Femininism, Modesty and the Prostitutes of Calle Montera

Femininism, Modesty and the Prostitutes of Calle Montera February 22, 2014

Recently my colleague Kyle has posted a discussion of a video on the virtue of modesty.  I found it fascinating as a cultural artifact, since it assumes without question so many of the many tropes about modesty which dominate in discussions of this virtue by conservative Christians.  In particular, it frames modesty as a female virtue.  Or, another way of looking at it is to use a bit of feminist analysis:  it presumes that the male gaze is normative:  both men and women view women only through the perspective of men; women’s views of themselves are marginalized and replaced by how they are told to view themselves by men.

This brought me back to an unfinished post I started last summer after a visit to Madrid.  One of the red light districts in Madrid is Calle Montera, stretching south from Gran Via to Puerta del Sol.  For a 2-3 block stretch it is densely populated by prostitutes and their clients, along with large numbers of tourists and Madrilenos who are just passing through.  The boundaries of the region are unmarked but as real as a line painted on the street.  Within it the police turn a blind eye to solicitation but the women know to not step outside this zone.


Passing through Calle Montera last summer, I was struck by the sheer numbers of prostitutes.  In previous years I have seen a lot, but this year there were many more.  (I presume that this is a result of the economic situation.)   I was also struck by the distinctive way the women were dressed:  in particular by their shoes.  Every prostitute that I saw was wearing 5 inch heels, and a few were tottering (literally!) on heels that were at least 6 inches high.  In previous years I recall that go-go boots were the distinctive footwear.

I suspect that one reason for the distinctive footwear is to distinguish themselves from the other women passing through, including women heading to the dance clubs and bars in the neighborhood south of Puerta del Sol and who are dressed in “club wear”:  short skirts and dresses, tight jeans or leggings, but with sandals or low heeled shoes.    Their shoes and dress both establish their identity and serve as advertising.  They are a self-aware and self-identified commodity.  They want to be looked at but only for the purpose of initiating a commercial transaction.  They are commodifying themselves for the male gaze.

This distinguishes them from the the women heading to the clubs who, presumably, want to be looked at but for different reasons.  If we take the argument of the male gaze seriously, then they want to be looked at by men, for men’s reasons:  they make themselves over to fulfill men’s standards of sexy and beautiful.   They may be self-aware as the prostitutes of Calle Montera are, or they may being doing it unconsciously, because this is simply what women are supposed to do.   The video Kyle posted sets different standards, but the effect is the same: women are to see themselves as these young men see them, and their (male) gaze is determinative of their worth.  (As the song implies, girls who don’t meet their visual standard lack integrity.)

Unacknowledged, the male gaze makes any discussion of modesty problematic, since it can reduce the virtue of modesty to a dress code for women.  A rather extreme example of this is the blog Modesty Rediscovered:  check out their style inspirations and the advice, purportedly from Pius XII, on women’s dress.  My personal favorite from this list:

A modest outfit conceals rather than reveal the figure of the wearer; they do not unduly emphasize the parts of the body.

But even if we move away from this and take into account the male gaze, discussions of modesty seem to flounder.  A good example of this comes from a pair of blogs:  Sarah over the Moon and Rage Against the Minivan.  Both are written by Christian women, but in a pair of posts last year they crossed swords over modesty.   Rage started it with a discussion of an incident in which a male friend of hers goes clubbing and encounters a woman with a very low cut top and large breasts breasts which she has covered with glitter infused body oil.   Or, as she trenchantly puts it:  “she had glitter on her tits.”  The woman catches the man staring at her breasts and calls him out.   The question quickly became how to interpret this event.  Rage argued:

[W]hen a woman wears revealing clothing, then gets angry when men notice, that’s not cool either. It makes her a hypocrite….When a woman goes after a man for noticing her deep v, that’s shaming him. Trading shame for shame is not a win for womankind, my friends. A woman can wear whatever she wants. More power to her. What she can’t do is expect men not to notice. Most men can regard her charms then move on. If she wears a micromini and claims to not want a reaction from men, I’m going to straight up call her a liar but I’m not going to call her wrong for wearing it….[I]f you are going to wear what could be legitimately called “suggestive”, then just own it. Most men can appreciate the way you look and not lust after you, but don’t shame them for their appreciation.

Sarah argued forcefully against this position, writing

Though…the author of this post [does not] promote rape and sexual assault, [she] blatantly tell[s] women that their clothing choices can forfeit their right to bodily autonomy. Rapists and those who support them use THE SAME thinking to get away with rape and it works. Time and time again it works….This line of thinking doesn’t start with “that girl in the mini-skirt was asking to be raped.” It starts small. It starts with the idea that women don’t have the right to define their clothing choices. It starts with the idea that clothing can take away someone’s right to complain when they feel violated. It starts there….People–especially those in groups that face systemic violence–have the right to express discomfort. They have the right to “shame” those that they feel violated by. YES, even if they have glitter on their boobs. A truly “nice” guy who truly means no harm will respect that, apologize, and look away.  Saying that clothing can take away the right to bodily autonomy is dangerous, and it is participating it rape culture.

Reading both posts (and I recommend reading them at length, including the comments) points out that any discussion of modesty must contend with the reality of the male gaze.   We need to talk about what modesty means in the context of social structures which are asymmetric and privilege men, but we also need to talk about what we want modesty to mean.  Sarah wants to reject the normative power of the male gaze and give women the total autonomy to dress as they want.  As she put it in an earlier post entitled Feminism and Abstinence:

A feminist practice of abstinence…would reject any claim that women dressing immodestly gives men a right to look at them.

Women are free to choose what they wear and define for themselves what it means.  This is a remarkably libertarian, individualistic position.  The rest of this post about abstinence has a lot of thoughtful suggestions, but this is not one of them.  Sarah in her first post makes the point that dress is communication, but then fails to follow through:  communication cannot be separated from the milieu in which it occurs.

Rage, on the other hand, correctly wants to position the meaning within a broader social framework:  she also rejects the male gaze as normative, but realizes that men will indeed look and that they will do so in a social setting which defines beautiful and sexy in certain ways.  Women have to be prepared to accept the fact that if they speak with the “vocabulary” of the dominant culture, one infused by the male gaze, then they will not always be understood in the ways they intend.  Or, as my wife pointed out when I sketched this post to her:  the women with the glitter probably never thought of this as anything except some fun makeup.   But it had other meanings which she must acknowledge exist, even if she rejects them.

Dress is communication:  whether explicitly, as in the case of the prostitutes of Calle Montera, or implicitly, when men and women just follow the latest fashions as they get ready to go out on a Friday night.   But before we can establish appropriate dress codes, we to move the discussion beyond the male gaze:  can we define, as Catholics, an ethos of modesty that makes of it a non-gender specific virtue?  Can we establish new norms for understanding dress and behavior of both men and women, one based in mutuality and that explicitly refuses to accept the terms imposed by the male gaze?  I hope that we can, though the attempts I have run across mostly fail.  A quick search this morning for discussions of male modesty came up with a few interesting attempts, including this blog, Guys on Modesty.  But even here the discussion is shaped by a quote from Pope John Paul II that seems to frame virtue in terms of the male gaze:

God assigns as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman. (*)

So, I end with a question, since I don’t have any answers:  what are we to do?  How can we make modesty a beautiful virtue for both men and women while leaving behind this notion that women are passive and men define the terms?


(*) As an aside:  I cannot find an original source for this quote, which seems to have come from a speech at an audience and not from any of his encyclicals or letters.)

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  • A truly “nice” guy who truly means no harm will respect that, apologize, and look away.

    Yes, but he has still “looked,” hasn’t he?

    God assigns as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman.

    Such a sexist the old pope was with his ridiculously romantic “Theology of the Body”! Why can’t we just as easily say “God assigns as a dutty to every woman the dignity of every man”?

    Much of this “modesty” issue is so childish and tiring–and also very, very uncivilized, coming as it does from products of an essentially puritanical culture.

    Shall I tell you a little story about “modesty”?

    When I was a very young boy and on holiday with my mother in Italy, for “Holy Year” of 1975, she got sick when we were in Firenze, and I got to finally get loose from her and wander around that city on my own. When I was in the Galleria Academia, in the rotunda area where they used to keep Michelangelo’s “David,” I chatted up some of the young docents who were expaining things and guarding the statue. They eventually told me that it was the best “pick up” place in Florence. They also explained to me the way they screened out the “good family women” who came through–and were unavailable–from the mostly “Anglo Saxon women” who were ready for a tumble. The “good family women” pushing their prams and accompanied by other family members looked directly at the statue, commented on its “size” laughingly and took a long time oohing and aahing over the figure’s beauty, whereas the “Anglo-Saxon” women would blush and turn away, or at least never look directly at the statue’s crotch. Those prudish dames were pursued into the cafe or gift shop by these young Italian studs, who chatted them up, exchanged telephone numbers and made appointments. It worked, I watched it working–they showed me, when I asked to see it.

    This false concern over “modesty” is a sign of a culture that I consider immature, and almost pathetically barbaric, and I’m seeing the same thing right here in Egypt, where I now live.

    People have bodies, most bodies are ugly and need covering in order to be presentable and not distracting. However, beautiful bodies SHOULD be on display; they are pleasing and a sign of God’s blessings upon the natural world. The “distraction” from the ugliness and banality of most of the modern world is a good “distraction,” and the “good family women” of Italy know it. The “puritans” of the frozen, heretical North are infected by a perveted weltanshaung springing from a very bad theology that colours their whole view of life.

  • Pingback: Modesty, Male Gazes, and Virtues | Gaudete Theology()

  • Mark VA

    Here is my non-scholarly, school yard remark à propos Messrs. Cruz-Uribe’s and Cupp’s pair of posts:

    Is it spring break over at Vox Nova already? O have you’ all been watching Blue Angel again?

    You know, as we men become older, all his tends to become just a hazy, sometimes wistful, memory (well, for most of us). But enjoy the discussion while you still can. One concluding semi-scholarly remark – Mr. Cruz-Uribe wrote:

    “Rage started it with a discussion of an incident in which a male friend of hers goes clubbing and encounters a woman with a very low cut top and large breasts breasts which she has covered with glitter infused body oil.”

    I guess it shows some things always travel in pairs.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I should probably fix that, but I am going to leave it as otherwise your joke falls flat, and I deserve to have your jeu de mot against me retained.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

        You are a class act – a tip of the hat to you!

        And to add some historical perspective to this perennial subject, here is another class act that deserves a hearing:


        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks Mark. A class act and very modestly dressed, although in some sense that dress leaves very little to the imagination. 🙂

    • Ronald King

      Mark, Spring training did start this week and my wistful memory goes to a time when my fastball would rise and tail and my fantasy was about the major leagues with me the hero basking in all my glory. The English rockers invaded America around that time and Uncle Sam wanted me to do something different. This was about five years before the introduction of tank tops and hot pants. Oh well. The “male gaze” is an interesting thing which came up during counseling sessions I had with married couples. As I recall we had to work on increasing the man’s awareness of his reaction to women he found attractive with all of the associations with that particular stimulation. With the women our focus became the history of pain and rage associated with the development of an identity imposed upon them from a male dominated family and social environment. What we eventually brought to the attention of each was the awareness that each person in this relationship had a crisis of identity throughout their lives which prevented them from seeing themselves and others as truly valuable and worthwhile human beings. They had become either good objects or bad objects while escaping into different fantasies to prevent reality from taking over.
      An interesting thing is when the brain stem is the only remaining living part of the brain operating it will initiate the eyes to turn to whatever is stimulating or different in the environment. I see this everyday with people who have fully functioning brains. The tail is wagging the dog. A lot of fantasies begin and end with whatever controls that tail.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. King, thank you for your response – fascinating reading.

        As I was reading it, I began thinking of the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni. Would you say it is just a fanciful device to advance the plot, or is it perhaps an accurate observation? Or did Da Ponte inject too much of his adventurous life here? Or is there something else going on?

        I guess what I’m trying ask, how common do you think, are Don Giovannis among us?


        • Ronald King

          Huh?! Did Giovanni play first base for the Mets? My wife just told me I am a cultural idiot and she also wants to know where the women are in this discussion. I expressed to my wife how much I enjoyed the video and now I must treat her to a performance to begin to make up for the deprivation she has endured for the last 38 years. Help me!:)
          What impressed me with the Catalogue was my impression of the light-hearted affect of the music as he lists all of the conquests of Giovanni. One of the characteristics of growing into “manhood” was to have a number of “conquests”. I would say that this attitude would be present in most males and to act out this attitude would require the assistance of a sociopathic trait being present in one’s psyche. If upon acting out this attitude without the appearance of guilt as a response to using someone for just pleasure then it would tend to develop into a concrete narcissistic/sociopathic personality disorder. However, we can have a strong influence of narcissistic and sociopathic traits influencing us throughout our lives without being classified as a personality disorder.
          Applying that to this discussion and seeing that we have over a 50 percent divorce rate I would estimate that the vast majority of males would be linked to the cognitive objectification of women which is emphasized in the catalogue. However, that objectification goes well beyond the sexual arena That is just my initial impression.
          Thank you for the cultural advancement of knowledge within my primitive and restricted cultural experiences which my spouse has been attempting to broaden and advance for decades. She thanks you also while at the same time feeling the depth of frustration with me she has had to endure for so long. I think this is another moment of growth:) in our relationship.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            “she also wants to know where the women are in this discussion.”

            I would also be interested in seeing the responses of some of our women readers. I care enough about gender issues to think and write on them, but I am still on the outsie looking in.

  • Mark VA

    Mr. King:

    Thank you very much for your in-depth response, and my apologies for me having anything to do with your impending opera excursions.

    I also agree with Mr. Cruz-Uribe’s suggestion that the female half of this blog should respond to this article. Otherwise, the cigar smoke and the empty scotch bottles will continue to (figuratively) accumulate here:


    • Ronald King

      That was when everything was in its proper order as evidenced by his reference to angelic approval. I can’t even snap my fingers to the beat of the music like he can or could. Attraction or repulsion begins instinctively and my question is, do we have enough insight to be aware of this? I believe that modesty is not a product of advanced insight. rather, it is a reactionary development to shame, fear and anger.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        ” I believe that modesty is not a product of advanced insight. rather, it is a reactionary development to shame, fear and anger.”

        Only if you see modesty as a negative virtue related to lust and shame. I think we can and should develop positive aspects that cover more than just physical appearance. Gaudete Theology (see the pingback listed below) suggested that a better way to discuss modesty is to remove its connection with chastity (which only becomes apparent when we link it to lust) and instead connect it to humility. “Just because you got it does not mean you should flaunt it” applies to lots of things, including but not limited to physical attributes. But it also leaves plenty of room for a positive acknowledgement of our gifts, including the gift of physical beauty.

        • Ronald King

          I see what you are saying David. Humility is a gift and is a result of spiritual and human relationships in which self and other share an open and respectful exploration of being human.

  • I do want to point out that, part of this whole modesty discussion is the fallacy that women dress they way they do to please men, and only men. This may be true for some women, but for many more women, it is just as important to impress women with your clothing, even more so than men. Women are much harder to impress. Show me a woman who puts a lot of time into her appearance, and I’ll show you a woman who cares deeply about what other women think of her.

    One of the most frustrating part of this discussion is that it shows the vanity of men. Men see well dressed women, or women spending a lot of time in the bathroom putting on makeup, and they think, “This is all for me.” No it’s not! We wouldn’t spend nearly as much time trying to look good if we just cared what men thought about our appearance.

    So many of the modesty focuses on the message that clothing gives to guys, which implies that the only thing a woman thinks about when she dresses is what a man is going to think about her and her clothing choices. (And if it’s not, then it should be!)

    Clothing is communicating, and as Guadete points out in her post, staring is also communicating. But I think we also have to consider “Who is the intended recipient of the message?” in many cases, the woman’s intended recipient is not a man, but rather another woman.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thanks for chiming in. I agree that many (most?) women are also dressing for other women. The argument of the “male gaze”, however, is that even if they are dressing for one another, women look at each other through the male gaze: that is, the key to interpretation and the standards they apply to one another are shaped by a male perspective. You may disagree with this, but I wanted to make clear that in this argument that even though women might be dressing for other women this does not preclude the male perspective from being normative.

      • Yeah, I get that, and I do think there is an element of women internalizing the “male gaze” when they evaluate each other’s clothing. This is because everything male is normative and because the media is very much driven by the male perspective.

        I definitely think that we need to counteract the idea of the male gaze in how we evaluate women. I just think that one way to help is to think about what a woman wants to do with her clothing. One thing she wants to do with her clothing is to communicate with other women. She may use the vocabulary of the male gaze, because that is the dominant one. However, it is still important to consider how women dress for other women in a discussion about modesty and women’s clothing.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks! Let me ask a follow up question: quite apart from the male gaze then, what is it women want to communicate to other women by their dress? I will try to refrain from reflexively responding, “That’s just the male gaze manifesting itself”, but I would like to get a sense of what the other ground of communication is and how it would be communicated if we could (counter-factually at present) free the discussion from the bonds of male norms.

        • The short answer would be that a woman is communicating how she wants to relate to other women. When my friend and I go to plays, we talk about how we will dress beforehand. I don’t want to wear a skirt if she’s wearing jeans, because that might embarrass her and cause her to feel out of place. It’s a sign of friendship and solidarity to dress at the same level of dressiness when we go out together, almost like a uniform. If I told her I was wearing jeans and then showed up wearing a skirt, blouse, and high heeled shoes, it would be a sign of contempt for her.

          Is this the male gaze? Sure, in part. We’re using the vocabulary of the male gaze, and the vocabulary of fashion. But, we’re communicating something to each other about the nature of our relationship. It’s akin to the Bechdel test. It’s a conversation between two women that is not about a man. Even though the vocabulary has been preset by men.