Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Avert Thine Eyes

I've been meaning to write a post about modesty for a while. One reason is that it's a topic on which I believe much woolly thinking is done. And the other is more self-serving: in conservative Catholic circles, modesty sells. You may have heard that sex sells, and this is true, but modesty is the sex of conservative Catholic blogging. Just look at the comments thread of something like Jimmy Akin's recent post explaining that no, it is not acceptable under Canon Law for a priest to refuse to give communion to a 14-year-old girl because she is wearing a spaghetti strap dress. 150+ comments later, the tide seems to be flowing against Mr. Akin's reason, and in favor of those who insist that a glimpse of shoulder is doubtless just what is needed to send any red blooded man to hell. (I'm quite willing to agree that such a dress is almost certainly not appropriate attire for mass -- I just disagree with a) refusing communion to someone for that reason and b) insisting that seeing a girl in a spaghetti strap dress is somehow a grave incitement to sin for all or many of the male congregants.)

I've always been annoyed, as a man, by this line of argument -- and not primarily because I don't want to give up the occasional sight of a well-formed shoulder blade or clavicle. Rather, it annoys me to hear other men claim that we are, as a sex, so completely controlled by our baser instincts that upon seeing a women in a spaghetti strap dress, we cannot help but to wallow in a desire to seize her roughly and have our way with her.

This isn't just a "I can hold my liquor so leave me alone and let me drink" kind of reaction. Rather, there is a certain kind of crassness, a debasement of all that is beautiful in the pursuit of avoiding lust, to which I believe many of us who are religious are prone to be tempted.

Lust is an ancient human failing, and yet one which took longer than many for us to properly understand. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II writes that before the fall Adam and Eve were "naked and unashamed" not because of some sort of happy hedonism (as a modern "liberated" person might think of it), but rather because in their state of initial grace, Eve knew that Adam would not (when looking at her) objectify her as a tool for gratification rather than seeing her for what she was: a person, his wife, his friend, his lover.

After the fall, each spouse suspected the other of desiring to exploit (and both felt within themselves the desire to exploit the other) and so they were ashamed and clothed themselves.

Though ancient Israel was far from being without standards in regards to modesty (by modern standards they were positively Taliban-like) Lust is first clearly defined as serious sin (rather than simply a desire to commit a sin) by Christ when he says, "He who thinks impure thoughts about a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

If anyone needed proof that Christ was here to give us "difficult sayings" and not merely to provide psychologically comforting advice, this is it. The idea that simply thinking "impurely" could somehow be on a par with committing adultery has given many people sleepless nights ever since. What then does it mean to have impure thoughts?

Lust, the having of impure thoughts about another, seems to me to be different from simply noticing that someone is attractive to the eye or from appreciating that attractiveness. One may admire someone without lust. Admiration may even be in regard to those qualities which are generally thought of as sexual. Christ described lust as adultery of the heart, and I think that gives us a rather good direction to think in. Adultery is choosing to seek sexual satisfaction with someone other than your spouse. Lust is the attempt to gain sexual satisfaction from someone you're not having sex with. While the object of lust may never know that the sin takes place, lust is a sin of violation as well as impurity. The man who commits lust uses a woman as a tool for his satisfaction (or arousal) without her even knowing it -- a sort of mental incubus.

What, then, of modesty? We know that sin is a matter not merely of action but of will. Thus, if one tries to commit adultery but is turned down one's prospective partner in sin, one is morally just as guilty as if one had been successful. If propositioning someone is just as sinful as actually committing adultery, then intentionally inciting lust is in itself sinful, regardless of whether anyone is actually inspired to lust by one's actions.

If lust consists of "adultery of the heart" and the objectification of another, then inciting lust is behavior which intentionally seeks to achieve this result. Some examples are obvious: erotic dancing, posing for Playboy, etc. Other examples may be very culturally specific. In conservative Muslim or Hindu circles, even the long sleeved tee shirts and denim jumpers of the Catholic homeschooling set would look scandalous. And traditional female dress in sub-saharan Africa would be unacceptable for public venues even in our own notoriously skanky society.

The distinction between modesty and incitement to lust is not necessarily a matter of the quantity of skin exposed, or which skin is exposed. I think one could more successfully make the case that the swimsuit model to the right is behaving in a manner to incite lust than that the Venus of Urbino is -- though the model would merely attract attention if she went to a beach dressed like that, while the Venus would be arrested if she appeared thus in public. The Venus's nudity violates our cultural norms, which demand that certain parts of a woman's body be covered in public. Yet Titan's painting does not seek to cause lust. It shows the human body as a work of art and a thing of beauty, but not an object of lust. There is no "come hither" in the eye of Venus. Indeed, in facial expression, she looks more like a Madonna than a pagan goddess.
In guarding ourselves against lust, we must remember that God created not only our souls, but also our bodies, and that when he looked upon his creation "He saw that it was good." Because of this, we must avoid thinking of the human body as inherently evil or corrupting. Certainly, is is something capable of stirring powerful urges and emotions, and thus something which should not be mis-used. But there is not an inherent evil in bare shoulders, or indeed bare anything, to the extent that they are not used as sexual objects.

While we must guard against lust, in a society which does all too much to promote it and suffuses daily life with a discomforting mist of free floating sexuality, we must at the same time mind that we do not stray into the equal and opposite vice of prurience: that corruption of the mind which turns even that which is pure into an object of temptation and desire.

Thus, while good Catholic girls and women must avoid clothing and behavior that deliberately incites lust, good Catholic men must avoid falling into the trap of accepting the societal consensus that any sight of an attractive woman, attractively attired and made up, must necessarily inspire in any man who sees her either the desire to have sex with her, or at least the idea to think about doing so. If we accept this way of thinking about women and about beauty, we have already lost the battle against lust, and no degree of raving against bare soulders and long legs will mend the situation.


Kate said...

Wonderful! Well written, clear....gosh, I recognise most of the ideas from the ToB and Love and Responsibilty, but have rarely encountered them expressed so well. Thank you!

Pro Ecclesia said...

I KNEW you wouldn't let me down! There HAD to be a Lima pic in there somewhere.

As Lima photos go, however, you went with a fairly safe choice.


Fred said...

Ahem. I read this post for the articles.


Kiwi Nomad said...

You have written a lot here that needs re-reading and thinking about. I will be back.

There are two times while I was away overseas when I had unpleasant and scary experiences, once on a walking track and once on a cycle track. Both times I was fully clothed as it was coolish. The mere fact that I was a woman seemed to lead to two men seeing me as an object. My modesty had no bearing on it. Thankfully, I emerged safely, though shaken, both times.

John Farrell said...

Excellent post, Brendan.

Anonymous said...

You may have heard that sex sells, and this is true, but modesty is the sex of conservative Catholic blogging.

Snort. Very, very true. Last time I checked, Jimmy Akin's post had reached 228 comments, and the discussion had progressed (inevitably) to veils, swimsuits, and the SSPX.

Thus, while good Catholic girls and women must avoid clothing and behavior that deliberately incites lust, good Catholic men must avoid falling into the trap of accepting the societal consensus that any sight of an attractive woman, attractively attired and made up, must necessarily inspire in any man who sees her either the desire to have sex with her, or at least the idea to think about doing so.

YES. One of the things that frustrates me most about a lot of the modesty rhetoric one hears in Catholic circles is the assumption that if a man can look at a woman and feel lustful, she is being immodest. This places on the woman a demand that is not only unfair but also impossible--for (as a friend once pointed out), there are surely men walking down the streets of Baghdad, looking at the women and thinking, "Yeah, but under that burkha, she's NAKED!"

Kiwi Nomad said...

My goodness, I had to visit that thread.... I haven't seen anything like it before, so clearly I have led a sheltered blogging life!

Razib Khan said...

i like the picture of the female in the swimsuit.

he prose was good too.

Rick Lugari said...

I agree with the previous commentors. Very good articulation of the matter and good use of deductive reasoning in hashing it out.

My notes:

I'm a proponent of modesty of dress at Mass. It really is a respect thing...respect for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and those around you. And it's not merely a temptation to lust thing either... If I'm being vulnerable to that sort of temptation, I find a long skirt and mantilla on a pretty woman stimulating. And while it wouldn't be "lustful" concerning my wife, she looks really hot to me in her church garb.

That being said, what's up with that last image? To me that's the most scandalous of them all. Just what the hell is that Venus chick doing lounging around naked while her daughter and some other chick are present? No wonder the kid is off in the corner crying. Poor thing is going to be seriously disturbed - probably get into drugs and work as a lap dancer to support her abusive husband's drinking habit.

PB said...

Well written!

Darwin said...

Heh... I think those are servants getting her clothes out of a chest, Rick.

Now the dog, however. He's clearly been so traumatized by the display that he's curled up and passed out right there on the bed.

Rick Lugari said...

Ha, just look at the scale of the girls in the background. Clearly the one who is trying to hide in the chest out of shame is much smaller. Surely she's a girl of 12 ashamed of her mother's wantonness and perhaps feeling a tad bit inferior to her mother's beauty. Yepp, one troubled individual in the making. If they had Jerry Springer back then, she would surely be a guest when she turned seventeen. Freak! Freak! Freak!

Anonymous said...

Father Larry Richards put it quite well when he said that there is nothing wrong with looking at a beautiful woman and thinking "God, you do good work!".

But that having been said, there really has to be some objective standards as to what is appropriate at mass.

This reminds me of a story that my godson's dad was telling me about one weekend at mass. (My godson is quite precocious, and maybe a little micheivous at times).

He was 6 years old at the time, and they were sitting at mass behind a family which contained a girl of about 16 with a speghetti strap sun dress with no under garments which the skirt ended about an inch below her buttocks.

At the sign of peace, my godson went down the line shaking the hands of the people saying "peace be with you", "peace be with you", "peace be with you"... and when he got to the girl, he stopped and with a shocked look on his face, made a motion of licking his hand and slicking down his hair and said: "Woah BABY!!!"

My godson's dad was cracking up, but the girl's father wasn't amused. I have to ask her dad: "Why did you let her go out of the house looking like that let alone to MASS?!?!?"

I believe that's plenty over the line, but I'd also imagine that at the mass at the nudist camp, she would have been over dressed.

So how do we design, and more importantly enforce, decent dress codes at mass?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many of those objectors to a spaghetti strapped dress at Mass got married or married someone in a spaghetti-strapped or strapless wedding gown. Honestly, women have been getting married with bare shoulders forever (atleast since the 50s). Since when did shoulders become indecent?

Tom McKenna said...

Sadly, things have slid so far in the Church that we have a tidal wave of immodest dress at most typical parish events, especially during the summer.

Is it really so downright radical to suggest a return the ways of our forbears of only 40-50 years ago, when shorts, tight pants or tight shirts, and skirts well above the knees were simply out of the question for a Catholic lady?

This does not imply that we want or need to see burkas. But between the indifference or scoffing at the project of restoring modesty of dress among our Catholic young ladies, and burkas, there must be some happy median.

I can't understand why a Catholic parent would value so-called fashion for their daughters (usually meaning whatever the crowd of secular girls are doing)above the virtue of modesty. Our daughters will not be judged on how hip they were or how popular; they will have to give an account for whether they might have been more thoughtful about modesty in their clothing.

Bottom line: a woman can dress attractively and modestly: why not a movement to implement this?

mandamum said...

I really enjoyed this post, as I do so many of your thoughtful posts!

Regarding bare shoulders at a wedding, I have to say that while I chose to wear a dress with sleeves, they are *hard* to find... and I ended up sewing mine anyway. But if the wedding is a formal affair (with men in tuxedos or morning suits), the dress code for a formal event (even within a Mass, perhaps?) is different. So perhaps it is not immodest to show one's shoulders in a formal gown when it would be immodest to show one's shoulders in a regular sundress. Just a thought. And of course formal dresses don't usually end above the floor, let alone above the knee :)


Darwin said...

First, let me say that I do agree that respect for the church as a building as most especially for the presence of the Blessed Sacrament should be observed in how people dress for mass. It wouldn't be immodest for me to wear cargo shorts and sandals when attending mass, but it would show a lack of respect for the situation. (The exception, I would argue, being that allowances should be made for situations where someone who happens to be wearing attire appropriate to a given situation -- such as a seaside town -- decides on the spur of the moment do drop in to mass.) As the father of three young daughters, I fully expect to have to lay down the "we don't wear that to mass" or "we don't wear clothes like that in our family" law from time to time in ten years or so.

That said, in reference to Tom McKenna's comment:

Is it really so downright radical to suggest a return the ways of our forbears of only 40-50 years ago, when shorts, tight pants or tight shirts, and skirts well above the knees were simply out of the question for a Catholic lady?

I don't think it's appropriate to intentionally push towards the more provacative end of the fashion spectrum at any given time -- despite the fact that many cultural standards of appropriate dress are essentially relative. Thus, shorts were considered edgy for any woman to wear fifty years ago -- and so Catholics advised women not to do such things. A grown woman wearing shorts does not carry the same cultural connotations now as it did in 1950, so I'm not sure that there would be a great deal of point in trying to reinstitute that particular taboo at this point.

What I do think is important is avoiding dress or behavior that is (according the cultural conditions wherever you are) considered provocative. So while I would not envision banning the Darwin girls from wearing shorts, you may be assured that short shorts with the adjective "Juicy" emblazoned on the rump are verboten.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Very well reasoned!
On the people that think spaghetti straps are racy:
Personally, I don't see a spaghetti straps or a sundress as immodest or inappropriate for church. Granted, it should not be cut to *there* but just above the knee (not four inches above) seems perfectly modest. Do men not get lustful toward a woman fully clothed? Maybe it's not only the fault of the woman?

Kiwi Nomad said...

Shorts are very appropriate when cycling on hot days, or when tramping in the New Zealand bush on any kind of days. They are practical. If a man has a problem with me wearing shorts in those circumstances, it is definitely his problem, not mine.
I am impressed that your thread has grown so long darwin;-)

Unknown said...

BTW, I isn't just women who can dress provocatively. I walk for exercise, and the summer months can be a problem for me, when male fellow walkers choose to run in tight shorts, running shoes...and nothing else.
(Swimming pools aren't as bad, since then I have my glasses off, and my vision is too blurry for there to be a problem !)