Prudishness–A Virtue

Apr. 2004

To be a prude is nothing admirable these days. Even those who consider themselves to be prudes admit it only reluctantly. But who would want to admit to being sexually frigid to the extent of cruelty to oneself and to others?

In the hyper-sensual popular culture where sex is the ultimate self-actualization and at the same time the ultimate sign of benevolence to others, prudes are nothing but villains. At the dawn of the 21st century, prudishness is a vice made up of self-slavery and dangerous repressiveness in addition to conceit and snobbery.

How does the prude—a simple derivative of the word 'prudent'—deserve such a reputation? The word's definition sheds some light. There, we find that prudishness, like prudence, is not limited to the sexual arena, and rather can be applied to all areas of life. We also find why it is negative, unlike its root. The definition says that the prude is one who is excessively concerned with being or appearing to be proper, modest, or righteous. Any time one is excessively concerned with anything, it is bad. Furthermore, the definition implies hypocrisy because the prude is allegedly content with the appearance of propriety without necessarily fulfilling the standard.

While we can all agree that being proper, modest, and righteous is good, excessively worrying about it or trying to appear so without really being so are worthy of scorn. And so prudishness is scorned as well. To the prude, propriety, modesty, and righteousness are mere facades that can be donned whenever he wants to gain the favor of others. It makes sense, then, that prude got its current negative connotation at the height of French etiquette and the reign of Louis XIV. At that time, propriety was thrust onto very superficial things like dress and outward behavior, which could be added to impress without being truly proper. Excessiveness stems from the superficiality as well. Elaborately embellishing every piece of clothing or furniture with frills and embroidery can certainly be seen as unnecessary and gratuitous especially during an age when a great many went without the necessities.

Louis XIV's court wasn't the only place where this kind of hypocrisy happened. Indeed, it is commonplace throughout history. Our sensory nature as human beings means that we are superficial animals. It therefore makes sense that symbols like dress or behavior serve as evidence of one's moral character. When that happens, though, an abstraction is substituted for reality and the truth's entirety goes unknown. Ultimately, that ignorance lends itself to the deception that gives striving for morality a bad name.

In the end, we have a word that describes a person who professes propriety even though he is not proper. Prudishness is moralizing by the immoral. It is a somewhat useful term because there is no other word that specifically expresses a charlatan of the moral kind; but at the same time, we are worse off because there is no other word that describes a person who is honestly striving for morality either—a function that 'prude' originally maintained.

This condition is not only a semantic problem, but a cultural one as well. That is to say that the widespread assumption in our culture is that one who strives to be proper, modest, and righteous is necessarily a fraud. Anyone who professes the virtue in being moral is necessarily immoral. Look to film, music, and television of the day for evidence of this pervasive mentality. Characters in movies who advocate traditionally good things always end up being the bad guys and musicians have found great success in exposing alleged hypocrisy of anyone who dares to promote morality from US presidents to the Pope.

It is one thing for a society to be without a word for an important concept and another thing for that society to neglect the concept's existence altogether. The former problem can be solved with a couple extra words; the latter requires a change in the social conscience. Lives are molded in and around the concept's void. Since the concept missing is the idea that one can and should strive for propriety, etc., a kind of immoralism results.

Even those with the best intentions must take a nonchalant attitude towards their behavior in general. Sure, one should be proper, modest, and righteous, but one cannot strive for it or be overly worried about it and certainly, one should not profess those things to other people. Occasional slips in behavior are accepted and even encouraged if only to prove humanness. All the old rules, rituals, and standards of decorum are dropped. That kind of stuff requires effort and effort means hypocrisy. Ultimately, since it is thought that one shouldn't be concerned with being proper, modest, and righteous, one doesn't strive to do anything. One simply ditches all intention and just does what feels natural.

It is not a coincidence that doing what feels natural is quite easy. This is most true when it comes to sex. The sexual urge is the most powerful of all human instincts, so one needs to do little contemplation in order to follow its orders. Hunger, rest and other various physiological urges also clearly state a guideline for human activity. In all, it is thought that if one simply listens to these natural instructions, one will be completely fulfilled.

The concept isn't terribly flawed. It is good to follow one's instincts and to some extent, ignoring them will bring unhealthy consequences. For example, if one ignores hunger for several days, the result will be loss of strength, loss of fat, bone and muscle mass, a straining of organs and a weakened immune system, none of which can be good for a person. Obey the hunger urge and one will avoid this undesired situation.

On the other hand, it cannot be said that one should eat anything he wants to eat whenever he is hungry. The diet of doughnuts, soda and potato chips that would result is not healthy either. Its effects are slower, but equally harmful and longer lasting after infliction. Another adjustment is needed. One might well follow his instincts and "live naturally" when it comes to hunger, but if he did, he would have to go back to nature completely. That would mean living in an environment without the temptation of doughnuts, soda and potato chips because that is the environment in which our instincts evolved. To revert like that would be to rid our society of all conveniences and accomplishments man had made in the last six thousand years. In that situation, following one's instincts would be necessary. One would be forced to eat when he is hungry. Otherwise, he would probably starve.

A similar primitivism would suit our sexual instincts as well. That is, an environment where we did not maintain cities and highways and super structures and institutions for education, medicine and government and one where we are not fostered and protected by industrial strength and community would be the suitable one for our vigorous sexual urges. Without our nature-mastering civilization, life would be a rare success, not a near guarantee as it is now. All we could do to encourage life, especially sex and reproduction, would be necessary.

This proposition doubtless strikes some as enticing. Simply, get rid of civilization as we know it and we can have sex with whomever we want and eat all day long. The truth is subtler. Getting rid of civilization would mean getting rid of the abundance of food that appeals to us constantly, like doughnuts, soda and potato chips. We would be left with food that tastes good, of course, but only when its nutritional value is needed in the individual—only when it is appropriate to eat. At the same time, even that food would come inconsistently and in small quantities. So eating whenever one is hungry would just be a mechanism to make sure those sparse quantities don't go to waste.

Sexual urges work in the same way. In an environment where sex is constantly encouraged as touched on above, it is also the case that life is short and brutish. To reproduce is necessary to promote life, but other measures are needed as well such as the diligent protection of offspring and other family members. These responsibilities necessitate a full day's work of hunting and gathering, limiting the time for copulation. Nature's precariousness also makes the clan a more desirable formula for domestic life as opposed to the free-wheelin' lifestyle of the sexually active young adults. Loyalty and devotion to one mate benefits all in that situation and the result is a curbing of promiscuity naturally.

In short, as instincts come naturally, so restrictions come naturally as well. Letting nature dictate instincts should mean letting nature dictate restrictions also. But we live in a time when nature's restrictions have been conquered, so the latter is increasingly difficult. If we are to maintain an appropriate balance, we are left with two options. The first is to eliminate our natural instincts like we have eliminated nature's restrictions and the second is to impose our own restrictions. The first might be easier and, indeed, with an assortment of available drugs, one can accomplish it with precision. Just flip off nature when our social condition doesn't allow for it.

But doesn't this first option take away our humanness? If we don't feel or desire like a human, can we say that we are human? We cannot. The solution must be to impose restrictions on ourselves. That means not eating to our gastric capacity whenever we sit down at a restaurant; it means not promiscuously hopping from lover to lover as the dance floor dictates. That means being prudent in our behavior.

Doing all this does not take away humanness—prudes still feel the urges like any normal human does. Rather it embraces human instincts in order to master them, mold them and direct toward appropriateness. The outcome is not ruthless suppression and injury like it may seem, but rather, an elimination of frivolous indulgence. In this way, trivializing humanness is avoided and when that happens, a remarkable phenomenon occurs—humanness becomes significant and valuable. Living life is seen as a reward to cherish and ultimately, doing so renders more enjoyment than one can ever find in frivolous consumption and sensual immoderation.

Such is the design of prudishness. Its secret is that doing what is proper, modest, and righteous aims at and produces the enjoyable life. Choosing not to eat the double cheeseburger every morning is possible and even though our overwhelming desire is to gobble one down, refraining from doing so leads to a better appreciation for food and a more enjoyable eating experience when we do eat it. Likewise, abstaining from sex makes it more significant as well. Turning down sexual temptation is doubtless a trying task, but doing so will help maintain social and emotional structure throughout society, thereby increasing the importance of potential mates and the residual enjoyment gained after choosing one.

This new perspective may alter less obvious social standards as well. One standard is the assumption that a married couple should mate whenever the impulse hits, but even in exclusive relationships, it benefits the couple to agree on a set of restrictions. Doing so prevents loss of mutual attraction that is said to occur, supposedly inevitably, three or four years after marriage. Nor should prudishness be limited to the most extreme forms of intimacy. Kissing is a behavior that has lost all significance due to its frivolous use. It has become so sure a tool for further intimacy that it is easy to forget how enjoyable it is to simply place lips together.
The virtue in prudishness is difficult to realize this because we assume the way to an enjoyable life is to satisfy our urges and instincts whenever they arise. But, as we have found, doing so leads to trouble especially in a society where we have eliminated natural restrictions. Indulgence rips social and emotional fabric apart and the only way to repair it is to live under our own self-imposed restrictions; the solution is prudishness. Consequently, living prudishly is also the only way to live a continually enjoyable life.