Modesty, Body Policing, and Rape Culture - Long but Worthwhile Read
In my previous posts on the modesty doctrine, Iâve 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.
I posted this excerpt from Feministeâs 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 â defining an âappropriateâ body. As the students quoted in the Times article implied, some of them technically met the dress code but were still told they were âinappropriate,â not because of what they were wearing, but because of how it looked on them. I donât know what those students look like, but Iâm going to guess it comes down to boobs and butts. Flesh is whatâs often considered âinappropriateâ â 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. Itâs the body thatâs being policed, not the clothes.
The modesty doctrine isnât about clothes, itâs about bodies. Itâs a method for punishing women who do not conform to an idealized, asexual, inoffensive body type. The âoffendersâ are women with large breasts, wide hips, or discernible âbooty.â The modesty doctrine claims that the right clothes conceal a womanâs 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 womanâs 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 âdevelopedâ first. The modesty doctrine defines some bodies as inherently problematic.
The hyper-vigilance of fundamentalist men and women to root out âimmodestyâ 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 âturned onâ by a woman is when he is allowed to act on his urges: in the marital bed. In other words, if a womanâs body is visible, it ought to be available for sex. Although I donât think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. âImmodestâ women are âasking for it,â or itâs âfalse advertisingâ if a woman in a short skirt wonât go home with you, or (in the terms of the Christian patriarchy movement) a woman âdefraudsâ 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 thereâs something they can do about it. There isnât. 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 canât have (extramarital sex). Thatâs why certain women get singled out as threats, despite trying their hardest to be âmodest.â It doesnât matter what they wear; if men find them attractive and canât marry them, they must be punished. This disproportionately happens to curvy women because their sex is impossible to erase.
Somethingâs missing here. I hope youâve picked up on it. The woman does not have any agency in this model of male sexuality. What she wants or doesnât want is either erased or subordinated to what he wants or canât 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 isnât about having a right of use for another personâs 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 isnât 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 womanâs capacity to be the one with desires and oneâs own capacity to be an object of desire. Fundamentalist men also arenât 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 âdefrauded.â
A similar dynamic takes place when men justify the modesty doctrine by arguing, âI wouldnât want other men looking at my wife like that.â That expression reflects the pride of possession and defensiveness fundamentalist men are taught to feel regarding their wivesâ bodies. If a man believes women who dress âimmodestlyâ 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, theyâre threatening what belongs to him.
This is all quite dehumanizing. It sounds scary and extreme. I can see the heads shaking already. Thatâs fine. What Iâm analyzing is a system. I certainly donât think that most fundamentalists â or even most people â have thought the problem through to this degree. Most of my thinking as a fundamentalist girl was reactionary (âThat guy is staring at me. I need to go change.â). 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 âsheâs offering me something I donât want,â but they did say things like ânobody wants to see that,â which isnât too far off. It doesnât 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 womenâs bodies were for looking at whenever they werenât 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. âIf I can see it, itâs mineâ is the motto of a thief. If a womanâs body is the âit,â itâs the motto of a rapist. âIf I can see it, sheâs defrauding meâ is the motto of Christian patriarchy. The Christian patriarchy movement attempts to obliterate a womanâs 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 (âitâs impossible to rape your wife because her body is yoursâ).
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. Itâs 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 doesnât expire upon marriage. It means moving beyond a toddler-like vision of the world (âeverything is here for me to look atâ) to an adult one (âI can see the world around me, but it isnât about meâ). It means ceasing to fear that you can be defiled by something you see (itâs what comes out that defiles you). It means taking responsibility for your own actions rather than accusing others of âforcingâ 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.