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This is the third article in a series on modesty in a culture of shamelessness. LifeSiteNews published the first instalment on April 7, and the second instalment on April 8.

April 13, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) — As an artist I have often had to ponder the moral questions which arise from nudity in art. Theorists maintain that there is a basic difference between nakedness and nudity, a distinction which I have never quite been able to grasp, though I know the arguments well. Every year legions of fresh-faced young art students and medical students are confronted with the same problem as they encounter for the first time the unclothed human body in all its glory and poverty.

The theory has it that they are drawing or diagnosing a specimen, a form detached from its personal identity. According to this theory, these young professionals will not be troubled by disorderly attractions because they are engaged in disinterested acts of education—the pursuit of knowledge and skills which will benefit mankind. I might agree, were it not for the fact that human nature isn’t quite so cut and dried.

I hazard a guess that no matter how firmly people cling to the principle in their minds, no matter how detached they think they are, there will be a struggle in the emotions. The naked human body will always be for us something about which we cannot remain absolutely neutral—precisely because this “something” is not a thing, and never will be, no matter how determined we are to make it so.

In former generations there was a certain amount of unhealthy fear of the body, a kind of wound caused by the errors of puritanical sects or the heresy of Jansenism. It is now said that severe repression of our natural fascination for and attraction to the body had merely driven the passions underground, only to erupt in desperate, sometimes bizarre forms. Whether or not this is so, it is certainly not the problem in our times. Far from it. I am convinced that the modern harping on the supposed repressiveness of the past is really no more than a symptom of our current obsession with sex.

If we were to plunge back a century or two, I think we would find that while our ancestors’ manner of dress was indeed more formal, and at times even constricting, most people still wed and had children and made happy marriages with startling frequency—and with an enviable rate of success. Compare that to our own dismal, liberated era, in which the image of the cavorting human body is thrust at us a thousand times a day from the pages of the tabloids at the supermarket check-out counter, from chewing gum commercials on television, home computer screens, and from what is being worn on the beach and at church.

As pornographic culture has spread and worsened, in most people’s minds the sliding scale of “normality” has widened to unprecedented limits. And as a result, the very concept of modesty has all but disappeared from contemporary civilization. Dress that was once considered outrageously, provocatively erotic when worn in public has become, within the lifetime of the older generation, socially acceptable.

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The young who, naturally enough, desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, are especially vulnerable to the tyranny of fashion designers, style propagandists, and herd mentality. Women want to be beautiful, but many can no longer orient themselves as to what beauty is precisely, and how to express it. Thus, they take their cues from fashion magazines, media idols, and the ever-shifting standards of their own peer group, resulting in the near-total reign of immoral clothing design.

I am not suggesting that women of the West should adopt the Islamic burkah or hijab, but for the sake of their own true beauty they would do well to reflect on what is being done to them—the violation of their dignity and unique vocation in the name of freedom, in the name of love. Alas, to critique the tyrant that degrades them so often invites angry defensiveness and accusations of repressiveness.

Is such reaction a symptom of blind pleasure-attachment? Or is it a sense of subconscious guilt combined with feelings of hopelessness, as if to say, “Because more and more men are becoming predators instead of courtiers and protectors, if I do not look radically sexy I may never catch a man, so what else can I do!”? Or is it, perhaps, a kind of Stockholm syndrome?

A young woman who considers dressing provocatively should think twice about the effect this will have on the eyes of young men—for to deliberately provoke them in this manner does more than offer them an occasion of sin; it also reveals a hidden contempt for men (exploiting the truth that the masculine nature can be easily manipulated in this regard). Moreover, it insults herself as well.

There is a tragic naïvete in young women who think they will find love by blatantly advertising their sexual value. While it is true that males are “hard-wired” to be attracted powerfully through the visual (hence the disproportion between male and female pornography use), when it comes to actual human relationships their sexual impulsiveness tends to run strong but short-lived.

Young men may become infatuated and even obsessed by sensual beauty queens who leave little of their bodies to the imagination. They may even go so far as to romance the desired in the pursuit of sex. But any young man who is on the road to maturity will fall deeply in love, reverently in love one might say, with women who dress their beauty modestly, for such women embody the totality of the mysterious feminine grace; and their self-respect communicates the promise of fairest love lived in complete gift of self, in fidelity. These are the women whom most men give their lives to. These are the women they marry and are faithful to.

Notwithstanding all the above, it would be a gross error to conclude that the current confusion between the sexes is due to the failure of women to be women in the highest and fullest sense of womanhood. By the very nature of man and woman, it is the man’s part to be the responsible protector of woman, to honour her greatly and to provide for her, to stand as a bulwark against all that would degrade her, to lay down his life for her.

It is precisely the failure of courageous, ennobled manhood in our times that is at the root of much disorder among women. This subject demands an entire study in itself, but suffice it to say at this point that a large and growing number of young men have opted for a tragically stunted concept of manhood, which has more or less been reduced to the ability to perform sexual intercourse. And for many of them, even engaging in this is considered too much effort.

The vicarious thrills of “virtual masculinity” are always available electronically, without hard labour, without the demands of self-mastery, without the gradual growth in wisdom that accompanies authentic relationships, and without—they presume—negative consequences. They have become increasingly passive, still biologically driven but disconnected in other dimensions of their humanity. Is it any wonder, therefore, that so many young women try desperately to attract male interest in the hope of obtaining a manly commitment?

Michael D. O’Brien is a painter, novelist, and commentator on faith, family, and culture.