Modesty Shaming is Nothing New

St. Jerome tormented by visions of women immodestly playing stringed instruments

Over at Love, Joy, Femisim, Libby Anne is dealing with the latest attempt to shame young women into dressing and behaving in a way that young men consider modest. This “modest shaming” is an old trick.

Consider St. Jerome ( 347 – 420 CE), translator of the Bible, church father and posterboy for freudian analysis. In this letter Jerome is writing to a young Christian woman who has taken in a male monk to act as an advisor and steward. Despite the fact that she is declared a religious virgin there is still talk. Jerome wants to advise her to behave more modestly, eject the monk and move back in with her mother.

It starts off fairly respectfully, “In the first place my sister and my daughter, I wish you to know that I am not writing to you because I suspect anything evil of you.”

But soon enough, Jerome’s calm veneer begins to crack, and we get a look at what he’s really thinking:

A sensual mind pursues dishonourable objects with greater zest than honourable ones; and when a thing is forbidden hankers after it with greater pleasure. Your very dress, cheap and sombre as it is, is an index of your secret feelings. For it has no creases and trails along the ground to make you appear taller than you are. Your vest is purposely ripped asunder to shew what is beneath and while hiding what is repulsive, to reveal what is fair. As you walk, the very creaking of your black and shiny shoes attracts the notice of the young men. You wear stays to keep your breasts in place, and a heaving girdle closely confines your chest. Your hair covers either your forehead or your ears. Sometimes too you let your shawl drop so as to lay bare your white shoulders; and, as if unwilling that they should be seen, you quickly conceal what you have purposely disclosed. And when in public you for modesty’s sake cover your face, like a practised harlot you only show what is likely to please. [Letter CXVII]

Jerome does not know this woman, yet he’s describing her dress? He suspects nothing evil of her, yet in his mind he’s comparing her to a harlot? You can just imagine him drooling as he writes. No wonder Karen Armstrong described him as “sexually obsessed and one of the great voyeurs of all time.” Here’s the rest of Armstrong’s verdict on Jerome:

He has obviously studied women minutely, and is pruriently eager to pick up each and every movement, every mannerism. He is even excited by the creaking of a woman’s shoe. Watching a woman walk down the street, he immediately imagines her underwear; his eyes are skinned to catch a glimpse of her white shoulders. It is taken for granted that she is teeming with lust. Every movement, intentional or unintentional, is a sign of her “unexpressed” sexual desire.

It’s time to admit that if you’re obsessing about what the young women are wearing this season, then the problem may be you. Grow up, get a hobby and stop expecting women to save you from your own issues.

  • mikespeir

    Oh, man! Why did you have to post that painting of those sluts with their necks and faces showing? Obviously, I won’t be getting any work done today!

  • cyb pauli

    When has “modesty” ever worked? Can anybody point to a time when straight men totally forgot what is underneath a woman’s dress, veil, burqua, hijab, floor length skirt, pants or sunglasses? Sexual reproduction is a finely tooled mechanism older than the human species. I have serious doubts it can be fooled by a piece of cloth.

  • Pofarmer

    The more I study the Catholic Saints, especially the dr’s of theology, of which there are few, the more I am convinced that, as a group, they were seriously screwed up. That wouldn’t be a big issue, if their words weren’t taken as uncriticised dogma.

    • PsiCop

      Indeed! As I commented above, I can think of few “saints” who truly lived in a manner deserving of such a label. A lot of these guys said, did, and wrote some truly awful things.

      If you want just one example of something from one of the Church Fathers that ought to make your blood run cold, take a gander at the final chapter of Tertullian’s De spectaculis. It’s positively vomit-inducing.

      And yes, I’m aware Tertullian has never been sainted … but he is, nevertheless, revered and considered a Church Father; his influence on Christianity is evidenced by the presence of the Old Testament in Christians’ Bibles ever since his time; and the only reason he wasn’t sainted is because he’d joined a heretical Montanist commune (probably due to some kind of mid-life crisis), not because anything he wrote was unacceptable to Christians.

  • kessy_athena

    It really doesn’t matter what people wear, no matter how “modest.” It will become sexualized just because people are wearing it. How much you want to bet that in places where burquas are common that there are plenty of people who consider them a turn on?

    • cyb pauli

      I have sadly had to inform many an outspoken “modest” Muslimah that there is in fact burqua/hijabi/niquabi porn for the same men who claim females covering keeps them from sinning.

  • Thin-ice

    I’m pretty sure it’s evolution to blame for the “desire” that the male of our species displays for the female. In that sense it’s not a sin, it’s just what happens. Females display to attract males, and males pay attention. Leave it to religion to distort and pervert nature’s reproductive paradigms.

  • PsiCop

    Ah, St Jerome! He’s one of the guys who not only engaged in hypocrisy, he elevated it to an artform. He wrote crap like this, yet personally surrounded himself by wannabe nuns. He dallied with one of them (i.e. Paula); the two of them harassed her daughter Blaesilla into a monastic lifestyle so severe it killed her; and then he harangued Paula because she dared mourn her late daughter.

    Yeah, he was a class act, that guy. Truly a bastion of Christian compassion.

    I can think of few people better than St Jerome, to comment on upright behavior by Christians. He was such a wonderful example of Christian righteousness that the pious people of Rome finally had enough of his “compassion” and ran him out of town. (Paula, apparently, hadn’t, herself, had enough of him … she joined him in the East later on.)

    • Pofarmer

      Where do you find stuff like that?

      • PsiCop

        Biographies of St Jerome are common. A little time in a library should be enough to stir up more than a little revulsion for this beloved “Doctor of the Church.”

        My own knowledge of him … as well as a lot of other “saints” who in their personal lives were FAR from “saintly” … dates back to my fundie days, when I studied them intensely, and taught myself κοινη Greek so I could read the New Testament and most of the Church Fathers in their original language. (I knew Latin before becoming a fundie, so I was already able to read Jerome and the Latin Fathers.)

        I can count on one hand the number of “saints” who truly deserve such an appellation. The problem with this is not that they, themselves, were less than perfect; they were human, so of course they were imperfect! The real problem is that they were revered, frequently by other Christians who were fully aware of their devastating flaws, solely because of their doctrinal positions, and not because they lived their own lives in a truly upright or pious manner.

        Which is the worst reason of all to canonize someone.

  • closetatheist

    I’ve been to moderately conservative Muslim countries and from what I observed all the extreme female “modesty” bullshit makes society WORSE and far more disrespectful. I watched men literally stop, turn around, and bend over after a woman passed them, though she was covered from head to toe, and stare at her until they got a glimpse of the shape of her ass. I had men walk after me and try to look under my mid-calf length skirt. I saw men, in crowded markets, yelling at and thrusting their pelvis towards women who were less modestly covered. I spoke to men who admitted that the sight of a forearm got them extremely excited. It was assumed that I was fucking any man I was seen with and local men felt like it was ok to comment on that. Extreme, religiously motivated modesty creates severe sexual frustration and then tells men that there is no need to restrain themselves, resulting in lewd public behavior, aggressive sexual behavior, rape, the belief hat women are inferior in some way, the belief that women deserve whatever sexual treatment they get, etc. This is why I hate the “modesty culture” in America. If they got their way…

  • The Other Weirdo

    It’s time to admit that if you’re obsessing about what the young women
    are wearing this season, then the problem may be you. Grow up, get a
    hobby and stop expecting women to save you from your own issues.

    Hahahahahahaha! Man, if only that would happen, it would solve huge swathes of Middle East problems, not to mention all those American communities overflowing with sexual angst.