Public vs. Private Spaces

News: Commentary
by Katherine Bennett  •  •  March 17, 2023   

Modesty and the obligations of men and women

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Following the $10-hooker-vogue of the recent Vanity Fair Oscars party, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my students during the last term. They were adamant that women must be allowed to wear whatever they want.

There are good reasons for dressing modestly

"If a woman wants to walk around in her underwear she can," came one voice, which was muted somewhat after I declared that I would be teaching the following day in only my underwear.

Suddenly, the prospect of a woman's right to wear what she wants didn't seem so palatable, but the students had backed themselves into a corner and struggled to find a way out.

I offered them one.

Public vs. Private 

There exists at every level of reality a public and a private space.

In a church, the pews are public; the tabernacle is not. In our homes, the kitchen is a public space where we entertain friends; the bathroom is not. In a school, the classroom is full of students, the headmaster's office is not. Areas of Buckingham Palace are public; the king's bedroom is not.

This also holds true at the level of our bodies. Our hands are public; our "private parts" are not. We wave hands, not penises, when we greet one another.

This has always been understood without the need for a six-week training on consent. It's what used to be known as common sense. It's common because all humans apprehend it by nature — or they used to before some tricksy thinking crept into the mix like a malevolent, intoxicating spell. (I wonder who is robbing us blind whilst we are being made to look the other way.)

Acknowledging Truth

We live in a culture desperate to tell us two things: that we can have rights without paying too much attention to the pesky corresponding responsibilities and that there is no such thing as divinely revealed truth. The truth is that we can't dodge responsibility and we can't escape acknowledging what is true.

Our hands are public; our 'private parts' are not.

It has become impossible in our culture to talk about dressing modestly, but it is an important conversation to have, and we must be able to have it.

Men should absolutely have enough self-control not to pounce on a woman. He must have this self-control even when she is wearing a low-cut top. He must have this self-control even when she is wearing no top at all. He must have this self-control even when a woman writhes around, rubbing herself against him half naked on the dance floor. He must have this self-control even when a woman has agreed to engage in some sexual activity but stops short of consenting to intercourse.

Nobody disagrees that every man should have enough self-control, but not every man will, and almost all men will find it incredibly difficult.

The Vortex: #MeToo

The problem with saying that women can and should be able to wear what they want without consequence is that it puts an undue burden on men. It denies an a priori reality about the nature of the public and the private. We intuitively understand what is for public consumption just as we intuitively understand what is off-limits and private. When a woman (or a man) dresses immodestly, this creates ambiguity about what is public and what is private, and some people will act according to what they perceive to be true. Secondly, if a man has to demonstrate a high level of self-control, what responsibilities do women have?

Boys and girls alike must take responsibility for their choices.

To love one another (as we are commanded to do) is to will the good of the other. We have equal but different responsibilities in this regard. If we cannot recognize and understand what a man is, then we cannot teach boys to be good men. If we cannot teach boys to be good men, we will not have good men. If we don't have good men, we cannot be surprised by #metoo, Jeffrey Epstein or Pornhub.

Creating Christlike Men

Boys are not girls. They are different. The answer is not to emasculate boys and treat them as if they are girls, but rather to present boys with the perfect model of a man in Jesus Christ, not the false image of Christ as a hippy dancing around Galilee.

Father Joshua Waltz, whilst meditating on Jesus, remarked:

This is who Jesus is, I don't know who you think he is, but; He was hard yet compassionate, strong but loving. He wouldn't let those who followed him be anything less than perfect. He would call out the pharisees for their hypocrisy but forgive the most wicked sinner if they really wanted to be forgiven. He gave hope to those who had none, he loved the unlovable, he never backed down from what he said, even when people thought he was crazy. He protected women when others tried to hurt them. He calmed storms, healed those who were crippled. He fought the devil on His terms and never backed down from a fight when it was for the Truth. When they came looking for him in the garden he didn't hide in fear but went out and single-handedly faced 200 armed men face to face. He looked the most powerful man in Israel, the Roman governor, in the face and told him that he was powerless over him. He was beaten with leather whips laced with glass and metal to the point of death, crowned with thorns that pierced his skull. He was falsely accused, mocked, spit [sic] upon and made to carry a cross to his own death, where he hung naked in front of his own mother, so disfigured that she could barely make out who He was. And in that moment he forgave those who killed him. Now that's a frickin man! You wanna measure of how well you're doing as a man, measure yourself by that and you will never again say "Eh … I'm good enough, I don't think I need to do anymore, I'm a darn good Catholic."

Women need men like this. It is the duty of all husbands, but in a fallen world, they need to be helped in that duty by women who understand — as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in section 2521, "Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. … It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons ... ."

For young boys to be the men that God has created them to be, we should say, "We know it's tough being a young lad. We understand that you have testosterone raging through you — that you are visual creatures, that you can be a beast ready to defend women, family, friends and country. That is great. It's needed, but it's only great if you can master it. If you can't, it will master you, and your life will be ruined."

To young girls we should say, "You have the power to turn a man's head, but more importantly, you also have the power to turn his heart. Act responsibly; you will get the men that your choices cultivate. We are created to be a unity of two. The way in which you dress reveals something about your interior self. Think about what you want to reveal, and do not let your body make promises that you do not intend to fulfill. It's cruel."

So yes, a woman can wear exactly what she wants, do what she wants, and go where she wants at whatever time she wants. Men, too, can do whatever they want — wherever and whenever they want to do it. Will this look like the best of all possible worlds or something more akin to Hell?

Boys and girls alike must take responsibility for their choices. The burden should never fall unduly on one group because it's unjust.

Raising children is a big responsibility; we should level with them about how things really are in this fallen world, call them to something greater and say we can only achieve this through God's grace.

We must teach children what sort of creature they are — that they were not made for comfort but for greatness. 

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