When studying the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew text, I have been surprised how explicitly sexual the material is and by way of contrast how our English translations definitely tone down the Hebrew idioms. Because of the nature of the material there were periods in history when Jewish males were not allowed to read it until they had passed their thirtieth birthday. Which might cause us to smile but perhaps its also revealing of how familiar we have become in our culture with sexually explicit material. However, as we know, this celebration of sexuality is cloaked in modesty, decorum, and concealment. Despite the book’s focus on sexual love it remains chaste, holy, elevating, and part of canonical scripture. And, of course, many commentators see within the book a beautiful picture of Christ and the Church.
Windy Shaleet has written a book called, A Return to Modesty, Discovering the Lost Virtue. Some of what follows is an interview she did with Ken Meirs. By way of introduction here is her basic thesis. “Modesty is misunderstood in so many ways. One is that it is associated with prudery when, in fact, it was viewed an erotic virtue that protected sex in a very exciting and mysterious context and it fostered friendship, courtship, respect, and dignity. It meant getting to know a person ahead of physical intimacy first, so it wasn’t about prudery”. I should add that Shaleet uses the word “erotic” in its technical sense. It does, of course, come from the Greek word eros. That is one of the Greek words for love. Often eros is used of romantic love and physical attraction. But it is a neutral word and there is nothing evil about eros. However, in popular usage the word is degenerated and its derivative, erotic, is now often a description of unrestrained physical passion. When Shaleet speaks of modesty as an erotic virtue she is using it in its technical romantic, not as popular context.
Shaleet’s insight reminded me of a stark contrast I experienced when living in Cyprus some years ago. It was hard to take my children to a beach where Western tourists did not practice topless bathing. Which to Jenny and I, it always seemed a display of vulgar exhibitionism rather than physical beauty. By way of contrast, just a hundred and fifty miles away was Beirut, Lebanon. To go there, unlike many Middle Eastern countries, was to find women fashionably dressed (the Lebanese have impeccable taste, often importing clothes) and yet with head scarves on (not to be confused with Burkas that hide the face) and only their ankles showing in public. A missionary friend of mine working in the region said that he believed that Arab women were the most beautiful women in the world. This is ironic because with the exception of the face there is not much to see, but perhaps from Wendy Shaleet’s perspective, this is the secret. The mystery and promise of the feminine is concealed, yet their dignity and inaccessibility makes them all the more attractive and desirable, which is how modesty works. Now while I am not suggesting an ankles only dress code, this does seem to confirm Shaleet’s observation that modesty is an erotic virtue that protects sex and places it in an exciting and mysterious context. And it is fascinating that in the Song of Solomon, by way of contrast to the bridegroom’s explicit description of the beauty of his bride’s body, three times in the text she is spoken of as being veiled. Her disclosure was for him alone; to everybody else it was concealed.
For a man, the feminine is full of mystery and promise. Concealment and modesty, dignity and inaccessibility guard the mystery and give it value. And by doing so, makes it all the more desirable. For a man of honor, the very inaccessibility of a modest woman makes her all the more desirable and worthy of pursuing. As Shaleet says, “modesty is not prudery, but in fact an erotic virtue that protected and hallowed sexuality”.
Modesty in a woman means that the man has to woo, to wait, to court, and be courteous, kind, and considerate, both bringing out the best in him and giving time for romance and relationship to flourish and eventually become the gateway for eventual disclosure and sexual intimacy in the context of marriage. Meanwhile, the waiting, the restraint, and concealment only increase the value and sexual attraction of the woman herself. Conversely, the woman who is a slut or the prostitute in the window of a brothel, might suffice for a crude sexual hookup, but by most men, will be regarded as cheap and dumped as soon as possible.
In developing her thesis Shaleet makes the following points:
1. Sex education, explicit sexual acts on screen, coed bathrooms on campus, and increasing internet pornography are demystifying and cheapening the feminine and debasing sexuality by reducing it to raw biology and animal gratification.
However, according to Shaleet, “To stand against this tide is met with reactions like ‘what’s wrong with you?’ or ‘what is your hang-up?’ because the assumption is that no one would be modest by choice, that promiscuity is natural. The concept of hooking up has replaced romance and also moved increasingly from the college to the high school. If a young girl has too much romantic hope she is now told that she is deluded. If you hope too much, you must be unbalanced”. The result is that romantic love has been replaced by casual sex and something that biblically is seen as high and holy has been irrepairly damaged.
2. Shaleet believes that early intercourse is a sign of insecurity among girls; “the proof in all the social science data is that young girls have early intercourse only when they are insecure. When you have a good sense of self you are basically waiting for a mate, you are waiting for the right person, and that is a very natural impulse that we should be encouraging”. And of course, the insecurity is caused by the absence of moral signposts in our culture. A lack of moral formation always results in insecurity and identity problems, which in turn lead to sexual vulnerability. It does not take too much imagination to see how the church has a crucial role to play in providing moral trajectory that can protect our young people who are growing up in a climate of gratification and promiscuity.
3. Most women do not want multiply sexual partners and wants sex attached to obligation, commitment, and trust. Again, social science data can be cited which asks men how many sexual partners would they like to have in the next year. The men, on average, say six. By way of contrast, women say they want one sexual partner. Women usually want one man, opposed to a series of men who use them and then abandon them. To quote Shaleet again, “It is not to say that a woman has no sexual desire but rather that she wants it in a certain context of obligation, commitment, and trust; which are things that protect her sexual vulnerability. In the past, modesty protected her romantic hope for one man”.
4. Embarrassment is the guardian of modesty. Shaleet argues that embarrassment is a natural and protective human response, particularly for women, and the reaction of embarrassment on being physically exposed is both natural and healthily defensive. However, our Western culture scorns and ridicules the natural reaction of embarrassment. From an early age, modesty is attacked by sex educators, the media, movies, television, and various defenders of openness. Shaleet insists that, “a society that declares war on embarrassment is one that is hostile to women.” Healthy sexual development is accompanied by a natural embarrassment of being exposed when one reaches adolescence. To remove such barriers, and or, to trivialize them, is destructive and removes a natural defense mechanism. Hollywood’s persistent determination to show explicate sexual acts on screen has only accelerated the dismantling of a natural and healthy embarrassment.
5. The feminist movement began by placing a high value on modesty. Much to my surprise, Shaleet argues that, “the early feminists were very much interested in modesty and believed that the idea of feminine virtue was really the motor of the whole society.” The modest woman was respected as an agent of social change and improvement. The early radical feminists believed, as of course, the contemporary feminists believe, that marriage and motherhood were socially constructed and therefore were fluid and could be reconfigured at will. Surprisingly, and by way of contrast, they believed that modesty was the one thing that was natural and the early feminists predicted that a society that didn’t take modesty seriously would experience a lot of sexual violence against women. However, as we know today, radical feminists have moved away from their early roots of virtue and the ideal of the modest woman and the virgin are stigmatized rather than upheld and esteemed. And the result, of course, is that young girls are more sexually vulnerable.
In addition, their parents, who are often nurtured in the sexual revolution that began in the sixties, offer them no defense. In fact, in Shaleet’s chapter called “Pining for Interference” she relates the story of, “the father who drives his daughter to the hotel because he thinks she is taking too long to use her virginity. So he drives his daughter and boy friend to the hotel where upon she starts screaming”. So you no longer have the father waiting anxiously at the front door for his daughter to be returned home at a reasonable hour, but rather happily dropping her off with her boyfriend to spend the night at the motel. And it all means that a girl who wants to say no to casual sex has no leverage to use to stand against the socially destructive expectations. By way of contrast, back in the l950’s there were still many parts of the United States where one could not rent a hotel room unless both the man and the woman were wearing a wedding ring.
6. Society needs to provide defense mechanisms and has traditionally done so. Shaleet gives as an example the l948 song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. Frank Lasser actually wrote it for his wife. If you know the song it’s about a man who wants his girlfriend to stay overnight with him in his apartment. And his argument, in the lyrics, is that it’s cold outside and if she left she might catch pneumonia and die. However, for her part the woman has an arsenal full of excuses not to stay. And in the song these excuses include, “my father will be waiting at the door”, “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious”, and “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” Shaleet comments, “I love this song because you can see that all of these excuses were about the social support for modesty that traditional society’s provided and you can appreciate when you hear the song that these excuses gave women room to stand on. It gave them leverage, it allowed them to delay, to get to know
the person, and not to sleep with them on the third date. And unless these social defense mechanisms are built into a society it’s very hard for a woman to say no”. Shaleet is writing a secular book and so she sets the bar lower than we would want to as the church. Our mandate is to enshrine sexual intimacy in the context of marriage and then assist in building into society the defense mechanisms that have traditionally been in place.
7. There is a movement towards modesty. Shaleet says, and again I quote, “part of what fascinates me is those who are now returning to modesty are embracing the very codes of conduct that their mothers rejected. Their mothers were the ones that had the early sex education in the fourth grade. They are the ones who were treated to this idea that sex was no big deal. But now their daughters are returning to ballroom dancing, they are returning to swing dancing, and an interest in Jane Austin movies. And they are not ballroom dancing and watching Jane Austin movies because they don’t know that they could just get to the point and have sex. They’re doing it because it’s more interesting that way. This gets back to the crucial idea of the book, which is that modesty is an erotic virtue. It’s prudery’s true opposite. Promiscuity is a dreary hookup followed by dumping and then moving on to the next partner. There is nothing sexy about that. I think that the sixties failed on its own terms. It was not an erotic legacy that it left, it was just depressing; date rape, harassment, and men who had no idea how to treat women anymore. There are no rules anymore and that’s not very exciting, it’s just sad”.
In conclusion, I recently came across some quotes from Chesterton on marriage that capture the biblical picture of purity, loyalty, and commitment that Shaleet is urging us to recover. “No doubt a woman is not today what she will be tomorrow. That is why marriage is so exciting.” “Variability is one of the virtues of woman. It obviates the crude requirements of polygamy. If you have one good wife you are sure to have a spiritual harem.” “Domestic life is full of surprises. Mere love affairs are apt to be monotonous.” “One sun is splendid, six suns would only be vulgar” “The poetry of love is in following the single woman. The poetry of religion, in worshipping the single star.” Shaleet and Chesterton are generations apart but both of them uphold a vision of romantic love and commitment, that we have a biblical mandate to pass on to the rising generation. Not to do so is to abandon our young people to the predatory sexuality of Hollywood and the media.