What’s Modesty Got to Do With It?

Several weeks ago, I read an article about this outfit. In the article, a father was called to come to school to retrieve his “inappropriately attired” daughter, who was wearing this article of clothing. This young woman had been singled out by the principal at her school and pulled out of the cafeteria because her attire was so provocative. Confession: My pre-pregnancy wardrobe was full of outfits just like this one, down to the Tom’s canvas shoes on her feet.

Upon arriving at the school and surveying her daughter’s outfit, the father is confused and cannot see why this outfit might possibly be deemed inappropriate. He writes, “I began to think : ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her and see her as a provocative female,’ but then I thought… no… that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her though the eyes of hormone-addled teenage boys to see her as provocative,’ but then I thought… no… that is weird-creepy.”

Reading this article brought back a flood of memories for me. Receiving comments about the length of my skirt (which was hidden behind a pulpit 95% of the time) after giving a sermon, which can lead a woman to wonder, “Why were you looking at my legs and not listening to my sermon?” Performing the “fingertip test” to be sure that my shorts were longer than the length of my extended arms in high school. Sitting through a teen youth rally where the speaker exhorted women not to dress in ways that would “provoke men.”

And here’s where the problem lies. It seems like everyone wants to get in on the action when it comes to giving women advice on how they should clothe themselves. Women’s bodies often get viewed as some sort of communal drawing board, open for commentary from every angle. This constant haggling and attention paid to appearance reinforces the fact that a woman is, above all, a sexual object who should be shrouded and/or displayed appropriately.

 And as I’ve thought about what I will say to my own daughter when she’s a growing adolescent girl heading off to school, I do hope that she will dress in a way that shows both confidence and respect for her own body, although I know it’s hard to quantify exactly how many or what types of clothes signify these things.

But I do know that no matter what my daughter wears, she is not responsible for the ways that other people treat her. And no outfit that she wears, no matter how some people might categorize it, should make sexual harassment, rape or assault “her fault.”

That sounds obvious, but all too often, especially in Christian circles, we can get pulled into a vicious cycle of suggesting that women are responsible for the ways that men think about them and treat them because of how they dress and simply by virtue of the fact that their bodies are womanly.

Not too long ago, the website Jezebel posted the results of a survey of that was designed by Christian girls, who surveyed 1,600 Christian men, wanting to know how men would define modesty, since 95% of these males had indicated that modesty was one of the top qualities they would look for in a wife. Most of these men suggested that immodest clothing consisted of outfits “designed specificially to arouse lust in me” or clothing “that draws attention a girl’s body.” Specific items of clothing that were identified as immodest  included halter tops and mini skirts, designs on the back pockets of jeans (44% of respondents thought these were immodest, 19% were unsure), purses worn across the body, and tights with designs.

In his book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel discusses the ways that women’s bodies become a key locus of temptation and aggravation for men. Kimmel cites a a Men’s Health study that surveyed 444 men. Out of this pool, 49% of readers felt that their female co-workers dressed in “pointedly provocative” manners and should be written up for sexual harassment. Kimmel writes, Men describe themselves as being ‘blown away’ and ‘knocked out’ [by women’s appearance]. As suggested in metaphor, women’s beauty is perceived as violence to men: Men use violence to even the playing field, to restore equality.”

In another sermon (which you can listen to here), pastor C.J. Mahaney says, “Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today….All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait to my sinful mind.”

This line of thinking becomes incredibly dangerous. Too often, when we talk about victims of sexual assault and/or rape, people ask the question, “Well, what was she wearing?,” as if this has any bearing on the problematic actions that occurred. As Freda Adler writes, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”

And, frankly, if I were a man,  I’d be downright offended by this argument. It is insulting to men, too. It suggests that men are unable to control themselves, and that the very site of a woman’s flesh provokes them to act inappropriately. It suggests that at any given moment, the average heterosexual male is primed and ready for sex, no matter the context, relationship, etc. This line of reasoning doesn’t offer a very positive view of the masculine mind.

So, although I know that conversations about modesty, professionalism and dress are complicated, I think it’s time to reframe the conversation to make it clear, once and for all, that no form of dress, no matter how “pointedly provocative” it may be, justifies any kind of unwanted attention: verbal, physical or otherwise.

As the infamous Vagina Monologues sketch, “My Short Skirt” says:

My short skirt is not an invitation
a provocation
an indication
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.

My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.

My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.

My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.

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18 Comments

Filed under Sexual Violence

18 responses to “What’s Modesty Got to Do With It?

  1. Pingback: What’s Modesty Got to Do With It? | Our Stories Untold

  2. The author of the HuffPost story is actually the young woman’s father, not her mother.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Wow, bad move me. Thanks for catching that. I corrected it.

      • No problem. It caught my attention because it was one of the things that I found interesting about the whole article the first time around, that it’s a father getting involved in the discussion.

        And you’ve made some very good points. As a graphic designer, which, by definition, means I’m someone who deals with the way things are presented visually, I find myself really conflicted on this whole topic. Visual presentation is important in everything (for people who are not blind). As humans, the sighted among us judge everything based on appearance, at least initially. It’s an important part of being human. How we dress ourselves sends a message to others about how we want to be perceived.

        I do think that some kinds of clothing are inappropriate for young people to wear, especially in a learning environment, but the rules that govern school attire often seem arbitrary—and more focused on restricting young women’s clothing, rather than young men’s.

        Honestly, I don’t think I would mind if all schools required gender-neutral uniforms. I know that comes across as restrictive and fascist, but I like that idea a lot more than the one where girls are sent home from school because their skirts are a centimeter too short.

  3. John

    [putting on flame retardant, because I have no doubt this will draw a lot of fire…]

    When the front window of your car is smashed in and what’s on your passenger seat is taken (the classic “smash-and-grab”), one of the first things the police will do is ask what you had there, and then ask _why you left it on the front seat in full visibility instead of putting it somewhere out of sight_.

    Similarly, if you get mugged, and the police find out that at the time you were walking around waving a big wad of bills in your hand, or had it on a money clip hanging visible on your outfit, you can bet that they’re going to berate you for it.

    So, no, rape is _not_ “the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.” But it does seem to be the one where pointing out that there are _controllable_ contributing factors regarding the victim for which, while they certainly don’t justify the crime, had they not been in place it would have made the victim less likely to draw the attention of the perpetrator, are met with an ideological backlash.

    (And before someone tries to bring in studies making claims that how women dress does not contribute to their likelyhood of sexual assault, let me point out that such studies are usually motivated by the purpose of proving such a claim, and have holes in both their statistics and their methodology large enough for someone to drive a truck through.)

    This does not mean that everything a woman wears is suspect. Looking at the picture in the linked article, there certainly doesn’t appear anything inappropriate about it, and the parent in question is certainly right to question both the policy as it’s supposedly in place at that school and the seeming selective enforcement.

    But to refuse to acknowledge that when women do wear sexually-objectifying clothing, it does in fact affect how men think of them, _and in some cases might provide the extra leverage which moves a particular man into sinful thoughts and from there into actions_ – to refuse to acknowledge that, while it may suit a particular ideological agenda, serves only to harm those women who, while not being _responsible_ for a particular attack, _might have still avoided it happening_.

    • Rape is not about sex; a person’s attire (be they male or female) often has no bearing on whether they are targets of rapists. Rape is about power and dominance. Therefore, the argument that a woman’s attire might provoke lustful thoughts in a man who, I would suppose, based on the argument you put forth, can’t control himself and subsequently attacks her sexually, is flawed.

      Frankly, humans are sexual creatures. We will view one another within that context regardless of the clothing we wear. Viewing sexual arousal as sinful is unhealthy and harmful and leads to a lot of problems with interpersonal relationships. Humans also have brains and can override our impulses, which means that being sexually aroused does not force us to act on our desire. Further, blaming the object of arousal for one’s own “lack of control” shows a lack of interest in personal responsibility.

    • Zara

      John…I would only find your point valid if rape didn’t happen to “modestly” dressed women. This is not the case. Rape is rape. The outfit argument is nothing else than a way to victimize the victim and justify the perpetrator. Go ahead and make the case that men wearing speedos are asking for it…

    • marlene

      I’d bet that more women wearing Burkas get raped in Afghanistan and Pakistan, than European women in Nice, France, who lay topless on the beach. It’s not the clothes, or lack there of, it’s the attitude, the sick attitude that causes people to feel they must exert power, and rape and subjugate others. When armies invade, such as in Africa, even now, what happens to the women? They get raped. Why? It’s not their clothes, I’ll betcha.

    • Mindful Consideration

      If feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings, then it is also the radical notion that men are human beings. By this simple standard, men are expected to act like human beings and not like animals. Animals act by instinct, without thought. Human beings, though affected my carnal urges, are capable of knowing right from wrong, and of acting based on their consciences. In other words, feminism is the belief that men and women are human while conservationism (and anti-feminism) treats men like simple beasts incapable of restraint and women like they are less than beasts, expected to obey and serve men-beasts, but also be held responsible for the men-beast’ actions. Animals don’t sin, humans do. If a man sins through his thoughts and actions, it is because he is human and is responsible for his own thoughts and actions.

      Saying the immodest clothing woman who was raped was a controllable contributing factor to her own rape is in fact saying that she is responsible for controlling the actions of the men around her and that she was responsible for her own rape. It also ignores the fact that rape is not about lust, but is about power, control, and dominance. Read this: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?Volume=134&page=1239&journalID=13, this: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=44834%C3%DC, this: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1977.tb01246.x/abstract, and this: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=129084.

      Also, clothes cannot objectify women because clothes are inanimate. They are not capable of thought, intention, or action. Clothes are objects; they cannot do anything but be objects, and they cannot turn humans into objects. Only humans can objectify other human beings. Only humans can decide that because another human being is wearing clothes that they deem immodest that this magically turns that other human being into an object, without right of consent.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      John – You are a brave man for putting this out there, and I’m grateful to you for engaging in conversation, but I have to agree with a lot of what’s been said in response to your post. In the other examples you cite (leaving valuables in plain view, etc.), this does not make the action that happens (theft) any less illegal and problematic. And too often, in the case of rape, these problematic actions (which, as many other have pointed out, are not simply about lust but are about power, control and a general de-valuing of women’s bodies), prosecution is not pursued (in an earlier post, it was mentioned that 97% of rapists serve no prison time and are never held accountable for their actions).

      I appreciate that Erin pointed out that appreciating someone as attractive and/or feeling sexually attracted to them is a normal, healthy part of being human. But the inability to control oneself is far from acceptable. And when clothing like jean-pocket decals or spaghetti strap tank tops are considered so immmodest that they “put women at risk,” how is a woman supposed to win? And it also becomes problematic when men’s bodies are not held to the same standards as women’s are. Although men frequently are seen in public shirtless, no woman would be justified in claiming an inability to control herself and jumping this man (the speedo example from earlier seems particularly apropos).

  4. marlene

    And as we continue to point fingers at the East, and complain that the Taliban is mistreating women, we continue to think as the Taliban do, that women are evil, that women tempt men, that women must hide themselves, because men can’t help themselves.

  5. Melody

    First of all, I want to say I am a female and I grew up Mennonite and I was taught early on to dress modestly. I went through a period of my life where I rebelled against this. I wanted guys to notice me and I wanted their attention. As I look back on this period of my life, and now being the mother of two girls and one boy, I will tell you that time of my life was not led by the Holy Spirit and that my intentions for dressing that way were wrong. Whether I liked it or not, I now realize my parents were right in the way they taught me. They were not trying to drown out my individuality or control me. They were trying to protect me and I am grateful for that. Please hear me, I agree that no woman no matter what she is wearing, is at fault for a rape. However, there is something to be said about the purity and maturity of a woman who knows how to dress herself respectfully and also beautifully. I will and already do teach my girls to dress modestly, not because I want to keep them from being raped or because I don’t want them to be objectified by men, but because I want them to learn to honor their bodies…..lwhich are a gift from God. I will teach this to my girls just as much as I will teach my son to honor and respect women, not based on their clothing but based on their inner beauty. The point is, that as Christian women, we are called to a higher standard than what the world sets. If we are dressing in a way that does not bring glory to the one who made us and designed us, then we need to take a second look at how we are dressing. Our purpose here on this earth is bring glory and honor to God, to show who He is through our words, actions, and lives so that others may see Him and know Him. If our dress does not do this, then we should be concerned about what we are wearing. This is a universal truth and men also need to be conscious of what they wear…….it all comes back to this question does it bring God glory?

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hi Melody – I agree with a lot of what you say here. I think that we should definitely teach young women and girls to dress in ways that show confidence in and respect for their bodies. That is definitely important, but I also think that there are many grey areas with what people deem appropriate and what kinds of attire make them feel confident. It seems to be hard to identify any one, set standard for this, and rules that get very nitpicky about what is modest and what is not seem to sometimes be problematic.

  6. mary

    Is this a huffington post article or did you (Hannah) write this?

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hey Mary – Thanks for reading. I actually wrote this piece, but I did link to and reference a Huffington Post article!

  7. Matt

    Thanks for the excellent post, Hannah. I agree that it’s terrible for males to pass the blame for their own thoughts. In a pop culture that raises boys to pursue women with an end goal of sex, and to always look, it seems to follow that boys find it difficult to blame themselves for acting in the only way they know. This is definitely something that needs attention and change.

  8. Pingback: Hurry up, Beyoncé, and become more feminist | Matthew Dean

  9. I find your post really intriguing.

    As a male teacher in a Midwest high school, I am amazed at times at what both young men and young women choose to put on their bodies. While I see your point that a woman’s body is a woman’s body, I cannot help but hear the conversations of young men discussing how a girl’s rear or chest are hanging out of her clothes. And I am uncomfortable broaching the topic, both with the boys and with the girls, about bodily shadows or the amount of skin that is being shown. I talk to the boys about how degrading it is, to talk about girls that way. Their response is “she wears it because she wants us to look at her.” I can’t really argue; that is often the goal for high school girls. They show their stuff because they want boys to look at their junk. And believe me, they boys are looking just as much as the girls are showing.

    I try to tell the girls, as delicately as I can, that I wouldn’t want my daughter to wear what they are wearing because of the assumptions others would make about her. It inevitably leads to a borderline creepy conversation between a male teacher and female student acknowledging how promiscuous dress leads to sexually related assumptions, exactly the kinds of conversations, when taken out of context, gets guys like me fired. And the conversation changes nothing. They continue to wear the clothes, even though I have expressed my own personal unease with their wardrobe selections.

    In your post you said :

    “But I do know that no matter what my daughter wears, she is not responsible for the ways that other people treat her.”

    I agree. But conversely she (or he–this assertion is universal) should be aware that choices in dress and appearance, regardless of what they are, may possibly incite treatment from others. It is not fair. It just is. It is why, in a broad sense, we treat people dressed in suits with more respect than those dressed in rags. It is why many are distrustful of individuals who are heavily tattooed, or who have extreme hair colorings and styles, or who have excessive piercings. They are no better nor worse as people overall, but society had formed assumptions about them based on their appearances. Fair or not, it happens. I am not suggesting a society of conformity; I am a pro-freedom-of-expression as you can get. But I think it is important to teach our children that people will be making judgments about them all the time and know that selecting something (to wear or to do) outside of the mainstream of acceptance will bring about that judgement. They should be ready to face it if they believe in it. Or at the very least, be aware that it exists at all so they aren’t shocked when it happens..

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