views updated May 23 2018


Understood here as the English equivalent of the Latin pudicitia with the restricted meaning the term often had in scholastic use, namely, decency or a sense of decency. It is the moral virtue that moderates and controls the impulse of sexual display in man.

The Natural Virtue of Modesty. The natural virtue of chastity moderates and regulates the sexual appetite, a particular expression of which is man's impulse to display himself sexually or to be responsive to sexual display in others. Such display may be concerned with sexuality in the wide, or general, sense or with sexuality in the strict, genital sense ("venereal" sexuality in scholastic terminology). To the first or general category of sexual display belong general sexual signs, i.e., words, looks, modes of action, modes of dress, and the like that proclaim a man as a man or a woman as a woman in ordinary personal and social life. Such signs are part of normal life itself (e.g., sexual differentiation in modes of dress). To the sphere of genital, or venereal, display belong genital signs (signa venereorum ), i.e., those that tend directly to excite and stimulate the genital drive in man.

Chastity in the strict or genital sense moderates and regulates the use of these latter forms of sexual display, authorizing them where it authorizes genital fulfillment itself (i.e., in marriage) and excluding them elsewhere. This particular function of chastity, considered separately, constitutes the moral field of genital decency, or modesty. Chastity in the wide or general sense regulates the use of general sexual signs. Certain forms of speech, dress, action, and the like are apprehended as appropriate for the normal display or expression of masculinity or femininity, as the case may be, and these pertain to the field of general sexual decency or modesty.

General sexual modesty is very largely a matter of social convention. It is bound up with the role that men as men and women as women are expected to play in society. When the role changes, as it has done enormously for women in modern society, the forms of general sexual modesty change too. A girl regarded in the U.S. as decent in the mid-20th century would have been a shocking type a century earlierquite immodest in speech, dress, and general behavior.

Specific sexual modestymodesty in the sphere of genital signsis also a social variable to the extent that some things that operate as genital stimuli in one culture do not have this significance in another. Thus display of the uncovered female breasts operates as a genital stimulus in Western civilization but is only a generic, nonvenereal sexual sign in African tribal cultures. Such cultures have their own taboo areas of genital signs. Use of them is confined by tribal custom to circumstances where their focal point, namely, genital intercourse, is socially approved. Genital modesty and immodesty, decency and shamelessness, are universal moral categories of humanity, however widely the concrete forms of modesty may differ from one culture to another.

Modesty in Scripture and the Fathers. The Yahwist writer stresses the sexual innocence of Eden. Sexual self-consciousness, shame, and the covering-up of the body follow the Fall (Gn 2.25; 3.7, 1011). The wisdom literature warns against the snares of feminine shamelessness (Prv 2.16; 5.3; 7.527). In the NT modesty in looks, words, and general behavior is inculcated (Mt 5.28; Eph5.320; 2 Pt 2.14). General sexual modesty"a gentle and quiet spirit"should characterize the Christian woman (1 Tm 2.912; 1 Pt 3.16). Feminine modesty, both general and specific, and the avoidance by both sexes of defiling contact with the lascivious world around them are constant themes of patristic exhortation (e.g., Chrysostom, Homiliae in Matthaeum; Tertullian, De spectaculis, and De cultu feminarum; Cyprian De habitu virginum ).

Theology of Modesty in St. Thomas and Later. St. Thomas treated modesty (pudicitia ) as a part of chastity, not a distinct virtue from it. It is concerned with signa venereorum. St. Thomas took these in a very limited sense (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 151.4). They are immodest acts done with a lustful intention. He did not treat of acts tending by their nature to stimulate genital desire, though this may not be the personal intention of the person who does them.

Later moral theology, especially after 1600, put immodest acts in St. Thomas's sense into the category of directly unchaste acts (see lust) and took signa venereorum in a new and broad sense. These were acts of an intrinsically innocent kind (e.g., exposure of the body) that would, however, tend of their nature to provoke sins against chastity unless the doing of them was justified by an objective reason in particular circumstances (e.g., exposure of the body for purposes of medical examination). All kinds of things could be and were considered in this contextwords, looks, touches, embraces, kisses, fantasies; the nude in art; dress, reading, bathing, dancing; theatrical shows and, in recent times, film and television shows. The treatment of all this heterogeneous material was usually anything but scientific. The writer dogmatized on everything in terms of the culture he was accustomed to, taking little account of the fact that his judgments on modesty and immodesty in dress, for example, would not be valid for other cultures. Moreover, the whole subject was pursued in extreme detail. Areas of the body were divided into decent (honestae ), less decent (minus honestae ), and indecent (inhonestae ) and a quasimathematical scale was worked out for measuring the seriousness of sins of look or touch in each of the three areas. Dancing involving physical contact between the sexes was viewed as immodest. The confusion was often increased in pastoral practice whengeneral sexual modesty being mixed up with specific or genital modestywomen were reproved for immodesty simply because they went along with the times in dressing more lightly and freely than had been the custom in former generations.

Modesty in Modern Catholic Theology. The subject is now treated in a more realistic and genuinely theological way. The difference between general sexual modesty (a social variable) and specific modesty is better understood. The need of a sound theology of specific modesty is as real as ever in this age of sexual exploitation and commercialization [see Pius XII, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 49 (1957) 1013]; but the object of this theology is seen as the right training and counseling of Christians in the virtue of modesty rather than as the handing out to them of endless classifications of modest and immodest acts.

Bibliography: k. e. lo/gstrup, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:138386. a. auer, h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 196263) 1:498506. j. fuchs, De castitate et ordine sexuali (Rome 1959), standard modern textbook with good bibliography. t. mÜncker, Die psychologischen Grundlagen der katholischen Sittenlehre (4th ed. Düsseldorf 1953) 28392, and j. de la vaissiÈre, La Pudeur instinctive (Paris 1935), on the psychological basis of modesty in relation to theology. s. o'riordan, "Courtship," The Meaning of Christian Marriage, ed. e. mcdonagh (Dublin 1963) 14963, on the sociological variability of certain aspects of modesty. j. c. ford and g. a. kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, Md. 195863) 1:16673, on dancing.

[s. o'riordan]


views updated May 23 2018

modesty Etymologically linked to the Latin modestus, ‘keeping within measure’, this term originally signified moderation, as in Cicero's ‘golden mean of living’. Gradually, modesty took on the gendered connotation of a sexual virtue particularly important for women. Sixteenth-century writers commonly portrayed women as more lustful and unruly than men, but Christine de Pisan and other early feminists countered such misogyny with evidence of feminine modesty drawn from the historical record and from the female physique: women were by nature more modest than men because their private parts were covered with hair and did not require handling for urination.

Enlightenment theorists maintained such physical rationale and added a political resonance to the modest woman. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, modesty was a necessary virtue in women because of their physical and sexual weaknesses: only shame could save women from their ‘insatiable desires’. If trained properly as demure wives and mothers, however, women could attain self control and contribute to national unity by channelling their husbands' drives into socially useful pursuits.

In the 1870s, Charles Darwin conceived a theory of female modesty to resolve an enigma left unsolved by his work on natural selection. Long puzzled by the brilliant plumage of male birds and the dowdiness of females, Darwin deduced that such splendour must be necessary to prompt the female to reproduce. Drawing an analogy between human morality and animal behaviour, Darwin concluded that since females are less lustful and more discriminating, males have to be more beautiful. The interval before the modest female surrenders to her preening suitor contributes to the evolution of the species, necessitating an exercise in cultural improvement that favours aesthetic display.

For nineteenth-century sexologists, modesty was a crucial key to female psychology. Many held that women's apparent lack of interest in sex was due to their innate passionlessness or ‘sexual anaesthesia’. Havelock Ellis, on the contrary, claimed that, under her modest façade, every woman held the capacity for sexual feeling — modesty was merely a delaying device to arouse male desire. With an adept partner, any woman might be drawn out of her habitual reticence into the active enjoyment of sexuality.

Standards of public honour, like fashions of dress, have changed dramatically over time. According to early Christian thinkers, the importance of bodily modesty originated in the Book of Genesis. After eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve knew that they were naked, and thus made themselves aprons of leaves. The injunction to cover the body initially applied only to men, because only in men is sexual arousal obvious. But the Church Fathers soon extended the rule to women as well, for their ability to arouse was feared to lead men away from the spiritual. These religious teachings had a direct impact on bodily conduct: from the beginning of the Christian Era until the fourteenth century, European clothing was largely monochromatic and devoid of ornamentation. Both men and women dressed in full-length tunics or robes designed to conceal the body from sight.

But in the middle of the fourteenth century, the rising commercial classes embraced a new style that hugged the body and celebrated its physical attributes. The Renaissance styles — emblematized by the masculine vogue for the short fitted jacket, tight hose, and prominent codpiece, and the snug busts and daring décolletages of women's clothing — symbolized a shift from the medieval preoccupation with the spiritual to an interest in worldly matters. Such sartorial expressivity — associated with aristocratic splendour — would remain popular until late in the eighteenth century, when the political values of the aristocracy were widely denounced. Breeches, the style of trousers favoured by the wealthy because they revealed the shape of the leg, were then rejected in favour of long trousers that symbolized activity and utility. Male attire became desexualized and austere; colour and ornamentation were relegated to women's clothing.

In the nineteenth century, men who wore artistic, expressive clothing were denigrated as dandies and social parasites. Napoléon III decreed that the only attire appropriate for men was the English gentleman's business suit, the riding habit, or the military uniform. The task of expressing the opulent spirit of the age was thus carried out through female fashions. This era heralds the ideal hourglass figure, which required tightly bound corsetry that caused constant discomfort and wreaked irreparable damage on women's bodies.

Standards of female modesty have undergone countless redefinitions over the years, in response to cultural, political, and economic factors. In recent years the concept has been reinterpreted to reflect women's increasingly prominent role in the public sphere and the problematic morality associated with working mothers. Ruth Rubinstein has shown that in eras when women attain public power, female fashions are dominated by elaborate artifice that masks the sites of feminine sexuality and projects a larger-than-life body image. The ‘power suit’ adopted by working women in the 1970s can thus be seen as a modern-day version of the stiff, high-necked masculine bodices and voluminous skirts favoured by sixteenth-century noblewomen in imitation of Catherine de Médicis and Elizabeth I.

Concepts of modesty are determined by cultural as well as historical factors. The reports of missionaries and anthropologists who have lived among ‘primitive’ or nonliterate groups offer many cases of peoples who walk around naked and seem to feel no shame or guilt. Australian Aborigines, for instance, appear indifferent to nakedness but are deeply embarrassed if seen eating. If caught in the fields without her veil, a peasant woman in some Arab countries will throw her skirt over her head, thereby exposing what to the Western mind is a much more embarrassing part of her anatomy.

Julia Douthwaite


Laver, J. (1969). Modesty in dress. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Rubinstein, R. P. (1995). Dress codes: meanings and messages in American culture. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
Yeazell, R. B. (1991). Fictions of modesty: women and courtship in the English novel. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

See also clothes; morality; sexuality.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Modesty is a feeling or a behavior that is motivated by shame, in that it essentially bears upon the sexualized body, the genital organs, the anal zone, or any part of the body that, culturally or individually, is endowed with an erotic investment. In a secondary sense, it is a mode of being that limits all motor or linguistic expression of subjectivity.

In the German language, and thus in Sigmund Freud's writings, it is not possible to distinguish that which is motivated by modesty from that which is motivated by shame, whereas in French, English, and some other languages, two different concepts exist, with modesty in a sense constituting the positive aspect of shame, when the feeling of guilt is transformed into adherence to a socially sanctioned ideal.

The issue of modesty comes up several times in Freud's work, as distinct from the issue of shame. First, it appears as an aspect of the transference and the counter-transference, from the earliest analyses described in "Studies in Hysteria" (1895d). Indeed, "confidence" is why psychoanalysis "invariably leads to the disclosure of the most intimate and secret psychical events" (p. 265), and the lifting of verbal modesty, sometimes accompanied by the gesture of touching the forehead, is the paramount condition for the patient's unreserved speech that is required by the fundamental rule. Second, the origin of modesty is associated with the anal stage, which cannot be reduced to its instinctual localization but instead, as Françoise Dolto underscored, involves, as a whole, motivity and the ethic of the relation to self, others, and the external world. It is in this sense that modesty generates a whole series of instinct-avoidance behaviors, through obsessional-type rituals. Third, it is doubly associated with the phallus and genitality: On the one hand, it lends consistency to the veil of the phallus inasmuch as it is not reducible to the genital organs and is only given up in the experience of symbolic castration; on the other, it valorizes, by keeping it from being seen, genitality and sexual difference, essentially on the feminine side. For both sexes, the hysterical logic of "hiding/showing" is present here.

It is essentially with regard to children, and then adolescents, that the notion of modesty has been examined by psychoanalysts and can be dissociated from shame. In children modesty is not pathological except in its excessive, hysterical, or obsessional forms, which are associated with severe shyness or an inhibition that affects several registers. Otherwise, it corresponds to the child's way of managing the superego and its ego ideals, limiting polymorphous and ordinary perversion. Dolto clearly showed how parents' failure to respect the rules of family life, in the form of slipping into voyeuristic or exhibitionistic behaviors, is by contrast conducive to perversion.

Apart from the issue of the difference in metapsychological and psychogenetic status between shame and modesty, a question raised by the notion of modesty is that of how the anal instinct, the phallic signifier, and genitality are articulated together, whereas orality is governed by a different moral code; this is aptly shown in Luis Buñuel's film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), where the characters gather in a circle to defecate together and hide in the lavatory ("au petit coin" ) to eat.

One can wonder whether the force of modesty is not directly linked, individually or culturally, to the importance of infantile sexual theories about the anus, which might persist and become more pronounced, not only for obsessional personalities, in the access to genitality.

Jean-Jacques Rassial

See also: Anality; Anal stage; Exhibitionism; Latency period; Libidinal development; Shame; Voyeurism.


Dolto, Françoise. (1985). L'Institution soignante. Cahiers de l'IPC 1985, no 1, pp. 33-71. Institut des Psychologues Cliniciens. Colloque du 23 novembre 1984.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE,2.


views updated May 23 2018

mod·es·ty / ˈmädəstē/ • n. the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one's abilities: with typical modesty he insisted on sharing the credit with others. ∎  the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level: the modesty of his political aspirations. ∎  behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency: modesty forbade her to undress in front of so many people.


views updated Jun 11 2018

451. Modesty (See also Chastity, Humility.)

  1. Bell, Laura reserved, demure character. [Br. Lit.: Pendennis ]
  2. Bianca gentle, unassuming sister of Kate. [Br. Lit.: The Taming of the Shrew ]
  3. fig leaves used to cover Adam and Eves nakedness. [O.T.: Genesis 3:7]
  4. pearl emblem of discreet shyness. [Gem Symbolism: Kunz, 69]
  5. sweet violet indicates a modest temperament. [Flower Symbol-ism: Flora Symbolica, 178]