One thing I enjoy, when reading Jane Austen, is her depiction of a certain type of social boor who has not altered much in the past three hundred centuries: the man who, setting himself up as an arbiter of propriety, ends up the worst offender against it.
Mr. Collins, who regales the bored young women with sermons, and refuses to take Lizzie’s “no” for an answer, is the prime example of this type. In his obsession over what is correct, especially correct for young ladies, he ends up behaving with marvelous social incorrectness.
Yet not even Mr. Collins, the paragon of boorishness varnished with unctuousness, would have the impropriety to tell a woman to cover her shoulders because of his sexual urges.
Can you even imagine him attempting it? Can you even imagine Austen trying to depict it?
Her metier is the construction of the moment of social cringe, but in the panoply of social cringiness, a man telling a woman to hide away her bosoms lest his sexual paroxysms get the better of him is too cringy even for Austen’s world.
(And lest you imagine that no bosoms were exposed in Austen’s day, may I refer you to art history? Google “regency fashion.”)
For a man to tell a woman that she needs to cover up because of his own sexual desires is the height of crass impropriety.
Yet that is what a number of self-styled conservative religious individuals are defending – in the name of propriety, and of modesty.
Aside from the fact – which I have discussed before – that there is far more to modesty than the issue of bodily exposure – and aside from the fact that traditional Christians seem to lump all extra-marital sexual desire in one big heap labeled “bad” without distinctions – it is never appropriate for one person to tell another “I am having sexual urges because of your body” if they are not already in a mutually consenting relationship of respect and communication.
Because that’s what the “modesty police” are saying, really. Disguised under the language of moral superiority is the subtext: “I am horny” and “it is your fault.” This is not, to get Austenian on you, the subject matter of a gentleman.
The fundamental immodesty of modesty policing
Much has been made of the fact that this kind of declaration victim-blames, placing the responsibility of sexual response on the Other, not on the one experiencing the response. And it has been noted that this approach to the sexuality of bodies is fundamentally objectifying.
What I want to emphasize here is that this approach is, in the terms of traditional morality, fundamentally immodest. It is immodest to force a person to listen to your accounts of your sexual desires, and especially immodest to involve that person in your sexual desires without their consent.
Before you even get to the point of saying “it’s your fault,” pointing the finger at the victim instead of taking responsibility for your own sexual tendencies, you have already violated the dignity of the other person by drawing them into this discussion of your sexual desires, your sexual problems, your lack of self-control, your unappealing angst about it – all without their consent.
In terms of more contemporary understandings of what is or is not appropriate, this is harassment.
Behavior so crass and vulgar, not even an Austen buffoon-villain would try it.
image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1819-evening-dress-Ackermanns.png