The association of modesty and fear

modesty is the timidity of the body
modesty is the timidity of the body

That modesty—like all the closely-allied emotions—is based on fear, one of the most primitive of the emotions, seems to be fairly evident. The association of modesty and fear is even a very ancient observation, and is found in the fragments of Epicharmus, while according to one of the most recent definitions,

“modesty is the timidity of the body.”

Modesty is, indeed, an agglomeration of fears, especially of two important and distinct fears: one of much earlier than human origin, and supplied solely by the female; the other of more distinctly human character, and of social, rather than sexual, origin.


Children in Relation to Modesty
A child left to itself, though very bashful, is wholly devoid of modesty. Everyone is familiar with the shocking inconvenances of children in speech and act, with the charming ways in which they innocently disregard the conventions of modesty their elders thrust upon them, or, even when anxious to carry them out, wholly miss the point at issue: as when a child thinks that to put a little garment round the neck satisfies the demands of modesty. Julius Moses states that modesty in the uncovering of the sexual parts begins about the age of four. But in cases when this occurs it is difficult to exclude teaching and example. Under civilized conditions the convention of modesty long precedes its real development. Bell has found that in love affairs before the age of nine the girl is more aggressive than the boy and that at that age she begins to be modest. It may fairly be said that complete development of modesty only takes place at the advent of puberty. We may admit, with Perez, one of the very few writers who touch on the evolution of this emotion, that modesty may appear at a very early age if sexual desire appears early. We should not, however, be justified in asserting that on this account modesty is a purely sexual phenomenon. The social impulses also develop about puberty, and to that coincidence the compound nature of the emotion of modesty may well be largely due.


The sexual factor is, however, the simplest and most primitive element of modesty, and may, therefore, be mentioned first. Anyone who watches a bitch, not in heat, when approached by a dog with tail wagging gallantly, may see the beginnings of modesty. When the dog’s attentions become a little too marked, the bitch squats firmly down on the front legs and hind quarters though when the period of œstrus comes her modesty may be flung to the air and she eagerly turns her hind quarters to her admirer’s nose and elevates her tail high in the air. Her attitude of refusal is equivalent, that is to say, to that which in the human race is typified by the classical example of womanly modesty in the Medicean Venus, who withdraws the pelvis, at the same time holding one hand to guard the pubes, the other to guard the breasts. The essential expression in each case is that of defence of the sexual centers against the undesired advances of the male.


Stratz, who criticizes the above statement, argues (with photographs of nude women in illustration) that the normal type of European surprised modesty is shown by an attitude in which the arms are crossed over the breast, the most sexually attractive region, while the thighs are pressed together, one being placed before the other, the shoulder raised and the back slightly curved; occasionally, he adds, the hands may be used to cover the face, and then the crossed arms conceal the breasts. The Medicean Venus, he remarks, is only a pretty woman coquetting with her body. Canova’s Venus in the Pitti (who has drapery in front of her, and presses her arms across her breast) being a more accurate rendering of the attitude of modesty. But Stratz admits that when a surprised woman is gazed at for some time, she turns her head away, sinks or closes her eyes, and covers her pubes (or any other part she thinks is being gazed at) with one hand, while with the other she hides her breast or face. This he terms the secondary expression of modesty. (Stratz, Die Frauenkleidung, third ed., p. 23).


It is certainly true that the Medicean Venus merely represents an artistic convention, a generalized tradition, not founded on exact and precise observation of the gestures of modesty, and it is equally true that all the instinctive movements noted by Stratz are commonly resorted to by a woman whose nakedness is surprised. But in the absence of any series of carefully recorded observations, one may doubt whether the distinction drawn by Stratz between the primary and the secondary expression of modesty can be upheld as the general rule, while it is most certainly not true for every case. When a young woman is surprised in a state of nakedness by a person of the opposite, or even of the same, sex, it is her instinct to conceal the primary centers of sexual function and attractiveness, in the first place, the pubes, in the second place the breasts. The exact attitude and the particular gestures of the hands in achieving the desired end vary with the individual, and with the circumstances. The hand may not be used at all as a veil, and, indeed, the instinct of modesty itself may inhibit the use of the hand for the protection of modesty (to turn the back towards the beholder is often the chief impulse of blushing modesty, even when clothed), but the application of the hand to this end is primitive and natural. The lowly Fuegian woman, depicted by Hyades and Deniker, who holds her hand to her pubes while being photographed, is one at this point with the Roman Venus described by Ovid (Ars Amatoria, Book II):

“Ipsa Venus pubem, quoties velamnia ponit, Protegitur læva semireducta manus.”

It may be added that young men of the lower social classes, at all events in England, when bathing at the seaside in complete nudity, commonly grasp the sexual organs with one hand, for concealment, as they walk up from the sea.


The sexual modesty of the female animal is rooted in the sexual periodicity of the female, and is an involuntary expression of the organic fact that the time for love is not now. Inasmuch as this fact is true of the greater part of the lives of all female animals below man, the expression itself becomes so habitual that it even intrudes at those moments when it has ceased to be in place. We may see this again illustrated in the bitch, who, when in heat, herself runs after the male, and again turns to flee, perhaps only submitting with much persuasion to his embrace. Thus, modesty becomes something more than a mere refusal of the male; it becomes an invitation to the male, and is mixed up with his ideas of what is sexually desirable in the female. This would alone serve to account for the existence of modesty as a psychical secondary sexual character. In this sense, and in this sense only, we may say, with Colin Scott, that

“the feeling of shame is made to be overcome,”

and is thus correlated with its physical representative, the hymen, in the rupture of which, as Groos remarks, there is, in some degree, a disruption also of modesty. The sexual modesty of the female is thus an inevitable by-product of the naturally aggressive attitude of the male in sexual relationships, and the naturally defensive attitude of the female, this again being founded on the fact that, while—in man and the species allied to him—the sexual function in the female is periodic, and during most of life a function to be guarded from the opposite sex, in the male it rarely or never needs to be so guarded.


Both male and female, however, need to guard themselves during the exercise of their sexual activities from jealous rivals, as well as from enemies who might take advantage of their position to attack them. It is highly probable that this is one important sexual factor in the constitution of modesty, and it helps to explain how the male, not less than the female, cultivates modesty, and shuns publicity, in the exercise of sexual functions. Northcote has especially emphasized this element in modesty, as originating in the fear of rivals.

That from this seeking after secrecy from motives of fear should arise an instinctive feeling that the sexual act must always be hidden, is a natural enough sequence. And since it is not a long step between thinking of an act as needing concealment and thinking of it as wrong, it is easily conceivable that sexual intercourse comes to be regarded as a stolen and therefore, in some degree, a sinful pleasure.

Animals in a state of nature usually appear to seek seclusion for sexual intercourse, although this instinct is lost under domestication. Even the lowest savages, also, if uncorrupted by civilized influences, seek the solitude of the forest or the protection of their huts for the same purpose; the rare cases in which coitus is public seem usually to involve a ceremonial or social observance, rather than mere personal gratification. At Loango, for instance, it would be highly improper to have intercourse in an exposed spot; it must only be performed inside the hut, with closed doors, at night, when no one is present.


It is on the sexual factor of modesty, existing in a well-marked form even among animals, that coquetry is founded. Professor Groos, in his elaborate study of the play-instinct, has reached the same conclusion. So far from being the mere heartless play by which a woman shows her power over a man, Groos points out that coquetry possesses “high biological and psychological significance,” being rooted in the antagonism between the sexual instinct and inborn modesty. He refers to the roe, who runs away from the stag—but in a circle. (Groos, Die Spiele der Menschen, 1899, p. 339; also the same author’s Die Spiele der Thiere, pp. 288 et seq.) Another example of coquetry is furnished by the female kingfisher (Alcedo ispida), which will spend all the morning in teasing and flying away from the male, but is careful constantly to look back, and never to let him out of her sight. (Many examples are given by Büchner, in Liebe und Liebesleben in der Tierwelt). Robert Müller (Sexualbiologie, p. 302) emphasizes the importance of coquetry as a lure to the male.


It is quite true,” a lady writes to me in a private letter, “that ‘coquetry is a poor thing,’ and that every milkmaid can assume it, but a woman uses it principally in self-defence, while she is finding out what the man himself is like.” This is in accordance with the remark of Marro, that modesty enables a woman “to put lovers to the test, in order to select him who is best able to serve the natural ends of love.” It is doubtless the necessity for this probationary period, as a test of masculine qualities, which usually leads a woman to repel instinctively a too hasty and impatient suitor, for, as Arthur Macdonald remarks, “It seems to be instinctive in young women to reject the impetuous lover, without the least consideration of his character, ability, and fitness.”

This essential element in courtship, this fundamental attitude of pursuer and pursued, is clearly to be seen even in animals and savages; it is equally pronounced in the most civilized men and women, manifesting itself in crude and subtle ways alike. Shakespeare’s Angelo, whose virtue had always resisted the temptations of vice, discovered at last that

“modesty may more betray our sense Than woman’s lightness.”

What,” asked the wise Montaigne, “is the object of that virginal shame, that sedate coldness, that severe countenance, that pretence of not knowing things which they understand better than we who teach them, except to increase in us the desire to conquer and curb, to trample under our appetite, all that ceremony and those obstacles? For there is not only matter for pleasure, but for pride also, in ruffling and debauching that soft sweetness and infantine modesty.”

The masculine attitude in the face of feminine coyness may easily pass into a kind of sadism, but is nevertheless in its origin an innocent and instinctive impulse.

Restif de la Bretonne, describing his own shame and timidity as a pretty boy whom the girls would run after and kiss, adds:

“It is surprising that at the same time I would imagine the pleasure I should have in embracing a girl who resisted, in inspiring her with timidity, in making her flee and in pursuing her; that was a part which I burned to play.”

It is the instinct of the sophisticated and the unsophisticated alike. The Arabs have developed an erotic ideal of sensuality, but they emphasize the importance of feminine modesty, and declare that the best woman is “she who sees not men and whom they see not.” This deep-rooted modesty of women towards men in courtship is intimately interwoven with the marriage customs and magic rites of even the most primitive peoples, and has survived in many civilized practices to-day.

The prostitute must be able to simulate the modesty she may often be far from feeling, and the immense erotic advantage of the innocent over the vicious woman lies largely in the fact that in her the exquisite reactions of modesty are fresh and vigorous.

I cannot imagine anything that is more sexually exciting,”

remarks Hans Menjago,

“than to observe a person of the opposite sex, who, by some external or internal force, is compelled to fight against her physical modesty. The more modest she is the more sexually exciting is the picture she presents.”

It is notable that even in abnormal, as well as in normal, erotic passion the desire is for innocent and not for vicious women, and, in association with this, the desired favor to be keenly relished must often be gained by sudden surprise and not by mutual agreement.

A foot fetichist writes to me:

“It is the stolen glimpse of a pretty foot or ankle which produces the greatest effect on me.”

A urolagnic symbolist was chiefly excited by the act of urination when he caught a young woman unawares in the act. A fetichistic admirer of the nates only desired to see this region in innocent girls, not in prostitutes. The exhibitionist, almost invariably, only exposes himself to apparently respectable girls.

A Russian correspondent, who feels this charm of women in a particularly strong degree, is inclined to think that there is an element of perversity in it.

“In the erotic action of the idea of feminine enjoyment,” he writes,

I think there are traces of a certain perversity. In fact, owing to the impressions of early youth, woman (even if we feel contempt for her in theory) is placed above us, on a certain pedestal, as an almost sacred being, and the more so because mysterious. Now sensuality and sexual desire are considered as rather vulgar, and a little dirty, even ridiculous and degrading, not to say bestial. The woman who enjoys it, is, therefore, rather like a profaned altar, or, at least, like a divinity who has descended on to the earth. To give enjoyment to a woman is, therefore, like perpetrating a sacrilege, or at least like taking a liberty with a god. The feelings bequeathed to us by a long social civilization maintain themselves in spite of our rational and deliberate opinions. Reason tells us that there is nothing evil in sexual enjoyment, whether in man or woman, but an unconscious feeling directs our emotions, and this feeling (having a germ that was placed in modern men by Christianity, and perhaps by still older religions) says that woman ought to be an absolutely pure being, with ethereal sensations, and that in her sexual enjoyment is out of place, improper, scandalous. To arouse sexual emotions in a woman, if not to profane a sacred host, is, at all events, the staining of an immaculate peplos; if not sacrilege, it is, at least, irreverence or impertinence. For all men, the chaster a woman is, the more agreeable it is to bring her to the orgasm. That is felt as a triumph of the body over the soul, of sin over virtue, of earth over heaven. There is something diabolic in such pleasure, especially when it is felt by a man intoxicated with love, and full of religious respect for the virgin of his election. This feeling is, from a rational point of view, absurd, and in its tendencies, immoral; but it is delicious in its sacredly voluptuous subtlety. Defloration thus has its powerful fascination in the respect consciously or unconsciously felt for woman’s chastity. In marriage, the feeling is yet more complicated: in deflowering his bride, the Christian (that is, any man brought up in a Christian “civilization”) has the feeling of committing a sort of sin (for the ‘flesh’ is, for him, always connected with sin) which, by a special privilege, has for him become legitimate. He has received a special permit to corrupt innocence. Hence, the peculiar prestige for civilized Christians, of the wedding night, sung by Shelley, in ecstatic verses:

“‘Oh, joy! Oh, fear! What will be done In the absence of the sun!'”

This feeling has, however, its normal range, and is not, per se, a perversity, though it may doubtless become so when unduly heightened by Christian sentiment, and especially if it leads, as to some extent it has led in my Russian correspondent, to an abnormal feeling of the sexual attraction of girls who have only or scarcely reached the age of puberty. The sexual charm of this period of girlhood is well illustrated in many of the poems of Thomas Ashe, and it is worthy of note, as perhaps supporting the contention that this attraction is based on Christian feeling, that Ashe had been a clergyman. An attentiveness to the woman’s pleasure remains, in itself, very far from a perversion, but increases, as Colin Scott has pointed out, with civilization, while its absence—the indifference to the partner’s pleasure—is a perversion of the most degraded kind.


There is no such instinctive demand on the woman’s part for innocence in the man. In the nature of things that could not be. Such emotion is required for properly playing the part of the pursued; it is by no means an added attraction on the part of the pursuer. There is, however, an allied and corresponding desire which is very often clearly or latently present in the woman: a longing for pleasure that is stolen or forbidden. It is a mistake to suppose that this is an indication of viciousness or perversity. It appears to be an impulse that occurs quite naturally in altogether innocent women. The exciting charm of the risky and dangerous naturally arises on a background of feminine shyness and timidity. We may trace its recognition at a very early stage of history in the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit that has so often been the symbol of the masculine organs of sex. It is on this ground that many have argued the folly of laying external restrictions on women in matters of love. Thus in quoting the great Italian writer who afterwards became Pope Pius II, Robert Burton remarked: “I am of Æneas Sylvius’ mind, ‘Those jealous Italians do very ill to lock up their wives; for women are of such a disposition they will mostly covet that which is denied most, and offend least when they have free liberty to trespass.'”

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