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SEMINAR | Sexual Modesty


Associate Professor Jessica Wolfendale, West Virginia University

Start Date

1st Jul 2016 3:00pm

End Date

1st Jul 2016 5:00pm


Humanities building, 371 in Hobart video-linked to NH, Sir Raymond Ferrall Centre, X117 in Launceston

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Sexual Modesty

Presented by Associate Professor Jessica Wolfendale, West Virginia University

Friday July 1st 2016 – 3.00pm-5:00pm

Humanities building, 371 in Hobart video-linked to NH, Sir Raymond Ferrall Centre, X117 in Launceston


About the Seminar

In most societies, norms of sexual modesty apply almost exclusively to women. Modesty norms (for example, school dress codes) are often justified by claims that women need protection from men's sexual advances, and that men need protection from the "temptation" posed by women's bodies. In addition, modest clothing is sometimes claimed to signify sexual virtues such as chastity and sexual fidelity. Yet despite the cultural and social significance of modesty norms and the impact such norms have on women's lives, there has been little philosophical analysis of sexual modesty.

       In this paper I analyze a number of different accounts of sexual modesty, and argue that modesty norms express and reinforce deeply problematic beliefs about women's bodies, women's sexuality, and women's responsibility for men's sexual behavior. Modesty norms privilege male sexual desire, are deeply implicated in the sexual objectification and shaming of women, and reinforce the belief that women's bodies are inherently sexualized. Thus, for many women and girls, trying to be modest can be inextricably connected to the fear of being shamed for not being modest enough.

       After critiquing modesty norms and a number of accounts of sexual modesty, I consider whether sexual modesty could ever be empowering. I discuss the view, expressed in the SlutWalk movement, that modesty norms should be rejected outright in favor of the sexual empowerment of women through dress. However, I argue that this approach does not challenge the problematic basis of the differentiation of sexy versus modest dressing. Other conceptions of modesty that construe sexual modesty as a form of privacy or respect for others fail because these conceptions require women to defer to others' interpretation of their outfits, yet don't challenge the problematic bases of such interpretations.

       Finally, I suggest a third possibility, in which modest dressing is construed as aesthetic approach through which women can express, rather than hide, their sexuality without conforming to objectifying ideas of women's sexuality. This model of modesty would require radical changes in how women's sexuality is viewed, but has the greatest potential for an empowering conception of sexual modesty.

About the Presenter

My research focuses on military ethics and the ethics and moral psychology of torture, terrorism, and other forms of political violence. My work is characterized by the integration of empirical work in social psychology and sociology with philosophical analysis. What unites my work is an interest in how language, institutional design, and social practices shape moral beliefs, judgments, and actions, particularly in the realm of political violence. I'm also very interested in the relationship between fashion, identity, and morality. I co-edited a book on Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone (Wiley 2011), and I'm currently working on a paper on the idea of provocative dress.

When | Friday July 1 2016 – 3.00pm-5:00pm

Where| Humanities building, 371 in Hobart video-linked to Sir Raymond Ferrall Centre, X117 in Launceston

ALL WELCOME: For enquiries about the Philosophy seminar series please contact Dr David Coady on