It is the spontaneous and natural instinct of the lover to desire modesty in his mistress, and by no means any calculated opinion on his part that modesty is the sign of sexual emotion. It remains true, however, that modesty is an expression of feminine erotic impulse. We have here one of the instances, of which there, are so many, of that curious and instinctive harmony by which Nature has sought the more effectively to bring about the ends of courtship. As to the fact itself there can be little doubt. It constantly forces itself on the notice of careful observers, and has long been decided in the affirmative by those who have discussed the matter. Venette, one of the earliest writers on the psychology of sex, after discussing the question at length, decided that the timid woman is a more ardent lover than the bold woman.
“It is the most pudent girl,” remarked Restif de la Bretonne whose experience of women was so extensive, “the girl who blushes most, who is most disposed to the pleasures of love,” he adds that, in girls and boys alike, shyness is a premature consciousness of sex.
This observation has even become embodied in popular proverbs. “Do as the lasses do—say no, but take it,” is a Scotch saying, to which corresponds the Welsh saying, “The more prudish the more unchaste.”
It is not, at first, quite clear why an excessively shy and modest woman should be the most apt for intimate relationships with a man, and in such a case the woman is often charged with hypocrisy. There is, however, no hypocrisy in the matter. The shy and reserved woman holds herself aloof from intimacy in ordinary friendship, because she is acutely sensitive to the judgments of others, and fears that any seemingly immodest action may make an unfavorable opinion.
With a lover, however, in whose eyes she feels assured that her actions can not be viewed unfavorably, these barriers of modesty fall down, and the resulting intimacy becomes all the more fascinating to the woman because of its contrast with the extreme reserve she is impelled to maintain in other relationships. It thus happens that many modest women who, in non-sexual relationships with their own sex, are not able to act with the physical unreserve not uncommon with women among themselves, yet feel no such reserve with a man, when they are once confident of his good opinion. Much the same is true of modest and sensitive men in their relations with women.
This fundamental animal factor of modesty, rooted in the natural facts of the sexual life of the higher mammals, and especially man, obviously will not explain all the phenomena of modesty. We must turn to the other great primary element of modesty, the social factor.
We cannot doubt that one of the most primitive and universal of the social characteristics of man is an aptitude for disgust, founded, as it is, on a yet more primitive and animal aptitude for disgust, which has little or no social significance. In nearly all races, even the most savage, we seem to find distinct traces of this aptitude for disgust in the presence of certain actions of others, an emotion naturally reflected in the individual’s own actions, and hence a guide to conduct. Notwithstanding our gastric community of disgust with lower animals, it is only in man that this disgust seems to become transformed and developed, to possess a distinctly social character, and to serve as a guide to social conduct. The objects of disgust vary infinitely according to the circumstances and habits of particular races, but the reaction of disgust is fundamental throughout.
..Richet concludes that it is the dangerous and the useless which evoke disgust. The digestive and sexual excretions and secretions, being either useless or, in accordance with widespread primitive ideas, highly dangerous, the genito-anal region became a concentrated focus of disgust.
It is largely for this reason, no doubt, that savage men exhibit modesty, not only toward women, but toward their own sex, and that so many of the lowest savages take great precautions in obtaining seclusion for the fulfillment of natural functions. The statement, now so often made, that the primary object of clothes is to accentuate, rather than to conceal, has in it—as I shall point out later—a large element of truth, but it is by no means a complete account of the matter. It seems difficult not to admit that, alongside the impulse to accentuate sexual differences, there is also in both men and women a genuine impulse to concealment among the most primitive peoples, and the invincible repugnance often felt by savages to remove the girdle or apron, is scarcely accounted for by the theory that it is solely a sexual lure.
…a special form of modesty very strongly marked among savages in some parts of the world is the feeling of immodesty in eating. Where this feeling exists, modesty is offended when one eats in public; the modest man retires to eat.
Indecency, said Cook, was utterly unknown among the Tahitians; but they would not eat together; even brothers and sisters had their separate baskets of provisions, and generally sat some yards apart, with their backs to each other, when they ate.
The Warrua of Central Africa, Cameron found, when offered a drink, put up a cloth before their faces while they swallowed it, and would not allow anyone to see them eat or drink; so that every man or woman must have his own fire and cook for himself.
Karl von den Steinen remarks, in his interesting book on Brazil, that though the Bakairi of Central Brazil have no feeling of shame about nakedness, they are ashamed to eat in public; they retire to eat, and hung their heads in shame-faced confusion when they saw him innocently eat in public.
Hrolf Vaughan Stevens found that, when he gave an Orang Laut (Malay) woman anything to eat, she not only would not eat it if her husband were present, but if any man were present she would go outside before eating or giving her children to eat.
Thus among these peoples the act of eating in public produces the same feelings as among ourselves the indecent exposure of the body in public.
It is quite easy to understand how this arises. Whenever there is any pressure on the means of subsistence, as among savages at some time or another there nearly always is, it must necessarily arouse a profound and mixed emotion of desire and disgust to see another person putting into his stomach what one might just as well have put into one’s own. The special secrecy sometimes observed by women is probably due to the fact that women would be less able to resist the emotions that the act of eating would arouse in onlookers. As social feeling develops, a man desires not only to eat in safety, but also to avoid being an object of disgust, and to spare his friends all unpleasant emotions. Hence it becomes a requirement of ordinary decency to eat in private. A man who eats in public becomes—like the man who in our cities exposes his person in public—an object of disgust and contempt.
..Our Venuses, as Lucretius long since remarked and Montaigne after him, are careful to conceal from their lovers the vita postscenia, and that fantastic fate which placed so near together the supreme foci of physical attraction and physical repugnance, has immensely contributed to build up all the subtlest coquetries of courtship. Whatever stimulates self-confidence and lulls the fear of evoking disgust—whether it is the presence of a beloved person in whose good opinion complete confidence is felt, or whether it is merely the grosser narcotizing influence of a slight degree of intoxication—always automatically lulls the emotion of modesty.Together with the animal factor of sexual refusal, this social fear of evoking disgust seems to me the most fundamental element in modesty.