The Eroticism Of Modesty

The Eroticism Of Modesty

I do much of my serious reading while I’m waiting in checkout lines at the supermarket. I find that the point-of-purchase publications set up to entice the consumer as they wait in these lines are like social-dipsticks. Whether they are magazines for middle-aged women, or men who are feeling a little wide around the middle, the headlines and headlined articles are a way of taking our temperature, telling us if our libido is a quart low, warning us we’re running too hot, or why we should start running. The publications can be slick, or trashy, or both but certainly they are a window on what we think, or what others think we’re thinking, or what others think we want to even as we are told that these are things we shouldn’t think.

It’s an Alice in Wonderland world out there, and if you want to know what Alice is wearing, who she is dating, who followed her down the rabbit hole, well, it’s all there for the telling. “Every subculture,” said the French philosopher Marcel Proust, “has it’s own pathology.” And here is the pathologist’s report.

Most of the publications on display are screaming with sex because sex sells. Everything. Sex has become so prevalent and cheap an advertising gimmick that it was only a matter of time before research psychologists came up with one better. What the mind discovers is that sometimes the only thing more erotic than showing more is showing less. Modesty is not absent of eroticism. In fact the mind simply finds modesty a more intriguing eroticism. A package that is still wrapped holds everything in your imagination and often far more than any gift that time will unwrap.

Modesty is the perfect counterpoint to sex in the same way that what is demure can be no less inviting than what is flashy. When everyone else is immodest, modesty makes you stand out. Publishers are once again printing books that promote and push modesty. Talk shows have young women in long skirts talking about how they could never live with a man before they married because there would be no surprises left in their marriage. Without pushing premarital sex, does anyone who has been married and is past his or her second decade really believe that? Trust me honey, dressed or undressed, in bed or out of bed, life has some surprises that will take you places sex could never imagine.

But there you have it. Modesty has become the new eroticism. A least conversationally. Now you see. Now you don’t. And what you don’t see, va va va boom. “A fine woman shows her charms to most advantage,” said Dr. Gregory an 18th century physician, “when she seems most to conceal them. The finest bosom in nature is not so fine as what imagination forms.” All eroticism requires imagination, and little is as erotic as our imagination. Imagine that.

Perhaps the pulchritude of this new Puritanism is a reaction syndrome to so much public sex. Perhaps people feel they have heard enough about sex publicly but feel they want to feel a little more privately. Want to hear it differently. From a different angle. If you promote sex or suppress sex you still have sex on your mind. Psychologists will tell you that nothing will make you think more about something than trying not to think about it. The Marquis de Sade, to whom transgression was a staple, said: “The best way of enlarging and multiplying one’s desires is to try and limit them.” A society that puts sex in long skirts may still be skirting the issue. The February 1999 issue of Mirabella magazine reports: “In Tehran, women wear Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie under their chadors.” Fundamentalist terrorists visited strip clubs while plotting evil and clearly had more than evil on their mind. And maybe even on their laps.

What we put behind a veil only veils the issue. “In this loveless everyday life,” said the 20th century French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, “eroticism is a substitute for love.” It seems to be me that in a cold and often indifferent world, the psychic struggle is a search for both power AND intimacy. And this is not the struggle of strangers but a struggle, no matter how contradictory, that is in each of us.

Social psychologists say that men are often seeking power in sex and women seeking intimacy. Perhaps.

My experience is that men and women both like to be safely in the arms of power and that when people, no matter their gender or agenda, find they are making love, rather than having sex, they often discover intimacy, and like it. A truth any of us can take to bed is this: In love we find what sex can never offer and any of us who confuse lust with love better love lust. “Pornography,” wrote social critic Gloria Steinem, “is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality.” And little is as erotic as modesty. In a strip tease it’s the clothes that create the tease and modesty that polishes the erotic appetite. What we can’t see is what our naked libido wants to see.

Modesty shows off its talents by not showing off. Modesty makes what isn’t seen more desirable of being seen. Be a single dot of white paint on a black canvas and no one will miss you. You will be seen. Be a single dot of black paint on a white canvas and you will stand out. If sex is the social white noise, modesty will in its silence shout: Hey, see me here, I am here, hey.

Modesty is also a mode of operation, a code of conduct. Modesty is a way for any character to develop character. “When thou doest alms,” says Matthew 6:2-3, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” Being modest, even in our charity, even in our accomplishments, even to ourselves does not mean we shouldn’t take pride in doing good things or looking good.

Being modest does mean we should remember that “pride cometh before a fall.” People who are peacock proud of their appearances or the attraction of appearances should remember the playwright Edward Albee’s line that “little is as it appears to be.” People sensationalizing and showing off their sexuality or simply showing off often have a great deal hidden and sometimes what is hidden is a fear that there’s nothing there at all. “He is a modest little man,” said Winston Churchill of another politician, “and he has a great deal to be modest about.”

Here is a story about modesty that has traveled a great distance to water your garden. It is tale told in India but is at home in any neighborhood just as every tale tells something of the teller.


A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the fractured pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the broken pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”

“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old broken pot, and in his compassion He said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.”

Indeed, as they went up the hill, the modest pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.

The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and made it your strength. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you have watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

Ladies and gentlemen, each of us is flawed, and each of us has much to be modest about. But in our flaws both our life and the lives of others may be graced. The water we spill may water flowers we never smell.
In the January 1999 issue of GQ magazine readers were asked: “What do we mean when we say a ‘sexual relationship?’”

Here is the answer from white haired Cynthia Westerbridge who is sixty-eight years old and uses a cane:
“A sexual relationship is when that beautiful, graceful, lyrical sailing vessel comes in, and you get on board, and you go off into the setting sun, and get intertwined together because you now are two hearts beating very nearly as one, and the music plays, and the flesh is explored like a vast and wondrous uncharted land with mysteries behind every ridge and cranny, and you know deep in your heart that this is it, this is the moment when everything finally comes together and the blood rushes to your brain, and you are drowned in exquisite sensation. And if something like this doesn’t happen, it’s all just killing time – like counting your steps or cracking your knuckles.”

A hundred years ago Victorians covered the legs of their furniture because they feared a piece of mahogany could be seen as sexually explicit. If we find our fears we’ve found where we need to do some work.

Modesty, like sex, is as erotic as we are.

© 2009 Noah benShea, All Rights Reserved