimmers are safe for now. Maybe NBC thinks women are too easy a target or maybe flat-chested women will fail to titillate the public. Even more likely, NBC may fear appearing cliché by serving up a distaff equivalent.

Of course, child pornography is illegal in the United States. The men who appear in the NBC meat market are all eighteen or over, but the American superstar Michael Phelps, who naturally shows up in the NBC lineup, was only 15 when he made his first Olympic team. He has grown up since 2000, and so have we.

Twenty years ago, television coverage of the 1988 Olympic Games struck some viewers as odd. We never really got to see a male swimmer's suit: Men were only filmed from the waist up. Rumor had it that the television network had vowed to protect the modesty of male swimmers. NBC does not seem to fear for the modesty of American male swimmers. As creepy as it might be for parents to think of ogling photographers showing up to the college swim meets of their sons for ab shots, it's remarkably bold of NBC to grant us permission to view male swimmers as sex objects.  Call it an occupational hazard of making the Olympic swimming team.

John Portmann is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

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