The Personalist Project

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.

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Comments (6)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 13, 2016 11:31am

Abby, you must have mentioned Velvet Rage in some other context a few years back, because I know I bought it and read it, thanks to you.

It's a tough book to read. But it changed my thinking and attitude toward homosexuals. I saw that I had had a tendency toward shaming and shunning them inwardly, adding to their burden of injury and marginalization.

That together with lots of other reading and experiences over the last several years has also led to my thinking very differently about modesty. I'm with you totally on the basic point about ontological shame. 

My question is whether we should talk about modesty at all, given how fraught the issue is, how far the culture has moved in the direction of "anything goes," and how much damage has been done by habits of externalism and control among Christians and conservatives.

For instance, I can agree that "women shouldn't dress provocatively" on one level. On another, I want to object that that is a highly ambiguous statement. Does it mean a woman shouldn't deliberately provoke lust, or does it mean that if a man feels provoked, it follows that the woman shouldn't have dressed that way?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 13, 2016 11:42am

I have come to realize, too, that there are many cases where a girl dresses in a way that she thinks is completely normal. She's simply wearing what's fashionable and she thinks comfortable and attractive. She is entirely innocent of any intention to provoke. If she gets reprimanded or corrected (especially by men), she experiences shame and alienation.

I've learned that in some cases a girl or woman dressing in a mini-skirt, say, or a spaghetti strap top, can even be an act of genuine moral courage. She is defying illegitimate control and shaming.

In other words, I think it's important for us to realize deeply—and to teach our children to realize—that we typically have no idea what's going on inwardly with other persons. We don't know what motivates them to wear what they wear, and we should be careful not to assume we do.

I think that's much more important than teaching modesty. And it's hard to do both. 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 13, 2016 11:53am

I've also been think about all this in relation to the contrast between Christian sexual morality and Islamic sexual morality.

It's not just a case of more moderate vs. more extreme. There is a very deep contrast, having to do with the master/slave dynamic vs. the gospel dynamic.

Christian morality frees up the individual, and it makes us peers and equals of each other. It raises up the lowly and brings down the mighty.

The virtue of modesty (in its real essence) serves that liberating dynamic. It helps men and women encounter each other as subjects, not objects, and as peers and companions.

I think as a matter of historical fact, though, "modesty teachings" have very often been twisted into the contrary mode.

But all this is very cryptic and undeveloped. I have more thinking to do.

Rhett Segall

#4, Jul 14, 2016 9:11am

Katie, you stress:" I have come to realize, too, that there are many cases where a girl dresses in a way that she thinks is completely normal. She's simply wearing what's fashionable and she thinks comfortable and attractive. She is entirely innocent of any intention to provoke. If she gets reprimanded or corrected (especially by men), she experiences shame and alienation."

It certainly is "normal" (I'd prefer the word "common") to dress extravagantly at such televised events as the the Academy Awards. But isn't such garb provocative ? And isn't the message conveyed by such dress  "I am worthwhile because I have a great body"?  I think they do convey that message. I see such manner of dress as exemplified at the Academy Awards, well, immodest.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jul 14, 2016 9:35am

Rhett, I don't deny that current fashions are objectively immodest. 

Rather, my claim is that it would be unjust in us to assume that those who wear them mean to provoke or "send a message" that their worth comes from having a great body.

Consider, for instance, the very great (moral difference) between thinking that my worth comes from having a great body and thinking that a good body is worth something. Consider that the enjoyment of beauty, including our own beauty, is natural to the human person, by God's design. Consider that our ideas of what is beautiful are conditioned by fashion. That's normal too.

Then consider the case of a woman who has been objectified and demeaned all her life. She won't have a clear inward idea of her worth and its source. She is not responsible for that deficit and confusion. And her desire to "stand confidently" in her body might be, subjectively, as I said, an act of true moral courage. It should be honored as such.

Suppose a woman is celebrating, inwardly, the achievement of having lost weight and worked hard to get herself in shape. That achievement deserves acknowledgement. It's a real good.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 14, 2016 11:20am

I just put up a new post that I think helps shows what I mean about doing justice to subjectivity.

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