Whom Does Modesty Serve?

Whom Does Modesty Serve? April 4, 2016

I’ve got sex on the brain, and before I start into that conversation, I want to lay out a few comments about the limits of modesty.

Here’s a quick working definition: With respect to chastity, modesty is the collection of actions we take in order to safeguard our purity.  Modesty includes not only the way we dress, but the way we interact with others.

There are of course other areas where modesty applies — with respect to our wealth, our accomplishments, and so forth.  For your homework, you can take today’s principles and apply them to the other areas.

There is only one class of people whom modesty serves: The people who wish to remain chaste.

Modesty is thus a collection of habits and choices that we can use to avoid temptation ourselves, and to avoid putting others in the path of temptation — but it is only of use to people who wish to avoid sexual temptation.

If it is my desire to pursue some unchaste relationship, I’m not going to be foiled by a collection of modest customs.  Even if I’m meticulous in observing every outward sign of modesty in public view, if it is my desire to initiate some illicit activity, I’ll find a way to manage it on the sly.

If it is my desire to prey upon some innocent person, no amount of modesty is going to deter me.

It is thus important to distinguish modesty from self-defense. Sometimes an action can have more than one possible meaning.  I might decline to have a friend in for drinks alone in my apartment because I’m aware that we’re both terribly attracted to each other and I’m concerned we’ll get carried away in the heat of the moment.  That’s modesty.  In contrast, keeping someone you fear might rape you out of your apartment isn’t modesty, it’s self-defense.


I make these distinctions for two reasons:

  1. Some people will argue that because modesty doesn’t serve anything other than its intended purpose, it therefore has no value.  That’s a bit like saying that safe driving habits are of no value because you can just drive your car into a wall if you wish to wreck it.
  2. Some people will say that acts of sexual violence are due to a lack of modesty.  That would be like proposing the reason your neighbor slashed your tires was because you didn’t rotate them regularly.

Just because modesty has to do with sex, willful acts of impurity have to do with sex, and acts of sexual violence have to do with sex, does not make the three interchangeable.  They are each distinct.  Modesty is about the quest for purity; the other two are about actively seeking out some form of impure behavior.


An addendum: I’d like to observe, separately, that modesty is not about intention alone.  Just as you can actively wish to maintain your car properly or drive it safely, but have no idea how to go about it, likewise you can wish to pursue a life of purity and be unaware that you’re behaving in ways that are working against your goals.

That said, the fact that someone is haplessly disregarding age-old common sense concerning modesty in no way changes my two points above.  My ignorance might put me in a situation where I’m tempted to the breaking point and carry out some action I later regret.  This is different from knowingly seeking out occasions of sin.  It’s the difference between not knowing to check your oil and intentionally running your engine dry.

Likewise, I might be ignorant of the principles of both modesty and self-defense, but my ignorance is not what causes someone else to have violent intentions towards me.   I might unwittingly make myself more likely prey, but my ignorance cannot stir up in a pure-hearted person the desire to commit some act of violence.  Predators look for easy prey.  The pure-hearted seek to protect those who show they are unable to protect themselves.


For Further Reading:

Here’s a discussion of modesty from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

2522 Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

2523 There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.

2524 The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.

CCC 2521-2524


For more of what I’ve had to say in the past on the topic of modesty:


File:Meister von Seitenstetten - Maria Verkündigung.JPG

Since I’m writing on the feast of the Annunciation, for our artwork here’s Wikimedia’s well chosen image of the day: The Annunciation by the Master of Seitenstetten (User:Uoaei1) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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