An assistant principal at a Texas High School recently came under fire for making comments that were “inappropriate and offensive to students.” What did he say? During an assembly he called out the young ladies in the school for wearing tight clothes and short shirts. He went on to blame them for “the boys’ low grades” intimating that they are distracted by the clothes many of the girls wear. While his comments may have been lacking in humor and mode of delivery, they were not lacking in truth. He was challenging them to dress more modestly. The problem is that many young people lack the necessary context to understand the value of modesty and therefore are “offended” when someone says something.
Before he was to become Bishop of Rome, Fr. Karol Wojtyla wrote what might ultimately become his most important work, Love and Responsibility. In it, he examines the relationship between the sexes and lays out the foundations of what would become his Theology of the Body. Perhaps if the Assistant Principal was familiar with the work, he would have been able to draw on Fr. Wojtyla’s lengthy discussion on the importance of modesty.
In the book he makes what many today would consider a radical assumption—that men and women are different. This difference is not just skin deep but goes to the very depth of their being as man and woman. In fact our bodies are simply expressions of these differences rather than the totality of these differences. These differences even affect the ways in which men and women are attracted to each other.
When one speaks of being “attracted” to someone, it primarily means that there is a response to a perception of some value in that person. But because the person is not just an object but also a subject, there is always the danger of treating the other as a “something” rather than a “somebody.” To guard against this tendency, Fr. Wojtyla articulates what he calls the personalistic norm—“A person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”
The sexual attraction (Wojtyla calls it the “sexual urge”) between men and women is a recognition of the sexual value of the other person. It is experienced in two forms; sensuality and sentimentality. Sensuality is the attraction to the body of the person of the opposite sex. Sensuality is stirred when we encounter a person of the opposite sex and find value in their body as an object of personal enjoyment. Sentimentality is the emotional attraction to the sexual value residing in the whole person in the form of their masculinity and femininity. Since sensuality is oriented towards the body as an object of enjoyment, it is generally stronger in men while sentimentality because it is more relational is strongest in women.
Because the sexual urge is so strong, there is always the danger that men and women will look upon the other person merely for their sexual value. They then become an object of pleasure rather than a person to be loved. In order for love to develop the entire “value” of the person must be seen and not just their sexual value. What this means is that men and women must keep some of their sexual value hidden so that true love can blossom.
This, Fr. Wojtyla says, is the value in the experience of shame. Shame arises any time that something which by its very nature ought to be private somehow becomes public. Sexual shame arises when the sexual value of the person obscures their personal value. Shame then acts like a protectant against use. Most of us have experienced this. A man instinctively will look away when he is caught staring at a woman he finds attractive. A girl who is dressed immodestly will be forever adjusting her clothes. Although they may not articulate it as shame, it is experienced by all but those who are shameless. Modesty on the other hand is the “constant capacity and readiness to feel shame.”
As I mentioned sensuality is generally stronger in men. This means that modesty and shame must be more pronounced in women. The problem is that women are not primarily inclined to sensuality and so they do not intuit the need to conceal the body. Modesty comes about when they gain an insight into male psychology
Even if it fell flat in its delivery, the Assistant Principal was trying to offer a much-needed insight into the male psychology. Perhaps rather than being offended, what the students experienced was shame. It isn’t just the boys’ problem for not focusing and it is not just the girls’ problem for dressing immodestly. It is the self-perpetuating problem of use. The girls dress immodestly, deliberately flaunting their sexual value, the boys respond by seeing only that. The boys treat them as objects to be used and the girls accept this use.
The problem, I said, was one of context. When we hear the word modesty we are immediately drawn to a Victorian encounter between men and women. We must free modesty from this image. Remember the goal is to keep sexual values from obscuring the true value of the person. This does not mean that the person should hide all of their sexual value, only to the extent that they can be seen as a part of the value of the person. The accentuation of sexual value by dress is inevitable and is not necessarily incompatible with modesty. It is when the attire is chosen specifically to provoke a reaction that it becomes immodest. As Fr. Wojtyla says, “What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object love by reason of his or her personal value’.”
Most importantly, and this is what those young ladies needed to hear, modesty is more than keeping the boys from failing their classes and more than just protecting themselves from being gawked at. “Sexual modesty is not a flight from love, but on the contrary the opening of a way towards it.” Each of those young ladies desires to be loved and dressing immodestly, even if it garners attention, will never foster true love. Only modesty frees love to blossom.