Modesty, concealment, and the erotics of the hidden — updated

I keep saying I’m not going to post on pornography any longer, and then I promptly break that vow. A friend sent me a link to this Naomi Wolf essay from last October’s New York magazine (written before the news broke of her “encounter” with Harold Bloom).

Wolf makes a compelling case that far from inflaming men, exposure to porn deadens them to real, flesh and blood women (I’m quoting her at length here, but it’s worth it):

Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.

But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.

The porn loop is de rigueur, no longer outside the pale; starlets in tabloids boast of learning to strip from professionals; the “cool girls” go with guys to the strip clubs, and even ask for lap dances; college girls are expected to tease guys at keg parties with lesbian kisses à la Britney and Madonna.

But does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been liberated—or is it the case that the relationship between the multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity? If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so.

To her great credit, Wolf not only recognizes this, but catches a glimpse of the spiritual nature of the solution:

I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.

And feminists have misunderstood many of these prohibitions.

I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”

When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.

She must feel, I thought, so hot.

Good stuff, Naomi! I rejoice when a secular feminist sees the practical wisdom in religious tradition! I rejoice particularly when a figure like Wolf — who in her younger years came close to advocating promiscuity as a means of liberation for women — grasps just how empowering, not to mention erotically fulfilling, traditional sex roles can be for women!

I’ve often recommended Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty. Shalit makes an eloquent case for the reclaiming of modesty not merely for the protection of women but for their liberation. Sarah Hinlicky’s review in First Things (back in 1999) makes a case — from a Christian perspective — that is identical to Wolf’s:

(Shalit’s) powerful insight is that modesty is ultimately more erotic than licentiousness. Men are more excited, she suggests, by the twinkling eyes behind the veil and the slender ankle peeking out from the long skirt than they are by casually exposed body parts and effortless conquests in the sack. The most telling example of this is her comparison (complete with photographs) of turn–of–the–century women lounging on the beach in their terribly demure bathing suits and positively wicked grins, with the dull, distracted expressions of dutifully unrepressed nudists on their beach. Mischievous and modest; bored and bare. Something more than meets the eye is at work here. Shalit wants the rules back because, without the rules, the unruly, the scandalous, the exciting, and the erotic all disappear into thin air. (All bold emphases are mine).

Wolf and Shalit both “get it”. If faith is the belief in things unseen, the erotic is the longing for things unseen. We’ve got secular Jewish feminists and evangelical Protestant feminists on the same page, folks.
Things may be looking up.

UPDATE: Anne strenously objects to the line of reasoning in this post, beginning her lengthy and heated reply to me: I am just so appalled by such limited thinking. One thing I’ve learned in teaching gender studies: the gap between my intent and other folks’ perception is often vast. I replied to Anne in her comments section, but I’m going to do some more reflecting.

I’ve also caught myself, and changed “Allan Bloom” to “Harold Bloom” in my opening paragraph. I’ve made that mistake before, and no one ever points it out. Given how different they are, however, it’s quite a boo-boo.

20 thoughts on “Modesty, concealment, and the erotics of the hidden — updated

  1. This is just the angry reaction to the realization that one of the avenues of female domination over men is now cut off.

    Compare/contrast to reactions to large-scale entrance of women into the workplace.

    That was what always irritated me about a large swath of feminist theory- it had gone beyond “liberation” into a fixation on dominance.

    Good riddance.

  2. Hugo, I’m sitting here trying to reconcile this posts with the ones you’ve made in the recent past and failing.

    With great restraint :) let me ask you if you might not want to consider that the problem here is the men, not the women.

  3. Dear Anne:

    See my post at your blog. I think I may need to explain myself further, but I stand by the thrust (sorry) of my argument. I appreciate your restraint — I know emotions can run very high on this.

  4. It’s never the wrong time for a bad jokes. 😉

    I’m going to think about this at length and respond later.

  5. Hmm. I’m reminded of the discussion of footbinding I had in class a while back…. aside from the attractiveness of small feet, one of the stronger theories about the popularity of the practice is the way in which the foot became both fetishized and hidden except from female attendants and THE MAN.

  6. Aren’t we somewhat losing the point? Hugo, are you saying that you want western women to hide themselves? I have not read Wendy’s book – but I do know that as long as we live in a culture that embraces pornography, women and men are devauled. And when the innate dignity of a human being is devauled, whether thru abuse, or self-image issues, true intimacy and sexuality are impossible. And that is the tragedy of porn. It sounds like Naomi Wolf has learned this, have we?

  7. I most definitely DON’T want women to hide themselves. I do want a society where eros is celebrated in relationship, not on billboards.

  8. I most definitely DON’T want women to hide themselves.

    You sure had me fooled. After reading Anne’s extremely thoughtful and insightful reply, I could have sworn your position was that women should have their feet bound to keep them small, be required to wear burkas and whalebone corsets, lose the right to own property, drive a car, or vote, and be blamed for their own rapes.

  9. Hugo, I did not think that you wanted woman to hide themselves. Sorry if my first comment was not clear on that point. And Xrlg, I think I can pick up the sarcasm in your comment, I hope? Hugo, I am with you – I want that kind of society also. And this woman is glad that you are posting about this issue. And thanks for the link to the Naomi Wolf article, it was great.

  10. Hugo: Something has been bugging me about this whole discussion, and I’m just starting to figure out what it is; frankly, I’m not sure I have it yet, so bear with me.

    I alluded to it in comments to Anne’s post: the earliest articulation, and perhaps a root of the concept of the hidden as titilating, is the story of The Fall, a.k.a. the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The idea that the body should be hidden because of its sexual potential (not for warmth, or neatness, or because pockets are convenient, but for shame) is at the root of the titilating erotic power you claim is present in more hidden flesh. Exposure is bad because it seems to reveal our self-knowledge of our sexual nature, and creates an environment in which others are also aware of our sexual nature. But the question arises: why should they care? They care because we still think that the exposed body is inherently sexual, and we think that because we are ashamed or afraid of that sexual potential.

    What if the exposed body were just the exposed body? What if all it revealed was flesh? What if we realized that to view was not to possess; that to expose was not to offer? (also that to cover was not necessarily to hide)

    I don’t think, fundamentally, that blaming women or men is going to get us to the root of the problem. It is, as I’ve argued before, systemic and interactive. I do however, think that “mystery” is a pretty weak peg to hang erotic desire on, when maintaining it creates so many more problems than it solves.

  11. This is a wonderfully thought-out piece, and I agree with Hugo, Naomi, and Wendy Shalit (whose book is *fantastic*).

    Jonathan, I think that the problem is not necessarily the exposed flesh, but our culture’s utter and complete sexualization of the female body. Look at our television, our films, our advertising; it is all based on sexuality. Worse, it has trickled down into everyday life, where women show up at the office in pants hanging so low they can barely sit down and midriff tops.

    If anything, women are to blame, not the men: by catering to men’s most base (sorry, men!) desires, we’ve actually done the opposite of what we thought to achieve. Men now expect perfection, and compare every single woman to every single other woman they have ever seen. Love is no longer the important thing, and eroticism is dead.

    As a young female, I know that wherever I go, I am being evaluated purely based on my physical attributes, lack thereof, or a bad hair/wardrobe day. And although I dress very ‘stylishly,’ I also dress pretty modestly, even for a slim, young female; I know that the evaluation is likely not positive. After all, I’m not displaying my wares for all to see and judge, and therefore, am not an attractive woman.

    Furthermore, the constant images of pure perfection all of us see nearly constantly (and I work at a major ad agency, so as part of my job, I have to keep an eye on all forms of media!) mean that, regardless of what men SAY about “knowing that it’s fake,” men still WANT that perfection and expect it. Thus, as Naomi points out, REAL, flesh-and-blood women, with physical ‘imperfections’ men (and women) in another age would really have had nothing to compare to, and may even have found charming or ‘cute,’ are now looked at as justification for withdrawing love and affection.

    Furthermore, as we read above, this also deadens normal male sexuality so that they are no longer truly excited by reality – only that perfection which is paraded before them on the street, the screens, the papers, the internet.

    Really, men *and* women are losing out in this environment. I think there is much to be said for modesty and the mystery it maintains. I’m not advocating ankle-length skirts and high-collar blouses, by any means, but covering what should be covered would certainly not hurt anything, would it?

  12. The problem of unrealistic body expectations, Miss O’Hara, is very much a male product: Women are present in pornography as subjects, but the photographer/cinematographers, producers, directors and editors who take pornographic scenes and airbrush and edit them so that they represent an unnatural perfection are a distinct part of the problem. Fashion magazines, etc., play their role as well, with the same techniques. The expectation of perfection is a carefully constructed and maintained social phenomenon.

    More broadly, when you cite “culture” as the culprit, you are obscuring the fact that culture is not a disembodied thing, but an amalgam of millions of people’s behavior patterns, and that the chief architects of those patterns are largely male.

    There was a time when I would have recommended a year’s subscription to AdBusters for someone who worked in your profession, but the magazine is on probation with me right now. Find some back issues, though.

  13. Ironic that Jonathan is arguing the “feminist” argument aganst Miss O’Hara.
    I take some issue with the statement that men are the chief architects of culture. Women are the primary consumers in society. The make most of the buying decisions in households. You cited fashion magazines as well and women are in the majority there as well. Women also are the primary educators, but for formal education but also in the home. I am not saying men are blameless, but I think your assertion that primarily men make culture is a bit dated and without support.

  14. Ironic? I don’t know.

    You’re right that women as consumers do play a role in construction and maintenance of culture, just as women build culture in their roles as primary child-care, and in their public and private relationships with men. I still think that, when we’re talking about sexuality and social position, that the preponderance of power is in the hands of men.

    I’m not going to argue quantities or weights. Somewhere, in all these discussions (and I can’t seem to find it at the moment), I said that culture, particularly sexual culture is not something you can blame solely on men or on women, but is a system, interactive and dynamic.

    Part of the problem, as Anne Zook pointed out in her responses, is that a system like this does not necessarily respond well to simple solutions: promoting modesty for women, for example, has other ideological and social implications which are largely inimicable to the feminist project.

    Hugo has taken me to task for this before, but I continue to urge greater understanding and analysis before promoting social solutions to complex problems. I think taking our own actions is fine (we need experimentalists, to test these theories) but before we start saying “this is the solution for all of us” we need to think a little harder about who “all of us” is and whether the solution really solves more problems than it creates.

  15. Jonathan, I, as someone who worked in the cosmetics business for several years – well, I more than anyone understand the airbrushing and all of the ‘development’ that goes into promoting certain images. But this construct is not going away; rather, with the increased nudity and soft-porn (and worse) print ads and TV spots, it will only become more prevalent and even worse.

    As far as men being the architechs of this; yes, at first. And still, in a way (I work with a nearly all-male broadcast production team). However, women have upped the ante by adopting this ‘carefully constructed social phenomenon’ (which it is, of course). Thus, not only must I, as a female, compete with starlets and models, I now have to compete with my peers, who dress the same way as the women society puts forth as ‘perfect’ and ‘desirable.’ Therefore, while men may have created this construct, women, by adopting it, have increased the importance of it and the speed at which it is adopted – and the speed at which the ante will be upped.

    I just don’t think that men are the primary architects anymore. By buying into and adopting the fallacy of physical perfection that is ever-present in our media and culture, women are a large part of it.

    Really, by accepting it, we’ve told men that it is all right to judge a female solely on the merits of her physical being, rather than skill, wit, charm, spiritual fruits, or anything else. Primary educators, indeed. The result? Women have bought into the airbrushing, and thus created an iron maiden of sorts, not just for ourselves, but for men, who can no longer be happy with women as they truly are – imperfect, unairbrushed, and very often in poor lighting. All the world’s a stage – if Shakespeare only knew!

    I think social solutions must be looked at as well before implementation. However, I think it is clear that *something* needs to change.

  16. Miss O’Hara: I’m not going to argue percentages, because it devloves into a blame game. I do agree that the increase in women’s agency, liberation and equality, as it’s commonly called, has increased their responsibility, as well, for their choices. I’m not sure (OK, I’m going to argue percentages a little bit) that women’s agency is old or deep enough at this point to qualify as equal or chief in the social/culture process.

    I do agree that change is necessary, and I don’t believe in “iron maiden” cultures anymore. The very fact that we are having this discussion is a sign, I think, that things are and will change, and I think we have a chance to make things better, in the long run.

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