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Drawing a Hemline: Sexual Modesty and the Pursuit of Wisdom
BENJAMIN D. WIKER
I have taught at several colleges, one of which has a dress code. To many, a dress code seems old-fashioned at best, a puri-tyrannical breach of our right to freedom of speech at worst. (It should worry us that clothing is considered speech.) But allow me to present two examples male and female that illustrate how sexual modesty is related to the pursuit of wisdom.
A few years back, in California, there was a young man at a state university who insisted on attending all his classes wearing only a backpack. (If only he had worn a fanny pack!) He was nicknamed “the naked guy.” The presence of this statuesque youth was disturbing. He was not rude, loud, or aggressive. The difficulty? He was sans-culottes, and then some.
The only amusing thing in this matter was that the university could not come up with a violation to pin on him let alone a place to pin it. After several weeks of cheek-by-jowl conferencing, he was slapped with a sexual harassment charge, even though his mode of “harassing” was entirely passive, and given the boot (and, we hope, a traveling suit as well).
Why could the university not simply invoke the obvious: young men have to wear clothes in public because human beings, especially young women, have trouble concentrating sitting next to a naked man? Why could the university not admit that sexual immodesty directly disturbs the intellectual life? Why could it not draw a hemline and say, “Thus far and no farther”?
Because it had, like so many other academic institutions, abandoned any restrictions in regard to how students must dress. Having embraced both the slovenly and near-naked, the university could not find a way to regulate the naked.
Another example is from when I was teaching at a college without a dress code. I was having students give presentations on the Roman Empire. In one group, a young lady was playing the part of Julius Caesar do not ask why. She wore a miniskirt made out of less material than a standard eyepatch. Needless to say, the young men were not engrossed in her intellectual presentation. I doubt they heard anything she had to say. Her immodesty absorbed their entire attention. As far as they were concerned, she was all body and no mind.
Those who defend such immodesty usually argue that a young woman has a right to wear whatever she wants, and the young men have no right to ogle her. On the contrary: It is not a question of rights but rather of nature. Just as it was natural for young women to be flustered in the presence of “the naked guy,” so it was natural for young men to be flustered oglers in the presence of a near-naked young woman. If he was sexually harassing the women, was she sexually harassing the men?
Natural and the Conventional
The principle normally invoked by the intelligentia for the standardless standard is that clothing is merely conventional, whereas (we assume) skin is natural. The amount and style of clothing differs so drastically from Aborigines to Elizabethans to Americans that any standard is arbitrary. So the argument goes.
But this argument is misaimed. The focus must shift from the clothes, which do vary, to the human beings underneath, who in their essentials do not. Unless we are entirely Gnostic and I believe that many trendy moderns are, at heart, ancient Gnostics we must recognize that sexual passion is a human given. It is natural and not conventional.
Further, sexual passion is like any other passion anger, joy, hunger: it is not continually “on” but becomes aroused. Hence, the barbarous but accurate phrase, “He [or she] turns me on!” This sudden flutter and consequent flow of hormones is natural.
But we are not defined solely by our capacity to feel and express passions. Human beings are, by nature, able to think deeply and come to profound insights. As the politically correct crowd rightly points out, the intellect is not the sole possession of white, western males but is a human endowment, shared universally.
This relationship is not confined to sexual passion. Such distraction of the intellect occurs with most other passions as well: “I was so hungry, I couldn’t think”; “I was so angry that I wasn’t able to concentrate”; “He was so sad that his eyes were just running over the page he may as well not have ‘read’ the book.”
Imagine trying to conduct a seminar an hour past lunch when nobody has eaten since breakfast, when all of the participants are as mad as hornets, or when all are mourning over a fellow student’s recent death. Can we admit that these other passions disturb our ability to think but exclude sexual passion? If anything, sexual passion is a stronger distraction. Thus, the more immodesty, the more distraction.
Furthermore, admit it or not, sexual immodesty not only distracts, it reduces. It reduces especially the young women to something less than they really are. Regardless of the current attempt to equalize sexuality, it has always been the case that the female’s sexuality garners a stronger attraction. A man half-dressed in class will appear ridiculous to the women and disgusting to the men, an embarrassment rather than a source of temptation. But a woman immodestly dressed throws the young men into dry-mouthed confusion. If it were any other way, then selling-by-sex industries, from prostitution to advertising, would not be almost completely dominated by the immodesty of women directed to the insatiable sexual appetites of men.
It is this simple: We are rational animals. The rational aspect of our being distinguishes us as human beings. The animal aspect of our being is the source of the sexual distinction between male and female. The university purports to teach our rational nature, that which least distinguishes male and female, not our animal nature, which is the source of the sexual distinction and the passion of sex. It follows that immodesty exaggerates sexual difference, while modesty allows for the dominance of the intellect where there is the least difference between male and female.
In this regard, and many others, modernity has things backwards. It tries to make sexuality common by making it public and rationality private by making it relative and particular. Thus, we are invited to display our sexuality to everyone (regardless of gender) as if it had, in its origin and goal, the universality of intellectual pursuits, and we are admonished to divide our rationality as if it had the particularities of the body, such as gender. Hence, women’s studies are declared an intellectual province, while philosophy is taken to be provincial.
But against this, modesty in academia allows for the pursuit of wisdom because it does not confuse the universality and commonness of intellectual things with the particularity and exclusiveness of bodily things. The intellect naturally tries to embrace the whole of reality; the body naturally tries to embrace another particular body. The mind is open for the sake of uncovering truth; the body is covered for the sake of opening up to another body exclusively, that of one’s spouse.
This is not a Manichaean position. Modesty acknowledges the body. It does not hide the body because it is ashamed of it; it veils the body because its sexual power is not an appropriate object of public display. Is that not what feminists have been telling us, that they do not want women to be sex objects? They have been right to say so and should follow through with the natural consequence: modesty.
In regard to academia, the need for sexual modesty is a recognition of what should be an obvious, natural truth. Neither males nor females should be distracted from the primary purpose of the university: the formation of the intellect. Whether it be from the fall or from the inherent powerful nature of sexual desire (or both), the presence of sexual passion in the classroom displaces intellectual passion. Institutions owe it to their students to minimize such distractions. Even on the mean level of economics, students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend such institutions of higher learning. Why pay for sexual passion? The culture is already saturated with it, and most of it is free. If the university is “selling” itself as offering what cannot be gotten elsewhere, then its focus should be intellectual not sexual.
Benjamin D. Wiker. "Drawing a Hemline: Sexual Modesty and the Pursuit of Wisdom ." Crisis (July/August 2000).
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Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA). He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker writes regularly for a variety of journals, including Catholic World Report, New Oxford Review, and Crisis Magazine, and is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Register. He has published three books, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2002), The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem Books, 2003), and Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius, 2004). He is currently working on another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called The Meaning-full Universe. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.
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