On Modesty and Sex

Recently, the atheist community has been in a bit of a tizzy about sexual harassment, conferences, and how we approach this problem, if at all. A lot of voices say that what is required as a very small beginning are comprehensive sexual harassment policies, and thankfully a lot of conferences agree with that sentiment.

Others seem to be arguing that the existence of a policy necessarily prohibits legitimate engagement, making people afraid to flirt because they may accidentally offend somebody and be kicked out of whatever convention they’re attending. Strawman arguments have been constructed, the word “Feminazi” has been thrown around unironically, and hordes of trolls have come to take their flesh.

Much of these discussions have focused around our attitudes toward sex and what is or isn’t acceptable in the realm of flirting/trying to get some. The thing is, I think this has as much to do with how we think about sex as it does to do with how we approach it. And by how we approach it, I mean how we think about it.

Let me explain.

To begin at the basics, there is still a major, though waning, belief in this country and much of the rest of the world that certain standards must be met regarding something we like to call “modesty”. Let’s look at an example:

Have you realized she’s not really wearing actual pants?

There are a number of things about this picture I have a problem with. The first is that I oppose slut-shaming as a rule. It’s not the place of anybody to judge another person’s sexual choices nor to accuse them of something negative because of it. I avoid using the word in general, but if you feel that you must, using it in an accusatory way like this is so far out of the ballpark as to be in another sport entirely.

Secondly, the “hollywood take note” message. This just baffles me since there are two approaches to this. The first is to point out that Zooey Deschanel is a creature of Hollywood. She’s an actress! This photo shoot was likely paid for by a movie studio trying to promote her so when they make a film with her in it, people will want to see it. The other is that this seems to think there’s still a monolithic “Hollywood” run under the studio system. It really doesn’t work that way any more.

But the thing that gets me most of all is the presumption that “half naked” is somehow a bad thing. This whole picture is trying very hard to convey the idea that a woman can be hot without showing off her body, implying that that is the ideal, that women who do show off their bodies are somehow less attractive or less of good people as a result. They’re “sluts” whereas Deschanel is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and therefore fits into the creator’s expectations of behavior while still serving the important function of turning him on.

This is an important distinction that is made largely due to our understanding of “modesty” and the assumptions that come with it. It’s considered a virtue, which I’ve always found odd because we’re drawn to those who don’t display it more often than not. It’s generally something imposed on women, though men are expected to maintain modesty often through the assignation of gender roles in terms of clothing and behavior, which is to say it is socially acceptable for a man to be without a shirt, more so than it is socially acceptable for a man to wear a blouse, because the first is considered normal while the second is associated with deviant behavior and generally assumed to be for sexual gratification of some sort. It’s one of the reasons why the Rocky Horror Picture Show is such a cult classic: it plays on tropes regarding how men and women behave and modesty in order to subvert those tropes. I’ve always been struck, for example, by the scene where Brad, dressed in nothing but his underwear and a robe, takes off his glasses while yelling at Frank. Here he is trying to be the “hero” he’s ascribed as in the opening credits while dressed in a way that makes him remarkably vulnerable.

Me dressed up for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m trying to pout, but it’s not working. Person taking the photo didn’t get my fabulous heels, but trust me, they looked amazing.

It’s that last assumption that’s the problem: the idea that everything that is somehow erotic or even exciting is linked directly and inextricably to sex. That by the nature of lust, it’s no different than actually having sex, and there’s a perception that this is immediately and astoundingly bad.

For example, let us take the Duggers. A Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull family, they have very strict ideas of the nature of men and women, the way that gender roles should be assigned, and an idea of how we should approach sex and sexuality. Mostly, they avoid it at all costs.

You won’t find the Duggars at the beach, either – and it’s not because they don’t like getting sand between their toes. No, the family avoids public beaches and pools to keep the Duggar men from catching an unwanted glimpse of women who, um, don’t feel spiritually called to hide their assets. “[I]t’s just too hard for the guys to try to keep their eyes averted in those situations,” says Michelle.

The issue that I have with this is twofold. The first is that they are basically denying their children the ability to learn what human bodies look like and have a vast pool of images to draw from when evaluating others. It’s beneficial to be exposed to numerous body types as it makes constructing an unrealistic “ideal” less likely. The other issue, though, is that it presumes that men are basically slavering sex maniacs incapable of even seeing flesh without immediately wanting it and doing anything in their power to attain it. For the Duggers even the act of trying to attain isn’t necessary: just wanting is enough to send somebody into a spin of shame and perceived sinfulness.

Moreover, taken to an extreme, this can create a “holier than thou” sense in the person attempting to be modest. Amanda at Friendly Atheist discusses her experiences growing up in a family that prized modesty over positive body image or independence.

Take an adolescent or a teenager, preferably with already-skewed body image issues, at a time when they are physically transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and heap on the shame and guilt. Tell them how sinful their body parts are. Tell the girls that they need to reserve the “gifts” God gave them for the man that He selects to be their husband. Failure to do so means giving away “a piece of themselves” to random, stumbling men. Then, tell them how easy it is to cause men to stumble, to force them to be hyper-vigilant in their Quest to Be Non-Offensive to Everyone.

The danger and harm this causes to boys and girls cannot be understated. In promoting this “modesty” doctrine, especially from a religious perspective, it puts a whole lot of pressure on boys to deny perfectly natural thoughts and even more pressure on girls to be responsible for the natural thoughts of boys. It starts to police the imaginations of kids who are already confused enough without having to then be worried that their passing fancies will anger the sky tyrant. It serves as a means of control, or yoking a very powerful impulse and essentially holding it hostage in order to promote the behavior those in power most want.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually curb sexual feelings, just changes the standard by which we gauge sexiness. Let’s take a look at this picture, h/t to Libby Anne:

You can’t even see their ankles!

We see here two women in niqabs walking. Nothing is showing but their eyes and the backs of their heels, the latter of which is the only part that the men in the picture can see since they’ve already past. And those men are leering at them. Leering at shapeless, modest women dressed head to instep in heavy black fabric in the desert. The purpose of the niqab is to prevent this, since men are basically able to do nothing besides think of and try to have sex. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Well, as Libby Anne points out in the article linked to above, all modesty requirements do is move the bar on what is considered modest and therefore what is considered salacious.

Modesty is socially constructed. Because it’s socially constructed, every time you make the norm more modest, you are simply moving the bar – not eliminating sexual feelings, thoughts, and attractions. Simply put, because (heterosexual) men (and women) are wired to be sexually attracted to those of the opposite sex, making the norm more modest will not end that attraction. It simply changes what is titillating.

This also creates a situation in which we automatically conflate sexual thoughts with sex. I know, you think that of course sexual thoughts are about sex, but hear me out.

What makes a Renaissance nude not porn? Is it that it’s old? Or that it’s painted and therefore not a perfect representation of the human body? Why have we made one an element of culture and one a subject of scorn?

It’s because we have constructed a mythology around both art and porn, ascribed to them meanings beyond what they are. The act of posing nude for a picture is not inherently pornographic nor artistic, but it is an act of self-control when it is unforced (non-consensual photo taking is never acceptable). The Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar, for example, has a number of pictures of women naked. Specifically, it’s designed to confront Muslim theocracies that make actions like being the subject of nude photography that is distributed a capital offense. In this case the act of being naked is not linked to sex, it’s linked to revolution and making a statement.

Moreover, even being sexually excited is not the same thing is having sex. You’re allowed to be aroused, you’re allowed to have thoughts, and you can enjoy them without ever having to intend to have sex with the person you’re thinking about. The human brain is a complex instrument, one that we don’t even know how to work most of the time, let alone control. Imposing artificial limits on its processes seems so remarkably pointless to me.

This is all not to say that modesty is bad or that people are required to dress down. However, the imposition of a certain standard of dress and behavior on people is not an effective way to police people’s thoughts and actions. Moreover, we shouldn’t be trying to police people’s thoughts, nor their consensual actions. The only profit we can gain from such policing is to obtain control over others so we might lead them on a path that is favorable to us and our desires rather than their own. That’s not something I want to do.

Rather than fixating on the clothing choices of others, we should be encouraging people to find what works for them. The standard by which we can measure our own clothing choices should be whether they make us feel good and comfortable with ourselves, whether they promote a positive image of our bodies and increase our sense of confidence. That may mean bikinis or racing one-pieces. That may mean severe suits or casual slacks.  It may mean covering up most of the time and “appropriateness vacations” every once in a while. That’s your decision, not mine, and I shouldn’t try to make it for you by holding my esteem and positive response to you as ransom so that you behave in a way that makes me happy and comfortable.

Modesty is a socially constructed idea designed to impart control over people to others. Don’t let people tell you what you can and cannot wear or how you can and cannot act. The objective should always be to put control back into the hands of the person, whether it be the power to choose behavior and style or the responsibility for their thoughts and deeds. Anything short of that is an attempt to circumvent the other person for your own comfort.

2 thoughts on “On Modesty and Sex

    • One thing that came up in the Facebook discussion on this was the flip side of the coin: the pressure to dress down, to be conventionally sexy, and basically to be available as a sexual object. I feel that’s basically the same problem, though: women especially are expected to be both ready and available for sex, but not too much or they’re slut-shamed and made to feel inferior.

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