"Well, Frances," I asked, "how was your camp last weekend?"
This was 1980, I should add, and Frances was my square dancing partner. She was a strong Roman Catholic, rather prim and proper in some ways, and she was studying to join the Roman Catholic school system as a teacher. The previous week she had informed me that her class was going to a camp, or rather, one of those youth centres with dormitories, kitchen, and hall, the following weekend - hence my query.
"Oh, it was all right," she replied, "but it was rather primitive. We had to get water from outside taps. Also, I'd forgotten my swimsuit, so I had to go in with nothing on, and I was embarrassed until I got into the water."
That set off a light in my brain. "It was an all female group, I take it?" I asked.
"Oh no," she replied. "It was a mixed group."
"Wait a minute!" I demanded. "How come you bathed naked in front of men?"
"Oh," she said, almost off-handedly, "they were just friends - nobody I was romantically attached to."
Needless to say, that set my imagination racing. In fact, for the next few days I was constantly visualising the scene. But I understood her position at once. She intuitively knew that what you wear, or don't wear, sends signals about who you are and what you intend. If she had appeared naked before her boyfriend, even in mixed company, he would have received an inappropriate signal. They others didn't matter so much.
I was born three years after the bikini was introduced, although my mother used to talk about "scamps", or two piece swimsuits even earlier than that. Be that as it may, the original two-piecer covered considerably more skin than later versions, and a lot of the older generation - of which I am now a member - spent their time deploring the situation.
However, I have an amateur interest in anthropology, so I might ask you to compare two societies. The Kavirondo are a cluster of tribes living near Lake Victoria who, at least at the time of first contact with white men, were famous for two things. The first was their very absolute commitment to chastity. What you could get away with in another tribe cut no ice among the Kavirondo. Indeed, sex before marriage was punishable by death. The other was that they always went around stark naked. The only garment, if you could call it that, were a piece of goat skin worn by fathers, while married women marked their status with a small string in front and a tassel of banana bark in the rear. But these were no more concessions to modesty than a wedding ring.
On the other hand, Arab men, especially in that Wahhabist hellhole known as Saudi Arabia, see nothing of a woman except her eyes and hands. But they are obsessed with sex. In the hothouse atmosphere in which they dwell, male conversations resemble those of adolescent boys at home behind the school lavatory. Meanwhile, imams rhapsody in almost pornographic detail about the sexual pleasures of Paradise, and their history tells apocryphal tales about how their prophet studded each of his wives every night. In short, their attitude to sex is to clamp the lid on the pressure cooker while stoking the fire underneath. If they tried only one approach, they would have a better chance of success.
A Pakistani woman who moved to Scandinavia explained that the head scarf, or even the veil, fail to protect women from unwelcome male attention, as is claimed. One of the favourite passtimes of Pakistani males is "Eve teasing", or sexually harassing any unaccompanied woman. If she is covered, so much the worse; it lets their imagination run riot. The lady in question related how self-conscious she felt the first time she went out without her head scarf in Oslo or Stockholm, I forget which. Guess what? Nobody noticed! "What's the matter?" she thought. "Aren't I good looking?"
And that is the answer you should give to any of those Muslims in our own countries who insist their women don the head scarf. Do they seriously believe that the sight of a Muslim woman's hair will drive any of us to lust? Do they go around permanently aroused by the sight of all that naked female hair over here?
But I digress. The point to be made is not that there is an inverse relationship between chastity and lack of apparel, but that there is no real relationship at all. Clothing conventions are ultimately dependent on the climate, and modesty conventions are the direct result of clothing conventions. But chastity is an internalisation of the society's moral code, and if they have loose sexual morals, it is because the society is decadent, and on the way down.
Elisabeth Elliot, who served as a missionary to the Auca, or Waorani, Indians in the Amazon jungle wrote that, although they went around almost naked, they were not as obsessed with the human body as Westerners. Quite! Naked tribes are not asexual, nor immune to the physical beauty of the opposite sex, but one has to recognize the sheer banality of human flesh when it is constantly on display. Also - let's face it - even if we keep our bodies trim, healthy, and fit, after the first flush of youth is past most of us are nothing special to look at. Once Dorothea Dix received the question, "Is it good form for a young lady to go to the beach in a low cut, backless swimsuit?" (This was a long time ago!) Her reply was: "If your form is good form, it is good form; otherwise, otherwise." Exactly! Haven't we all seen certain people who should be asked to cover up, not for the sake of modesty, but out of sheer good taste?
Ideas of feminine modesty differ throughout the world. To western eyes, the key feature of the southern Chinese cheong sam was the split that went up the side the whole length of the leg. But to the Chinese, the key feature was that it reached to the ankle; the name itself means simply, "long dress". In Melanesia it is not breasts, but thighs, which are considered erotic. In daily life a woman will cover herself in a brightly patterned, full length dress, but on formal occasions, such as a graduation, or the inauguration of a bishop, she reverts to a grass skirt without a top. Once, after a church service in Madang, PNG, we went on a boat in the harbour, and the missionary's wife put on a pair of shorts. "I would not be game to wear them until we left the shore," she said. "The congregation probably wouldn't object if I went to church topless, but they would be outraged if I wore shorts." (And this, incidentally, ought to counter the allegation that it is Christianity which makes the natives cover up.)
But it must be admitted that very few societies allow complete nudity. Genitalita are the one anatomic feature which tends to be covered up. Apparently people recognize intuitively that having to look at that all day diverts the mind in dangerous directions. The most common traditional garment in the tropics was a pubic apron - a small strip of cloth which just hid the genitals like a fig leaf, a concession to modesty, but one which the wearers were absolutely scrupulous about never removing in public. Many of these "naked" tribes had a stronger sense of modesty than exists over here. Even in societies where even this was absent, definite standards of modesty applied. Despite what you might assume from modern photographs, in their traditional lifestyle, the Australian Aborigines did not wear breech clouts of red cloth; they went stark naked. They also used to sit cross legged on the ground. But when they did, they would do so in such a way that one foot covered their genitals. And in nearly every society, it is not considered proper for women to sit with their legs apart - the sexual invitation position.
In any case, although conventions may sometimes appear arbitrary, they should not be ignored. As Frances understood, it is all about signals. If you appear before a member of the opposite sex in a state of undress which convention decrees that only your spouse should see, it will be assumed that you wish to be treated in a way in which only a spouse should treat you.
And, if I may digress, since teenage girls are always arguing with their parents about clothes, let me point out that there is a reason why a girl of 15 should not dress like a woman of 25. At 15 she is still learning the rules of signalling, and has not yet got them right. Equally importantly, the 15-year-old boys have not developed full skills in interpreting them. Give them ten years, and both will have worked it out.
Of course, the same thing could be said for teenage boys' clothing, but that is hardly relevant now. Unless female taste has changed radically since I was young, the sort of sloppy outfits which are de rigueur with modern male teenagers can hardly be called sexy.
I suppose the best approach is not to push the edges of convention by oneself, but not be outraged when others do so. But just because women's swimsuits have become briefer over the years, it doesn't follow that they are now too brief.
That being said, I would not be comfortable if my wife or stepdaughter went topless, at least not in my presence. As for me, well, if a new Michelangelo wanted me as a model for a new David, I would certainly consider the proposition. Considering the current state of both my body and modern sculpture, such a situation is purely hypothetical.