Making Sense of Modesty (1)

Nowadays many people think modesty is merely an outdated, moralistic idea. But why does the concept of modesty even arise in the first place?


The word 'modesty' has two meanings. The first is simply humility. The second regards the potential sexual attraction of the body, and how one's attitude, manner of dress and of presentation tend to accentuate or diminish that attractiveness as perceived by others. Modesty in this second sense is used mainly to refer to women's sexual attractiveness to men, since men are more typically affected in this way visually than are women.

When people hear the word 'modesty' they immediately tend to think of 'morality'.

But have you ever wondered why the concept of modesty even arises?

Nowadays many people react negatively to the very idea of modesty, thinking it is an outdated, moralistic idea. But I want to go back to a prior question – what does modesty have to do with masculine-feminine attraction? I am not addressing the moral question here but why a moral question would even have reason to arise in the first place. For that there has to be some underlying reality.

The Dynamics of Sexual Attraction

The underlying reality is the dynamics of sexual attraction. To put it at its simplest, if men felt no sexual attraction towards women's bodily form the question of modesty in the usual sense wouldn't even arise. If men looked at women and had no sexual feelings then all the typical discussions about modesty would be pointless.

What is it then that shapes men's sexual feelings? There is an underlying bodily reality that provides a basic orientation to men's physical sexual response to women. Some of that involves the role of visual attraction. Because of that, people can be inclined to think that there is in men a fairly constant, strong sexual urge based purely on these physical realities.

But that is not the case. Men's sexual arousal is quite different from that of animals. It shares something in common, but is markedly different.

Men's sexual feeling is shaped to a high degree by emotion.

This is often not recognised, because people tend to think of 'emotion' in narrow terms. But emotion is the crossover zone, the field of connection, between the body's energies and the self conscious meaningfulness that integrates them into one's conscious self. Men process emotion in a predominantly 'aesthetic' way. Importantly, they seek meaningfulness in what they see. So when men look at women they are not merely 'seeing' what a camera would see, they are 'seeing the feeling' shaped by the emotional meaningfulness that colours perception.

An Example

If that sounds a bit complicated, it is easy enough to illustrate with an example. Everyone would be aware that there are some cultures where women's breasts are not perceived as having a sexual meaning. When men in those cultures see a woman's breasts they don't 'see' sexual meaningfulness but simply, or predominantly, 'maternal' meaningfulness. So it's not like they are going about being aroused all the time by the sight of breasts.

Yet in other cultures breasts have come to be perceived as having a high degree of sexual meaning. This comes about from two factors. The first sets the basic possibility by the custom of always keeping the breasts covered. That makes possible the second, of consciously attributing sexual significance to the breasts. The fact that women's breasts are routinely kept hidden, especially since the same is not required of men's chests, sets up a contrast between the masculine and feminine. The breasts then become potentially sexually meaningful. Once this possibility is recognised, and men show increased signs of interest in breasts as sexual, breasts come 'into play' as sexual signals that could be accentuated or diminished.

That which becomes accentuated can also become diminished.

In such a culture, the sexual significance of the breasts could also be diminished or even lost. If women routinely went bare-breasted, after an initial period of adjustment men would start attributing less sexual significance to breasts. Eventually they would no longer be perceived that way. The same general principle applies to other physical attributes whose sexual meaningfulness could be similarly accentuated or diminished. This is not to suggest that such a loss of felt significance would happen quickly and easily across a whole culture, although a loss of interest of that kind can affect individuals fairly quickly in certain circumstances.

Towards a Cultivated Spontaneity

Before we even get to the question of modesty then we have this field of the dynamics of masculine-feminine attraction.

There tends to be a fair bit of confused thinking on these matters.

The choice to cover or reveal various bodily attributes, especially those of notable difference between the sexes, does not begin as a question of modesty, but of attraction. It is only because a strong field of attraction is thereby established that the question of modesty then arises. It does so because the dynamics of attraction are not merely abstract, but have actual physical-sexual consequences. Having attributed sexual meaning to breasts, for example, this meaningfulness is 'transferred' via emotion to the senses, where sexual sensations occur.

So it is not as though this connection between the sight of breasts and an associated sexual arousal is a mere matter of choice for individuals. On the contrary it is experienced as being spontaneous and deeply grounded. It's not something that can be simply switched on or off by a mental readjustment as the occasion requires. The capacity to establish that distancing would usually require a long process and helpful circumstances.

The Connection between Emotion and Culture

All this tells us that there is a very significant connection between the emotional and the cultural realms.

Cultures can't just be changed at the drop of a hat.

But at the same time they can become more complex, so that different contexts denote different meanings, and these contexts might become highly demarcated. Or they might overlap a fair bit.

Let's take an example of overlapping contexts. A woman could wear a swimsuit that would be considered modest at the beach, but if the same woman was dressed in the same fashion working at a promotional stall in a shopping centre, this would be perceived quite differently. People would feel it was not playing the game by the rules.

There are many different contexts these days, and the very fact that people experience 'dissonance' at this is exactly the reason that the question of modesty arises. It is about the dynamics that occur within the 'field of play' in the attraction between the sexes. It reveals this as a kind of game, and in a game it is most important to play by the rules. So before something becomes a moral rule, it is perceived as a 'rule of the game'.

Diminishing Returns

We could go on at quite some length exploring the many different aspects of this matter, but I just want to address a particular question here. There are two tendencies in the relevant 'field of play'. One goes towards 'less sexy', even non-sexy, and the other towards 'more sexy', perhaps even to 'overtly sexual'. Those seeking to enhance their attractiveness might do so by being more 'sexy'.

But there is the phenomenon of 'diminishing returns', eventually tipping over into 'counter-productive'.

For argument's sake, let's say there was a general movement towards women going bare-breasted. Leaving aside what might be called 'philosophical nudism', or perhaps some misguided 'free the breast' campaign, the motivation for doing so presumably starts out as an attempt to be more sexy. But at a certain point you would get diminishing returns. Men's feelings would readjust, and no longer have an accentuated response. So what do you do? Keep going down that road? If you do there would no longer be an increase in attraction, but rather, something that had been felt to be special would now be felt to be 'ordinary'. If the motivation was to increase the attraction between the sexes, what would have been gained? Some of the potential for accentuated attraction would have been taken 'out of play'.

Implications for the Private Realm

How would these things affect individuals? When something has been well established as having sexual resonance, this is not only an issue about public attraction and associated issues of modesty. It also means that married couples have available to them something that is private, the accentuated attraction having been established in the public realm. This can then play a role in their intimate relations by giving them a distinctive source of sexual attraction available only to themselves, not to all and sundry.

But if the general standard changes it ipso facto affects private relations as well.

Men love to feel the accentuated attraction of women's sensual beauty, but if they want to indulge that completely in the public realm, what is there left for a couple to share as something special in private? As a society we would do everyone a favour by keeping some things private, and resisting the inclination to have more and more public 'sexiness'.

In order to do this we need to have clear and consistent 'rules of the game'. The clearer they are, the more effect small variations can then have in accentuating attraction by contrast. But where 'anything goes' there is no measure, so there is no common 'language' of sensual attraction and everything tends to diminish. This works for a while for those trying to be ever more 'sexy', but it is dependent on the declining 'attraction capital' that had been built up over the time it took for the culture to develop its previous sophistication.

If we don't adopt and respect some clear and reasonable 'rules of the game' we get two extremes. More exotic means to attract attention start to emerge, even while people more generally start to become jaded. Then instead of a middle course that fosters and preserves 'sustainable attraction' we end up lurching between jaded and degenerate.


You can see how far we can come in discussing the issue of 'modesty' before we even get to the question of morality. It is worth thinking about, because we can go down a road where we all lose something special, precisely because of having grasped for it, and wanted too much of it for our own good.

And the interesting thing is, the dynamics of attraction point in the same direction as the traditional moral guidelines.

Following sound moral guidelines preserves and enhances the 'attraction capital' implicit in the culture. Modesty is the 'rules of the game' that makes accentuated attraction possible and sustainable. This does not mean it is merely a technique, or a 'tactical ploy', and that is because our bodies are ourselves, and although masculine-feminine attraction has aspects that can be understood like a game, it is one that matters, because the dignity of persons matters.

You might like to read the second article in this series "Making Sense of Modesty" (2).