What Causes Us to Think Immodest Women are the Downfall of Men?

Perhaps we can discuss once more the curious notion that immodest women are the downfall of men?  But I am not so concerned today with refuting the notion.  It seems to me an irrational notion -- and, as a friend likes to remind me, you cannot reason a person out of a notion they did not reason themselves into in the first place. So, instead of discussing its reasonableness, I would like to take a guess at its possible origins or causes.

It is a serious question why such an unwholesome notion is spread over several cultures and why it can be found in countries as diverse as India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and America.  Taking its strangely ubiquitous nature into account, is there any universal root for the notion that would explain why it appears in both India and Israel, in both Saudi Arabia and America, and -- apparently -- in most other countries?

I know of very little science on this issue, but I seem to recall one hypotheses: At root, the notion that immodest women are the downfall of men is part of a male strategy -- a tactic, if you will -- to put men in control of women's reproductive choices.

Sometimes the hypothesis is reasoned this way: 
(1) Women, when they have the freedom to choose their own mates, typically go about that task by a process of attraction and selection.  Basically, they make themselves as attractive to men as needed -- especially as physically attractive as needed -- and then they select a mate from among the men who are attracted to them.

(2) Given that women most frequently exercise choice by a process of attraction and selection, men have a number of options if they want to control women's reproductive choices.  Those options include placing restrictions on a woman's freedom to make herself attractive.  Such restrictions might include requiring her to dress in a manner that hides her physical attractiveness; requiring her to walk with eyes downcast; requiring her to speak of herself "modestly" or dismissively; prohibiting her from asking a man for a date; etc.
(3) The notion that immodest women cause a man's downfall is thus seen to be a cover, mask, or rationalization for controlling women's reproductive choices by restricting their ability to attract mates.
(4) Men who succeed in controlling women's reproductive choices thus place themselves in a better position to make those choices for women.  And if they can make those choices for women, they will presumably make them most frequently for their (the men's) own benefit.

For the sake of discussion, let's now assume the hypothesis is sound.  That is, the notion immodest women cause the downfall of men is a tactic men employ to assist them in controlling women's reproductive choices.  Does that mean that every time we hear some man encourage some woman to "be more modest" we can be confident he is doing so to control her reproductive choices?

I don't think so.  I think the hypothesis, if it is sound at all, would at best explain why the notion ever caught on, why it persists, and why it became nearly ubiquitous in its distribution. That is, it might explain the majority of cases.  But as for explaining the behavior of any one person, I think it's quite likely that a significant minority of people who encourage women to be modest do so for reasons having nothing to do with the hypothesis.

For instance, I came across a comment left on a blog yesterday by a teenager that asked women to dress modestly for two reasons.  First, to help the comment's author avoid masturbation.  Second, to help its author avoid objectifying women.

Now, you might grin at that (as did I), but if we take his two reasons at face value, we have there a male who is asking women to "be more modest" for reasons other than to restrict women's reproductive choices.  So, I think it would take a lot of work to sort out all the reasons people might have for the belief that immodest women are the downfall of men. But what do you yourself think might be the reasons or causes of such a heavy, gloomy, and unhealthy notion?


  1. Great post. Girls under 18 *should* be told how to dress by their parents. I don't care if it's the Mom or Dad, both of them have an obligation to tell their daughter, you look like a hooker. No way you're going out in that. And if their son dresses like a gangster, the same applies. The objection among adults is no doubt regarding the hypocrisy of socieities where women would not be allowed to make the same suggestions to men. If a guy does not want to be insulted about what he's wearing, he will zip his lip when it comes to what women wear. In a professional situation, I can't imagine it otherwise.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Amelie! I agree parents have both a right and an obligation to tell their young sons and daughters how to dress.

    By the way, I learned ages ago that one of the best ways to earn the contempt of a woman is to tell her how to dress. In the first place, it's none of my business -- unless I'm her employer. In the second place, she almost certainly knows way more than I do about what works and doesn't work to achieve whatever effect she has in mind. And last, she didn't get out of bed that morning to please me anyway.

  3. In answer to your title question: Nothing unless you allow it.

    That said, in my high school/college days, the mini skirt came on the scene and it was a problem for me because I was tall and leggy (and a gawky nerd) and still am mostly which meant that I had to be really careful to "sit like a lady". And fortunately, my mom sent me down to the local modeling school for training in such things. (It paid off later.)

    I look at most young girls today and they haven't a clue as to such things. And the terms 'social graces' and 'modesty' died sometime in the '70s.

    For many years, I helped a friend train young ladies as hostesses for a major event in our city. It wasn't fun.

    My own daughter is sort of tall and was a tomboy mostly but she knew how to act and dress like a lady when the occasion arose.

    My philosophy is: be as liberated as you want to be but never forget that you're a lady. That doesn't mean being a prude; it means behaving in a way that commands respect.

    And I told my son to always treat the young women he dated as he would want his mom and sister to be treated. At his college, three sororities voted him their "Man of the Year".

  4. Aside from the discussion that immodest women may or may not be the downfall of man (define downfall?), I would like to state that modest women can be just as attractive (if not more so) then immodest women. And immodestly dressed women often look absolutely vomitrocious.

  5. @Garnet: I agree. My dad always said that some things are best left to the imagination. I just have always had a problem finding clothes that fit right. I can't wear 'talls'. And regular clothes fit right but are too short.

  6. I cant be sure about other countries, but dressing modestly in India perhaps originated because of aggression it had to face in the hands of culturally different invaders. These invaders invariably targeted women and children and in turn women and children sacrificed certain privileges for the sake of protection. One of it was dress choice. This can be seen more toward the north of the country that faced most of the culturally different invaders. In the south of India the effects were only in pockets , and remained relatively liberal in choice of women's cloths, until European invasion and subsequent unification. I don't wholly agree with the notion that it was a male control of reproductive rights, because in Indian communities Patriarchy is not upheld by men alone...but by the family. Reproductive rights are controlled even to this day by family(where women can have a dominant and loud voice ).
    About the comment of a man / boy wanting a women to dress modestly so as not to make him objectiefy women...I am afraid he already has walked down that road...and no amount of clothing on the woman is going the satisfy him ...including a parda. It is high time such men, or boys wake up from their self centered world where they can simply believe that their sexual thought is not their fault, but that of the world outside is.

  7. @ Mina: Thank you for such informative comments! What you've said is fascinating. I am especially intrigued by your description of the women as the guardians of modesty. Do you know where I could go for more information on that?

  8. @ Kay: I love what you told your son!

  9. @ Garnet: Define downfall? That's a very good question. I wish someone who believed women can be the downfall of men was around so I could ask him that question.

  10. Well In societies like India, there is no good centrally controlled social support. So a family is more than just a small unit. And every one is more "in your business" than in the west. So whether a man or woman is married or has children and of what gender, and how many and many other questions are every bodies business as it will affect others economically. It is not only the woman but even men have their reproductive rights controlled. That is where arrange marriages and gender selection stem from, because this controls the economic flow within the family. This is instilled in almost every one since a very young age. And that is why I mentioned family...before mentioning that women too add to the control of other women. How women dress( even though it is a small piece of a bigger issue) thus becomes an issue of the whole family including the women. The control that men have to endure is in regards to what they study, what kind of job would benifit the whole family, and the pressure of being good son who listnes and waits on his elders without question.
    Eh I hope I was able to give a meaningful explanation. All that I mentioned are leading social issues in India so I did not make any linkage.

  11. What an interesting topic and relevant from beginning of time. . .There have been songs written, books published and debates in the political realm discussing this very topic. Why does society blame the woman rather than look to the man? Is it that women are the "smarter" sex; lol; more manipulative or simply an easy target for blaming? You've brought up a fascinating debate. What are your personal thoughts? Do you feel an immodest woman has been your downfall?

  12. Jena, it is highly annoying that society so often blames the woman for a man's sexual interest in her. Besides being simply unfair to her, it turns a man into a disgusting wimp who cannot even manage his own sexuality.

    Beyond that, the notion subtly and insidiously implies there is something wrong -- horribly wrong -- with a man's taking a sexual interest in a woman. But what's wrong with such an interest? Unless it leads to treating her as no more than a mere sex object, I cannot see the harm in it.

    It's kind of you to ask after my personal thoughts. In answer to your question, I regret to inform you that no immodest woman has yet been my downfall. But there's always hope. :D

    A bit more seriously, when I look at how a woman is dressed, I tend to think in aesthetic terms rather than in moral terms. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: "There is no moral art nor immoral art. There is only good art and bad art." I'm to the point, Jena, where I look at a women's dress as her art, and in so far as I judge her dress at all, I judge it according to its aesthetic appeal, rather than according to its moral import.

  13. Mina, your comments are absolutely fascinating! I have been slightly aware of the importance of families in India -- and especially that they are much more important than they are here -- but I have known nothing of the details. I am very grateful to you!

    Is the role of the family changing? Or is it pretty much static?

  14. In answer to the initial question - nothing valid.

    Elaboration. It was the woman Eve. It was her fault. Substitute Pandora if you wish.

    More elaboration. Men are physically larger and stronger. In all likelihood, the demands of this larger body on support systems results in earlier breakdown and shorter lifespans for men, but in the interim, being more powerful, men have abused that power - this is what power does.

    Why so? The evasion of responsibility, an immature behavior. This immature behavior became the societal norm in the infancy of the human species, and as in all other things societal, resists change.

    This is all aggravated by the pragmatic reality that for women much more than for men, her financial well being is likely to be tied up to who she mates with. Hopefully this is changing for the better, but still it behooves the woman to attract a mate that will be a solid support for her and her offspring.

    So women seek to be attractive (each of us wants to be attractive anyway, but there is added pressure on women because of the foregoing) to attain a desirable goal. In doing so, there is competition with other women, thus a pressure to be more attractive or provocative. They are rewarded with landing a better mate.

    The catch 22 is 1) finding a balance point that society deems 'decent', and 2) the previously mentioned blame game used in avoiding responsibility by men who wield greater power (no longer justified by physical size, but entrenched by custom), and of course 3) the strong tendency of the religions of the word to view the human body and sex as shameful things.

    I sure hope we as a species become more sane in the way we deal with sexuality and the opportunities become more equitably distributed.

    Please note - these are off the cuff reflections of one person - I claim no special knowledge or authority.

  15. Is the role of the family changing? Or is it pretty much static?

    More than changing I would say it is in turmoil or a revolutionary stage. This has left all sides very unhappy. Old age is sometimes a terrible thing in India as the young fight for Independence and revenge the tyranny they faced. Children and child rearing suffers when this social support is scorned at or ignored as more Indians tend toward nuclear family and men and women place economic independence at a higher level than children. This gives more power to privately run charities under the name of religion which find innovative way to squeeze the last drops out of the unfortunate while giving them emotional satisfaction. Unless the Government pays more attention to social support things could not end good.

  16. That above comment was me

  17. As usual, my theory is more simplistic. I think that the reason these mores exist is that men find themselves embarrassed at how they behave when women dress "provocatively". I think we'd also rather not admit that this sort of thing has some power over us. Since most civilizations are, or at least were, dominated by men, this embarrassment translates into strictures about such things, rather than more positive ways of dealing with the issue.

  18. My guess is that this adage is common due to a hint of truth, either observed from real experience or traditional myths. Any country with a Judeo-Christian was exposed to the Samson and Delilah myth. While Delilah was not explicitly portrayed as immodest, there is an implicit suggestion that her sexuality was what seduced Samson into revealing the secret of his hair's power.

    Beyond that, though, is the more general notion of immodest women (and inherently suspected over-sexualization) being a possible route to depravity. Substitute "drugs" or "alcohol" in place of "immodest women," and you'll get what I mean.

    It is difficult to say with 100% certainty, but there appears to be a reason beyond cultural mores that strip clubs are overwhelmingly for the male population, and why the majority of prostitution is also in service of men. In that sense, it bears witness to the effect of visual stimulus on the male psyche, and thus, I think, yields that hint of truth I alluded to earlier.

  19. Are we talking about "immodest" dress in the sense of clothes that don't conceal everything, or "immodest" in the sense of what Eric Berne called an "erectile" dress? Inquiring minds want to know.

    I mean, for cri-yi, a tennis dress is immodest, gym shorts are immodest. Me hanging upside down on the Smith machine, wearing a sport bra and a singlet, is immodest as hell; I can reassure readers that my boobs haven't popped out of the top of the bra yet, but it probably looks imminent at times. However, most o the guys in the gym are concentrating on getting out one more rep on their straight-bar curls.

    What I'm saying is that "immodesty" has been used to keep women from feeling like *powerful beings* for centuries: who teh feck can run in a burka or work out in a long skirt? And can we discuss how &*(^^%& uncomfortable it is to sit with your knees oh so primly together?

    Sexpot clothes are something else again, but the worst I'm willing to say about that is that in some situations it's in poor taste or sort of silly looking. Society is not going to crumble at silliness. We all did things as teenagers that make us cringe now, and so will our favorite kids.

    As for the downfall of men, if men are afraid of losing control -- which seems a popular fear -- then I suppose bare belly buttons are bound to make them a bit squicky, but then horny men are often the downfall of women, so it goes on a circle, don't it?


Comments Welcome -- but no flaming. If you wish, you can email me at paul_sunstone@q.com