Modesty, Male Gazes, and Virtues

David Cruz-Uribe has posted an interesting discussion of modesty in the context of feminism, applying the feminist concept of the male gaze in connection with various approaches to modesty, including one particular discussion between two Christian women bloggers about

an incident in which a male friend of hers goes clubbing and encounters a woman with a very low cut top and large breasts breasts which she has covered with glitter infused body oil. Or, as she trenchantly puts it: “she had glitter on her tits.” The woman catches the man staring at her breasts and calls him out. The question quickly became how to interpret this event.

His summary and analysis of the discussion between Sarah over the Moon and Rage Against the Minivan is very clear (so you should go read it — I’ll wait), but I believe it overlooks something important.

In a laudable attempt to grapple with the realities of human sociality and sexuality, informed by the concept of the male gaze, while avoiding the reduction of “the virtue of modesty to a dress code for women,” he affirms the concept raised by Sarah that “dress is communication”, and the contextualization of the interaction within the broader social context. He writes:

Sarah in her first post makes the point that dress is communication, but then fails to follow through: communication cannot be separated from the milieu in which it occurs. Rage, on the other hand, correctly wants to position the meaning within a broader social framework: she also rejects the male gaze as normative, but realizes that men will indeed look and that they will do so in a social setting which defines beautiful and sexy in certain ways. . . . Dress is communication: whether explicitly, as in the case of the prostitutes of Calle Montera, or implicitly, when men and women just follow the latest fashions as they get ready to go out on a Friday night.

(emphasis mine)

Here’s the piece I see as missing:

Staring is also communication.

The male gaze is a pervasive social influence that conditions art, fashion, beauty, and how women and men experience themselves and each other in the world.

A specific man’s gaze in a specific moment is an act of communication, which must also be considered in its social milieu and in the context of the verbal and non-verbal conversation in which it occurs.

In our society, there are situations in which it is unconditionally unacceptable for a man to stare at a woman’s breasts (eg, a professional office or classroom setting); situations in which it is unconditionally acceptable (eg, a sex scene in a movie or an intimate encounter between lovers); and situations in which it is conditionally acceptable, conditioned by the interaction in which it occurs (eg, nightclubs or the beach).

Dress is a communicative act. Staring is a communicative act. Responding positively (verbally or nonverbally) to the stare is a communicative act indicating that it is welcome and thereby acceptable. Responding negatively (verbally or non-verbally) to the stare is a communicative act indicating that it is unwelcome and thereby unacceptable. Continuing to stare despite a negative response is a communicative act, and one of the things it communicates is that you’re either socially inept, or obnoxiously rude.

If you missed or misinterpreted the response, you’re socially inept. If you are simply ignoring the response, you’re obnoxiously rude.

This is as true in this situation as it is in any other communicative dance: it is, at best, rude and obnoxious to persist in an interaction that is not welcomed by the other party. At worst, it is potentially dangerous, predatory behavior, “feeling out, as an explicit or unconscious strategy, how far they can push boundaries (sexual and otherwise) without consequence”.

David closes with an interesting question about modesty:

How can we make modesty a beautiful virtue for both men and women while leaving behind this notion that women are passive and men define the terms?

In part, the answer to this question depends on how we conceive of modesty in relation to the other virtues. Is the virtue of modesty fundamentally protective against the vice of lust, and therefore most closely related to the virtue of chastity? This is the dominant narrative, and it’s interesting to me that it doesn’t get to a companion virtue except by going through its opposing vice.

Or, is modesty most closely related to the virtue of humility? This strikes me as a much more fruitful approach.

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7 Responses to Modesty, Male Gazes, and Virtues

  1. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO says:

    Thank you: a fascinating riposte. I need to think more about staring as communication. Feel free to carry the discussion over to Vox Nova!

  2. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO says:

    Thinking about it over night, I agree that “staring” (or “looking”, which is less laden with negative overtones, or “noticing” which is the verb used by Rage in her original description) can be communication. But I think we need to be careful because I do not think it is communication in quite the same way that dress is. Dress is meant to be seen, a stare/look need not be: otherwise, we would have to say that a stalker is communicating which is not always the case. I think you are correct that when a stare/look is seen and responded to (positively or negatively) communication has occurred, and it is incumbent on the original starer/looker to respond appropriately to the reaction the look/stare drew. But is the original look/stare communication before it is noticed? And when is it inappropriate? Rage was making the argument that by her dress, the glittery woman was inviting looks, or at least should be open to the possibility that men will stare at her.

    • Thanks for your comments, David!
      A couple of quick responses:
      – I don’t use “staring”, “looking”, and “noticing” as synonyms: I think they describe different gazes, which communicate different things, which would each need to be evaluated/analyzed on its own terms.
      – I’m not sure about the validity of the distinction you propose here between dress and gaze as communication. It seems to venture towards treating intent as an essential element of the act, whereas one of the things I liked about your original analysis was that it carefully avoided any such link.

      I’ll think about it further, as I seem to be gestating a followup post. 🙂

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO says:

        I agree that staring, looking and noticing are different acts. I introduced them to point out the ambiguity of the original post by Rage: she used noticing, I changed (inadvertently) to staring, and I suspect (though I don’t know) that her male friend would describe his actions as looking.

        I need to think about gaze versus dress more, though I think there may be an element of intent in both. This perhaps needs to be parsed out more finely. If you post again, I will try to follow up.

  3. Mark S. says:

    We have to face the reality of the human factors involved. Setting aside homosexuality and some other minority sexualities for this discussion, a fundamental truth is that men want sex with women — and especially so with attractive women. Likewise, women want sex with men — especially attractive men. This is built in to the hardware (our bodies) and any morality that tries to ignore it is going to bring unhappiness to the people who try to live by it.

    Why would a woman go out with glitter on her t*ts ? [wordpress rejected this comment, so I’m trying to beat the “naughty word filter”.] The same reason she has her hair done, chooses fancy clothes, and makes various other changes to her appearance. She wants to look good. She wants to be attractive. Even is she is not immediately looking for a sex partner, there is this whole social status aspect that we associate with attractiveness.

    (Men do the same thing, but in different ways.)

    The message in the gaze from the man is effectively “I noticed!”. The gaze is satisfying to the man performing the gaze (yes, men like looking at attractive women), and if the woman also finds him similarly attractive, it is satisfying to her too. It is only when she is not attracted or interested that it becomes a threat — unwanted attention represents the risk of rape.

    The message of the gaze is also “I want”. Most men use the higher functions of their brains to try to control that basic urge when there is little reason to think that the woman is interested. Even then, if she is really attractive, he may have difficulty not looking back again. Remember this is not an logical rationall thought of “I should look again”; it is part of the basic reptilian portion of the brain that is not so good at thinking for the long term.

    I’ll take your “socially inept” definition to include the case where he is not fully able to use intellect to control his emotional response. The more attractive the woman is, the harder it is to do. I speak from experience.

    But even in that case, it is the man’s responsibility to keep his logical mind in control over his emotional responses. However, it is the woman’s responsibility to understand that men will always have the initial period of noticing (before they can be aware that there is an emotion to control) and that even men with good intentions may stare a little too long from time to time.

    For modesty here, I assume you are using the definition of “cover certain parts of the body”. I think before asking how you can make modesty a virtue for both men and women, you should ask IF you should make modesty a virtue at all. If I spend all my days surrounded by t*ts covered with glitter, the world will be a more beautiful place, but t*ts covered with glitter will not automatically get my attention by standing out so dramatically. One problem, though, is that leaves women to find some other way to indicate when they really do want my attention.

    • Jordan says:

      late to the feast, gaudete. Excellent post.

      Mark S [March 18, 2014 at 1:29 pm] We have to face the reality of the human factors involved. Setting aside homosexuality and some other minority sexualities for this discussion, a fundamental truth is that men want sex with women — and especially so with attractive women.

      I’d say (from a gay male perspective) that persons of all sexual orientations glance and wish to be glanced at in return. I don’t think that orientations are necessarily indicative of human sexual interaction.

      “The gaze”, then, is not rational or a genesis of the id, but a distortion designed to distract a person from another person’s and their own vulnerabilities. In a modest culture, or a culture where personal space and sexuality is respected until a mutual agreement to share each other is established, ultimately partners embrace the inevitable physical defects of the other person to receive a whole person. “The gaze” becomes cancerous and metastasizes in porn. Male sex workers in homosexual videos deliver a hypersexualization of the “straight-[acting] man”‘s world. To think, I smoked Marlboros for years.

      A statement that there is a feminist gaze or an orientation-based gaze belies the simplicity that the modest gaze is merely the inverse function of the broken gaze of a sexually and socially dysfunctional emotive and ocular vision.

  4. Pingback: On Catholic Dress: Sexuality, Status, Modesty and True Humility | Vox Nova

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