Don't tell me what to wear!
I am on a beach in the South of France. There is a lot of tanned flesh on show. Many women are topless and others have on bikinis that leave little to the imagination.
I am an anomaly, sitting here in a 1940s, boy-legged swimsuit, my skin so pale as to cause injury to those without protective eyewear. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my students last term. They were adamant that women must be allowed to wear what they want.
‘If a woman wants to walk around in her underwear she can’ came one voice, which was muted somewhat after I declared that I would be teaching the following day in only my pants. Suddenly the prospect of a woman’s right to wear what she wants didn’t seem so palatable; but the students had backed themselves into a corner and struggled to find a way out. I offered them one.
There exists at every level of reality a public and a private space. In a church the pews are public, the tabernacle is not. In our homes the kitchen is a public space where we entertain friends, the bathroom is not. In a school the classroom is full of students, the Heads office is not; areas of Buckingham Palace are public, the queens bedroom is not. This holds true at the level of our bodies also. Our hands are public, our ‘private parts’ are not. We wave hands, not penises, when we greet one another. This has always been understood, without the need for a 6 week training course, it’s what used to be known as common sense. Its common because all humans apprehend it by nature, or they used to before some tricksy thinking crept into the mix, like a malevolent intoxicating spell. I wonder who is robbing us blind whilst we are being made to look the other way.
We live in a culture desperate to tell us two things; that we can have rights without paying too much attention to the pesky corresponding responsibilities, and that there is no such thing as revealed truth. The truth is, that we can’t and there is.
In June I spoke with Jonathan Pageau about Modest dress. We agreed that it has become impossible in our culture to talk about this, but it is an important conversation to have, and we must be able to have it. JP used the following analogy; when your house is burgled it is never anyone’s fault but the thiefs, however, it is prudent to locks your doors and do what you can to prevent it happening.
In an ideal world we could remove our doors and sleep peacefully knowing that we would never be disturbed, but we do not live in an ideal world, we live in a fallen world.
Men should absolutely have enough self-control not to pounce on a woman. He must have this self-control even when she is wearing a low-cut top. He must have this self-control even when she is wearing no top at all. He must have this self-control even when a woman writhes around, rubbing herself against him half naked on the dancefloor. He must have this self-control even when a woman has agreed to engage in some sexual activity but stops short of consenting to intercourse. Nobody disagrees that every man should have enough self-control, but not every man will and almost all men will find it incredibly difficult. The problem with saying that women can and should be able to wear what they want without consequence is that its not real, and it puts an undue burden on men. It’s not real because it denies an a priori reality about the nature of the public and the private. We intuitively understand what is for public consumption, just as we intuitively understand what is 'off limits' and private. When a woman (or a man) dress immodestly they create ambiguity about what is public and what is private, and some people will act according to what they perceive. Secondly, If a man has to demonstrate a high level of self-control, what responsibilities do women have?
To love one another (as we are commanded to do) is to will the good of the other. We have equal but different responsibilities in this regard. If we cannot recognise and understand what a man is then we cannot teach boys to be good men. If we cannot teach boys to be good men, we will not have good men.
Boys are not girls. They are different. The answer is not to emasculate boys and treat them as if they are girls, but rather to say to young men;
‘We know it’s tough being a young lad, we understand that you have testosterone raging through you, that you are visual creatures, that you can be a beast ready to defend woman, family, friend and country and this is great, its needed, but its only great if you can master it….if you can’t, it will master you and your life will be ruined’
To young girls we should say
‘You have the power to turn a man’s head, but you also have the power to turn his heart. Act responsibly. The way in which you dress reveals something about your interior self, think about what you want to reveal and do not let your body make promises that you do not intend to fulfil. Its cruel’
So yes, a woman can wear exactly what she wants, do what she wants, go where she wants at whatever time she wants. Men too can do what they want, where they want, when they want. Will this look like the best of all possible worlds, or something more akin to hell?
Raising kids is a big responsibility; we should level with them about how things really are in this fallen world, call them to something greater and say that this can only be reached by Gods grace. We must teach them what sort of creature they are, that they were 'not made for comfort, but made for greatness'. Boys and girls alike must take responsibility for their choices. The burden should never fall unduly on one group, this is unjust. We should remind them that....
‘Modesty protects the intimate centre of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden….It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons. Modesty is an external sign of an interior disposition’ (CCC 2521)
...then ask 'what interior disposition are you trying to convey?'