Modesty and Sexual Affirmation

In some of my recent writing about the dangers of porn, it’s easy to begin thinking about modesty in its defensive and purely negative function, in so far as modesty can act as a shield from temptation and exploitation. While this is appropriate, such an emphasis can sometime overlook the important aspect in which modesty is an affirmation of sexuality.

The role that modesty plays in affirming the goodness of sexuality is something I explored in my Salvo article ‘Holy Matrimony: The Unexpected Connection Between Religion & Sexual Fulfillment‘ and my blog post ‘Why Being Modest is More Exciting than Being Immodest.’ Here is what I observed in the former article, looking at modesty first from the female perspective and then the male perspective:

The Female Perspective. Some women have told me that modesty is important to them, not only because it helps men not to stumble, but also because it helps them place a high value on their own sexuality. They have told me that modest apparel affirms the true importance of a woman’s sexual identity, since it proclaims that her body is not a tame, benign, and commonplace thing. Modesty affirms that our bodies in general and our sexuality in particular are special, charged, even enchanted, and too exciting to be put merely to common use. As Kathleen van Schaijik suggested in a 1999 article, “If we revere something, we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused.”

In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues that modesty is the truly erotic option, since it makes the highest valuation of a woman’s sexual identity, affirming the sacredness of sexuality and displaying a commitment to setting it apart and cherishing it. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the same principle in That Hideous Strength: “when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common.” To dress immodestly is ultimately to reduce our sexuality to something commonplace, trivial, and humdrum.

Precisely for this reason, a modest woman significantly upgrades the significance of what is happening when she undresses in front of her husband. As Havelock Ellis observed (stumbling upon the truth for one of the few times in his life), “without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candor which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity.”

The Male Perspective. Modesty also upgrades sexuality from the male perspective. The evidence clearly shows that men whose environment is saturated with immodest women (either because of the company they keep or the images they view) are generally not oversexed, as one might suppose, but just the opposite. In Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, men are often quoted as saying that sex has become boring.

Cristina Odone observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did. The reason, she suggested, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal that it doesn’t entice us any longer. As one 16-year-old was quoted as saying in 2004, “I’m so used to it, it makes me sick.”

Frequent exposure to nudity tends to trivialize the human body, emptying it of its implicit eroticism. As someone said to me last year, when a man is exposed to too much flesh, it lowers the healthy excitement he should feel when he looks upon the body of his wife because (yawn) he sees that all the time. It therefore takes a higher sexual charge, sometimes to point of extreme perversion, to match the excitement that might otherwise be available in a normal sexual encounter. Could it be that the rise of libido-enhancing drugs is meeting a need created by the libido-squashing effects of pornography?