Modesty is a feeling or a behavior that is motivated by shame, in that it essentially bears upon the sexualized body, the genital organs, the anal zone, or any part of the body that, culturally or individually, is endowed with an erotic investment. In a secondary sense, it is a mode of being that limits all motor or linguistic expression of subjectivity.
In the German language, and thus in Sigmund Freud's writings, it is not possible to distinguish that which is motivated by modesty from that which is motivated by shame, whereas in French, English, and some other languages, two different concepts exist, with modesty in a sense constituting the positive aspect of shame, when the feeling of guilt is transformed into adherence to a socially sanctioned ideal.
The issue of modesty comes up several times in Freud's work, as distinct from the issue of shame. First, it appears as an aspect of the transference and the counter-transference, from the earliest analyses described in "Studies in Hysteria" (1895d). Indeed, "confidence" is why psychoanalysis "invariably leads to the disclosure of the most intimate and secret psychical events" (p. 265), and the lifting of verbal modesty, sometimes accompanied by the gesture of touching the forehead, is the paramount condition for the patient's unreserved speech that is required by the fundamental rule. Second, the origin of modesty is associated with the anal stage, which cannot be reduced to its instinctual localization but instead, as Françoise Dolto underscored, involves, as a whole, motivity and the ethic of the relation to self, others, and the external world. It is in this sense that modesty generates a whole series of instinct-avoidance behaviors, through obsessional-type rituals. Third, it is doubly associated with the phallus and genitality: On the one hand, it lends consistency to the veil of the phallus inasmuch as it is not reducible to the genital organs and is only given up in the experience of symbolic castration; on the other, it valorizes, by keeping it from being seen, genitality and sexual difference, essentially on the feminine side. For both sexes, the hysterical logic of "hiding/showing" is present here.
It is essentially with regard to children, and then adolescents, that the notion of modesty has been examined by psychoanalysts and can be dissociated from shame. In children modesty is not pathological except in its excessive, hysterical, or obsessional forms, which are associated with severe shyness or an inhibition that affects several registers. Otherwise, it corresponds to the child's way of managing the superego and its ego ideals, limiting polymorphous and ordinary perversion. Dolto clearly showed how parents' failure to respect the rules of family life, in the form of slipping into voyeuristic or exhibitionistic behaviors, is by contrast conducive to perversion.
Apart from the issue of the difference in metapsychological and psychogenetic status between shame and modesty, a question raised by the notion of modesty is that of how the anal instinct, the phallic signifier, and genitality are articulated together, whereas orality is governed by a different moral code; this is aptly shown in Luis Buñuel's film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), where the characters gather in a circle to defecate together and hide in the lavatory ("au petit coin") to eat.
One can wonder whether the force of modesty is not directly linked, individually or culturally, to the importance of infantile sexual theories about the anus, which might persist and become more pronounced, not only for obsessional personalities, in the access to genitality.