Thursday, March 5, 2009

Modesty’s unintended consequences

I was going through old email, and i found something that i posted to USENET a few years ago, after i moved from my exile in Utah to Florida. It’s a bit long, but i think it deserves a place here. (There were a few other things i found that’ll probably go up in coming weeks, as well.) Anyway, it was in response to

…When women are required by culture or custom to keep everything covered but their face, then a glimpse of an ankle may bring forth “strong desire” but when women are dressed as many now dress, bare midriff, almost bare breasts, bare except for the “bikini area” which gets smaller and smaller, is the lustful desire greatened?…

Going in what i think is a somewhat different direction than what the previous poster intended, this ties in to one reason i so desperately wanted to move away from Utah—and it’s a reason i don’t think i’ve mentioned here before: The local emphasis on modesty (in the current usual Mormon sense) was pushing me to some sort of immodesty (at least in thought).

I have always taken pride in the fact that i can look at an attractive human being and appreciate their attractiveness without any sort of lust taking over.* Therefore, seeing a woman in a miniskirt might lead me to the thought “Nice thighs”** but without anything sexual attached to it.

However, living in Utah County, Utah and surrounded by BYU students adhering to a strict dress code as i was for four years, this ability started to slip away from me—if i saw attractive legs shown by a miniskirt or short shorts, or a well-muscled or well-breasted*** chest shown by a low-cut top, or whatever, my sex drive and therefore tendencies toward lust would start to kick in.

This bothered me greatly—and i recognized the connection between not being constantly surrounded by bits of attractive skinx on the one hand, and the tendency toward inability to appreciate those bits of skin dispassionately on the other. This was an ability i did not want to lose, so it gave me another reason to want to move to an area where skin is more often visible.

So i’m now in Florida, where skin is much more visible, and i find myself much more able to appreciate what i see without my sex drive/lust kicking in.xx This is (in my opinion) a Good Thing.

It has led me to think, though—and here i think i circle around to what the original poster was after, though in a somewhat different way—that the call for modesty^ you often hear among Mormons may arise out of a recognition that looking at attractive people, and particularly attractive bits of their bodies, may lead to lust. However, getting people to cover up those bodies may well, for people like me, make the fight against lust more difficult, not easier.^^

In other words, a push for modesty (in that sense) may well have the effect of saving some people from condemnation due to their lusts at the expense of leading some people (like me) toward condemnation.

I don’t think a happy medium is likely to emerge, given current rhetorics and such, but i know i’m not alone in this—it’s just that you don’t hear from my side very often on youth standards nights (or whatever the equivalent is these days). I just wanted to put it out there for people to think about, and maybe to get some reactions, particularly from those who disagree with my take on things.^^^

* My appreciation for this trait is probably related to my deep appreciation for incongruency—i have a very high sex drive, but i’m able to appreciate sexual items without my sex drive kicking in. That’s worth serious points in my reality.

** Or, alternatively, “Someone with thighs like that shouldn’t wear a miniskirt” or “Not a good cross-dressing choice”—but i’m dealing with attractive people (or at least features) in this discussion.

*** Depending on the sex of the chest, of course. ☺

x Not always visible—a well-cut pair of jeans, after all…

xx Making it less likely that i’ll be condemned for lust, i think. Of course, if you don’t have the same semi-paradoxical tendencies as i do, Florida may not be the place for

xxx Especially if you’re a leg man. If you’re a leg man in Florida, you’re on the express train to hell. ☺

^ Once again, in the usual Mormon sense, even though that means we have to ignore what i feel is the more important part of modesty (not to mention the definition the Book of Mormon uses): a lack of ostentatiousness.

^^ Leading to a vicious cycle, really—lustful desires at visual stimuli leads to a push for reducing those stimuli, which leads to less such stimuli, which leads to stronger lustful desires at visual stimuli, which leads to a push for reducing those stimuli, which leads to less stimuli, which leads to stronger lustful desires at visual stimuli…

^^^ And yes, i recognize that this simply proves (once again) that i’m evil. No need to mention that one.


Heather the Mama Duk said...

I found your ^ footnote very interesting. In our ward THAT is precisely what they have been pushing in regards to modesty. Our teens dress pretty nicely. Not at all like the girl in the, literally, see-through dress in our previous ward. But some can be over the top. We have several artists. Over and over they talk about being modest in the not ostentatious and not drawing undue attention to yourself based on your clothing choices. It's the first place I've heard that pushed even though it's been in For The Strength of Youth for a while.

David B said...

Glad to hear it--it's been a pet peeve of mine since before i started raising daughters, even. It actually bugged me even as a teenager, i just didn't have the vocabulary to express what was wrong.

Now that my pre-tween oldest is experiencing some blowback for the horror of daring wear a sleeveless dress to church in the Florida heat, i figure part of my job is to help her develop that vocabulary early.