I originally wrote this article and posted it on my old blog in November 2012. I’d been meaning to revamp it for Roses & Revolutionaries, but was finally catalyzed to do so when I found that Katelyn Beaty at The Atlantic linked to my original post in the article “Toward a New Understanding of Modesty.” This is the updated version of my original blogpost:
Sometimes it can be hard for men to understand why women are so upset about rape. What’s the big deal? Rape’s not that much of a thing, right? Mostly it’s just cues being misread or hysterical prudes who just need some dick or unsatisfied women after a night of bad sex crying “rape” because they didn’t like the guy, right? And if even one person suggests rape shouldn’t happen, or that rape had happened to them, or that someone shouldn’t tell rape jokes, or so forth, they should get raped to teach them a lesson, right?
And this is what is known as “rape culture,” defined by Wikipedia as “a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape…[Examples] include victim blaming, sexual objectification, and trivializing rape.” Some men are very upset by the claim that rape culture exists. But I promise you it does. I know it does every time I can’t walk alone at night. I know it every time I’m walking to my car at night with my key stuck between my fingers in case I need an impromptu weapon. I know it when every rape survivor has to answer a litany of questions about where she was, who she was with, whether she was drinking, what she was wearing. I know it every time a guy thinks “no” means “just convince me a little more,” which is disturbingly often. I know it every time I hear of another leader (religious, political, atheist) who faces rape allegations being unquestioningly supported by his fans, followers, fellow leaders, and mentors.
The idea, in our society, is that if you’re a woman, your body exists to be exploited by men. The burden is on me to defend myself, not on men to be respectful of my privacy, my bodily autonomy, my right to say no, my right to live a life free of sexual violence and my right to present myself however I choose without being judged, shamed, or taken advantage of for it.
Christian purity culture is in many ways a reaction against sexual permissiveness masquerading as a reaction against sexual predation. The levels of sexual predation within the church give the lie to that claim. A special niche of purity culture is deeply concerned with modesty. The idea is, a really self-respecting woman will dress herself in such a way that her body will not be the focus at all. Sermons, conferences, books, even T-shirts all advocate this notion that modesty is a prime component of sexual purity and therefore (paradoxically) desirability (to the proper sort of Christian gentleman of course). There are endless debates on what constitutes modesty. The general consensus is, however, a woman’s clothing must not be too revealing of either flesh or figure (too scanty or too tight). Quibbling about inches and guidelines takes up an amazing amount of time and energy amongst modesty advocates, but the idea is the same: Good girls are modest.
And modesty is for everyone’s protection. Men are less tempted sexually when the women around them cover up. Modest women are less likely to be taken advantage of, whether just by ogling on the street, by men pressuring them to have sex, or by rape (so goes the story, anyway). Do you feel a little judged, a little meddled with, when a stranger tells you how to dress? Don’t. They really have your best interests at heart. They want you to “respect yourself” by doing your best to control other people’s reaction to your body. And they can’t be held responsible for what happens when you don’t dress modestly enough.
You should see some of the correspondence already.
Here’s the first ugly truth: as soon as a woman falls outside the standards of what is perceived as modest, those advocating modesty culture immediately join rape culture. They shrug and say, “Whatever happens is on her. She’s asking for it.” They’re not actually concerned about all women, only women who are willing to conform to their standards of modesty. It gets worse: When a woman is a victim of sexual violence, it matters much less to “modesty culture” than to current American “rape culture” how she dresses or acts – “modesty culture” will assume much more quickly that it is somehow her fault, probably because their standards for how “good girls” dress and behave are so much higher.
Second, both “cultures” have a very problematic stance on men; it’s not as bad as their view of women but it’s another of the shocking similarities between the two. Why does “modesty culture” try to get all women to cover up? Because men, according to “modesty culture,” cannot help themselves. Since actually sincere Christians want their men to be sexually pure as well as their women (or at least they say they do, but of course the onus for keeping men pure is put on the women), all temptation must be removed. For even seeing a flash of skin he ought not to have seen will make a man think all sorts of lusty and rape-y thoughts. That’s the gist of it – I’ve read modesty books that go into great detail on how men’s chemistry works, essentially saying that if he catches just a glimpse of a woman’s body he will be sexually turned on in an instant and after that he is incapable of controlling his mental/physical reaction. (and it is only a woman’s body that will create this reaction…modesty culture is heteronormative to the point of denying that real homosexual attraction even exists). So both rape culture and modesty culture envision men as drooling hound dogs with everlasting erections. (As a side note, modesty culture is also made up of people who think men ought to be the ones running the world, and that the male gender holds all spiritual authority. No wonder women should stay in the kitchen, we can’t have the lords of creation suddenly turned into slavering animals while they’re trying to do important political and religious leadership type things.)
But how can a “culture” that ostensibly seeks to protect women from sexual exploitation be fundamentally the same in assumptions as a “culture” that accepts sexual exploitation and violence as the norm? It’s simple. Fundamentally, they are both based on the exact same principle: Objectification.
Here’s how it works. Imagine that I am on a beach on a very hot day, wearing a bikini. I look at some cool algae that’s washed up on the
beach and I say to the two men standing next to me, “I didn’t know algae could be purple, I wonder what causes that?” Man number one is “rape culture man” and man number two is “modesty culture man.” Neither man really registers a word I’ve said. “Rape culture man” reaches for his camera (there’s a lot of people on the beach so he’s not actually going to rape me, just take a picture to post online later; he’d also totally love it if I were to lose my top whilst swimming in the ocean). “Modesty culture man” panics, looks around and while averting his eyes grabs a nearby towel and hands it to me, saying, “Cover up!” Neither man has reacted at all to the thought I had just expressed, to the fact that I, as a human being, was trying to interact with them, as human beings. They didn’t even see another human being, they just saw body parts. Rape culture man wanted to take sexual ownership of those body parts, while modesty culture man wanted me to hide those body parts from his view so that he wasn’t tempted to take sexual ownership of them. But despite the different end result, their initial reaction was the same.
Whether the obsession is with seeing & exploiting a woman’s body or with the danger of being tempted by accidentally seeing it, it’s just two sides of the same coin. I become an object. I am considered not as me, not as a person with thoughts and feelings and ideas and a back-story, but as a simple trigger for lust. Whether you are hoping to see a little cleavage or desperately avoiding the possibility of seeing a little cleavage, you’re still just focused on my cleavage, and you’re probably not hearing a word I’m saying. I am still just an object, reduced to a body part, and by focusing so much on your own lust (feeding it or starving it), you’re reducing yourself to a body part too.
Though they’re based on the same view of humanity (men as lustful, women as objects), rape culture is still the worse of the two. But I dislike both. Objectification is just not okay and it’s happened for far too long. When will we see all people as people instead of just extras in the movie of our own personal life?
For the record, I’m just a little annoyed when it comes to me personally being objectified. Mostly, I’m like, whatever. How you react to me is your choice and it’s not my fault you’re making a dumb choice. (Not including sexual violence here; that’s completely different) But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to change cultural attitudes. I’d love to see a world where victim blaming does not happen, where a woman is interacted with as a fellow human being no matter what she’s wearing, where no one assumes that anyone is “asking for” sexual violence. I’d love to live in a world where assumptions about your ethics aren’t made based on your clothing choices or your personality. But I’m not going to let categories of “good girl” or “bad girl” change the way I act. I am not going to treat myself as an object; I am not going to listen to people’s judgments of me; my body is a part of all that makes up “me” and I’m not going to let any obsession with it take over my entire life.
And I’m also going to arm myself, because I do not yet live in a world where any woman can consider herself completely safe.