Yesterday I got an email from a new member who has been following our modesty discussions with great interest. He said he would like to host a conversation with local friends and colleagues on the subject and wanted to know whether I had readings to recommend.
I didn't, really. I mean, I've read countless articles of varying quality on the objectification of women and the value of modesty. Member Rhett pasted a passage from The Privilege of Being a Woman, a book far superior to most, in terms of linking modesty to the beauty, dignity and high spiritual calling of femininity. Years ago, I read with great admiration Wendy Shallit's book A Return to Modesty. If I remember rightly, she was a secularized Jewish woman who found herself enormously empowered in her sense of self and her way of relating to others when she began dressing modestly, which led her to a compelling critique of the cultural status quo. I recommend both those books.
But, they only cover the issue from one side, viz., the "good side" of "modesty talk."
I had never read anything analyzing the other aspect of the problem—the one I've been struggling to articulate, namely, the way a focus on modesty can become perverse and play into the master/slave hermeneutic of the fall.
Recalling that a friend had told me recently that her college-age daughter now associates all talk of modesty with what she called "rape culture", I googled "modesty, rape-culture" and came upon this illuminating Patheos article. The author is an escapee from the Quiverfull movement of fundamentalist Christianity. She absolutely nails the point I've been driving at, though she puts it in starker terms than I'm accustomed to. [Emphasis in the original.]
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.
She makes a very personalist point too:
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.
I think she's right. Much of the modesty talk in Christian circles, consciously or not, is framed
1) to downplay moral agency, the defining feature of personal existence. The man is treated as the victim of his urges; they are "caused" (by the woman) in him; therefore, he is not responsible for them. The woman's agency is practically limited to whether or not she covers herself adequately. If she's virtuous, she'll cover up; if she doesn't cover up adequately enough to prevent male lust, she's blameable for the problems she causes him, as well as for anything that might "happen" to her, i.e. sexual assault.
2) to re-establish a patriarchal culture, in which women are religiously enjoined to subordinate themselves to men. The woman's role is to serve men, while the man's role is to govern.
John Paul II's personalist approach to human sexuality is practically opposite to this, or rather, as far above it as it is above hedonism and promiscuity. His sexual ethics and his Theology of the Body emphasize moral agency, the essential goodness of the human body, and the complementarity of the sexes. He stresses that the call to self-giving service is a mutual call, rooted in our being as persons, not in the nature of feminity vis a vis masculinity.
The "point" of modesty in the late Pope's telling is not to hide female sexuality, but to ensure that it is properly integrated into a woman's subjectivity, so that those who encounter her are encouraged to encouter her as person—subject and moral agent—rather than as an object. Her sexuality is to be received not as an invitation to abuse, but as "a starting point for love."
A large element in the Christian counterculture, though, is a far cry from JP II. In many places:
- Girls and women are held responsible for male lust.
- Curvy girls especially are made to feel ashamed of their bodies.
- Men are taught that if they have unwanted sexual desire for a woman who isn't their wife, it's because that woman is being immodest. She should be corrected and made to diminish her sexuality.
If you think this only happens in evangelical circles, think again. When my daughter was 14, we sent her to a traditional Catholic high school with a strict dress code. She was a lovely, very innocent young girl going awkwardly through adolescence. She was a little overweight and large-breasted at the time, so that the required blouses and sweaters were inevitably tight on her. Though she tried desperately to dress within the code, she was repeatedly reprimanded for immodesty. The dress code would be "updated" on the spot to deal with her case. ("Those leather boots are not allowed, because they draw attention to your legs.") We spent I don't know how many hundreds of dollars trying to dress her "appropriately," that is, according to the ideas of the hyper-vigilant (not to say obsessed), 40-something year old assistant headmaster.
One of the woman teachers at the school, who could see that my daughter was entirely innocent of bad intentions, explained to me that, nonetheless, she was "causing problems for some of the male teachers," so we would have to try harder to find more appropriate clothing for her.
In other words, my 14 year old daughter was held responsible for the difficulty grown men were having with their sexual responses. She was made to feel guilty and ashamed of herself, though she had done nothing wrong at all.
I hope everyone can see that this is perverse. I hope we can realize how damaging it must be to the self-image of a young girl. I am unhappy now to think how much I complied at the time. It bothered me. I complained a lot with other mothers having similar problems. I sympathized with my daughter's embarrassment and frustration. But I also bought her new clothes, so these male teachers could get relief. I'm mad at myself for that now. I wish I had been much more forceful in defending her from what I now see as the aggression and perversity of their demands on her. If a right sexual ethic had been in place at the school, the teachers, not the students, would have been taken to task for "inappropriateness." (I was glad to hear a few years ago that that assistant headmaster no longer works at the school.)
Here's a picture of my daughter (on the right) at 16. (She was also criticized by Catholic men and boys for her short hair, which they declared "unfeminine".) She's smiling as she relaxes at home with her siblings. By this time, we had put her in a new school. It was bigger and more secularized, but there she found herself both accepted for who she was and admired for her strong moral values. She felt liberated from oppression. (I'm telling the story with her permission.)
Unless we realize and take seriously the fact that this is something many girls and women have experienced, much of our talk of modesty is likely to backfire. Girls and women will begin to associate Christianity with oppression, repression, and perversion.
As I was finishing the post, I came upon this one by Simcha Fisher. Man oh man.