A preoccupation with modesty - "sex on the brain."

Something went wrong in the Israeli town of Ramat Bet Shemesh. A crowd of ultra-orthodox men, offended by what they deemed the immodest dress of an 8-year-old girl walking to school, shouted at her that she was a prostitute. And then they spat on her. They spat on a child. Can you imagine? Clearly, something went very, very wrong. As a psychologist and member of the observant Jewish community, I am trying to understand what.

Condemnation is easy. It’s kind of like spitting with words. In contrast, understanding is hard, but worthwhile. So, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these very religious men and try to understand their reaction to the young girl’s “immodesty.”
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A preoccupation with modesty is usually a way to protect against sexual thoughts. Such appears to be the case with this community of Ultra Orthodox Jewish men alarmingly preoccupied with female modesty, even when the female in question is a pre-pubescent child.

In ultra-orthodox communities, men are instructed not to have sexual thoughts about women until they are married, and then only about their wives. They are taught not to look at women or even listen to women singing because looking and listening can lead to sexual thoughts, which might lead to forbidden sexual behaviors. Even after marriage, sex and even affection must only occur in the most private and hidden ways. It is not permitted, for example, for an ultra-orthodox couple to walk down the street holding hands. In some very religious neighborhoods, the couple could be verbally or even physically attacked for holding hands in public.

There is an old joke: A man comes to see a psychologist who gives him some Rorschach cards and tells the man to say what he sees. The man reports, in card after card, that he sees naked people having sex in all different positions. The psychologist comments, “You are seeing sexual themes in all the cards,” and the man replies, “Doctor, they’re YOUR dirty cards!”

Similarly, in a highly restrictive environment where all expressions of love and sexuality are forbidden, there is a paradoxical effect causing men to see sex everywhere they look; in other words, to have “sex on the brain.” Thus, even an 8-year-old girl, whose elbows and ankles may be showing, can trigger a sexual response leading to disgust and condemnation.

Tzniut, or modesty, is an important concept in Orthodox Judaism. The concept of Tzniut includes not only how to dress but also which parts of the body may or may not be exposed. Tzniut applies to both men and women but mostly focuses on women and their obligations to be modest so as not to incite sexual thoughts in men.

However, the man is also obligated, according to Tzniut, not to look at women. In other words, the problem is not just that the woman is attractive. The man, must control his urge to stare, and must control his erotic thoughts. And if a man is extremely preoccupied with a woman’s modesty it is impossible to not also be preoccupied with sexual thoughts. But it has become increasingly difficult for the Ultra-Orthodox to remain separate from their more modern neighbors. So the walls have to be built higher and the injunctions stricter. What began as ritual and custom has become transformed into an obsession.

I don’t think it is humanly possible to suppress all sexual thought. In the musical, The Book of Mormon, a young missionary is disturbed by sexual thoughts he is having toward another male missionary. In the hilarious song, “Turn it Off,” he is advised by his fellow missionaries:

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click!
Really whats so hard about that?
Turn it off! (Turn it off!)

The audience laughs at the song because we know that it’s not possible to just “turn it off.”. But like the young Mormon missionary, that is exactly what young ultra-orthodox men are told they must do. When sexual thoughts are quashed they come out in strange and disturbing forms, like spitting on 8-year-old girls.

As a psychologist and member of the observant Jewish community trying to understand what went wrong I know I don’t have the answer. But I also know we have to engage the men in this community to help them accept the inevitability and normality of sexual thoughts and feelings, even for those who follow the rituals and customs of modesty. And, most important, to help them see that sexual thoughts and feelings are not the same as actions, because when a crowd of men acts by spitting on a child it is clear evidence that those feelings are out of control.


Another modesty clothing thread I see :rolleyes:

Sounds similar to what occurred here


No, this one is more about effective/ineffective ways of coping with lust. Oftentimes, trying desperately to avoid it doesn’t work, because it leads to ironic processing “whereby an individual’s deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts (thought suppression) render those thoughts more persistent.” Link



Even as Catholics we must admit our sexuality is part of who we are. Yes, immodest thoughts are to be controlled by the will, but to lie to oneself and claim they are not there at all is dangerous. We are a fallen race and unwanted thoughts will happen. We must acknowledge this, and wave them goodbye.

I’ve long thought we’d all be much healthier if we saw naked bodies around us more often. Not erotic or pornographic nakedness, just ordinary everyday nakedness. I actually think this would go further towards preventing objectification of bodies than hiding them does. Not a very practical idea I guess, but I think there’s something in there worth thinking about.

When I hear people say, quite seriously, that a shoulder or upper arm or tummy is immodest or sexual, something has gone far wrong somewhere.

This is not Catholic teaching. I have read that Ultra-Orthodox Jews stone others in Israel who are going to the movies on the Sabbath. However, what is lawful for Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to do in Israel is a matter between them, the public and the government. It is a sensitive issue that is beyond simple categorization.




Psychology Today is not credible. Who controls your thoughts, your actions and your body? By your own will, you bring your thoughts into obedience with what is right. Once you are thinking rightly, your thoughts will inspire good actions, which means you will speak well, dress modestly and not let your body control you.

Self-control is self-explanatory. You will yourself to think and act without offense. This is a good thing. No, for some, it is not easy but we are called and reminded to try - and not to let ourselves imitate that which is unseemly.


In a culture that celebrates immodesty, I doubt Psychology Today would have anything to say about that. And they repeat the tired, wrong idea in their own words: YOU CAN’T CONTROL YOURSELF! JUST DO IT!!!" That is not right.


Go nekkid’? This will grant us powers and abilities beyond those of people who don’t do this? Please. I know Nudism/Naturism 101. Old joke.

When I don’t hear people say, quite seriously, that an actress or other celebrity dressing like a prostitute is bad, something has gone very, very wrong.


You must have missed the giant thread about the Body Issue of ESPN, familiarity with normal nudity will not be popular here.:blush:

I feel the exact same way.

Not suggesting for a second that anyone ‘goes naked’ or becomes a nudist, or that there are any powers or abilities associated with doing so. That’s ridiculous. Just pointing out that hiding something that is natural and normal (a body) can make it into a sort of forbidden fruit that makes it take on more meaning than it actually has. I think it’s an interesting problem.

I know exactly what you meant, and I agree.

I agree, but this view won’t be popular here…I think the story itself that Debora posted is really really disturbing…sounds like an oppressive place like rural Afghanistan or Iran.

Old news. People wore clothes in the past and they wear clothes today. It’s a non-issue except for a few who are either clueless or shameless. This is a Catholic message board and you will only get the Catholic answer. Problem? No problem.


I somewhat get what you’re saying, but I don’t know practically how - if you had it this way as you’re suggesting - we can see/get used to non-erotic, non-pornographic nakedness in ordinary everyday living. The closest I can think of in this scenario is when we see women breastfeeding in public. Perhaps we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape if we happen to see an unclothed breast :rolleyes:.


And though the story was an extreme example, it serves to present an underlying issue… which is that men who grow up in an overly conservative/traditionalist type of lifestyle where sexuality and the human body are big no no’s, end up having less self control when it comes to sexuality and more perversions.

Not saying men should grow up in over liberal settings either. But there needs to be a good balance.

I think that would be a great start. :slight_smile:


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