Modesty in America and the Great Bathroom War

Modesty is a necessary support of chastity, and chastity is essential to the moral and psychological integrity of the person. It is a fundamental moral and psychological fact.

If the Great American Bathroom War hasn’t taught us anything else, at least it’s reminded us—supposing we needed reminding—that the secular culture hasn’t got a clue about the meaning of modesty as applied to human sexuality, much less about why modesty in that sense is so tremendously important.

As most people use the word today, modesty signifies an aw-shucks mode of deflecting praise and admiration for one’s accomplishments. A pitcher who tosses a no-hitter or a soprano who gives an exquisite performance as Mozart’s Queen of the Night, and who then says, “Oh, that was nothing special” is said to be practicing modesty.

But modesty referring to an indispensable virtue in matters of a sexual nature is likely to draw incredulous stares. Secular Americans either don’t understand what you’re talking about or, more likely perhaps, think you’re crazy when you speak of it. Either way, it’s a terrible loss.

Let’s start with a rough working definition. Sexual modesty refers to a healthy reticence and sense of privacy about matters of an intimate personal nature having to do with human generation and everything connected with it. It’s an awareness, expressed in speech and behavior, that what pertains to the begetting of new human persons is not to be exposed and exploited for pleasure, celebrity, amusement, or financial gain.

And now? Now we have a Bathroom War—a controversy over whether transgender persons should use only public restrooms of their biological sex or whether they may exercise yet another newly discovered civil  right: the right of biological males to use women’s restrooms and of biological females to use men’s facilities if that is their choice.

Note, though, that the battlefield in this war takes in much besides public restrooms. The Obama administration made that clear with the issuance of a joint letter from the Justice Department and the Department of Education telling public schools they would be violating Title IX civil rights law and at risk of losing millions in federal funding if they failed to apply the right of students with a self-selected “gender identity” in relation to the use of locker rooms, participation in athletics, overnight accommodations on field trips, and school dances.

A predictable uproar has greeted the administration letter, and as this is written eleven states have challenged the federal diktat in court.

Among those protesting the policy was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Deeply disturbing,” said Bishop Richard Malone and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, chairmen of USCCB’s family life committee and education committee, respectively. There is a need for “compassion, sensitivity, and respect” for students with sexual identity issues, the two said, but compassion, sensitivity, and respect must be expressed without “infringing on legitimate concerns about privacy and security” of other students.

True enough. Yet the undermining of modesty has gone on so long and achieved such success that a Bathroom War is now the tragic-comic result. Consider the ongoing campaign for sexual integration of the armed forces: from boys and girls together in foxholes to boys and girls together in locker rooms is no large leap.

The disappearance of modesty from American public life was dramatized a few months back during one of the Republican primary debates in a notable exchange between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump on the subject of sexual prowess. Rubio later expressed regret for what had happened because it embarrassed his children. To which I say: congratulations to the Rubio kids for being embarrassed; they weren’t alone.

The present situation represents, among other things, the triumph of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his belief in the natural goodness of man. But Rousseau and his tribe to the contrary, the idea that human sexual impulses require taming and restraint is no illusion. Taming and restraint are realistic responses to the fallen human condition, and denying that flies in the face of overwhelming, experience-based evidence.

Writing of original sin in his Apologia, Newman makes the point that humankind clearly is “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity…out of joint with the purposes of its Creator.” This, he adds, is “a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence.”

And thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

But Newman’s wisdom is not the wisdom of the Justice and Education departments. Heirs of Rousseau that they are, these federal agencies choose to interpret Title IX to require that, upon notification by a student or the student’s parents, a school must “begin treating the student consistent with the student’s gender identity,” whatever he/she now declares it to be.

Does the disappearance of modesty really matter? Indeed it does. Modesty is a necessary support of chastity, and chastity is essential to the moral and psychological integrity of the person. This is no fuddy-duddy virtue out of the sexually repressed—and sometimes sexually hypocritical—Victorian era. It is a fundamental moral and psychological fact. “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church remarks. Sexual identity issues? “The young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created,” Pope Francis says. At the heart of the Great Bathroom War lies a deadly assault on that.

A friend of mine who publishes poetry under the pen name Pavel Chichikov sums up  the present state of affairs with acerbic precision in a poem ironically titled “True Wisdom.” He writes:

Choose your perversion
Hormone or surgeon….
Identities blurred
What him, and what her?

In the discussion of temperance in his splendid little book The Four Cardinal Virtues Josef Pieper many years ago anticipated what is happening now. I close with his measured words: “Temperance is selfless self-preservation. Intemperance is self-destruction through selfish degradation of the powers which aim at self-preservation….The same forces from which human existence derives its being can upset that inner order to the point of destroying the spiritual and moral person.”

Look around you and you’ll see it happening.

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About Russell Shaw 263 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).