Men and Modesty

Yes, they carry a part of the responsibility. A big part.
1999-12-15

Every once in a while, a column topic hits a nerve. That definitely seems to be the case with this last series I've been writing on modesty. I'm getting all kinds of mail. Some people think I've gone too far. Others think I haven't gone far enough. One man said I was immodest in the way I described modesty. Most, fortunately, have been grateful that topic is being addressed. Many have asked for permission to reprint various articles, so don't be surprised if you keep running into these little pieces elsewhere.

Most of the "stir" has been about two (related) sub-topics of modesty. The first is the idea that modesty is, to a certain extent, culturally conditioned. And the second is about the respective levels of responsibility that men and women hold when it comes to modesty. "How are those two related?" you ask. I'll explain.

Different cultures have different expectations when it comes to women's dress. In some Muslim cultures, women are expected to cover their bodies from head to toe, with nothing showing but perhaps their hands and two small slits near their eyes so as to keep these poor women from running into light poles. That's what men in those cultures are accustomed to. The sight of a woman dressed in clothing our culture would consider perfectly modest (say a shin-length skirt and a turtleneck) would be highly scandalous in those countries. Likewise, if the same woman were somehow stuffed into a time machine and deposited 200 years into the past, our Founding Fathers would probably have a collective colonial "cow" over her brazen immodesty.

So it's safe to assume that certain Muslim men are, and our Founding Fathers were, more sensitive to the sight of certain female bodily parts than today's average male. This leads us to two conclusions. First, that if a woman travels to a Muslim country, or stuffs herself in a time machine bound for the Colonies, she should dress appropriately. It is immodest to dress as one is accustomed to dressing if it violates the accepted norms in another culture. That was the largely useless conclusion, as I'm sure none of you are headed for the past, and I'm almost as sure that few if any of you would voluntarily travel to Iraq or Saudi these days.

The second conclusion deals with male responsibility in modesty. Some men are more sensitive than others. This may be culturally conditioned. It may just be the result of individual variants. Regardless of the cause, some men are sexually affected by clothing (or the lack thereof) that other men wouldn't think twice about. So what are we women supposed to do? Can we possibly gauge the individual sensitivity of every man we see? Are we morally responsible for the lust in every male heart, regardless of how easily that lust is triggered?

We could drive ourselves mad.

Women, of course, have a responsibility, to the best of their ability and understanding, to dress modestly. (I personally do this by consulting men I trust, men who are holy and Catholic and chaste, about my wardrobe.) But men have a responsibility here, too. In the old days, it was called "custody of the eyes." If a man, for whatever reason, finds himself tempted to see a woman as a collection of sexual parts instead of a person, he is to fight that temptation. He is to "look away" literally and figuratively. He is not to dwell on that which leads to thoughts he shouldn't be having.

This applies to men at the beach. It applies to men visiting a less-restrictive culture (i.e. the European beach). It applies to men walking down a street full of women who haven't read my articles. It applies to men who are, for whatever reason, more visually sensitive to sexual stimuli -- men who are sexually affected by dress which most males would find harmless.

Immodesty for women does not mean license for men. Lustful thoughts are not okay just because a woman -- immodestly clad or not -- appears into a man's field of vision. Certainly it's an act of respect for men, and for themselves, when women dress modestly. But it's an act of respect on men's part to refuse to see a woman as a sexual object, no matter what her attire, or how he's naturally inclined to respond to that attire.

Modesty is a matter of respect -- for men and women.

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