Modesty, Religion, and Sexual Fulfillment

The central thesis of Wendy Shalit’s classic  A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue is that, far from downgrading the significance of our sexuality, modesty upgrades and preserves it, keeping our elemental sexuality from lapsing into something merely trivial and banal.

Wendy Shalit’s 1999 classic, A Return to Modesty, transformed the public discourse on modesty and feminism to such an extent that her text is now required reading in many university courses.

When I first read Return to Modesty shortly after its publication, her argument made sense to me on a purely phenomenological level. But I was intrigued to see Shalit going even further to suggest that modest women have more fun in bed. She quoted data showing that shops selling racy lingerie are particularly profitable in parts of New York populated by Orthodox Jews who observe the strictest codes for outerwear. Shalit challenged us to reflect on why there is a correlation between modest outerwear and sexy underwear? From there she went on to cite a string of studies showing that religious women have the most fulfilling intimacy.

Having my curiosity roused by this data, I decided to review one of the studies Shalit cited: data gathered by a staff of 220 interviewers stationed at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Over a period of seven months, these researchers interviewed 3,432 respondents and asked them questions about all aspects of their sex lives. I wrote about the results of the study in my Salvo article “Holy Matrimony: The Unexpected Connection Between Religion & Sexual Fulfillment.” As I explained in this Salvo feature, the greatest shock of the study concerned the relationship between sexual pleasure and religious belief: “Using objectively verifiable criteria—such as sexual responsiveness and frequency of orgasm—the study found that the people who have the most sex, the best sex, and are the happiest about their sex lives are monogamous, married, religious people.”

This data disrupts common stereotypes about religion, and turns those stereotypes on their head, for it suggests that true sexual freedom is, in some sense, tied to religion.

But data is a tricky thing, for while it can prove correlation, it does not explain causation. It is an open question why religious people have the most fulfilling intimacy. I have wondered whether part of the explanation may have something to do with modesty. More data would need to be gathered to answer this question, by I hypothesized a casual relationship between modesty and fulfilling sex. From my Salvo article:

“Another reason why religious people, on average, are more sexually fulfilled than others may stem from the connection between religiosity and modesty. While many religious people dress just as immodestly as many nonreligious people, religious ones tend at least to be more conscious of their obligations in this area. But what is the connection between modesty and sexual fulfillment? I’ll answer first from the female perspective and then the male.

The Female Perspective. Some women have told me that modesty is important to them, not only because it helps men not to stumble, but also because it helps them place a high value on their own sexuality. They have told me that modest apparel affirms the true importance of a woman’s sexual identity, since it proclaims that her body is not a tame, benign, and commonplace thing. Modesty affirms that our bodies in general and our sexuality in particular are special, charged, even enchanted, and too exciting to be put merely to common use. As Kathleen van Schaijik suggested in a 1999 article, “If we revere something, we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused.”

In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues that modesty is the truly erotic option, since it makes the highest valuation of a woman’s sexual identity, affirming the sacredness of sexuality and displaying a commitment to setting it apart and cherishing it. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the same principle in That Hideous Strength: “when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common.” To dress immodestly is ultimately to reduce our sexuality to something commonplace, trivial, and humdrum.

Precisely for this reason, a modest woman significantly upgrades the significance of what is happening when she undresses in front of her husband. As Havelock Ellis observed (stumbling upon the truth for one of the few times in his life), “without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candor which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity.”

See Also

The Male Perspective. Modesty also upgrades sexuality from the male perspective. The anecdotal evidence clear shows that men whose environment is saturated with immodest women (either because of the company they keep or the images they view) are generally not oversexed, as one might suppose, but just the opposite. In Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, men are often quoted as saying that sex has become boring.

Cristina Odone observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did. The reason, she suggested, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal that it doesn’t entice us any longer. As one 16-year-old was quoted as saying in 2004, “I’m so used to it, it makes me sick.”

Frequent exposure to nudity tends to trivialize the human body, emptying it of its implicit eroticism. As someone said to me last year, when a man is exposed to too much flesh, it lowers the healthy excitement he should feel when he looks upon the body of his wife because (yawn) he sees that all the time. It therefore takes a higher sexual charge, sometimes to point of extreme perversion, to match the excitement that might otherwise be available in a normal sexual encounter. Could it be that the rise of libido-enhancing drugs is meeting a need created by the libido-squashing effects of pornography?”


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