Do changes in women’s fashions tell us anything about men’s and women’s reactions to the opposite sex?

I recently had a short discussion with a woman who rejects the commonly accepted notion that men generally are more lustful than women (there may be men who reject it too, but I don’t know any). She rejects specifically the idea that Catholic men more often find themselves battling and needing to confess sins of lust, than do Catholic women. I have met other women who take the same position. It’s only an impression, but some of them even seem to find the idea vaguely insulting for some reason. I don’t see why since it’s only a matter of physiology. Maybe they find the idea of any inequality between the sexes whatsoever to be repugnant. Or maybe they think men are just making excuses for their weakness, and find that repugnant.

Anyway, here is why I’m convinced that men generally are more easily aroused than women, and why Catholic men have to struggle more, and more often, with sins of lust than do Catholic women:

One hundred years ago women’s fashions in European and European-derived civilization were far more modest than they are now. Women often wore floor-length dresses with high collars. Bathing suits then were more modest than evening clothes are now. Underwear then was more modest than bathing suits are now.

Between then and now fashions have become exponentially more revealing. I drive by a high school on my way to work and once in a while I get to the intersection just as a crowd of students is crossing on their way to school. Almost invariably the girls are wearing jeans that could not possibly be any tighter. At least 95% of the girls I see every day are dressed that way. Meanwhile the boys are wearing baggy jeans and sagging t-shirts.

When I go for walks during my lunch hour, it’s a constant battle to keep guard over my eyes. Women left and right, front and back, are dressed in ways that only prostitutes would have dressed 50 years ago.

To understand why women’s fashions have changed in this way, we may need to ask, what else has changed in the last hundred years?  A hundred years ago men had far more control over the women in their lives than they have now. Women were not allowed to vote and their career choices were far more limited. Women have now gained the right to vote; no-fault divorce has become common; use of birth control and abortion have skyrocketed. Coincidentally, or not, the influence on public mores of the Christian churches and the Catholic Church in particular – all churches run primarily by men — have waned dramatically.

As women have gained more and more control over their own lives, and the corresponding influence and power of men over their lives has diminished, women’s fashions have become more revealing and less modest. Correspondingly, as we move backwards in time, the more power and influence men had over women, the more modestly women dressed. What do these facts tell us? I will try to answer with a few illustrations.

When my wife and I were newly married, I found it necessary on occasion to ask her to change her clothes because what she was wearing was immodest to one degree or another. Now my wife, in terms of her intentions, is the most modest (and humble) of women, and would never think of trying to make herself appear “sexy”. But her idea of modesty was simply to make sure that certain body parts were well covered. It seemed not to have occurred to her that clinging dresses and tight-fitting pants could be considered immodest, since she was completely “covered up”.

I did my best to explain to her how men tend to look at women and how the revealing of certain body parts, even through a layer or two of clothing, can lead to a whole train of lustful thoughts and fantasies in a man — to varying degrees, of course, partly depending on how serious a man was about keeping such things under control. However the majority of men are not very serious about such things, and those who are serious are nevertheless not always successful. Finally it puts an extra burden on the serious ones, making a struggle that is already hard even harder.

She said she had had no inkling of these facts, but since then has tried to avoid dressing immodestly, and when I point out that a dress or a pair or pants are a little too clingy or “hugging” she immediately understands and agrees to wear something else.

A few years later one of her nieces came into the room wearing very tight jeans, and asking whether they were “too much”. My wife told her yes, they are too tight, too sexy, immodest. But her other niece, about ten years older than the first, was also in the room and she said “no, they’re fine”. My wife tried to explain what I had explained to her, about how men look at women, etc., but her niece would only say, “no, there’s nothing wrong with tight pants, it’s the style nowadays”, etc. In other words, the only woman in the room giving a “no” vote was one who had been persuaded to that position by a man.

The first niece ended up wearing the very tight jeans, and still often wears clothing that is equally immodest, causing temptation and occasions of sin everywhere she goes, to which I believe she is oblivious.

The second niece (the older one) has a teenage daughter. They came to our house to visit my wife and I, and our two teenage sons, for an extended time. I finally had to ask the mother not to let her daughter wear skin-tight jeans and t-shirts in the house all the time, as it was conflicting with the standards we were trying to instill in our boys.

Now my wife and my nieces are not promiscuous women. They grew up in a very conservative family and all attend Mass weekly. Boyfriends are few and far between. They don’t sleep at men’s houses or go on weekend trips with men. I’m convinced that if they understood the way men look at them in the clothes they often wear, they would run screaming to the nearest dressing room and cover themselves from head to toe. The reason they dress the way they do is that they don’t, in fact, understand how men’s minds and imaginations work with regard to sex.

I think the same mechanism is at work in the culture at large. The reason women dressed more modestly when men had more control over them, is that men knew how men looked at women, and were determined not to let the women in their lives be looked at that way by other men. And the reason women dress exponentially less modestly now that they can dress any way they want, is that they have no idea how men look at them when they are dressed that way, and therefore have no reason to believe that they should be more cautious.

You would expect that when men had more control over women, they would have made women dress as minimally as possible, for their own enjoyment; and that once women gained the power to dress as they pleased, they would take the opportunity to cover themselves up in order to shield themselves from the disrespectful and ogling eyes of men. But in fact the opposite occurred in both scenarios. How is this to be explained?

Surely most women don’t want men ogling after them and gazing upon them lustfully everywhere they go. A certain number of women may get a kick out of that. But at least we can say that sincere Catholic women neither want to be objects of lust, nor would wish to be an occasion of sin to sincere Catholic men (or any other men). Therefore if such women, being able to dress in any way they choose, nevertheless wear clothing that hugs their body lines and could scarcely be any tighter, the fact can only be explained by supposing that they don’t understand the effect that their manner of dress has on men.

But if they do not understand the effect that it has on men, then it follows that they must not react the same way towards men that men do towards women. If men and women reacted to the sight of each other in the same way and to the same degree, then they would understand each other perfectly, and women would dress a lot more modestly – in short, they would dress the way women dressed when fashion mores were dictated by men.

There is a funny blog I enjoy visiting occasionally, called June Cleaver After a Six-Pack. Its author is a self-identified Catholic woman. She displays a picture of the Blessed Virgin on her blog, and one of the Pope, and the daily mass readings, and on Good Friday dispensed with her usual humorous prose in favor of a photo of a bloody crucifix accompanied by a devotional poem. She never cusses on her blog, as far as I have seen, nor discusses sex openly or in a disrespectful manner.

But she has a regular feature on her blog called the Monday Swoon, in which she posts photos of handsome men in seductive poses, sometimes shirtless, sometimes not, accompanied by subtly risqué jokes and remarks. If a man were to post equally seductive photos of women on his blog once a week, accompanied by equally suggestive comments, I submit that it would be nearly impossible for him to maintain any credible claim to being a serious Catholic.

Be that as it may, I’m quite sure that June has very little idea of her Monday Swoon postings being immoral or constituting occasions of sin for potentially hundreds or thousands of her women readers (it’s quite a popular blog); otherwise she wouldn’t do it. It seems clear that the reason she does it, and the reason it doesn’t occur to her that it’s a bad thing to do to other women, is that she and her women readers simply do not react to sexy photos of men, the way men react to similar photos of women. If they did, June would realize that at best, she was not helping people to be good Catholics.

Someone once questioned whether it was proper of her to post the Monday Swoon, but June’s answer only addressed the fact that her husband didn’t mind.  It didn’t seem to occur to her that there could be another issue, such as its being an occasion of sin for dozens of women every week.

In summary, although I can’t be scientifically certain, I am convinced that the majority of women have little notion how their manner of dress affects men. To believe that women understand men perfectly in this respect, would require me to believe that 90% or more of women positively want men to ogle and think lustful thoughts about them as they go about their daily activities. Otherwise there is no way to explain the manner in which the vast majority of modern women dress.

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5 thoughts on “Do changes in women’s fashions tell us anything about men’s and women’s reactions to the opposite sex?

  1. Hi Agellius, this was a really well written post and definitely a very unique perspective on modest dressing. I think that it’s interesting to read how a man feels about this. I think many women dress immodestly for the simple reason that this is the way that clothing, fashion, and image have been presented by the media, fashion magazines, television, basically everywhere you turn. Our society starts teaching (brainwashing?) girls very early that to be attractive, they needn’t be kind, nice, or thoughtful, but sexy. It always alarms me to see that you can buy high heels and bikinis for five and six year old girls and it makes me wonder what is it exactly that we are trying to teach these little girls.

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  2. Hi Colleen:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and for your kind words.

    I agree that many women dress immodestly because of the influence of the media and fashion industries. Still, women today are as free to govern their own behavior as men are (in European and North American society at least), and if the majority of them made up their minds to dress modestly, there is no doubt that the market would cater to them.

    Of course men are to blame to an extent. I am often shocked to see young girls dressed immodestly or even provocatively in the presence of their brothers and fathers. Men, being aware of how they themselves naturally tend to view women, more than anyone else ought to be the ones arguing for modest dress for their wives, sisters and daughters.

    But my post only addresses the natural tendencies of the sexes. The bigger issue is that modern people of both sexes have become oblivious to the demands of chastity, which in turn dictates modesty. If no one feels the need to be chaste, certainly no one will care about being modest.

    Thanks again and God bless.

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  3. I must disagree: it is obvious anthropological fact that men generally are tempted to lust and women generally are tempted to be lusted after. But it is obvious also that women are naturally more delicate, ‘modest’ and clean in expressing, also sexual, thoughts than men and generally are rightly considered as more ‘pure’ than men, because this more ‘animal’, ‘overwhelming’ kind of lust (to lust rather to be lusted after) has greater impact on men. Therefore men always protect the honor of women. But this does not change, unfortunately, the dirty side of female kind of lust, that is enjoyment they derive from being an object of male desire, when they dress or act immodestly.

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  4. Sorry, but I have to add some thought: women rather tend to hide or at least not speak loudly about their ‘lustful’ pleasure, because they know this kind of enjoyment is contrary to their ‘delicate’ nature. And this is rather understandable: it is evidently not modest for them to openly telling about desire to cause, sorry but I must say that, for example erections in men, however this is not most explicit example, and we all know what’s going on.

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