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Modesty, Body Policing, and Rape Culture - Long but Worthwhile Read

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In my previous posts on the modesty doctrine, I’ve written about how, as a teenager, I believed that the only solution to the problem of male lust was to have a sexless body. This desire for androgyny contributed directly to my eating disorder, as I deliberately tried to purge myself of curves. Is self-starvation extreme? Yes. Is it illogical as a response to the modesty doctrine? Not at all.

posted this excerpt from Feministe’s article on the Stuyvesant school dress code on Monday, but it bears repeating:

Beyond the treatment of young men as uncontrollable animals and the treatment of young women as rape-bait, the Stuy dress code enforcers also appear to fall into a common problem with dress codes generally — defining an “appropriate” body. As the students quoted in the Times article implied, some of them technically met the dress code but were still told they were “inappropriate,” not because of what they were wearing, but because of how it looked on them. I don’t know what those students look like, but I’m going to guess it comes down to boobs and butts. Flesh is what’s often considered “inappropriate” — B-cup boobs in a turtleneck are fine, but double-Ds are not; straight hips in a pencil skirt are fine, but curvy ones are not. It’s the body that’s being policed, not the clothes.

The modesty doctrine isn’t about clothes, it’s about bodies. It’s a method for punishing women who do not conform to an idealized, asexual, inoffensive body type. The “offenders” are women with large breasts, wide hips, or discernible “booty.” The modesty doctrine claims that the right clothes conceal a woman’s figure, and that the wrong ones expose her curves. The problem is, some women have figures that cannot be concealed. Even denim sack jumpers will reveal a curvy woman’s hips or breasts when she moves. When I was rebuked for my clothing as a teenager, it was often identical to the clothing all the other girls were wearing. The only difference was that I had “developed” first. The modesty doctrine defines some bodies as inherently problematic.

The hyper-vigilance of fundamentalist men and women to root out “immodesty” conceals a hatred of female sexuality: secondary sex characteristics should not be visible except in approved circumstances. The system is designed to ensure that the only time a man is “turned on” by a woman is when he is allowed to act on his urges: in the marital bed. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex. Although I don’t think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. “Immodest” women are “asking for it,” or it’s “false advertising” if a woman in a short skirt won’t go home with you, or (in the terms of the Christian patriarchy movement) a woman “defrauds” a man (literally, deprives him of a right or property) by allowing herself to be attractive in a situation wherein sex with her is illicit or unwanted.

The modesty doctrine frames this idea in terms of clothing to preserve the veneer that women are somehow to blame for this, and that there’s something they can do about it. There isn’t. The modesty doctrine revolves around the assumption that a man has a right to sex with every woman he finds attractive. In Christian fundamentalism, he only has a right to sex with his wife. Therefore, other women who are attractive to him seem to taunt him with something he can’t have (extramarital sex). That’s why certain women get singled out as threats, despite trying their hardest to be “modest.” It doesn’t matter what they wear; if men find them attractive and can’t marry them, they must be punished. This disproportionately happens to curvy women because their sex is impossible to erase.

Something’s missing here. I hope you’ve picked up on it. The woman does not have any agency in this model of male sexuality. What she wants or doesn’t want is either erased or subordinated to what he wants or can’t have. The relationship is between the man, her body, and the law (monogamy). Similarly, entire facets of male sexuality are written out. Men are not allowed to see themselves as objects of desire, to consider themselves attractive or to enjoy the idea of sex with an initiating woman. The corollary to accepting that sex isn’t about having a right of use for another person’s body means enjoying the experience of having a woman express genuine interest in you. In the fundamentalist model of sex, men are aggressors and women are reluctant recipients. Relinquishing the right to sex with a woman and replacing it with mutual consent means finally experiencing sexual interest that isn’t forced. It threatens patriarchal masculinity, however, because having that experience (being wanted) means letting go of superiority and admitting to having the same experience women do. It means acknowledging a woman’s capacity to be the one with desires and one’s own capacity to be an object of desire. Fundamentalist men also aren’t allowed to acknowledge that, despite their monogamy, their bodies will occasionally feel attraction to others, and that attraction does not in itself have a moral value.  Every misplaced flutter of the heart explodes into anger at being “defrauded.”

A similar dynamic takes place when men justify the modesty doctrine by arguing, “I wouldn’t want other men looking at my wife like that.” That expression reflects the pride of possession and defensiveness fundamentalist men are taught to feel regarding their wives’ bodies. If a man believes women who dress “immodestly” are depriving him of his right to sex, he also believes that men who look at his wife with sexual interest are trying to assert a right to sex with her. In other words, they’re threatening what belongs to him.

This is all quite dehumanizing. It sounds scary and extreme. I can see the heads shaking already. That’s fine. What I’m analyzing is a system. I certainly don’t think that most fundamentalists – or even most people – have thought the problem through to this degree. Most of my thinking as a fundamentalist girl was reactionary (“That guy is staring at me. I need to go change.”). Most men that I grew up with never interrogated themselves over why they were so disgusted with an unattractive (to them) woman wearing shorts. They never outright said “she’s offering me something I don’t want,” but they did say things like “nobody wants to see that,” which isn’t too far off. It doesn’t take into account that she might have reasons for wearing shorts other than for them to look at her. They assumed (probably without recognizing it) that women’s bodies were for looking at whenever they weren’t completely hidden.

Feminists will probably find all of this annoyingly familiar. What am I saying, after all? The modesty doctrine is rape culture. It is inseparable from patriarchy. It is the very means by which patriarchy reduces women to mere flesh. “If I can see it, it’s mine” is the motto of a thief. If a woman’s body is the “it,” it’s the motto of a rapist. “If I can see it, she’s defrauding me” is the motto of Christian patriarchy. The Christian patriarchy movement attempts to obliterate a woman’s sexual agency in several ways:
First, it demands she cover up to keep men from wanting what they see.
Second, it sanctions sex with a woman based not on her consent but upon marriage vows (“it’s impossible to rape your wife because her body is yours”).
Third, it places control over marriage vows in male hands through courtship (father and husband). Consent is therefore farcical.
Fourth, it demands that women, not men, face the consequences of sex: either the guilt of adultery for the imagined sex a leering man has with a woman he finds attractive, or the perpetual pregnancy resulting from marital relations, as birth control is forbidden.

The modesty doctrine goes way deeper than the denim jumper. It’s a central pillar of patriarchal religion. Doing away with it means finding another support for ethical sexuality. I think it means replacing the idea of possession with the idea of sharing. It means seeing consent as a permanent requirement, one that doesn’t expire upon marriage. It means moving beyond a toddler-like vision of the world (“everything is here for me to look at”) to an adult one (“I can see the world around me, but it isn’t about me”). It means ceasing to fear that you can be defiled by something you see (it’s what comes out that defiles you). It means taking responsibility for your own actions rather than accusing others of “forcing” you to sin. It means ceasing to assign respect or perceived moral character to women based on how much or how little of their bodies are visible, or how curvy they are. Finally, it means replacing a functional definition of women as bodies with a recognition of women as full human beings who can wear whatever they damn well please.

"I am only one, but I am still one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." ~~ Edward Everett Hale 1822-1909
by on Jan. 21, 2013 at 9:50 AM
Replies (11-20):
by guerrilla girl on Jan. 21, 2013 at 11:42 AM
1 mom liked this

Yep....I have the top part anyway. But I am cursed with the flat butt...At least you are balanced and don't look like you are about to tip over...hahahaaa!

Quoting mehamil1:

My boobs are huge, My ass is round, my hips are wide. I cannot tell you the kinda shit I have experienced as a result of that. I don't hate my body, I love the hour glass shape. However, this article really hits home with me. It does not matter what I wear. 

This picture right here is good illistration. I am not sticking my butt out, it's just there. Does not matter what I wear, that butt will butt in. 

Naughty Wittle Puppy

by Ruby Member on Jan. 21, 2013 at 11:49 AM

Maybe they just don't want some students distracted by some other students who dress provocatively on purpose?

by Gold Member on Jan. 21, 2013 at 11:54 AM
4 moms liked this

Why are women forced to be victims of "male lust" because of body type?  Why aren't the men forced to control their inappropriate thoughts?  Why doesn't the blame go where it belongs -- on the beholder?  If their thoughts are "dirty", they are to blame, not the poor female who has been branded a "slut".

by on Jan. 21, 2013 at 11:55 AM
2 moms liked this
Or boys could be taught discipline and self control.

Many foreign exchange students I've had at school have talked about differences in ours schools and there's. at schools where dress code is more relaxed, they hardly see anything "provacative" because there's nothing to rebel against. Anyone who dresses a way not deemed socially acceptable just risks getting laughed at.

But do you think our attitudes towards women's bodies are acceptable or do they need an adjustment?

Quoting futureshock:

Maybe they just don't want some students distracted by some other students who dress provocatively on purpose?

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by Ashley on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:09 PM

I agree with the article.

by Platinum Member on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:12 PM
7 moms liked this

Who defines what is provocative and not provocative? It's a cultural thing. Man made idea. 

When the Missionaries first went to New Zealand they told the natives that their women should cover up their breasts for the sake of "modesty". They were met with looks of confusion. The natives responded "breasts are for feeding babies and children." In other words, the women's breasts were not sexualized. They went around topless so children would have better access to breast milk. Since their breasts were not sexualized, their being out and about was not deemed to be immodest. 

And for those that do it on purpose, so what? We need to teach our sons that how a woman dresses is her choice and her concern and he has no right to treat her differently than he would if she was dressed differently. At least that's what I'm teaching my son. Respect people regardless of how they are dressed. Especially women. 

Quoting futureshock:

Maybe they just don't want some students distracted by some other students who dress provocatively on purpose?

by Thatwoman on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:14 PM
4 moms liked this

I believe that if men are so easily incited to rape by what they see, the solution is to put their eyes out at puberty.

by Thatwoman on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:15 PM
1 mom liked this

I suspect that after the first 40 seconds had passed, the distraction would be over.

How ADD do they think people are?

Quoting futureshock:

Maybe they just don't want some students distracted by some other students who dress provocatively on purpose?

by guerrilla girl on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:17 PM


Quoting LindaClement:

I believe that if men are so easily incited to rape by what they see, the solution is to put their eyes out at puberty.

Naughty Wittle Puppy

by Platinum Member on Jan. 21, 2013 at 12:19 PM

I wear a size large shirt because of my boobs. I could wear a medium and it would fit in the waist area. However, that would then make my boobs look bigger than they actually are. I don't wear turtle necks because I hate the feeling around my neck. 

Pants, don't even get me started. Yoga pants are a god send. Jeans are a nightmare. Corduroy pants are tolerable. My ass makes wearing a lot of pants extremely uncomfortable. 

Quoting NWP:

Very interesting article and I have to agree...I don't think I have ever considered it this way, although I certainly live it.

I am a very small, petite woman, 5 feet tall, and 110 pounds. I have had large, C nearly D breasts since I was 12....and the problems it has caused me because of other people's preconceptions is ridiculous.

I also can't wear the dress code. Turtlenecks are "too curvy" and there is nothing short of a complete button up to the collar or a very high crew neck that won't show some cleavage.

Regardless, I am who I am...I am not the sum of my cups.

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