The Modesty Wars

I initially wrote this post as an irate response to this post from By Common Consent, but I decided to let it simmer for a few days. I knew that Angela C, who wrote that BCC post, didn’t really deserve to be singled out as the target for my ire when she was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So, instead of tackling her post point-by-point, I want to get to what really fundamentally bothers me about the modesty wars. I guess I should start by defining the modest wars.

If you’ve never heard of the phrase that’s OK because, as far as I know, I just made it up. It refers to the odd feminist-vs-feminist battle between social conservatives and social liberals that centers primarily on modest dress. The conservative view is that immodest clothing is intrinsically sexually objectifying and therefore disempowers women. Probably the best proponent of this view comes from Caroline Heldman’s TEDxYouth talk.

The liberal response is basically that an emphasis on modest dress is the problem, not the solution, because it teaches both boys and girls to objectify their female bodies in the first place. Apparently liberals believe that, without specific training, no man would ever objectify women by ogling their bodies and that no woman would ever notice this and respond to it by intentionally inviting such objectification in exchange for leverage. Nope: that dysfunctional co-dependency is all thanks to capped-sleeves.

It’s worth noting that this is just a specific example of the kind of Rousseauan “noble savage” nonsense that typifies a lot of irrational nonsense that passes for politics these days. The basic formula is “If only people wouldn’t do [fill in the blank], then everything would be fine.” If only people wouldn’t teach modesty, then we’d have no sexual objectification, is one example, but there are lots more. If only we got rid of genetically modified foods then everyone would have enough to eat. If only we got rid of vaccines then there’d be no more autism. If only we got rid of weapons there’d be no more war. In each case, the fundamental idea is that the default state is Eden, and all our problems are artificially created.

I devoutly wish time-travel existed (at least one way) so that we could send anyone who believes living in a state of nature is superior back to the stone age to die of an infection when they trip and break their ankle and penicillin hasn’t been invented yet.

You might notice, by the way, that the usual left/right description sort of broke down as I was giving those examples. That’s because the mental derangement (which I’m going to blame on Rousseau for convenience even though experts disagree) knows no partisan boundaries. It just so happens that the modesty wars manifestation of this ailment is left-vs-right, but the vaccine manifestation (just as one example) goes the other way.

While I’ve got no patience whatsoever for the implication that if only we unschooled our boys and girls about modesty all our problems would go away, that isn’t to say that the liberals don’t raise legitimate points. They do.

Take the piece from BCC that got me started on this particular rant: she lists all kinds of weird and wacky rules from Mormon girls camps that are caught somewhere between hilarious and terrifying. Things like a rule that girls have to wear t-shirts while swimming. I’ve never heard of such an idiotic idea in person, but I don’t doubt it exists somewhere. The Church’s infamous retroactive Photoshop modestification of toddlers is also just. plain. weird. BCC covered that as well, by the way.

Speaking more broadly, I absolutely agree that the way religions handle sexual sins is seriously messed up. The usual metaphor for sin is that it is a mistake or an error. You do something wrong, you realize the error of your ways, you repent, and Christ forgives you. The consequences of your actions may linger on, but you are whole once again. That’s the entire point of Christianity in a nutshell.

But when it comes to sexual sins, we fall back intuitions about food purity for some reason. Tainted meat can’t be fixed, and so (the Satanic version of chastity goes) neither can loss of virginity. This perspective on chastity is unChristian, irrational, and evil. Just watch this:

So, I’m sympathetic to a lot of the issues that the liberals raise. What’s got my goat, then? It’s just that, having raised the right issues, they proceed to offer either the wrong diagnosis or no diagnosis at all. Going back to Angela C’s original piece, she argues that one of the chief problems with strict modesty standards are that they shame women. Then she follows that up with this:

Of course, modesty is really about context.  It’s all about what is appropriate to the activity.  Wearing a swimsuit in a pool shouldn’t raise eyebrows.  Wearing one to a parent teacher conference should.

Surely I cannot be the only person who notices that “raised eyebrows” are a form of social censure. Which is a polite way of saying they are a form of shaming. Almost in the same breath, Angela C is espousing the exact same thing she criticized. Her entire argument self-destructs at the point where you realize that what’s she’s saying is “Don’t shame women unless they violate the real standards, by which I mean my standards.” Or maybe she’s saying “Shame women who dress inappropriately, but only a little bit.”

Come on.

What’s more, liberals have created this problem. Don’t get me wrong: things weren’t all Camelot before hand. This is a case of out of the fire and into the fireplace. Old school chivalry taught that women were physically weaker and needed protection, oh and also that they were inferior. New school feminism teaches that women are not inferior (hooray!), but also that they are just as strong as men and need no protection (uh oh). Furthermore, removing social inhibitions against promiscuity has essentially created the ideal environment in which predators can get away with their predation. As long as a man doesn’t leave any really obvious physical evidence of coercion, if it is socially acceptable for him to be alone with a lot of single women for extended periods of time, he can get away with rape again and again and again. It’s either that, or we throw out the whole “beyond a reasonable doubt” linchpin of our criminal justice system. How many girls have I known who were raped or sexually assaulted, sometimes by the same man, without any practical legal recourse? Too damn many, that’s how many.

So here are my thoughts.

First, if we really want to address rape and sexual assault, we’re going to have to be willing to let common sense and science trump politics. Women are not capable of physically defending themselves against a male attacker, as a general rule. (Well, not unless they are armed, which opens a whole new can of worms with liberal politics.) Furthermore, men are prone to sexual assault in the same way that all humans are prone to theft. All else being equal, many people will take what they want if they can get away with it. Consumerism probably exacerbates theft, and sexual objectification exacerbates sexual assault. If you really think that For the Strength of Youth does more to support sexual objectification than the mass media, that’s your particular brand of crazy and I don’t want to argue the point. I’ll just note that consumerism doesn’t create theft and sexual objectification doesn’t create sexual assault. The drive to acquire (theft) and to procreate (sexual assault) is biological. Not taught. The idea that the default state is blissful peace is a lie.

(I guess there’s also that tired and hackneyed argument that sexual assault isn’t about sex. It’s about power. First: who says this is an either/or? Secondly: if rape were solely about power, then large men would be raping smaller men as frequently as they are raping women and rape victims would be spread evenly by age. Both are false: rape victims are predominantly young females.)

A truly effective social approach to sexual assault needs to incorporate the reality of our existence as a gendered species where the men are stronger and more strongly driven towards sex. The appropriate response to this is to create a set of standards where men are expected to conspicuously demonstrate their disavowal of the use of physical intimidation to get what they want. Having them open car doors, stand when a woman enters the room, offer to carry items (even if the woman is perfectly capable of carrying them on her own) and so forth could all serve that purpose: a constant reaffirmation of an agreement between the sexes that men will never use their physical power for leverage to gain what they want, including sex. A general disapproval of extra-marital sex and corresponding taboos against being alone would also serve to protect women.

But you know what? If that’s too much to ask, I’d at least like for social liberals to put away all the clueless arguments that if only we had conversations with our boys about rape, things would get better. If we can’t have a mature conversation about the reality of human inter-gender relationships, lets at least put away the fairy tale that we can talk this problem to death.

I’m thinking of pieces like this one from the Huffington Post that say: 

Remember that intimate conversation you had with your son? The one where you said, “I love you and I need you to know that no matter how a woman dresses or acts, it is not an invitation to cat call, taunt, harass or assault her”?… I want you to consider these conversations and then ask yourself why you don’t remember them. The likely reason is because you didn’t have them.

Here’s a bizarre idea, how about I just teach my children (son and daughter) that taunting, harassing, and assaulting are always wrong? Am I crazy, here? My parents never told me not to rape a girl who was wearing a short skirt. They didn’t have to. They also didn’t have to tell me not to rape a girl who was wearing a snowsuit. The whole “You shouldn’t rape someone” thing never came up, to tell you the truth, because it was implied by all those lessons they taught me about not hurting other people at all. I didn’t need any special instruction about not taunting young women in revealing attire, either, because the notion of taunting anyone was already off-the-table. How much sexual assault and harassment could be solved with the application of basic, generic civility?

Or take these two posts as an example. First, a mom wrote a piece telling girls to stop posting provocative selfies on Facebook. The Huffington Post ran a satirical rebuttal that I actually stumbled upon first. The sad thing is that it took me a few paragraphs to realize that it was satire. The post was addressed to boys instead of girls, telling them to stop posting photos of themselves posing shirtless. Obviously it’s incredibly naive to abandon all context and assume that you can interchange male/female like that because we live in a society that is bombarded by mass media images of men as sexual subjects and women as sexual objects (watch Heldman’s TEDx again if you’ve forgotten). But my honest reaction was “Yeah, this sounds pretty reasonable. Those guys should put their shirts back on.”

As I read farther, however, I realized the author (Marisa McPeck-Stringham) wasn’t serious. It was clearly outside the realm of feasibility for her to consider that the advice “dress modestly” might be given to anyone. Instead of a constructive response to a post advising girls to dress modestly by chiming in “Boys, too!” the only response she saw available was to decry modesty itself.

I’d really like there to be a non-partisan solution to this problem because I hate politics. (I write about them a lot, but I was much happier when I was clueless about these things and wish I could go back.) But if the only options are modesty for everyone or modesty for no one, then there just really isn’t much of a dilemma in my mind. I think that religious liberals, like Angela C at BCC, just haven’t figured out yet that they ground they’ve staked out has no foundation.

5 thoughts on “The Modesty Wars”

  1. Modesty is a pretty challenging topic these days, and I think many parents struggle with it. I appreciated this blog post about teaching children modesty, particularly her two underlying reasons: 1. Modesty is good manners and 2. Modesty is befitting my status as a child of God. This applies to boys and girls, men and women. “We wear clothes to protect our bodies from the elements, and to allow other people to feel comfortable being in our company…our bodies are for God whether He intends us to have a spouse or not.” Those who do not believe in God or care much about God may dismiss the second point. I do hope to successfully teach my children modesty. I had to learn it on my own, and I’m still learning.

  2. Nathaniel:

    Thank you for this. I too have been extremely annoyed by the “Modesty Wars”, especially on the Liberal side. While I, too, feel they make some good points, I also get sick and tired of them trying to tear apart every statement every ordinary member ever makes about modesty and basically refuse to allow us to teach it at all. In doing so, they often look right past the actual message, zero in on some nit-picky thing, and magnify that until it distorts everything in the straw-man message they would like to huff and puff about.

    By the way, I served my mission in the Virginia Richmond Mission (recently split into two) from 2006-2008.

  3. You’re right. While I think some of the stuff LDS people do in the name of modesty is embarrassing (requiring girls to wear t-shirts while swimming), it’s not immoral per se. Rather such rules are merely out of touch with what most people consider inappropriate. Theoretically speaking, fashion is a form of non-verbal communication. Just as with verbal communication, minority groups create distinctive taboos. This distinctiveness can be embarrassing to those that have further conformed to the dominant culture. I think social liberals have conformed and are embarrassed, and now they are reaching for moral high ground and influence by appealing to the non-verbal equivalent of an verbal accent. Just as speaking with a twang isn’t wrong, neither is advocating traditional fashion standards. But I can see how it’s embarrassing sometimes.

  4. “I wonder if Christians–and all people of faith–can find a way to recover modesty and the virtue behind it. In the long tradition of the church, modesty is not ultimately about lists of appropriate attire or figuring out who’s to blame for sexual transgressions. Rather, modesty is about a person, male or female, choosing to foster an inner spirit of humility and dignity, and communicating that in outward, culturally contextualized symbols of dress and behavior.”

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