Liberty and public decency (part 1)

I’ve been thinking about my colleague Grover Cleveland’s short post on Beyonce’s wardrobe (or, rather, lack thereof) at the Super Bowl.  He started about by saying, “I don’t think I’m a prude, but…”  Having known the real Grover for many years, I can attest he is very good man, but not much of a prude.

But I am definitely a prude.  At least if the belief that most aspects of sexuality, including sexually provocative dress and appearance, should be kept out of the public sphere at the same time they are protected from interference in the private sphere makes one a prude, then I am a prude.  And proud of it.  And, if you are a libertarian, then you should be a prude, too.

There are many types of libertarians, and I’m not interested today in arguing about who gets to wear what labels, though words and labels are very important.  But almost all libertarians hold to the axiom that people have the right to do what they want to as long as it does not negatively affect other people.  Negotiating rules for appropriate behavior in the public sphere is always hard because people with different values are constantly bumping into each other, either literally, virtually, or metaphorically.  One justification for a state is as a means to enforce regulations on those public behaviors that can negatively affect others.

Some people argue that how one dresses is a personal matter and should not be subject to public regulation.  But this view is, at best, a naïve and inconsiderate self-indulgence.  Imagine you teach in the academy and a student comes to your class dressed in a revealing or otherwise provocative outfit.  She (although the same rules apply to males, let’s stick with the modal case here) may claim she is just being comfortable or expressing her personality or something equally as silly.  But odds are that she is fully aware that such dress provokes deeply ingrained biological and culturally-conditioned responses among almost all the men in the room. Indeed, it is very likely her intent to provoke those responses.  She has probably learned what most women are aware of: being sexually enticing brings them significant power over men.  So, in short, this coed is purposefully using her sexuality to have a significant, uninvited affect on men and to gain power and influence over them.  Can you see where I’m headed?

Now, most college boys in America would respond with some version of “Bring it on, baby!”  But not all of them.  And let’s not forget that the other females in the room may not appreciate the distraction, either. Furthermore, the professor’s academic objectives for the class are likely being undermined as the attention of much of the class is being drawn away from the academic subject under study.  And, as they mature and have families, a non-trivial proportion of those college boys will grow up into men who do not welcome similar provocations in their lives, their places of work, or in their homes.  Some of this may be due to religious or moral values, some may find such dress as demeaning to women, including their wives and daughters, and some may simply view such public enticements as an unwelcome intrusion on marital fidelity.  On a personal note, as an ordinary man I am influenced by the same sexual enticements as others.  But my goal is to celebrate such enticements within the privacy of my marriage, rather than being influenced by others.  We are, indeed, harmed when others force those enticements on us in the public sphere.

The typical response by those who resent exhortations to public modesty is to say, “If you don’t like it, you can just look away.”  Let’s look at this claim.  Suppose I went to the middle of the public square and set up a machine that gave a small shock to everyone who walked within 50 feet of it.  The shock is irritating to many people, but it doesn’t damage anyone’s health, isn’t extremely painful, and, indeed, some people sort of like it.  Would I be able to say, “If you don’t like my shock machine, you can just walk around it?”  Would I really have the right to infringe on the public space in such away?   Do we not have the right to conduct ordinary public acts without being assaulted by unwelcome and unsolicited shocks, especially if we are not given adequate warning that we are about to be shocked or if the shock machine is set up in a place where we would not expect it? Does someone’s supposed right to shock and offend outweigh my rights to use the public space without being assaulted?

The idea that someone has a right to insert herself or himself in the middle of the public square and engage in some sexually provocative behavior is equally as absurd as my shock machine would be.  But that is where we are. The really sad part of Beyonce’s Super Bowl strip show (thank heavens for DVRs and fast-forwarding) was not that it represents a “new low” in public indecency.  The sad part is that it was so commonplace, unsurprising and so widely cheered.  Before the unraveling of public decency wrought by the sexual revolution, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, since her performance would not have been acceptable in any public venue outside a strip club.  But our social norms have become so degraded that many people do not give it a second thought and even promote it.

Those who champion freedom should also champion the right to be free from sexual provocation in our public spaces.  I’m not arguing that we must all dress in public like characters from Downton Abbey—wait, that would actually be really cool!—but it is a shame that so many libertarians have stood with the amoral left as standards of public decency have eroded to their current state, rather with those whose legitimate rights are being infringed.

My argument thus far has not invoked the rights of children and our obligations to protect them.  That (and more) is coming in Part 2!

* Addendum: I previously used the phrase “sexual assault” in the last paragraph, which I have changed to “sexual provocation.”  What I’m talking about can be thought of as a type of assault (I’m not making a legal argument here), but the term “sexual assault” immediately rings bells in people’s heads that I had no intention of ringing.  Most important, I don’t want to be insensitive to the victims of sexual abuse.

48 thoughts on “Liberty and public decency (part 1)

  1. “Those who champion freedom should also champion the right to be free from sexual assault in our public spaces.”

    Despite your aside about not needing to dress like characters from Downtown Abby, it is not clear what you are suggesting here. Merely a Hijab or the full Burqa? (Or just the Burqini during the summertime?)

    Isn’t the only recourse for someone interested in championing freedom (like you claim to be) to be had in preaching that women should cover themselves up (and hopefully giving non-sectarian reasons that are acceptable in an intentionally pluralistic society and robust secular sphere — which must exist in order to protect that pluralism) rather than in identifying a “right to be free from” seeing scantily clad women?

    Your call for “public regulation” of women’s clothing is truly alarming, especially coming from someone who self-identifies as a libertarian. Seriously, what is the difference between your suggestion and the Taliban’s “public regulation” of women’s clothing? Is it only in the fact that you would propose monetary fines rather than beatings with sticks?

    1. Part of the reason it is “not clear” about what I am “suggesting” is that I haven’t suggested anything yet. I’m not done. (Though I doubt you’ll be satisfied when I am done).

  2. Also, equating women’s sartorial modesty with sexual assault is really low. It diminishes the real and horrible suffering that victims of actual sexual assault experience.

  3. I take offense at you calling Beyonce’s outfit a sexual assault. I am in agreement that it was too sexual for a family venue. I was sexually assaulted. Your comparison is not even close to the fear and panic of a sexual assault. I had NO control over my situation. You, however, could change the channel and make it go away. Please choose your analogies with care.

    1. I agree that that term “sexual assault” in the last paragraph was a poor word choice and insensitive to those who have been sexually assaulted. I have since changed it (see the Addendum on the original post).

  4. If I were a woman married to a man who described another woman dressing immodestly (by whatever standard) in public as “an unwelcome intrusion on [my husband’s] marital fidelity,” I would be far more worried about my husband than about that woman’s clothing.

    1. So there is something wrong with men who want to be faithful to their wives in mind as well as in body? Interesting. I always thought it was a worthy aspiration.

      1. It is a worthy aspiration, and my success at it is fully up to me, and not a function of the way women around me dress. Women do not have stewardship over my mind, any more than I should over my dress. And of course there’s a separate issue here that john f. touched upon: obsession over “community standards” of dress has the unintended consequence of fetishizing any transgression of those standards. Tell women to cover their ankles, pretty soon the modesty police are having trouble not getting turned on at the sight of ankles.

        One of the creepiest, most lecherous things I have ever read was a letter to the editor from a male BYU student complaining about how female students who transgressed (his narrow reading of) the BYU dress code made it hard for young men to keep their thoughts clean. To gather data supporting his argument, he sat outside a large auditorium classroom just as it was getting out and counted the number of women whose knees were visible below the hems of their skirts.

        Is it reasonable to mandate that women hide their KNEES in order to protect the marital fidelity of men? Do you really think that the problem in this scenario is the girls showing knees, or the creepy guy whose obsession with knee-coverage has turned knees into fetish object?

      2. It would seem that some here make a fetish in incompetently covering up their own preoccupation with finding offense with naked rhetoric.

  5. Yes, this notion that a man’s inability to control his own thoughts and desires is actually a woman’s fault for how she dresses (i.e. that women are responsible for controlling men’s thoughts/appetites) can actually be very dangerous. My reference to the Taliban earlier is not hyperbole; this concept is exactly what animates them and the Burqa is their (religiously mandated and corporeally enforced/punished) solution. What solution could possibly obtain in an intentionally pluralistic society? How can a libertarian in good conscience recommend “public regulation” of women’s dress? Isn’t the “modesty police” concept almost a textbook example of government oppression/overreach?

  6. Hmmmm. I don’t know, but perhaps there is a tad bit of room for a sensible community standard somewhere between a burqa and skimpy neglige. Good grief.

    1. When and how would that standard be enforced? Would we enforce it for cheerleaders at football games? How about gymnasts at a meet?

  7. The “public regulation” of women’s modesty is the source of the Burqa. Your post doesn’t leave much room for a distinction from that practice, either in the impulses behind it or in the policy “solution”.

    I take it from your eye rolling response that your personal standard would be significantly more liberal than the Taliban but you would still want the government to exercise control over how sexy women choose to dress. Is your personal line closer to the FLDS then? Or something else? And why should your personal line be normative for society?

    It’s a serious issue and question because it (1) makes women responsible for men’s thoughts and actions and by force of law no less (and a related sociological problem is telling rape victims that they are partially or entirely responsible if they were wearing arguably provocative clothing and (2) advocates for a remarkable government intrusion into people’s private lives (and since you self identify as a libertarian, it should be safe to assume that you would otherwise argue against government “intrusion” into people’s lives, e.g. perhaps in health care or education or other standard rallying causes of Western U.S. libertarians).

    1. Since there are few US communities in which one can walk around naked without facing legal sanction, we already regulate what people can wear in almost all communities. My argument (which I will expand on in part 2), is that public indecency is not harmless or victimless and so the near universal tendency to have such regulations is justified. A more detailed policy analysis would try to determine what those regulations should be (I’m not going down that road for now). But bringing up burqas is just a red herring.

      As far as the tiresome argument about how it is wrong to hold women responsible for men’s thoughts, my moral claim would be that we are all responsible for each other. That’s a central part of morality, realizing that our actions affect other people. Now LEGAL responsibility is another issue. I would never argue for the “she was asking for it” types of arguments that have been used against victims of sexual abuse, for instance, or that someone’s immodesty should be held legally responsible for the actions of another. Those arguments are hideous. At the same time, public indecency is a type of assault on those who are subject to it. If I yell threatening statements at you, that is also assault (by law), even though I don’t touch you and the effects of my actions are only in your mind. There are many ways to assault people, and libertarians should be concerned about those.

      1. You are equating sexually appealing dress or a display with public indecency. They are not the same thing and if you want to make that assertion you are going to have to draw a line with a cogent argument.

  8. (By the way, there is a ton of “room” — it’s called preaching a persuasive sermon or giving a persuasive speech with acceptable reasons why others should agree with you, not imposing your standards through force of law on people who don’t share your religious beliefs or aesthetic tastes (or sensitivities). The alarming aspect of this post is not that you want women to cover themselves up to protect you from seeing their sexiness. Such modesty rhetoric is common in religious communities. The problem is in your suggestion that it should be a matter of public regulation.)

  9. Funny, you rail on about Beyoncé and how it represents the degradation of society and completely missed the cheerleaders on either side of the field. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0vcCs3VYxU (sorry if that set off your spam filter)

    In my own (liberal) opinion, this country can use a little more nudity and a little less violence. For all the “degradation of society” we’ve been forced to witness, crime levels continue to drop in this country.

    1. In Europe, they have more topless beaches and a far lower homicide rate. See page 2 here.[pdf]

      The U.S. definitely has a problem with too much violence. Whether or not we have a problem with too much nudity is highly debatable.

  10. Um, wow.

    First of all, bravo John F. Nicely done.

    I’ll just point out a few of the issues that John hasn’t mentioned yet.

    “Before the unraveling of public decency wrought by the sexual revolution, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, since her performance would not have been acceptable in any public venue outside a strip club.”

    This is completely ahistorical. Fashions have changed repeatedly over time. For instance, during the 1600s, it was common for women of all social classes to wear clothing that completely exposed their breasts. Fashions change over time. Skimpy clothing was not invented in the 60s.

    “If I yell threatening statements at you, that is also assault (by law),”

    Are you aware of any actual law on this? It’s been a while since I took Crim Law, but I don’t think that this is generally the rule.

    And finally, on the broader point — um, what if I believe that “smashing other people’s heads into the ground in ways that are highly likely to lead to permanent brain injury” is something that ought not to be permitted in the public sphere. Would you support that idea?

    Hey, let’s cancel the whole Super Bowl. Problem solved!

  11. Threatening statements are assault in tort, not criminal law, if the person at whom the statements are directly was actually put in fear of the statements being realized.

  12. The whole idea of “public indecency” as a coherent category is just deeply problematic. I mean, take a look at the Beyonce outfit in question. There are a lot of pics in various venues, like this HuffPo story I just googled:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/05/peta-beyonce-super-bowl_n_2624488.html

    It’s, um, pretty unremarkable. It’s basically the equivalent of a normal swimsuit (not even a bikini). It’s about the same as what Olympic swimmers or gymnasts wear. It’s a lot _more_ skin coverage than what hurdlers or marathon runners wear. (See, e.g., this Olympic hurdles pic located via google: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/london-2012-olympics/files/2012/08/loloheat.jpg).

    So your argument is that in a public space, women should not be permitted to dress like this? You would say, let’s change hurdles, swimming, gymnastic, running; let’s tell 40 million women at the beach or the swimming pool that they can’t wear a normal swimsuit; all because you get distracted by Beyonce’s cleavage?

    Well, it’s an argument. It’s not a libertarian argument. It’s more of, “when I am King of the Universe, I will tell everybody how to dress!!”

  13. Following up on this issue: “If I yell threatening statements at you, that is also assault (by law).”

    Prof. Wilson, this is a total non sequitur and completely undermines whatever point you were trying to make. You have a right under tort law to not be put in imminent fear of a PHYSICAL assault. You have absolutely no rights related to any “assault” you may suffer from your TV. Your example is even more tenuous given the physical assault requirement.

    You also state: “As far as the tiresome argument about how it is wrong to hold women responsible for men’s thoughts, my moral claim would be that we are all responsible for each other.” You conflate some sense of community well-being for your fellow man—a particularly odd argument for a supposed libertarian—and your own self-control. What happens when you are watching a swim meet—are you responsible for your own thoughts then? How about visiting a non-BYU campus where *gasp* knees or shoulders may be exposed? What about visiting other countries where standards are different from what you are used to? We could go on and on about when and under what circumstances women should be held responsible at some level for anyone else; an exercise that would be futile since individuals (read: men) will always want to hold someone else responsible for their own “impure” thoughts.

    Or we could turn to that tiresome solution you complain about: men are sentient beings responsible for and fully capable of patrolling their own thoughts and actions rather than the clothing options of others.

    1. We are completely responsible for our own thoughts and actions, just as we are responsible for the effects we have on others’ thoughts and actions. I’m not talking about dividing up liability in a tort claim; I’m talking about moral responsibility. Moral people consider the effects of their actions on others, including the psychic effects of their words and actions.

      Say, for instance, I know of a very painful and embarrassing experience that you had in your life, and every time I see you I bring up this experience. This will likely be painful to you and cause responses such as anger and frustration and likely derail your train of thought to dwell again on this unfortunate event rather than other things you would rather be thinking about. Do I share moral responsibility for these thoughts you are having? You bet I do. Would you be justified in feeling emotionally assaulted by my actions. Of course you would.

      Don’t go all legalistic on me and miss the point.

  14. Sven, the most your assault analogy gets you, I think, is an argument (which would be consistent with typical libertarian thinking) that there ought to be a private remedy that a plaintiff at his own cost can seek from a woman whom he claims has committed a tort against him. Such a tort, however, would first have to be identified in the common law or put into place by statute. Something like a visual assault but the proof might be difficult — analogous to the tort of assualt, which requires a showing that plaintiff was actually put in fear of his or her safety based on the threatening statement, the visual assault plaintiff would have to prove he was actually aroused by a woman’s state of (un)dress.

    1. First off, thanks for the addendum. I don’t agree with your points, but I sincerely appreciate that you recognize that your original choice of words was insensitive.

      “Don’t go all legalistic on me and miss the point.”

      I’m reading the point that you made—the one you emphasized by invoking legal principles in tort. You said: “If I yell threatening statements at you, that is also assault (by law), even though I don’t touch you and the effects of my actions are only in your mind.” You are the one that is relying on more than moral principles to make your point without recognizing the almost complete irrelevance of the comparison.

      More fundamentally, I think you are losing the forest for the trees. You say: “I’m not talking about dividing up liability in a tort claim; I’m talking about moral responsibility. Moral people consider the effects of their actions on others, including the psychic effects of their words and actions.” Where do legal rights come from if not public morality; those same “moral people” you are using to build the base of your argument. Whatever you are describing, it doesn’t get anywhere without some public enforcement mechanism no?

      If what you are referring to is a personal morality without public enforcement, then what you are really talking about is personal responsibility. On that point I certainly agree. But whereas the solution you find tiresome—individuals owning their thoughts and actions—is actually workable, your solution is grounded in unknowable vagaries. What is the moral line you would expect others to toe so that they can help you maintain the purity of your own thoughts? Whatever you think it may be and whatever you have coming in Part II, without a public baseline it will be different for every person. Thus, you would hold people responsible for the morality of OTHERS’ thoughts. Besides being totally unworkable in practice, it makes little sense.

      Why not ground the issue where it originates—in the individual, who alone is responsible for policing his thoughts. Anything less contradicts your statement that “[w]e are completely responsible for our own thoughts and actions.” This is an easy either/or here. Either we are “completely responsible” for our own thoughts and actions or we aren’t. You can’t have it both ways.

      More pointedly, this is a classic male side-step of responsibility. Rather than OWN any thoughts that may be impure according to their own, individualized beliefs, they project them onto the women that “caused” those thoughts and then helplessly rely on their biology. This is the antithesis for being “completely responsible” for those thoughts, and I don’t buy into that paradigm. It is false and it leads to the dangers you seem to recognize in that it excuses actions it shouldn’t.

      1. Perhaps my points will be more clear when I actually talk about policy in Part 2. But for now, just three quick points.

        1. My reference to law was parenthetical (hence the parentheses) and very tangential. My point is that we can negatively affect the thoughts or emotions of others through our actions even if we don’t do them physical harm. Doing so violates the libertarian norm that I cited at the outset of the post. Threatening someone would be one example of this. Bringing up the embarrassing incident I mentioned above would be another.

        2. I haven’t been clear in these comments about the responsibility issue (and I don’t have it completely clear in my own mind, particularly in terms of moral responsibility and legal responsibility). I don’t accept your dichotomy, though. I believe I am responsible for my own thoughts and you for yours, but we also share moral responsibility for each other.

        3. As a matter of basic psychology, I think it is naive and indefensible to assume that we can ever (even mostly) police our own thoughts–though the effort to do so is admirable. Would you argue, for instance, that a gay man just needs to “police his thoughts” and he can experience life as a heterosexual man would? Who knows where thoughts come from? Certainly a lot of thoughts derive from external stimuli over which we have little or no conscious control. We could come up with a gazillion examples of how we influence each others’ thoughts in ways that are often profound and overwhelming. For instance, I could say a bunch of very mean things to my wife which make her very sad and despondent. Would I be morally justified in saying, “Gee, if she is upset, that is her problem, since she is responsible for policing her own thoughts.” I think it would be ridiculous to deny my moral culpability in this case. Similarly, when people behave in a sexually provocative fashion, it can have profound effects on the thoughts of other people, not to mention unconscious biological process that we aren’t even aware of. To deny that basic fact with a glib reference about how women can just do what they want because men have the responsibility to police their thoughts is what is “tiresome.” Recognizing our biology for what it is doesn’t constitute “side-stepping responsibility,” it just constitutes recognizing the realities of being imperfect human beings. Moral people recognize the effects of their actions on others and behave accordingly, rather than denying a shared moral culpability for those effects.

  15. “the visual assault plaintiff would have to prove he was actually aroused by a woman’s state of (un)dress.” Doesn’t the absurdity of that statement answer the question? Since when is arousal a threat to physical safety?

  16. Um, yes. Plus, how will he prove it. There’s only one way that I can think of and it’s pretty embarassing, even for a zealous plaintiff out to get women to stop making him aroused.

  17. (Also, the visual assault plaintiff would need to prove that the defendant intended him to become aroused. That could also be hard — a lot of women probably wear sleeveless dresses or shirts that show their clavicles because they are more comfortable and not because they hope to arouse random men who choose to look at them as sexual objects rather than as sentient beings in their own right.)

  18. John F., you are boring me with your “tiresome” arguments about responsibility, self-control, and self-reliance. 🙂

  19. If women generally find certain forms of men’s dress to be arousing, are we going to get to regulate those? For example, I often hear hetero women comment that a well cut suit is very sexually stimulating to see a man wearing. How are we to remedy the assault these women are experiencing? Why won’t men have the decency to put on a pair of poorly tailored slacks and a suit coat that is too broad in the shoulders? What about the children???

    And let’s not even begin talking about the “pants” worn by those well muscled men running around on the field! Indecent barely covers it.

  20. As a l(L)ibertarian myself, a feminist, and a woman, I have to disagree. Beyonce’s all woman performance at the Super Bowl brought tears to my eyes. The show strength and power was amazing. She was not dressed indecently. She had on more clothes than you would normally see at a beach, your swimming pool, and most women’s sporting events. As I have heard more and more people (men, women, liberal, conservative, etc.) criticize this performance as being overtly sexual, I have to wonder… what is it in your life that makes you think of a strong, talented woman, dressed in more clothing than you probably saw on your last summer outing, as a threat to your morality? I don’t pretend to assume or know anything about your life or anyone else’s… I just don’t see it. I don’t imagine you see my side either, but it’s a different view.

    And actually, if I were to be offended by any part of the Super Bowl it would be the incredibly violence displayed through 90% of the game. As a libertarian, you should be appalled!… The sad part is that it was so commonplace, unsurprising and so widely cheered. Before the unraveling of public decency wrought by the invention of televised sporting events, and increase in human strengths we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, since the aggression and thought of a dozen men running after a lone runner would have been considered mob mentality and would not have been acceptable in any venue outside a novel written in the early 17th century. But our social norms have become so degraded that many people do not give it a second thought and even promote it.

    Those who champion freedom should also champion the right to be free from violence in our public spaces. I’m not arguing that we must all be vegans or pacifists like Einstein or MK Gandhi—wait, that would actually be really cool!—but it is a shame that so many libertarians have stood with the amoral left as standards of public decency have eroded to their current state, rather with those whose legitimate rights are being infringed.

  21. I’m not sure how to embed comments inline in this format. So I’ll just start anew done here. Of your most recent points, this is nonsensical: “As a matter of basic psychology, I think it is naive and indefensible to assume that we can ever (even mostly) police our own thoughts–though the effort to do so is admirable.” We control our thoughts all day, every day. We are all around women every day. Every. Single. Day. What happens when you are at the beach? Women are wearing far less than Beyonce during her performance and yet we manage to muddle through outings to the shore. Cheerleaders? Gymnasts? You must agree that you are responsible for policing your thougts in those situations no?

    Not only is it expected socially, it is the express expectation of our own religious community: “Yea, she did asteal away the hearts of many; but this was NO EXCUSE for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted . . . Now my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after THE LUSTS OF YOUR EYES, but cross yourself in all these things; for except ye do this ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. Oh, remember, and take it upon you, and cross yourself in these things.” (Alma 39: 4, 9 emphasis added)

    “Would you argue, for instance, that a gay man just needs to ‘police his thoughts’ and he can experience life as a heterosexual man would?” To be frank, I have no idea what point you are trying to make here. No one is suggesting that anyone fundamentally change who they are and live life as another human being. My point is much simpler: you have an idea of what you consider to be impure thoughts. Women have no responsibility to know what your limits are or to ensure that they don’t trigger those impure thoughts, To the extent you want to draw a comparison, I also don’t hold any man (or woman) responsible for triggering impure thoughts in another gay or lesiban individual since they are equally capabale of owning those thoughts. We are not simply the biological product of our sexual peccadilloes.

    1. What you are talking about is actions, not thoughts. Joseph of Egypt was tempted by Potifer’s wife, but he ran away. David was tempted when he saw Bathsheba bathing, and he “inquired after her,” and his actions led to his downfall. Both surely felt sexual desires, but they responded in different ways. Both are morally responsible for their actions, clearly. But does this mean we let the women off the hook? I would not defend Potifer’s wife’s innocence, for sure. And we don’t know enough about the situation with Bathsheba. She was very possibly innocent of any wrongdoing, but imagine that she had set up her bath in a place intentionally designed to seduce the King. In such an instance, I would claim she is not morally innocent, even though her culpability does not excuse David’s actions in any way. In the passage you cite, Corianton went after the harlot Isabel, an act he is totally responsible for. But that doesn’t morally excuse Isabel’s actions, does it?

      Yes, men have to go about their daily lives with women, and we are certainly not helpless in shaping our thoughts, but neither men nor women are in total control of their sexual responses to various stimuli. Perhaps you are, but then you would be the first such human I have ever met. Our thoughts are subject to external stimuli, not just internal discipline. If a basketball unexpectedly rolls in front of me, I am mostly likely going to think for a moment about the basketball (and possibly have other basketball-related thoughts). Similarly, if I am confronted with an unexpected sexual stimulus, I am mostly likely going to have sexual thoughts. Can I respond by channeling my thoughts in another direction following the sexual provocation? Of course, and I’m hopefully successful. The point is that even though I am not helpless in response to a sexual provocation and am totally responsible for any actions, my self control, however strong it may be, is no excuse for the person who intentionally causes the provocation.

      This conversation is of some interest, but frustrating because you have mostly ignored my basic points and my many examples. These points are: 1) as human beings interact in the world, they have countless influences on one another, including influencing the thoughts and feelings of others through word and deed. 2) because human beings affect each other in a variety of ways, moral people make an effort not to provoke unwelcome, negative or harmful thoughts and feelings in those they come in contact with. 3) Because an individual is responsible for his actions does not morally excuse those who are intentionally provoking the unwelcome, negative or harmful thoughts of others.

      1. “This conversation is of some interest, but frustrating because you have mostly ignored my basic points and my many examples.”

        I don’t feel like I have ignored anything. I have read every word you have written, and quoted back to you the statements I find troubling. Which example would you like to engage on? I think your “shocking machine” analogy is silly so I didn’t bring it up. You try to bring the involuntary nature of things into the Beyonce performance when, presumably, you changed the channel and hence short-changed her “shock” of you.

        Just because I disagree doesn’t mean I have ignored something. I think your view is ahistorical, premised on a masculine view of the world, and a high-browed attempt to justify what is usually termed slut-shaming, i.e., women should be shamed into wearing clothing acceptable to men because of the involuntary “biological” reaction their bodies cause in men. In fact, your view has not been particularly high-browed at times since you used a vile slur to describe Beyonce in your comment on the other post (“But wouldn’t it be more fun to have a musical show that focused on music, rather than being so brazenly slutty.”)

        You say: “moral people make an effort not to provoke unwelcome, negative or harmful thoughts and feelings in those they come in contact with.” So what’s the corollary of that thought—Beyonce and people that defend her are immoral? See the shaming at work?

        Of course our clothing communicates things to other people and makes them have various thoughts. But I can’t know what I am provoking in you just as you cannot know what my intent is (short of me telling you). That’s the problem. Perhaps an example that gets away from the modesty issue would clarify my point: you are probably aware of the pants kerfuffle in our religious community where some women encouraged each other to wear pants to church. They did so for a variety of reasons: to show that they could, to sympathize with those who felt marginalized, to feel empowered, or because they were simply more comfortable. Regardless of the reason, MANY people in the church thought many differing things about why they were wearing pants, from a m’eh, to thinking that they weren’t faithful, to thinking they were on the road to apostasy. The point being that the intent didn’t match up with the perception in others’ heads (or even correlate since perhaps they weren’t trying to make a statement at all).

        In the same way, women wear what you might feel is immodest for a variety of reasons. Maybe it is more comfortable, maybe they feel it makes them look good, maybe it facilitates the activity (dancing, swimming, etc.), maybe they are trying to desexualize their bodies by normalizing them, AND maybe they are trying to provoke a sexual response in you. The point is that you would hold them accountable, whatever their intent, for what YOU perceive that intent to be, i.e., an unwelcome sexual intrusion. Further, you would hold them to an unknowable, i.e., what your modesty line is. My repeated point is that your solution is both unworkable and unfair.

        Moreover, it has been tried before. As Jeff F. pointed out, we’ve seen some bad things result from making it a woman’s responsibility. At the end of the spectrum, ultraconservative attitudes lead to the subjugation of women. Somewhere in between, women have had all kinds of restrictions placed on them from hair coverings, to elbow-length sleeves, to shorts, to exposed shoulders, to skinny jeans, to halter tops, to swimming attire, etc. In contrast, what is the result of telling men that they and they are alone for policing their thoughts or in Alma’s words that they are responsible for dealing with the “lusts of their eyes”? They learn those conservative notions of self-control and discipline.

        That kind of solution is also pointless. If a man is so unable to control his thoughts, whatever you restrict will not be enough. He will objectify the next womanly feature and/or focus only on her form. She could wear a jumpsuit, and he will still only see that objectified female form.

        I also don’t buy your biologic argument (you restate it thus: “if I am confronted with an unexpected sexual stimulus, I am mostly likely going to have sexual thoughts. Can I respond by channeling my thoughts in another direction following the sexual provocation? Of course, and I’m hopefully successful. The point is that even though I am not helpless in response to a sexual provocation and am totally responsible for any actions, my self control, however strong it may be, is no excuse for the person who intentionally causes the provocation.”) Do you really think that Beyonce was trying to cause a sexual stimulus in you? I find that hard to believe if so. I hestitate to ask what exactly she caused in terms of a stimulus—did you imagine yourself in some kind of intimate embrace with her? In any case, that’s not what I found with her performance (and again, I objected to it on entirely different grounds). To the extent you did, I’d put that reaction on you since you watched it long enough to allow it in your head.

        Look, I think we are in general agreement that we want our kids’ modesty principles to flow from their respect for themselves. But not everyone thinks like us or has whatever values we may share. In those cases, I am going to police my own thoughts and reactions and teach my children the same rather than try to shame women into thinking differently because they are not a “moral people.”

      2. So, you do not think Beyonce was trying to be sexy? If not, then you may be the only person on the planet to think so. Perhaps you are confusing stimulus and response. I have very limited control over the stimuli that I receive or how they are processed neurologically. But I have a lot of control over my response to stimuli, including, to a degree, sexual arousal. So, was Beyonce aware she was sending sexual stimuli into the stratosphere. You’d have to be an idiot to think she wasn’t aware. What did she think about how those receiving the stimuli would respond? I can’t say. My guess is that she thought a good number of them would keep watching. She doesn’t become a multi-millionaire by misjudging her audience.

        I can readily accept your rebuke for name-calling and even for using words inappropriately. Words can be loaded with all kinds of things. My sense is that Beyonce is a nice person, and I wouldn’t claim she is a better or worse person than me or anyone else. Her behavior, though, is another matter. She comes out in a skanky black outfit, dances around for a minute, and then strips off the skanky outfit. Perhaps it is a word I should never use again because it is loaded with lots of history, but, yes, this is slutty behavior. I would love it if she felt some shame for it and if those who defend her felt some shame for it. I feel shame all the time for my behavior. Feeling shame for shameful things is the first step to changing for the better.

        Now, the question of whether we should cast shame on others is a very good one. I’m very mindful of the example of Jesus condemning those who wanted to throw stones at the adulteress. He knew that she felt more than enough shame. So he said that he forgave her, and then (the part that many people who like to talk about not judging others often leave out) he told her to “go and sin no more.”

        I think you would agree with me that humanity has a horrible history in the way that victims of sexual abuse have been treated by society and often by the courts, often blamed for causing in some way the actions of the assailants. In NO way does the behavior of the female victims justify the actions of the abusers. End of story. Women are in NO way whatsover complicit, legally or morally, in the abuse they receive, regardless of what they were doing, wearing, saying, etc. etc. The abusers are ENTIRELY responsible for their actions, regardless of any prior actions of the women. But your arguments have a little bit of the same tone when you deny the moral culpability of those who knowingly engage in sexually provocative acts against others. You are blaming the victim rather than the aggressor. [An example: if a woman says to herself, “I know that wearing this particular outfit to work would make people (men or women) very uncomfortable, but I’m going to do it anyway because it gives me an advantage in terms of office politics” then that is an immoral act]

        You know, this is an issue which even people who share a lot of moral common ground can have different opinions on, but if you cannot accept that simple claim that “moral people make an effort not to provoke unwelcome, negative or harmful thoughts and feelings in those they come in contact with” then we don’t have much to say to each other in terms of what constitutes moral action.

        And I would add that you seem so proud of yourself for internalizing the knee-jerk, feminist response that “men should be responsible for themselves rather than blaming women” that you cannot even stop to consider whether the knee-jerk response is really relevant to what I’m saying.

  22. Isn’t it true that men are capable of being distracted by women, even when the women are dressed very modestly? Women’s wrists and ankles were considered provocative in the past. And recently in Saudi Arabia, some men proposed that women who cover everything but their eyes should shade their eyes, too, if their eyes are particularly beautiful, in order to avoid provoking men. When a woman who has severely impeded her comfort and freedom of movement still entices men, what chance does a Western woman have?

    There is also a generational difference, of course. College students generally dress in a more revealing manner than those over 30, and it is reasonable they should do so–they are looking for romance, they have little obligation to look professional, and they have young bodies. When people enter the workforce, get married, and become older, their standards of modesty change. I certainly dress much more modestly now than when I was in college, and that is true of most women.

    Your analogy with the shock machine fails because shocks are painful–looking at women’s bodies is distracting at worst, enjoyable at best.

  23. Professor Wilson, I will leave DMH to detail the specific problems with your post, right now I just want to step back and hopefully look at the ‘public decency’ debate from a slightly different perspective.

    A couple years ago my father-in-law returned after three years in Afghanistan. He brought home a burqa as a joke for his ‘feminist’ Mormon daughter (my wife). It was only after trying the burqa on myself that I felt horrified by the entire concept of purdah and the Mormon Modesty drumbeat. If you’ve never worn a burqa yourself, let me save you and others the effort and time and just sumarize the experience by saying it was extremely uncomfortable, absolutely claustrophobic, and very humiliating (and I was doing it momentarily AND voluntarily).

    Here is MY concern as a husband, father (of a daughter), brother and active Latter-day Saint: to me the whole slut-shaming, public decency debate (especially within the LDS church) carries a lot of purdahesque baggage. It is impossible to separate the concept of modesty, decency, etc., from power and control. I think Heitzman and Worden summarized it best in a report on the Veiling and Seclusion of Women in India when they stated:

    “The importance of purdah is not limited to family life; rather, these practices all involve restrictions on female activity and access to power and the control of vital resources in a male-dominated society. Restriction and restraint for women in virtually every aspect of life are the basic essentials of purdah.” (http://countrystudies.us/india/84.htm)

    As a father, I want my daughter to retain control of her life, liberty, and happiness and not be limited, restricted, or restrained because a man cannot control his thoughts. By shifting the onus of responsibility to the woman via a dress code we men are surrendering our own responsibility to be moral agents and shifting the blame/shame for our own failings onto the likes of Beyonce, etc.

    Shame indeed.

    1. This whole “I shouldn’t be restricted because you can’t control your thoughts” line of thinking is so detached from reality that it is hard to even comment on. It assumes a model of human psychology that is completely absurd. No one is able to discipline their minds to such a degree that they they have no internal reaction to sexual stimuli. It assumes that we are capable of turning our minds into robots that are immune to the world around us. Of course, we can achieve a level of discipline with respect to our internal lives, and we are responsible for our actions. But let’s be realistic (and honest) about what it means to be human.

      I want my daughter to be modest to show respect to God, herself and to those around her. Ultimately modesty is about respect and charity. Immodesty, on the other hand, is self-indulgent and disregards the welfare of others.

      In some patriarchal societies, men exert power over women through restrictions on dress. In our society the reverse is more often the case, where some women use provocative dress to assert power over men. We should condemn both.

      1. ““I shouldn’t be restricted because you can’t control your thoughts” line of thinking is so detached from reality that it is hard to even comment on. It assumes a model of human psychology that is completely absurd.”

        But isn’t that the whole measure of what we are about is seeking to put off the absurd natural man? I know you aren’t saying that it isn’t possible to overcome the world, to control our thoughts, to temper our natural impulses, because that is EXACTLY what we’ve been asked to do. Right?

        Here is a paragraph I borrowed from EoM

        Because the natural man is unrepentant and indulgent, one must overcome this condition through repentance and submission to the Spirit of God. President Brigham Young stated that God “has placed us on the earth to prove ourselves, to govern, control, educate and sanctify ourselves, body and spirit” (JD 10:2, in Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. J. Widtsoe, p. 57, Salt Lake City, 1971).

      2. Seek? Yes, absolutely. Possible to obtain? No.

        Of course it becomes easier to put off the natural man if we get help from others–which is where the morality comes in.

  24. Professor Wilson,

    I think you chewed to the core of the issue, at least for me, with your comment on modesty:

    “I want my daughter to be modest to show respect to God, herself and to those around her. Ultimately modesty is about respect and charity. Immodesty, on the other hand, is self-indulgent and disregards the welfare of others.”

    We have narrowed the active definition of modesty to simply frame what a woman (usually) wears, while the full principle of modesty involves economy, restraint, humility, decency, etc.. It is an ideal that should govern how we talk to others, how we dress (certainly), how we treat others, how we deal with differences, how we reverence both God, ourselves, AND our neighbors.

    While modesty does certainly have a place in conversations about dress, I guess my issue is with the less than modest approach often taken when discussing how OTHERS dress and how those discussions and attitudes also affect the welfare of others.

    I think the danger of focusing too much on modesty of dress is we feel safe that as long as our women-folk’s skirts are to the knees and their cleavage is covered we can consider ourselves “modest”. Check!

    Like humility, charity, and other virtues modesty is not a quality of mind, body or spirit that can be measured easily at the hem.

    1. HEY, Finally a comment on this thread that I can agree with! I totally agree with your comments about modesty being broader than modest of dress and that we can obsess about this one aspect, which isn’t even the most important one.

      In these two posts I’m talking about intentionally sexually provocative acts in the public square, of which immodest dress is one example.

  25. Was her dress really an intentionally sexually provocative ACT? Or, prehaps, are you attaching a tad too much sexual baggage to it? Swimmers and divers at the Olympics wear less. Dancers often wear less. Even if we narrow the topic down to intentional sexuality, I’m not sure her outfit was anymore intentionally about sexuality than a swim suit or Cinderella ballet outfit.

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