By Wendy Shalit
This afternoon I was reading a magazine for brides in which a woman had
submitted the following question: "My fiancé wants us to move in together, but I want to
wait until we're married. Am I doing our marriage an injustice?" The editor responded:
"Your fiancé should understand why you want to wait to share a home. Maybe you're
concerned about losing your identity as an individual. Or maybe you're concerned about
Space issues? Losing her identity? If this woman cared about those
things she wouldn't want to get married in the first place. Her question was a moral one.
She wanted to know what would be best for her marriage. And on this - however unbeknownst
to the magazine's new-agey editor - the evidence is in: Couples who live together before
marriage are much less likely to get married; and if they do marry, they're more likely to
get divorced. Yet the vocabulary of modesty has largely dropped from our cultural
consciousness; when a woman asks a question that necessarily implicates it, we can only
mumble about "space issues."
I first became interested in the subject of modesty for a rather
mundane reason - because I didn't like the bathrooms at Williams College. Like many
enlightened colleges and universities these days, Williams houses boys next to girls in
its dormitories and then has the students vote by floor on whether their common bathrooms
should be coed. It's all very democratic, but the votes always seem to go in the coed
direction because no one wants to be thought a prude. When I objected, I was told by my
fellow students that I "must not be comfortable with my body." Frankly, I didn't get that,
because I was fine with my body; it was their bodies in such close proximity to mine that
I wasn't thrilled about.
I ended up writing about this experience in Commentary as a kind of
therapeutic exercise. But when my article was reprinted in Reader's Digest, a weird thing
happened: I got piles of letters from kids who said, "I thought I was the only one who
couldn't stand these bathrooms." How could so many people feel they were the "only ones"
who believed in privacy and modesty? It was troubling that they were afraid to speak up.
When and why, I wondered, did modesty become such a taboo?
Modesty's Loss, Social Pathology's Gain
Many of the problems we hear about today - sexual harassment, date
rape, young women who suffer from eating disorders and report feeling a lack of control
over their bodies - are all connected, I believe, to our culture's attack on modesty.
Listen, first, to the words we use to describe intimacy: what once was called "making
love," and then "having sex," is now "hooking up" - like airplanes refueling in flight. In
this context I was interested to learn, while researching for my book, that the early
feminists actually praised modesty as ennobling to society. Here I'm not just talking
about the temperance-movement feminists, who said, "Lips that touch liquor shall never
touch mine." I'm talking about more recent feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who warned
in her book, The Second Sex, that if society trivializes modesty, violence against women
would result. And she was right. Since the 1960s, when our cultural arbiters deemed this
age-old virtue a "hang-up," men have grown to expect women to be casual about sex, and
women for their part don't feel they have the right to say "no." This has brought us all
more misery than joy. On MTV I have seen a 27-year-old woman say she was "sort of glad"
that she had herpes, because now she has "an excuse to say 'no' to sex." For her, disease
had replaced modesty as the justification for exercising free choice.
When I talk to college students, invariably one will say, "Well, if
you want to be modest, be modest. If you want to be promiscuous, be promiscuous. We all
have a choice, and that's the wonderful thing about this society." But the culture, I
tell them, can't be neutral. Nor is it subtle in its influence on behavior. In fact,
culture works more like a Sherman tank. In the end, if it's not going to value modesty,
it will value promiscuity and adultery, and all our lives and marriages will suffer as a
Four Myths Exposed
A First step toward reviving respect for modesty in our culture is to
strike at the myths that undermine it. Let me touch on four of these.
The first myth is that modesty is Victorian. But what about the story
of Rebecca and Isaac? When Rebecca sees Isaac and covers herself, it is not because she
is trying to be Victorian. Her modesty was the key to what would bring them together and
develop a profound intimacy. When we cover up what is external or superficial - what we
all share in common - we send a message that what is most important are our singular
hearts and minds. This separates us from the animals, and always did, long before the
The second myth about modesty is that it's synonymous with prudery.
This was the point of the dreadful movie Pleasantville, the premise of which was that
nobody in the 1950s had fun or experienced love. It begins in black and white and turns
to color only when the kids enlighten their parents about sex. This of course makes no
sense on its face: if the parents didn't know how to do it, then how did all these kids
get there in the first place? But it reflects a common conceit of baby boomers that
passion, love and happiness were non-existent until modesty was overcome in the 1960s. In
truth, modesty is nearly the opposite of prudery. Paradoxically, prudish people have more
in common with the promiscuous. The prudish and the promiscuous share a disposition
against allowing themselves to be moved by others, or to fall in love. Modesty, on the
other hand, invites and protects the evocation of real love. It is erotic, not neurotic.
To illustrate this point, I like to compare photographs taken at Coney
Island almost a century ago with photographs from nude beaches in the 1970s. At Coney
Island, the beach-goers are completely covered up, but the men and women are stealing
glances at one another and seem to be having a great time. On the nude beaches, in
contrast, men and women hardly look at each other - rather, they look at the sky. They
appear completely bored. That's what those who came after the '60s discovered about this
string of dreary hookups: without anything left to the imagination, sex becomes
The third myth is that modesty isn't natural. This myth has a long
intellectual history, going back at least to David Hume, who argued that society invented
modesty so that men could be sure that children were their own. As Rousseau pointed out,
this argument that modesty is a social construct suggests that it is possible to get rid
of modesty altogether. Today we try to do just that, and it is widely assumed that we are
succeeding. But are we?
In arguing that Hume was wrong and that modesty is rooted in nature, a
recently discovered hormone called oxytocin comes to mind. This hormone creates a bonding
response when a mother is nursing her child, but is also released during intimacy. Here is
physical evidence that women become emotionally bonded to their sexual partners even if
they only intend a more casual encounter. Modesty protected this natural emotional
vulnerability; it made women strong. But we don't really need to resort to physiology to
see the naturalness of modesty. We can observe it on any windy day when women wearing slit
skirts hobble about comically to avoid showing their legs - the very legs those
fashionable skirts are designed to reveal. Despite trying to keep up with the fashions,
these women have a natural instinct for modesty.
The fourth and final myth I want to touch on is that modesty is solely a concern for women. We are where we are today only in part because the feminine ideal has changed. The masculine ideal has followed suit. It was once looked on as manly to be faithful to one woman for life, and to be protective toward all women. Sadly, this is no longer the case, even among many men to whom modest women might otherwise look as kindred spirits. Modern feminists are wrong to expect men to be gentlemen when they themselves are not ladies, but men who value "scoring" and then lament that there are no modest women around anymore - well, they are just as bad. And of course, a woman can be modestly dressed and still be harassed on the street. So the reality is that a lot depends on male respect for modesty. It is characteristic of modern society that everyone wants the other guy to be nice to him without having to change his own behavior, whether it's the feminists blaming the men, the men blaming the feminists, or young people blaming their role models. But that is an infantile posture.
Restoring a Modest Society
JEWS READ a portion of the Torah each week, and in this week's portion there is a story that shows us beautifully, I think, how what we value in women and men are inextricably linked. Abraham is visited by three men, really three angels, and he is providing them with his usual hospitality, when they ask him suddenly, "Where is Sarah your wife?" And he replies, famously, "Behold! In the tent!" Commentators ask, why in the world are the angels asking where Sarah is? They know she is in the tent. They are, after all, angels. And one answer is, to remind Abraham of where she is, in order to increase his love for her. Yet it is not enough for there to be a Sarah who is in the tent; it is also necessary that there be an Abraham who appreciates her. So I think the lesson is clear if we want to reconstruct a more modest, humane society, we have to start with ourselves.
I don't think it's an accident that the most meaningful explication of modesty comes from the Bible. I was fascinated in my research to discover how many secular women are returning to modesty because they found, simply as a practical matter, that immodesty wasn't working for them. In short, they weren't successful finding the right men. For me this prompts an essentially religious question: Why were we created in this way? Why can't we become happy by imitating the animals? In the sixth chapter of Isaiah we read that the fiery angels surrounding the throne of God have six wings. One set is for covering the face, another for covering the legs, and only the third is for flying. Four of the six wings, then, are for modesty's sake. This beautiful image suggests that the more precious something is, the more it must conceal and protect itself. The message of our dominant culture today, I'm afraid, is that we're not precious, that we weren't created in the divine image. I'm saying to the contrary that we were, and that as such we deserve modesty.
Wendy Shalit's essays have appeared in The Wall Street journal,
Commentary, City Journal and other publications. Her book, A return to Modesty, was
published by free Press in 1999, and last year was reissued in paperback by Simon &
Schuster. This article was reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS. It was excerpted from a
speech delivered at Hillsdale College. (www.hillsdale.edu)