“Modesty, which may be provisionally defined as an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine, so that it may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side.
The woman who is lacking in this kind of fear is lacking, also, in sexual attractiveness to the normal and average man. The apparent exceptions seem to prove the rule, for it will generally be found that the women who are, not immodest (for immodesty is more closely related to modesty than mere negative absence of the sense of modesty), but without that fear which implies the presence of a complex emotional feminine organization to defend, only make a strong sexual appeal to men who are themselves lacking in the complementary masculine qualities. As a psychical secondary sexual character of the first rank, it is necessary, before any psychology of sex can be arranged in order, to obtain a clear view of modesty.
The immense importance of feminine modesty in creating masculine passion must be fairly obvious. I may, however, quote the observations of two writers who have shown evidence of insight and knowledge regarding this matter.
Casanova describes how, when at Berne, he went to the baths, and was, according to custom, attended by a young girl, whom he selected from a group of bath attendants. She undressed him, proceeded to undress herself, and then entered the bath with him, and rubbed him thoroughly all over, the operation being performed in the most serious manner and without a word being spoken. When all was over, however, he perceived that the girl had expected him to make advances, and he proceeds to describe and discuss his own feelings of indifference under such circumstances. “Though without gazing on the girl’s figure, I had seen enough to recognize that she had all that a man can desire to find in a woman: a beautiful face, lively and well-formed eyes, a beautiful mouth, with good teeth, a healthy complexion, well-developed breasts, and everything in harmony. It is true that I had felt that her hands could have been smoother, but I could only attribute this to hard work; moreover, my Swiss girl was only eighteen, and yet I remained entirely cold. What was the cause of this? That was the question that I asked myself.
“It is clear,” wrote Stendhal, “that three parts of modesty are taught. This is, perhaps, the only law born of civilization which produces nothing but happiness. It has been observed that birds of prey hide themselves to drink, because, being obliged to plunge their heads in the water, they are at that moment defenceless.
After having considered what passes at Otaheite, I can see no other natural foundation for modesty. Love is the miracle of civilization. Among savage and very barbarous races we find nothing but physical love of a gross character. It is modesty that gives to love the aid of imagination, and in so doing imparts life to it.
Modesty is very early taught to little girls by their mothers, and with extreme jealousy, one might say, by esprit de corps. They are watching in advance over the happiness of the future lover. To a timid and tender woman there ought to be no greater torture than to allow herself in the presence of a man something which she thinks she ought to blush at. I am convinced that a proud woman would prefer a thousand deaths. A slight liberty taken on the tender side by the man she loves gives a woman a moment of keen pleasure, but if he has the air of blaming her for it, or only of not enjoying it with transport, an awful doubt must be left in her mind. For a woman above the vulgar level there is, then, everything to gain by very reserved manners. The play is not equal. She hazards against a slight pleasure, or against the advantage of appearing a little amiable, the danger of biting remorse, and a feeling of shame which must render even the lover less dear. An evening passed gaily and thoughtlessly, without thinking of what comes after, is dearly paid at this price. The sight of a lover with whom one fears that one has had this kind of wrong must become odious for several days. Can one be surprised at the force of a habit, the slightest infractions of which are punished with such atrocious shame? As to the utility of modesty, it is the mother of love.
As to the utility of modesty, it is the mother of love. As to the mechanism of the feeling, nothing is simpler. The mind is absorbed in feeling shame instead of being occupied with desire.
Desires are forbidden, and desires lead to actions.
It is evident that every tender and proud woman—and these two things, being cause and effect, naturally go together—must contract habits of coldness which the people whom she disconcerts call prudery.
The power of modesty is so great that a tender woman betrays herself with her lover rather by deeds than by words. The evil of modesty is that it constantly leads to falsehood.” (Stendhal, De l’Amour, Chapter XXIV).
It thus happens that, as Adler remarks (Die Mangelhafte Geschlechtsempfindung des Weibes, p. 133), the sexual impulse in women is fettered by an inhibition which has to be conquered.
A thin veil of reticence, shyness, and anxiety is constantly cast anew over a woman’s love, and her wooer, in every act of courtship, has the enjoyment of conquering afresh an oft-won woman.
An interesting testimony to the part played by modesty in effecting the union of the sexes is furnished by the fact—to which attention has often been called—that the special modesty of women usually tends to diminish, though not to disappear, with the complete gratification of the sexual impulses. This may be noted among savage as well as among civilized women.
The comparatively evanescent character of modesty has led to the argument (Venturi, Degenerazioni Psico-sessuali, pp. 92-93) that modesty (pudore) is possessed by women alone, men exhibiting, instead, a sense of decency which remains at about the same level of persistency throughout life. Viazzi (“Pudore nell ‘uomo e nella donna,” Rivista Mensile di Psichiatria Forense, 1898), on the contrary, following Sergi, argues that men are, throughout, more modest than women; but the points he brings forward, though often just, scarcely justify his conclusion. While the young virgin, however, is more modest and shy than the young man of the same age, the experienced married woman is usually less so than her husband, and in a woman who is a mother the shy reticences of virginal modesty would be rightly felt to be ridiculous. (“Les petites pudeurs n’existent pas pour les mères,” remarks Goncourt, Journal des Goncourt, vol. iii, p. 5). She has put off a sexual livery that has no longer any important part to play in life, and would, indeed, be inconvenient and harmful, just as a bird loses its sexual plumage when the pairing season is over.
Madame Céline Renooz, in an elaborate study of the psychological sexual differences between men and women (Psychologie Comparée de l’Homme et de la Femme, 1898, pp. 85-87), also believes that modesty is not really a feminine characteristic. “Modesty,” she argues,
“is masculine shame attributed to women for two reasons: first, because man believes that woman is subject to the same laws as himself; secondly, because the course of human evolution has reversed the psychology of the sexes, attributing to women the psychological results of masculine sexuality. This is the origin of the conventional lies which by a sort of social suggestion have intimidated women. They have, in appearance at least, accepted the rule of shame imposed on them by men, but only custom inspires the modesty for which they are praised; it is really an outrage to their sex. This reversal of psychological laws has, however, only been accepted by women with a struggle. Primitive woman, proud of her womanhood, for a long time defended her nakedness which ancient art has always represented. And in the actual life of the young girl today there is a moment when, by a secret atavism, she feels the pride of her sex, the intuition of her moral superiority, and cannot understand why she must hide its cause. At this moment, wavering between the laws of Nature and social conventions, she scarcely knows if nakedness should or should not affright her. A sort of confused atavistic memory recalls to her a period before clothing was known, and reveals to her as a paradisaical ideal the customs of that human epoch.”
In support of this view the authoress proceeds to point out that the décolleté constantly reappears in feminine clothing, never in male; that missionaries experience great difficulty in persuading women to cover themselves; that, while women accept with facility an examination by male doctors, men cannot force themselves to accept examination by a woman doctor, etc. (These and similar points had already been independently brought forward by Sergi, Archivio di Psichiatria, vol. xiii, 1892).
It cannot be said that Madame Renooz‘s arguments will all bear examination, if only on the ground that nakedness by no means involves absence of modesty, but the point of view which she expresses is one which usually fails to gain recognition, though it probably contains an important element of truth. It is quite true, as Stendhal said, that modesty is very largely taught; from the earliest years, a girl child is trained to show a modesty which she quickly begins really to feel. This fact cannot fail to strike any one who reads the histories of pseudo-hermaphroditic persons, really males, who have from infancy been brought up in the belief that they are girls, and who show, and feel, all the shrinking reticence and blushing modesty of their supposed sex. But when the error is discovered, and they are restored to their proper sex, this is quickly changed, and they exhibit all the boldness of masculinity. (See e.g., Neugebauer, “Beobachtungen aus dem Gebiete des Scheinzwittertumes,” Jahrbuch für Sexuelle Zwischenstufen, Jahrgang iv, 1902, esp. p. 92.) At the same time this is only one thread in the tangled skein with which we are here concerned. The mass of facts which meets us when we turn to the study of modesty in women cannot be dismissed as a group of artificially-imposed customs. They gain rather than lose in importance if we have to realize that the organic sexual demands of women, calling for coyness in courtship, lead to the temporary suppression of another feminine instinct of opposite, though doubtless allied, nature.
But these somewhat conflicting, though not really contradictory, statements serve to bring out the fact that a woman’s modesty is often an incalculable element.
The woman who, under some circumstances and at some times, is extreme in her reticences, under other circumstances or at other times, may be extreme in her abandonment. Not that her modesty is an artificial garment, which she throws off or on at will. It is organic, but like the snail’s shell, it sometimes forms an impenetrable covering, and sometimes glides off almost altogether.
A man’s modesty is more rigid, with little tendency to deviate toward either extreme. Thus it is, that, when uninstructed, a man is apt to be impatient with a woman’s reticences, and yet shocked at her abandonments.”