Sexual Symbolism and Filth Tolerance Thresholds

The gender symbolism of cleanliness characterises many a marriage. You know what I’m talking about. Women are clean. Men are dirty. Cleanliness is associated with proper morals and sexual purity. Dirt is associated with amorality and promiscuity. 

Given these connections, it is hardly surprising that 20th century housewives were judged, largely by other 20th century housewives, according to how tidy they kept their domiciles.  Many episodes of situation comedies in the 50s and early 60s featured women visitors covertly checking for dust, dirt, and grime has they moved through their host’s house.

Finding dirt was not just an indication of carelessness; it conveyed laziness, depravity, a wanton disregard for one’s family, communist leanings, and possibly an enthusiasm for devil worship. Keeping a clean family home was the essence of womanhood. Things have changed since then, but the remnants of this mindset still remain.

Stay-at-home, second income, and single dads do clean the house. They understand the connection between filth, microbes, and disease, and would generally prefer to avoid these nasties. But that’s where it ends. We are still a long way from getting men to think of cleanliness as the essence of manhood, and we may never get there.  Household cleaning for a man is purely functional. It is stripped entirely of its symbolic meaning, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why men’s standards for cleanliness are lower than women’s – which has probably led to mild cases of marital discord from time to time.[1]

[1] Cooper, Annabel, Robin Law, Jane Malthus and Pamela Wood (2000), “Rooms of Their Own: Public Toilets and Gendered Citizens in a New Zealand City, 1860-1940,” Gender, Place and Culture, 7 (4), 417-433.