I learned about what I am going to call “ontological shame” from a book called The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. It’s not a book you should read if you want to understand Catholic teaching on the meaning of sexuality, but it’s an eye-opening explanation for why homosexual men are so angry. Alan Downs describes what it does to your psyche if you grow up believing that there is a truth about who you are—your very identity—that is so utterly shameful that to even speak it is a sin against charity. Your very being is unacceptable. You are not merely expected to feel guilty for things you have done, but to feel shame for who you are.
Some people teach their daughters modesty in the same way. The problem is not, ultimately, what they choose to wear, but what they are. Their female identity is so shameful that it must be hidden. It’s not their clothes that are the root of the problem, but their very bodies, exactly insofar as their bodies express their femininity. They are told, just as homosexual men are, that to speak who they are is a sin against the virtue of charity.
This is a lie that, like all powerful lies, builds on an important truth. Christ spoke with special vehemence about the seriousness of the sin of scandal, which means tempting others to sin. Out of love for our brothers, and concern for their immortal souls, women should not dress provocatively. Everyone is responsible for his own sin, but leading another into sin is also a sin. We should teach our daughters that. But we must be careful not to teach it to them in such a way as to foster ontological shame: shame in their very being as women.
But what I think has been missing from the conversation so far is this: when we correct this fault in the way modesty is taught to women, we must be careful not to impose ontological shame on men, as well. When I tried to explain what I meant to my husband, he understood me immediately. He said, “Right, like ‘men are pigs.’”
Again, this is a difficult balance. It is true that every man is responsible for his own sin. It is true that men should not, in general, tell women how to dress. It is true that a woman should not be ashamed of having a woman’s body. But if a man hears, “My body is not shameful. I will dress however I want, and if you have a problem with it, that’s because of what you’re like, not because of what I’m like”—that’s ontological shaming as well. Just as it’s wrong to tell a woman that being a woman makes her dirty in her soul, it’s wrong to tell a man that his masculinity makes him dirty. A man is morally bound to avoid the sin of lust, but he must not be told that his natural sexual attraction to women is a matter of shame: that who he is as a man is a shameful secret that must not be spoken of or even alluded to, on pain of admitting that he is, in the core of his being, a pig.
Modesty must be discussed in a way that avoids the ontological shaming of both women and men. Just as men must not speak of women as if their very nature makes them temptresses, women must be careful not to speak of men as if their very nature makes them animals. The modesty discussion must be carried out in a way that respects not only the ontological dignity of women, but also that of men.