When it comes to what we're taught about men, sex, and self-control, most of us learn one maxim early on: "a hard dick has no conscience." The wording may vary, but the claim is always the same: guys, especially young dudes who are still in or just emerging from the testosterone tsunami of puberty, are powerless in the face of their own libidos. Women must protect themselves from men (and men from themselves) by being careful not to provide the sort of visual distractions that can lead to erections and the disasters that might follow.
Rooted more in folklore than in biological truth, this refusal to believe that men can be simultaneously aroused and safe is at the root of the renewed laments about modesty and its absence. With warmer weather just around the corner, well-meaning but clueless adults are once again inflicting toxic messages on girls across the country, urging them to cover up their bodies for the sake of both their own self-respect and boys' ability to concentrate. Fortunately, the idea that a young woman's self-esteem is directly correlated with how little of her skin she shows in public is increasingly rejected by experts on adolescence. What's getting less attention, however, is the way in which these pleas for modesty badly misrepresent young male sexuality as well.
In an essay for the Atlantic that's both painfully obtuse and excruciatingly well-intentioned, Jessica Lahey — a self-proclaimed "middle school modesty enforcer" — reveals her obsession with boosting girls' self-esteem by encouraging them to cover their bodies.
Lahey, a junior high English and Latin teacher, insists that she works "hard to let my girls know that I respect them for their brains and character — regardless of whether they put their cleavage or the length of their legs on display." That claim is belied, however, by her lament about how much she "hate(s) having to defend my right not to see a girl's underwear" and her suggestion that "monstrously ugly, gigantic men's T-shirts" are excellent alternatives to the revealing tops her students wear. Those risible declarations, along with her own admission that her views are "petty" and "puritanical" make Lahey an easy target for critique. In Slate, Amanda Marcotte offers a thorough analysis of how Lahey gets girls and their needs wrong, concluding: "What girls need to learn is that they count no matter what they wear or who they have sex with, and the best way to send that message is to start acting like you believe it's true." That makes good sense.
But what about the boys? Lahey's slutshaming couched in feminist rhetoric is so exasperating that it's easy to miss another obvious problem: the insistence that young men can only be thoughtful when they're not turned on. "I hate having to worry that being able to see a girl's underwear will so addle the boys' brains that they will be unable to concentrate in science class," Lahey laments. She's hardly alone in making the calculation that visible panties lead to a rapid transfer of blood from the male brain to a straining erection. To the modesty peddlers, male cognition and compassion hinge on flaccidity; with boys already supposedly falling behind in school, keeping dicks soft is presumably the way to keep their owners' grades up.
Lahey, like everyone else promoting this myth of the uncontrollable male libido, (such as the admins and contributors to the Guys on Modesty site) refuses to consider the possibility that lust and learning aren't mutually exclusive. Or, to be more precise, that boys can't lust and learn. Girls — whose desires can be every bit as intense as those of their brothers — are expected to keep their horniness strictly under control, never allowing it to interfere with either their studies or their performance of "sexy, but not sexual" femininity.
Lahey concedes that girls can be easily distracted, but tellingly doesn't hold boys directly responsible. "One day they can't pay attention in class because they're thinking about ponies and their pet guinea pigs, and the next they're incapacitated by daydreams about the opposite sex." Lahey never explains where these girlish daydreams come from, but she's certainly not suggesting that hot male classmates have anything to do with them. In her psychological calculus, girls must do two things: manage their own nearly "incapacitating" fantasies and take full responsibility for addling the minds of their male counterparts. The modesty crowd never concedes the obvious point: self-control and lust can exist in the same mind. As long, apparently, as that mind belongs to a girl.
That modesty culture places an unreasonable burden on girls is undeniable. What gets missed is that it also sets men up for a lifetime of believing that they aren't responsible for their own sexual urges. Boys don't need to be protected from their own horniness (any attempt to provide that protection will end in failure), they need tools to learn to manage the intensely powerful feelings that they're having. Teenage lust is a biological reality, but the socially-constructed assumption that it is only truly overwhelming for boys is destructive in two ways. It shames girls for being horny (because sexual desire is framed as exclusively masculine) and it teaches boys that they are at the mercy of urges they can't be reasonable expected to control. What boys need, and aren't getting, is the message that lust and learning aren't mutually exclusive experiences.
Modesty culture shames women, but it does something else almost as destructive: it tells boys a lie about what it means to live in a male body. Instead of familiar laments like Lahey's, what boys need to hear is that while hard dicks may not have a conscience or the capacity to cogitate, their owners still do. In a world that will present most of us with attractive distractions for the rest of our lives, learning to interact respectfully and attentively with people for whom we're casually lusting is a basic social skill for men and women alike. That's not an overask if we actually look at the evidence; as Andrew Smiler and others have recently shown: boys are more romantic, self-aware, and capable of self-control than we imagine.
Lahey's concern for "girls who are just beginning to understand the power of their physicality" is presumably genuine, as is her longing to help them value their "strong minds and kind hearts" instead of their looks. The contradiction is obvious: it makes no sense to teach girls that their bodies have irresistible power while shaming them for trying to cultivate that allure. If we want girls to reach what Lahey calls their "unlimited potential," we have to start by helping guys reach theirs. That means reminding guys that while their horniness is healthy, they are not completely at the mercy of exposed female flesh. It means teaching young men and women alike how to live, love, learn — and lust — all at the same time. If we want to give young women what Lahey calls the "fighting chance to change the world," reminding them that they are not solely responsible for how men respond to their bodies is a good place to start.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
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