So the other day I tossed off this post about teaching our girls (okay, “our children, especially daughters”) the importance of modest dress, and then I promptly went off to play with my three-year-old (who was respectably clad in an oversize t-shirt and long pants) and subsequently spent the rest of the day de-cluttering and reorganizing the toy room. I didn’t re-visit the post until late that afternoon, when I was not remotely surprised to learn that aforementioned post had generated more feedback than usual. More than usual for me, I mean. Most of what I post doesn’t provoke much of a response. When I post on a topic like modesty, however, it is guaranteed that the same arguments will get trotted out and re-hashed ad nauseum in the comments section. At first I felt a little guilty for writing something so predictably inflammatory and then abandoning the thread to pursue my own selfish interests, but as I read what everyone had to say, the guilt completely dissipated and I felt that, if anything, I had served the greater good by letting nature take its course and thus prove my satirical point more effectively than I ever could have, had I taken the time to formulate thoughtful responses to everyone’s arguments.
(Incidentally, I appreciate those of you who recognized that I was “being funny” even if you personally didn’t find any of it at all amusing. It’s nice to have one’s evil intentions recognized.)
My husband mentioned to me last night that he had read my post and successfully resisted the temptation to make a complimentary-if-mildly-vulgar comment, as he wasn’t sure it would be appreciated. (A mildly vulgar comment is a terrible thing to waste.) I told him I had stopped reading the comments because the conversation was no longer about anything I had written originally. He said that most of my readers appeared to be entirely too somber and/or intellectual about the subject to appreciate my treatment, which I readily admit was both careless and unedifying–even if it was chock full of wisdom rarely seen in the Bloggernacle or any other place in modern life.
The fact is this: we emphasize modest dress more to our young women than we do to our young men because it matters more to young women than it does to young men. Wherever someone is exhorting young women to cover up their breasts, shoulders, stomachs and thighs, some other exasperated person is sighing, “Why don’t they tell the young men to wear pants that fit right?” There’s a very simple explanation: women aren’t turned on by men wearing baggy pants. In point of fact, women are either totally indifferent to men wearing baggy pants, or they are repulsed. (I’m speaking in generalities here. If baggy pants that hang below a young man’s BVD’s make you hot, you need to understand that you are atypical to the point of freakishness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you should be aware.) Therefore, while we may strongly prefer our young men to eschew ill-fitting trousers, there is not the same sense of urgency that there is with young women and their exposed bodies, which are so often and readily exploited sexually.
We emphasize modest dress more to our girls than to our boys for the same reason women bear the brunt of responsibility for contraception: because women have more at stake here than men have. It may not be fair, but nevertheless, that’s life.
To be sure, some women enjoy being ogled (or oogled, as the case may be) by every Tom, Dick and Harry who happen to glance their way. Most, however, do not. They only like to be ogled under specific circumstances by specific men (usually, one specific man per woman). This is not to say they have a problem with the general population finding them attractive or pretty or desirable. But they don’t crave intimate sexual scrutiny from the general population. That’s creepy.
By contrast, how many men out there do you suppose are worried about women getting the Wrong Idea about them because they failed to put on a belt that morning? Probably more than need to be, but still not that many.
A lot of you took issue with me comparing girls dressing immodestly for the purpose of attracting boys to boys being generally charming for the purpose of attracting girls because they are NOT THE SAME THING AT ALL. No, they are not. And that was precisely my point. There is no amount of skin a boy could show that would make a girl crazy with lust the same way the tiniest hint of breast will drive a boy to distraction. It’s not that girls don’t get lust-addled at all; it’s that they’re more often provoked by different stimuli and often for significantly different reasons. Were it not so, Playgirl would be a magazine primarily marketed to heterosexual women.
Semi-relevant aside: For reasons that are too complicated to get into here *cough*, in college my dorm-mates and I once spent a jocular evening poring over the Readers’ Fantasy Forum section of Playgirl, which (for those of you uninitiated) is composed of written erotica. I think I fell out of bed laughing at my friend’s read-aloud of “Jessie Rides the Range,” in which a naughty cowgirl has her way with a well-muscled ranch hand, but I digress. The point is that we were all of us as fond of men and interested in sex as the next straight girl, but we spent an average of one second looking at the nekkid pictures (which were being handled for artistic purposes I can’t disclose here) and devoted the rest of our leisure time to actually reading the articles (which I still wouldn’t swear were entirely geared toward heterosexual women, as entertaining as they were). Does any of you honestly envision a similar scenario being enacted on the men’s hall? It is a rhetorical question. End semi-relevant aside.
I know many folks out there could argue until the cows come home about whether men are really more at the mercy of visual stimuli than women are, or if women are socialized to deny their sexual feelings every time they see a male nipple, but I’m the type of person who thinks that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Men appear to be more at the mercy of visual stimuli because they just are. It doesn’t mean they can’t control their behavior or rein in their thoughts. (First cows, now reining–I swear this is all unintentional. You see how porn scars you for life, kids?!) It doesn’t mean they’re mere animals who can’t appreciate a woman’s intellectual and spiritual qualities. It’s not a sorry commentary on men at all. It’s just reality. Reality is full of a bunch of stuff young women ought to know but often end up learning the hard way. (If you’ll pardon the expression.)
I remember very little about the chastity lessons of my youth. I remember one particular “Ew!” moment when our Mia Maid adviser said, “I won’t lie to you: it is pleasurable.” (Gah, Sister C! What are you, forty???) And the rest is just kind of a blur with one take-home lesson: “Sex is beautiful and heavenly, but not until you’re married. For the unmarried it can only result in PAIN and HORROR.” Which is a reasonably compelling lesson for a lot of young women, who manage to abstain from sex right up until their wedding night. But it doesn’t do much to combat the strong emotions that arise in a young woman who finds herself craving intimacy with a young man she is very attracted to. This is the point at which a young woman could really use some old-fashioned facts of life.
When I was working in Young Women as an adult leader, I observed a couple of lessons about chastity. One of them was taught by an older woman (delightful in so many respects) who pleaded, “Oh, girls, please don’t give up your eternal potential for five, ten…fifteen minutes of pleasure!” (If I’d been in a college dorm, I might have fallen out of bed.) On another occasion one of the leaders said this: “You know, when you’re dancing with a boy or you’re holding hands and you’re really close, you’ll be thinking, ‘Oh, this is so sweet, this is so romantic.’ What you don’t realize is what the boy is thinking–which is not ‘this is so sweet, this is so romantic.’”
Yes, I understand it’s presumptuous. I’m sure there are many young men out there who think sweet and romantic thoughts all the time. You are about to tell me all about them. You’re also going to say that young people are perfectly capable of understanding celestial and Christ-like motivations for sexual purity and there’s no need to trot out the old Men Are Pigs standard. But I disagree. Not on the point that young people understand the more sublime arguments for chastity. I disagree that there is no need to teach young women that young men are not like them, especially not sexually. The reason we don’t balance our anti-mini-skirt tirades with some anti-baggy-pants tirades is that these two things don’t correspond to one another. There is no male equivalent to mini-skirts (at least not among the heterosexual) because women don’t tend to objectify (for want of a less-loaded word) men’s bodies the way men tend to objectify women’s bodies.
Please note that this does not mean that women don’t enjoy looking at attractive men, nor does it mean that women should dress in burqas so men aren’t tempted. A woman has no control over whether a man is tempted–you know, short of walking up to him and offering him the forbidden fruit herself. She can still choose for herself whether or not to be provocative, and young women will make smarter choices in this respect when they’re better informed about the effect they can (and usually do) have on men.
And here I am not trying to be funny. A young woman who assumes that the way she dresses is irrelevant to how a young man (or an old man) responds to her is naive and foolish. It has nothing to do with how men ought to behave toward women. How men ought to behave is a totally different subject. I am against implying that young women are responsible for men’s behavior. They’re no more responsible for men’s behavior than they are responsible for men’s nature. But not being responsible does not equal being ignorant.
Sure, maybe Sunday School isn’t the place for a discourse on human sexuality. But our current rhetoric about modesty already implies the things I’ve stated explicitly. I humorously suggested we just come out and say what we really mean. It would be gauche, yes, but just because it’s gauche doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work.