Modesty, Responsibility, and Common Sense

Well, that was the most disappointingly reasonable and benign modesty debate I’ve ever seen.  I guess it’s allergy season, and everyone is just too dopey to care.  One point was worth drawing out, though.  One commenter asked why the boys in the article about track uniforms

thought it was appropriate to be ogling and teasing the girl in the first place? Why is it always on the girls and women to cover up, not on the boys and men to behave themselves and act like gentlemen?

She clarified:

I’m the mother of three (soon to be four) boys, and I hope to teach them that no matter WHAT a woman is wearing, it is rude and crass to make comments about her body and make her feel uncomfortable.

This is exactly the right thing to teach boys, and as the mother of six (possibly seven) girls, I’m delighted that some young men are hearing this valuable lesson.

It is, however, exactly the wrong lesson to teach girls.  You can’t have girls dressing however they want and expect boys to just be gentlemen.  That’s called “putting boys through hell,” and it’s not Christian behavior.  Whenever I heard this argument, I think of a busty woman wearing a skin-tight T-shirt with a big arrow and “MY EYES ARE UP HERE” emblazoned across her chest.  Let’s not be silly.

Many girls and women underestimate the power they have over men.  Even women who are very visually-oriented and who struggle with chastity constantly do not face the struggle that the typical man faces when he turns on the TV or goes to the mall. It’s not impossible for men to train themselves to keep their eyes to themselves (I’ve seen my poor husband almost get whiplash trying to keep custody of the eyes at the beach)—but it’s very, very hard, and takes constant vigilance in this sex-drenched society.

When a woman sees a man who is dressed immodestly, however, it is easier for her to dismiss him, often with a laugh.  Sensible women find nothing less attractive than a man who needs to flaunt his stuff all the time.  Not so for men:  they may know in their hearts and minds that women who show a lot of skin are doing something wrong—but their bodies are more stubborn about the appeal.

And so I agree with one commenter, who said:

Modesty . .  is a form of Christian charity.

It is not that we should be embarrassed about our bodies. Bodies are a beautiful gift from God. However, we are living in a time after the fall. We do not want to be a near occasion of sin for someone else. . . If what you are wearing is or might be a stumbling block to someone else, love your neighbor enough not to wear it.

All right.  But here’s the tricky part—the “might be a stumbling block.”  It’s true that women have a responsibility to dress decently so as not to deliberately provoke lust in men.  But they do not have a responsibility to make it impossible for men to lust after them.

Some Catholics think that pretty much any time a man sins against chastity, it’s a woman’s fault.  And so we have the ludicrous “pants are for harlots” argument.  We have women who think that dressing dowdily is a virtue.  We have men working themselves into a righteous froth over a woman in shorts, for instance, as if it’s her fault that he has a thing for legs.

Here’s the problem:  first, dressing with utter, lust-proof modesty is literally impossible.  There will always be some man somewhere who manages to lust, no matter what you’re wearing (just ask a hijab-wearing rape victim).

Second, an extreme “better safe than sorry” argument can lead to foolish and dangerous attitudes toward women. There is nothing pious about treating women like some kind of pestilent instrument of spiritual warfare, designed to infect innocent men with lustful thoughts by her mere presence.  At some point, the woman’s responsibility does end, and the man’s begins.  This point varies widely from culture to culture, age to age, region to region—and man to man.

Women are designed by God to be attractive to men, because this attraction leads to all sorts of good things:  protective behavior, fidelity, hard work, and babies, not to mention happiness. Our goal isn’t to reject the notion that women are attractive to men, but to channel it in a way that benefits everyone.

So, yes, modest dress is an onus that is put mostly on women —just as self-control is an onus that is put mostly on men.  This difference is not because life is unfair or inherently sexist, but because men and women are made differently.  Men and women both have the responsibility to contribute to the decency of the world—in their own ways.  There’s no sense in pretending there is no difference between them.  Just as importantly, there is no sense in pretending the tension will disappear if either men or women just tried harder to be good.