I sure am glad we moved on from rules of female modesty in western Europe. I am glad I don’t have to keep myself covered and can go where I want, when I want. I am glad I am free to have sex out of marriage without shame and exclusion. I am glad I can express my opinions and swear and be vulgar (if I wish!). Yes, I am a woman, but to myself, I am just a person.
All the onus was on women. Men, by comparison, seemed to be able to do almost whatever they liked, or at least be forgiven for it. And it’s easy to see how women bought into the idea of modesty because such rules also flatter a woman’s ego; encouraging her to think of herself like a precious pretty flower and her sexuality; the sacred fruit to be cherished and earnt. This can make women feel beautiful, admired and respected.
It was all a lie. Because in just the same way as a woman is a person, and not really a precious flower (even if she reckons she is), men are just people too, and are not at the complete mercy of their sexual urges. They are, in fact, capable of exercising self-control, or seeing women as female people.
But there is one thing about rules of female modesty which they had got right and which we are at risk of losing. Perhaps our fast-paced technological world has made us think we are almighty and can overpower some of life’s most universal constructs/conventions.
We deny the grey area between men and women. And I don’t mean sexual tension, I mean sexual possibility; ever-present, whether or not considered, desired, requited. Even when two people think they are mutually indifferent, circumstances can change that. Because there is always that ambiguous space. And so what they got right, back then, with their strict code, was the fact that this ambiguity needs to be managed.
Our failure to acknowledge the grey area does us no good. It actually lands us in all kinds of situations, leaving us bewildered and maybe even leaving us questioning ourselves, which is absurd because this is way bigger than the individual.
It’s not a question of morality, simply a question of honesty. You can hang out with, share or connect with whoever you like. But if a man and woman hang out one-to-one and share opinions and personal stories and good times, they cannot assume that sex will never rear its head; that they are somehow above it. And if it does rear its head, this is not sordid debasement. It is not disappointing or offensive. It is not something to be healed or worked-through.
Dare I say it, perhaps there is also a logical (though not valid) explanation for the fact that women were the focus of modesty rules. Does it tell us something about the way male and female attraction and sexuality operate? Could it be that male attraction towards women takes a more immediate, visual, physically manifest form? And women’s is slightly more subtle, psychological. After all, in literal terms, men take sex from women.
Our denial risks hurt to others and/or hurt to ourselves. Or sometimes, it’s a way to enjoy the sexual potential, to feel the buzz of a cross-gender connection, without admitting it. Sneaky.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Yes, it turns out that we have bags of self-control, freeing us to move and relate on equal terms with people of the opposite sex. But equality does not cancel out our sexuality as gendered people (a whole other debate…). We’d learn a whole lot more about what men and women are – and the interface between person and gender – if we admitted that something hangs in the air between us. And we’d form far more interesting and kind relationships if we managed that something with care and attention.