Monday, February 13, 2012

In praise of modesty

“Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way” - so sang Maurice Chevalier in the late 1950's. This is not something that I ever gave much thought to – at least, not until I had daughters of my own – and I wonder if Chevalier could possibly sing the same now.

Consider, for example, the charmingly named 'slutwalk'. This began in Toronto, in response to a police officer's comment that, in order to be safer, “women should avoid dressing like sluts”. The officer's comment was rude but realistic. Men are simple creatures. We have a biological system that is hard-wired to respond to signals of sexual availability – like exposed flesh – and whenever presented with such signals there is an instant limbic response which pushes testosterone into the body in order to prepare for a mating opportunity. This is our biological inheritance – what St Paul often called 'the flesh' – and the challenge for a civilised man is to ensure that these triggers do not overwhelm our wider values. When successful this is called character, the product of being trained in the virtues of self-restraint.

The problem with the slutwalk approach is that it believes that all men should have achieved that character before being allowed out in public. In other words, it rejects what I described in my last column as our fallen world. It does not recognise that the world is imperfect, and unlikely to be made perfect any time soon. To offer an analogy – if you are dealing with a recovering alcoholic then it is generally considered a good idea to make sure that access to alcohol is restricted, for the simple reason that the habit of self-restraint has not been properly fostered. The slutwalk attitude seems to imply that waving a bottle of vodka beneath an alcoholic's nose has absolutely nothing to do with their subsequent falling off the wagon. Very powerful passions are provoked – and the slutwalk is simply an abuse of power, an exercise in bullying.

This might seem to be 'blaming the victim' but that is not what I am trying to describe. A man who is unable to exercise a brake upon his passions is morally culpable for whatever they then do – I don't subscribe to our modern fad for medicalising our moral failures – but this is the world that we actually live in. It is simply imprudent to act so recklessly, with such brazen disregard for the consequences of our actions – and to then present that as a higher virtue simply reveals the moral depravity into which our culture has now sunk.

What we as a society need to do is work on our virtues more, recognising that many of the other benefits of social living that we take for granted depend upon a prior framework of accepted values in order to function. For example, business, politics and scientific research would all be impossible without the virtue of trust, which allows colleagues in the field to take what is said at face value. It is our virtues that make us free.

The slutwalk is not an exercise in freedom, but rather a parade of slaves to social and biological desires. In order to overcome such slavery, and gain a genuine freedom, virtues need to be cultivated, and the crucial virtue in this context is the virtue of modesty. I like the way that the Christian writer Kahlil Gibran described it: “modesty is for a shield against the eyes of the unclean”. In other words, modesty is about not provoking a sexual response in the course of carrying out the normal business of life because to do so would be a distraction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Even worse, by dissipating the power of the erotic through wall-to-wall exposure of flesh, the genuinely holy and creative power of the erotic in its proper place is vitiated. This is one aspect of the evil of the tabloid newspaper industry, and its prurient lack of propriety. Modesty, after all, has as its corollary the capacity to blush – blush at our own indiscretions but also at the revelation of someone else's. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

So am I arguing for a complete covering up? Do I believe that we should adopt the chador as customary women's clothing in our society? No, but I believe that there is a value in the Muslim approach which should not be dismissed. There is surely a happy and creative middle point between the slutwalk and the chador, one where our daughters can grow up to be respected as whole individuals and not simply evaluated as pieces of meat. I believe modesty is an essential component of that fuller life, a fuller life that includes a proper appreciation of the erotic. Modesty does not mean unsexy, after all – it simply leaves more room for the imagination to work, and that is the most important sexual organ of all.


  1. Agreed Sam, another example of balanced middle-ground being virtuous common sense.

    PS: talking of sexy modesty, did I ever mention my secret image collection of moslem veiled eyes ...

  2. Only pint of disagreement is the extreme rhetoric in a line like "Men are simple creatures."

    My equivalent line is "We humans are just complicated enough."

  3. Actually my understanding of the "slutwalk" thing is that most women who have been raped by a stranger weren't actually dressed immodestly at all. I saw a picture of one woman at a slutwalk dressed in very modest and unassuming clothes carrying a sign which said "This is what I was wearing when I was raped".

  4. From the Slutwalk Explained tumblr run by a Slutwalk organiser:

    It may interest you to know that rape and dress sense aren’t linked at all.

    When most people are raped by someone they knew (85.7%, sometimes found to be higher, depending on study) then dressing differently or more conservatively isn’t a preventative measure at all. You’re speaking of the much much smaller number of stranger-rape cases, and in those cases, if you look at this study, you’ll realise that not only are clothing and your chances of getting raped not linked statistically what-so-ever (women, men, children and people of all gender identities are raped regardless of clothing) but “While people perceive dress to have an impact on who is assaulted, studies of rapists suggest that victim attire is not a significant factor. Instead, rapists look for signs of passiveness and submissiveness, which, studies suggest, are more likely to coincide with more body-concealing clothing.”

    “This conclusion is inconsistent with the common belief that how a woman dresses has an impact on whether she will be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Why then, do many people, including psychiatrists, assume that dress plays some part in who is a victim of sexual assaults? In particular, why do women believe this? Social scientists believe this is the result of the “just world hypothesis.”

    The just world hypothesis and attribution error basically explains the reason this rape myth has been around for so long is because, as human beings, we like to believe we’re rational and that the world is logical, therefore we try to attribute certain characteristics to certain victims to believe that not only could we never be a victim of sexual assault ourselves, but that there was some logical reasoning behind what happened. This is really a defence mechanism. No one deserves rape, no one brought it upon themselves - rape only happens because there is a rapist in the room.

    The basis of SlutWalk is against victim blaming and slut shaming – it’s about shifting the focus from the victim to the perpetrator. Rape is a crime, cleavage is not.

    Telling women how to dress is really a flimsy band-aid over the problem, and one that doesn’t actually statistically or logically make sense. As a society we need to reject this band-aid and focus on real threat management.

    (Looking at structural violence and sexism, the objectification rather than celebration of sexuality within society, education systems which don’t have healthy and open dialogue on issues of consent, relationships and abuse are good places to start so we can start to pave our way to a consent culture.)

    “When you shame women who dress “too slutty”, guess what you’re doing? You’re perpetuating a culture that blames victims of sexual assault and rape. You’re basically saying that if that woman were to be raped, well, she was kinda asking for it. YOU are the reason why rapists target those women: because you make it easier for them to get away with a horrible fucking crime. Rape is a fucking crime; cleavage isn’t.”

  5. These are the links referred to in the post:


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