Sexual Modesty and Adolescence

(H/T: Life as a Reader)
A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed -- just beyond the window -- a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn't recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality -- outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable (but see this post by Dr. Klein to get a refreshing perspective on our American notions of what's fashionable).  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she'd chosen. 

So, it wasn't long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, "God! Look at that slut!"

Of course, I don't know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn't ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl -- and that made me feel old.  Old and tired. 

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I'd been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem -- and I didn't know that for certain -- she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

As the above "poster" suggests, we need to decide as a society which gender bears the primary responsibility for controlling sexual desires. Are women responsible for men's desires?  Or are men responsible for their own desires?

Put differently, was the girl within her rights to dress in an overtly sexual manner?

Now, I'm one of those insufferable people who is of the opinion that men should take full responsibility for their own desires. I see no reason why men cannot.  That is, I simply do not buy into the notion that men are so weak they cannot control their sexual desires without the help of women.  And I suspect many readers will agree with me.

Where some of my readers might not agree with me is that I also happen to think women should be largely free to dress any damn way they please -- including as sexy as they please.  I would only specify that they dress appropriate to whatever venue they're in.  For example, I don't think it's appropriate for a fire fighter to dress in nothing but a corset and fishnet stockings (Unless she's responding to a call at my house, that is).

It seems to me that freedom and liberty should be maximized when doing so harms no one.  And I just don't get the notion that a provocatively dressed woman endangers me.  In fact, she's more likely to make my day.

For those and other reasons, I think that girl was more or less within her rights to dress as she did.  I say "more or less" because I think that, at 14 or 16, her parents should have the final decision.  But if she had been a little older, then I believe the final decision should be hers.

At the very least, she should not have been condemned as a slut.  That's just sick.  She was only being a kid.

It's no secret that kids -- both boys and girls -- experiment with what makes them sexually attractive. Many girls, for instance, go through a phase when they paint their faces in enough colors to give a gaudy sunrise an identify crisis.  And most of us, during our adolescence, have worn clothing intended to sexually arouse the gender of our choice.  Maybe the effect of that clothing wasn't always what we intended (much to our embarrassment), but that doesn't change the fact we wore it.  Yet, how well does anyone learn about these things without experimentation?  And when is a better time for experimentation than during adolescence?

Our society comes down too hard on adolescents while at the same time emulating them.  We should tolerate their foibles and blunders more than we do while refusing to follow in their footsteps as much as we do.  But it is a strange thing: We have a cult of youth going on at the same time we grow less and less tolerant as a society of youth. Nevertheless, it is a fact that adolescents quite often overstate things, very much including their sexuality.  Understatement -- and perhaps sexual modesty itself -- seems to be an adult taste.  


  1. I know I've seen overtly sexually dressed teenage girls and flippantly thought or said that they were sluts too. It's not accurate or right, but rather just a knee-jerk reaction, like calling someone a jerk for cutting you off in traffic.

    I am totally for men being responsible for their actions, but I can also see, to some extent, how sexually dressed women do have a share in helping or hurting men's abilities to control themselves in the power of suggestion:

    If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, you probably will anyway. Subliminal advertisements in movie theaters used to boost concession sales. In the same way, a sexually dressed woman entices a man to think of and pursue sex, even more than without that stimulus. What that man does with that drive is in the realm of his responsibility, but there is the question of who planted the seed of desire, and how well it was fertilized. In that perspective, Paul, do you think that there is responsibility on the woman's side of the equation?

    When it comes to teens, you make a great point about that being the time to experiment and learn, and that we should all probably relax a little more and have some grace about it. It may be more of our sense of jealousy and protection prompting our response today; jealousy in that I've often heard guys complain that the girls didn't dress like that when they were young, and protection in the sense of sheltering teens from the potential negative consequences, like pregnancy. I guess, though, it is somewhat of a battle of freedom and liberty, as you say. How much can or should we try to protect people from themselves? Seat belts are obviously a good thing, but I'd have to side with you and say we should not restrict clothing (venue appropriate).

  2. Thank you for a very thoughtful response, Wise Fool. The issue is a whole lot more complex than it might look at first, isn't it?

    You ask whether I think the woman bears any responsibility for men's feelings. I don't have an easy answer to that.

    On the one hand, it is quite true -- as you state -- that a sexually dressed woman is more likely to prompt a man to think of sex than is a woman who is not sexually dressed. And if that were the only fact that mattered, then I might be inclined to ascribe considerable responsibility to women for men's feelings. But I think we need to also ask, "What is the harm to me of being sexually aroused?"

    I personally feel there is little or no harm done me by a woman who is dressed in a manner that sexually arouses me. In my experience, a woman dressed like that can make me feel lonely -- even at times, intensely lonely -- but she can't harm me.

    Consequently, I feel her liberty outweighs whatever discomfort her manner of dress might cause me. Moreover, I do not believe she has a moral responsibility to alter her manner of dress in order to prevent me from feeling uncomfortable. But -- and it's a big "but" -- I'd personally prefer to hang out with a woman who was dressed in a sexually understated manner than hang out with a woman who was dressed in a sexually provocative manner -- at least, usually.

    In other words, I don't believe women have a moral or legal obligation to dress modestly -- but I often prefer it when they do.

    Does any of that make sense?

  3. Yes Paul, it makes sense to me. :-)

    I don't have a good answer either for the responsibility of planting the seed of desire. I'm inclined toward thoughts like yours on the matter. I don't have a problem personally with a proactively dressed woman, and she may even be the highlight of the day, but I too prefer a more understated (but still present) sexuality in my personal female company.

    (I have a friend with a girlfriend who used to dress really provocatively. It was a little awkward, to say the least, in the attention she would attract, but she is a really kind-hearted delight to be around. She's since scaled back some on her dress code with time, thankfully.)

    I hate to sound elitist, but I'm sure that there are men out there who are not as well in control of their impulses as you or I. My fear is such provocation may get the better of their good judgement. Yet at the same time, I wholeheartedly agree that, as you say:

    "I don't believe women have a moral or legal obligation to dress modestly -- but I often prefer it when they do."

    It's not a law, but it's a good idea. :-)

  4. I came of age at the onset of the mini-skirt -- considered wicked immoral and high fashion. The problem for me was that on my skinny, long-legged 5'10" inch frame it was worse. Women's clothing was made for those who were 5'5" so whatever I wore, it was 'wayyyy too short. I still recall stopping by my favorite dress shop where I sometimes modeled on my lunch. The owner gushed, "Darling, you simply must try on this dress! I want you to wear it in the next show! I saw it and brought back for you!"

    It was just my style and color except that instead of being 4 inches too short, it was 6 inches too short. Hmmmm . . . he waxed poetic that I looked great but that I needed the new patent boots that they were showing in Vogue to complete the ensemble. I hesitated knowing it was prolly too expensive and he promised me a 30% discount so I bought it and did the show and got a lot of attention which I really didn't want. Still it was a nice dress and I liked it. What I didn't like was some of the comments made when I wore it. Anyone who knew me knew that I wasn't looking for attention -- just being fashionable. I've always cared about how I look -- my mom was a stickler on our appearance. She even conceded that the dress and boots looked good.

    Looking at what some of the young girls wear today, that dress was downright modest. I caught my son ogling a young lady one day when he was in high school and told him to shelve the impure thoughts or marry her. He laughed and apologized. A few years later when he was in college, I heard from more than a few young ladies about what a gentleman he was and how he protected them. Several sororities named him their 'Man of the Year'. I really believe it's up to us moms to teach our sons to respect women no matter what they're wearing.

    That said, that's all I'm gonna say on this.

  5. @ Kay -- I recall the mini-skirts. And I recall as well the electric shock that would surge through me back in high school when I would unexpectedly see one.


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