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Modest Extremes

Orthodox Jewish women, it seems to me, strike a more reasonable balance. Their husbands can be found in the delivery room, but always sitting by the wife's head or to the side, saying prayers and giving encouragement -- but never actually watching the baby come out in our favored full-frontal position. This is specifically prohibited by Jewish law, for the connection between seeing the birth itself and diminished male desire has been understood for thousands of years. In Judaism, preserving the intimate relationship between husband and wife is thought to be more important than worshipping at the altar of the Totally Involved Spouse Who Must See Everything. But people are so dogmatic about this subject that it's hard to have a rational discussion. (Slate's Meghan O'Rourke reports that one blog had to shut down its discussion about Dr. Ablow when a few posters dared to defend his patients.)

The October 2005 Marie Claire provides another window into postmodern extremism. Five ‘confident' women are showcased -- a nurse, a musician, a dancer, a sales agent, and a testing-lab proctor -- all of whom posed in the buff for the magazine. As we are told, "these women are actually more confident naked than clothed." Then the editors pointedly demand, "Are you?" In case you missed the lesson, if you don't want to show your naked tush to millions of strangers, then baby, you've got a confidence problem.

Actually, the contemporary woman seems to have a lot of problems. She is deemed to have "jealousy issues" if she cannot grasp why her boyfriend requires lap dances from strippers. In her new book Pornified, Pamela Paul interviews 24-year-old Ashley, insecure because her boyfriend visits strip bars to get lap dances every month or so. Ashley tries "to explain why I thought it was offensive," but to no avail. Kara, a 30-year-old physician, has the same problem and got into a big fight with boyfriend Rob over whether getting a lap dance constitutes cheating: "I said it's cheating because the woman is touching you... but Rob didn't think so."

Paul also reports that increasing numbers of men are finding it impossible to perform with their girlfriends and wives because sex has become so demystified. Shockingly, when given a choice between a real woman and their Internet porn, many choose the porn.

It all begs the question: If doing away with modesty was supposed to be liberating, why is the sex now so bad? Why should men and women be further apart than ever?

To me, the essential confusion comes down to mistaking modesty for shame. If you think sexuality should be private, goes the prevailing view, then you must be ashamed of it. You must be a prude. Conversely, if you are comfortable with your sexuality, then you should be cool with lifting your shirt for strangers, or cheering on your man as he watches hard-core porn -- even standing by supportively while he enjoys lap dances.

If you're like me, you wonder how this harem mentality is liberating for women. Even Jennifer Saginor -- whose father was Hugh Hefner's doctor in charge of providing diet pills and breast-enlargements for all his girls -- found a modesty-free existence to be damaging. As a child growing up in the Playboy mansion, Jennifer saw 19-year-old girls dying of drug overdoses, girls whose last acts on this earth were performing public sexual favors for men. Seeing sex so violently dissociated from emotion has made it "difficult to be intimate. Very difficult," Ms. Saginor admits.

History has taught us a surprising lesson: Real intimacy flourishes only where there's also restraint. Having sex for its own sake, without waiting to integrate our deepest emotions and hopes, at best becomes boring, fast. At worst, men and women end up competing over how cruelly they can use one another.

In truth, the real reason for sexual modesty is not shame, but an awareness of how precious we are. Smirk at that statement if you will, but the fact remains: It is a rare dog that desires a candlelit dinner before mating. On the other hand, it is a rare human who can have a one-night stand without feeling at least a twinge of guilt afterward. And, howls of protest from vested interests notwithstanding, most men know that their most intimate relationships should not be with their computer browsers.

Where does our modesty confusion come from? Maybe we had the wrong idea about covering up from the beginning. Most people think that Adam and Eve knew more after they ate from that infamous Tree, and only then realized that they were -- yikes! -- naked. But early rabbinic commentators on the Bible explain that after the sin, with evil internalized, Adam and Eve actually understood less about the world (Rashi on Genesis 2:25). Eating the Tree's fruit really introduced subjectivity, so that things that were formerly True or False now seemed merely good or bad.

1/6/2010 5:00:00 AM