The Problem With Body Part Centric Modesty

This January, Marc Angel from the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals posted his own attempt to reclaim the Jewish notion of modesty from the extremists. Sadly the entire essay, although clearly well meaning, is fatally flawed.

His first argument appeals to the issue of women being sometimes treated as sex objects. He writes:

Non-tseniut behavior signals a person’s desire to be seen as an object of sexual attraction. … Why would people willingly dress or act in a manner as to make themselves into objects?

Perhaps because they aren’t making themselves into objects?

Does a person wear a bathing suit on the beach to be sexually noticed or to swim comfortably? Does a person where short sleeve shirts in 100F weather because they want to be noticed or because they want to be cool? Does a person wear a sweat suit working in the garden because they want to draw attention to their vagina or because they want to move easily?

Equating a particular mode of dress to wanting to be noticed is just nonsense. I know many women (and men) who definitely want to turn heads and they cover every bit of skin. Clothing does not prevent one from becoming a sex object. It simply causes a sexually motivated observer to undress the woman in their imagination.

Conversely, people are noticed even when they don’t want to be. Looking different makes you noticed, not immodesty. A person in a business suit on the beach is VERY noticeable. A burka on the streets of Manhattan is VERY noticeable. So is an overdressed woman in thick stockings, wig, and pillbox hat from the fifties.

How we are noticed and why says a lot more about the society around the woman than it does about her own intentions. A woman is not making herself into a sex object. Society is.

What Really Causes a Lack of Self Respect?

Towards the end he concludes by equating exposing body parts with a lack of self-respect and dignity:

Dr. Norman Lamm has written: “One who lacks the sense of inner dignity and worth will expose himself [or herself], as if to say, ‘Look at me. Am I not beautiful? Am I not smart? Do you not like me?’ The lack of inner dignity leads to exhibitionism

Dignity is a nice word, but it doesn’t cover over a basic problem: we lack self esteem when we look to others to define us rather than letting our inherent worth and right to exist be the deciding vote.  Neither exposure nor covering up will change that.

Equating clothes to dignity makes dignity into something fundamentally superficial and almost totally socially determined.   The messages clothes send are a product of culture.  For example, a teen who dresses Goth will be demonstrating courage and self-respect in the eyes of fellow Goths. Meanwhile those who do not understand Goth culture will see it as self-deprecating.  Conversely, a woman who covers head to toe will be demonstrating self-respect in the eyes of Chabad, but might well be using that to hide a core discomfort with her body in the eyes of a professional psychologist trained to look more at the heart than the outer surface.

Defining dignity in terms of the cultural language of clothes makes dignity captive to culture and hands self-esteem over to the observer.   Judaism is supposed to help us get beyond culture, not lock us into it.

An Even Deeper Problem

Neither of these two excerpts are the real problem with Angel’s argument. The much deeper problem in this essay is that he never gets beyond the “body part equals sexuality” assumptions of current Orthodox thinking on modesty.

This model has long roots in Jewish tradition. In Brachot 24a the Talmud explains that listening to a woman’s voice while saying the Shma is ervah. To support this, the Talmud quotes from the Song of Songs. Since the Song of Songs is a love song, some commentators, among them Rashi, chose to see any admired physical aspect mentioned in the Song of Songs as an example of nakedness or sexuality. This is not the only way to read Brachot 24a, nor Song of Songs. However, most if not all body part centric definitions of Jewish modesty hail back to the Talmud and Rashi’s explanation of its allusion to the Song of Songs.

However, the “body part equals sexuality” model is fundamentally flawed, as is the exegesis that supports it. The Song of Songs refers to a mutually consensual relationship: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”. (SS 6:3) To discuss Song of Songs as a definition of sexuality outside of a mutually consensual relationship does violence to the text.

Practical experience tells us that there can be sexual energy between two fully clothed people in love standing on opposite sides of the room. On the other hand a doctor can be probing the most intimate parts of a man or woman without any sexual overlay. Sexuality just simply can’t be reduced to body parts. Our attitudes, not the parts themselves, are what make the fundamental difference between sex, abuse, and neutrality.

The failure to put the focus on people’s attitudes leads to fundamental incapacity for both lovingkindness and justice. Both are required by our tradition along side of modesty (Micah 6:8). I’m not referring to cultural norms of what is nice and right, but rather to the essential psychological awareness required for both justice and mercy.

A Failure of Lovingkindeness

To begin with, body part centric sexuality completely shifts the focus off of the intent of the person owning those body parts. Her feelings or wants are simply irrelevant. However, the Jewish obligation to show chesed and k’vod habriyot requires that we listen and accept the reality of other’s experiences.

Does a woman in a burka want people to stare at her? Probably not. Does the woman in a wig and pillbox? Probably not. Does the non-Haredi woman dressing to feel comfortable or good about herself, want another to take that as a message that she’s sexual prey? Definitely not.

This was the point of the Slut Walk movement that spread around the globe in summer of 2011. Thousands of women from around the globe demonstrated against public acceptence that clothes have a fixed meaning and can be used to decide someone’s morals, self-esteem, or sexual availability. Many of the marchers were in fact very modestly dressed but they showed up to support the fundamental principle: the only thing that determines what a woman wants is the woman. Talking and listening, not presumption are the order of the day.

A Failure of Justice

Although I doubt victim blaming is ever the intent, the body part model of sexuality is inherently victim blaming. Its underlying assumption is that sexuality is something that is emitted from bare body parts regardless of intent. So long as woman is in the land of the living, her body parts are inseparable from her being. Whatever they are is also a part of what she is.

If sexual arousal is the only “natural” response to a revealed body part, then that body part becomes inherently sexual. Should that body part be uncovered, even by accident, the woman is to blame. She hasn’t done anything wrong, but she is still at least partly causative simply by the very nature of her being.

Equating body parts to sexuality reduces the responsibility of any observer to a binary choice of look/don’t look. It is hardly any surprise then that extremists start building Halachic walls to prevent any kind of looking. For at least some, I think their intentions are truly good, but their starting assumptions are fatally flawed. Such a binary model makes any discussion of choice in how we perceive women, i.e. as sexual objects or full human beings b’tzelem elokim completely irrelevant. There is no choice here other than sex object, wife, or invisible.

Sadly this model isn’t unique to the Orthodox world. There are still many people in the secular world who share this idea. Just recently Liz Trotta, Fox News commentator and former New York bureau chief of The Washington Times, has made the headlines for blaming women soldiers for their own rape:

And the sexual abuse report says that there has been, since 2006, a 64% increase in violent sexual assaults [in the military]. Now, what did they expect? These people are in close contact. (Source: video on Huffington Post )

In her mind, a woman is so inherently sexual that merely being close to a normal healthy man will cause rape. Is this attitude really any different than Moshe Feinberg justifying spitting and cursing at women because he is a healthy man?

It isn’t just women who are wounded by the body part model of sexuality. Certain forms of homophobia both inside and outside the Orthodox community can also be traced to this body part=sexuality model. If sexuality is emitted by the sex object rather than a negotiated choice between two people, then any man attracted to another man is “always on” sexually because for him men are emitting sexuality.

Of course, that’s nonsense because genuine respectful sexuality is a negotiation between two people, not some automatic response to a signal emitted by a body part. All men, gay and straight, are capable of this negotiation. Most handle it well.

Instead of expecting men to take responsibility for behavior that is within the reach of all men, many ultra-orthodox tell men that only the most holy can avoid a sexual reaction. This claim, whether made by Liz Trotta or Moshe Feinberg, essentially normalizes heterosexual sexual abuse and assault whenever a women fails to sequester and cover herself. It demonizes homosexuals who don’t have the “protection” that comes from hiding their sex objects behind mechitzas.

Judaism has a Better Way – Really

What makes this especially sad is that Judaism has many, many resources that could be used for positive, non-victim blaming discussions of sexuality. Shomer negiah can be turned around to recognize that each person’s body is their private space and no one has a right to invade that space without permission. Yichud can be turned around to recognize the grave sin involved in misusing opportunities for privacy to do hurtful and abusive acts. Tzniut can be turned into a rich discussion of the inherent tension between divine definition (b’tzelem elokim) and social definition.

But this will only happen if we step beyond the body part model of sexuality and recognize sexuality for what it really is: a deep and complex negotiation of boundaries between two people. Only when we do this can we take responsibility for sexuality in a way that truly promotes human dignity, vulnerability, and nakedness.

Categories: Building a Better Judaism | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Problem With Body Part Centric Modesty

  1. Nothing has been more enlightening to me regarding differences between men and women than the antagonisms between some of the women and some of the men who might have thought they were on the same side, fighting the same fight, each defining healthy sexuality according to their own self reference criteria. Some women implying that men who are aroused by a woman without her consent are disgusting. Some men implying (or stating) that women who dress in certain ways lack dignity, or are trying to be sexual, or bear the responsibility of men’s responses. Exacerbating the problem IMO is how often people blame “society.” If Judaism teaches us anything it’s that even in the best of circumstances life is complex. Even in Eden, with no society, gender relations are tricky. G-d made us different. G-d made life challenging. I hope we can love and respect each other enough to embrace our differences.

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