What Rape Culture and Modesty Culture Have In Common

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Faith Beauchemin’s blog Roses and Revolutionaries. It was originally published on August 22, 2013.

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Note from Faith: I originally wrote this article and posted it on my old blog in November 2012.  I’d been meaning to revamp it for Roses & Revolutionaries, but was finally catalyzed to do so when I found that Katelyn Beaty at The Atlantic linked to my original post in the article “Toward a New Understanding of Modesty.”  This is the updated version of my original blogpost.

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Sometimes it can be hard for men to understand why women are so upset about rape.

What’s the big deal? Rape’s not that much of a thing, right?  Mostly it’s just cues being misread or hysterical prudes who just need some dick or unsatisfied women after a night of bad sex crying “rape” because they didn’t like the guy, right?  And if even one person suggests rape shouldn’t happen, or that rape had happened to them, or that someone shouldn’t tell rape jokes, or so forth, they should get raped to teach them a lesson, right?

And this is what is known as “rape culture,” defined by Wikipedia as:

culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudesnorms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape…[Examples] include victim blamingsexual objectification, and trivializing rape.

Some men are very upset by the claim that rape culture exists.  But I promise you it does.  I know it does every time I can’t walk alone at night.  I know it every time I’m walking to my car at night with my key stuck between my fingers in case I need an impromptu weapon.  I know it when every rape survivor has to answer a litany of questions about where she was, who she was with, whether she was drinking, what she was wearing.  I know it every time a guy thinks “no” means “just convince me a little more,” which is disturbingly often.  I know it every time I hear of another leader (religious, political, atheist) who faces rape allegations being unquestioningly supported by his fans, followers, fellow leaders, and mentors.

The idea, in our society, is that if you’re a woman, your body exists to be exploited by men.  The burden is on me to defend myself, not on men to be respectful of my privacy, my bodily autonomy, my right to say no, my right to live a life free of sexual violence and my right to present myself however I choose without being judged, shamed, or taken advantage of for it.

Christian purity culture is in many ways a reaction against sexual permissiveness masquerading as a reaction against sexual predation. 

This shirt counts as modest by most evangelical standards – note the formlessness and high neckline.

This shirt counts as modest by most evangelical standards – note the formlessness and high neckline.

The levels of sexual predation within the church give the lie to that claim.  A special niche of purity culture is deeply concerned with modesty.  The idea is, a really self-respecting woman will dress herself in such a way that her body will not be the focus at all.  Sermons, conferences, books, even T-shirts all advocate this notion that modesty is a prime component of sexual purity and therefore (paradoxically) desirability (to the proper sort of Christian gentleman of course).  There are endless debates on what constitutes modesty.  The general consensus is, however, a woman’s clothing must not be too revealing of either flesh or figure (too scanty or too tight).  Quibbling about inches and guidelines takes up an amazing amount of time and energy amongst modesty advocates, but the idea is the same: Good girls are modest.

And modesty is for everyone’s protection.  Men are less tempted sexually when the women around them cover up.  Modest women are less likely to be taken advantage of, whether just by ogling on the street, by men pressuring them to have sex, or by rape (so goes the story, anyway).  Do you feel a little judged, a little meddled with, when a stranger tells you how to dress? Don’t. They really have your best interests at heart.  They want you to “respect yourself” by doing your best to control other people’s reaction to your body.  And they can’t be held responsible for what happens when you don’t dress modestly enough.

You should see some of the correspondence already.

Here’s the first ugly truth: as soon as a woman falls outside the standards of what is perceived as modest, those advocating modesty culture immediately join rape culture. 

They shrug and say, “Whatever happens is on her.  She’s asking for it.”  They’re not actually concerned about all women, only women who are willing to conform to their standards of modesty.  It gets worse:  When a woman is a victim of sexual violence, it matters much less to “modesty culture” than to current American “rape culture” how she dresses or acts – “modesty culture” will assume much more quicklythat it is somehow her fault, probably because their standards for how “good girls” dress and behave are so much higher.

Second, both “cultures” have a very problematic stance on men; it’s not as bad as their view of women but it’s another of the shocking similarities between the two. 

Why does “modesty culture” try to get all women to cover up?  Because men, according to “modesty culture,” cannot help themselves.  Since actually sincere Christians want their men to be sexually pure as well as their women (or at least they say they do, but of course the onus for keeping men pure is put on the women), all temptation must be removed.  For even seeing a flash of skin he ought not to have seen will make a man think all sorts of lusty and rape-y thoughts.

That’s the gist of it – I’ve read modesty books that go into great detail on how men’s chemistry works, essentially saying that if he catches just a glimpse of a woman’s body he will be sexually turned on in an instant and after that he is incapable of controlling his mental/physical reaction. (and it is only a woman’s body that will create this reaction…modesty culture is heteronormative to the point of denying that real homosexual attraction even exists).  So both rape culture and modesty culture envision men as drooling hound dogs with everlasting erections.  (As a side note, modesty culture is also made up of people who think men ought to be the ones running the world, and that the male gender holds all spiritual authority.  No wonder women should stay in the kitchen, we can’t have the lords of creation suddenly turned into slavering animals while they’re trying to do important political and religious leadership type things.)

But how can a “culture” that ostensibly seeks to protect women from sexual exploitation be fundamentally the same in assumptions as a “culture” that accepts sexual exploitation and violence as the norm?  It’s simple —

Fundamentally, they are both based on the exact same principle: Objectification.

Just showing off a sand castle…and more skin than any modesty advocate would ever condone.

Just showing off a sand castle…and more skin than any modesty advocate would ever condone.

Here’s how it works. Imagine that I am on a beach on a very hot day, wearing a bikini.  I look at some cool algae that’s washed up on the beach and I say to the two men standing next to me, “I didn’t know algae could be purple, I wonder what causes that?”  Man number one is “rape culture man” and man number two is “modesty culture man.”  Neither man really registers a word I’ve said.  “Rape culture man” reaches for his camera (there’s a lot of people on the beach so he’s not actually going to rape me, just take a picture to post online later; he’d also totally love it if I were to lose my top whilst swimming in the ocean).  “Modesty culture man” panics, looks around and while averting his eyes grabs a nearby towel and hands it to me, saying, “Cover up!”  Neither man has reacted at all to the thought I had just expressed, to the fact that I, as a human being, was trying to interact with them, as human beings.  They didn’t even see another human being, they just saw body parts.  Rape culture man wanted to take sexual ownership of those body parts, while modesty culture man wanted me to hide those body parts from his view so that he wasn’t tempted to take sexual ownership of them.  But despite the different end result, their initial reaction was the same.

Whether the obsession is with seeing & exploiting a woman’s body or with the danger of being tempted by accidentally seeing it, it’s just two sides of the same coin.  I become an object. I am considered not as me, not as a person with thoughts and feelings and ideas and a back-story, but as a simple trigger for lust.

Whether you are hoping to see a little cleavage or desperately avoiding the possibility of seeing a little cleavage, you’re still just focused on my cleavage, and you’re probably not hearing a word I’m saying. 

I am still just an object, reduced to a body part, and by focusing so much on your own lust (feeding it or starving it), you’re reducing yourself to a body part too.

Though they’re based on the same view of humanity (men as lustful, women as objects), rape culture is still the worse of the two.  But I dislike both.  Objectification is just not okay and it’s happened for far too long.  When will we see all people as people instead of just extras in the movie of our own personal life?

For the record, I’m just a little annoyed when it comes to me personally being objectified.  Mostly, I’m like, whatever.  How you react to me is your choice and it’s not my fault you’re making a dumb choice.  (Not including sexual violence here; that’s completely different)  But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to change cultural attitudes.

I’d love to see a world where victim blaming does not happen, where a woman is interacted with as a fellow human being no matter what she’s wearing, where no one assumes that anyone is “asking for” sexual violence. 

I’d love to live in a world where assumptions about your ethics aren’t made based on your clothing choices or your personality.  But I’m not going to let categories of “good girl” or “bad girl” change the way I act.  I am not going to treat myself as an object; I am not going to listen to people’s judgments of me; my body is a part of all that makes up “me” and I’m not going to let any obsession with it take over my entire life.

And I’m also going to arm myself, because I do not yet live in a world where any woman can consider herself completely safe.

13 comments

  • This was intense. Thank you for drawing parallels between rape culture and “modesty” culture — both cultures are dehumanizing and destructive.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      “The Devil sends sins in matched opposing pairs, so in fleeing from one we commit the other.” — C.S.Lewis (from memory)

      And usually the reaction to one extreme (rape culture) is one-eighty to the opposite extreme (modesty/purity culture). Totally opposite, equally destructive.
      Communism begets Objectivism.

  • Wow! That’s one of the best comments I’ve read. Extremely insightful.

  • Thanks for the post. I, too find rape culture totally offensive. I think our society tolerates it way too much and women need to be more vocal about it. I’m glad that there are more female police officers, etc, that make it more safe for a woman to report abuse, but there is unfortunately too much sexism in our culture.

    What I see that is missing in this post, is that as women, we think men are the same as us, that they can either “oogle” or not. Most men that I’ve talked to feel like, biologically, they can’t always choose NOT to look, It’s not just a “choice,” a woman’s body has an affect on them that does not translate for us as women. My husband sure appreciates when women dress modestly as for him and for many men that he knows, the way women dress can be a distraction and an issue for them.

    I think the modesty culture (of which I’m not a part) CAN make it seem like it is our responsibility as women to “make sure men don’t lust or sexually mistreat us.” But that is not how I see it. It is totally men’s responsibility to not lust or mistreat, but since lust is something men struggle with, we can help them by dressing appropriately. Our culture has embraced all kinds of sexual perversions and dress has evolved over the years. When bikinis first came out, even models wouldn’t wear them, so they had to get strippers. Just because it’s culturally acceptable to wear next to nothing, doesn’t make it appropriate. I think modesty is important but shouldn’t be turned into this ‘good girl’ ‘bad girl’ thing, because it is a choice and shouldn’t become this big moral thing. It should be out of respect for our differences and our desire to be a blessing to others.

    • I disagree with you. The idea that we can ‘help’ men not be distracted is ridiculous. If a man is sexually attracted to women then there is nothing women can do to ‘help’ them not have sexual feelings. Women could wear burkas and men would find the flow of the fabric around her ankles provocative. The idea that women can choose to be sexually aroused is also ridiculous. Modesty culture teaches us to believe that women are not visual, so that men can continue to dress and behave any way they please. That is why a mom from Texas can shame teen girls on her blog for kissy face pictures and provocative dress, while posting pictures of her half naked sons posing on the beach in the exact same article. Women are expected to control their sexuality and avoid viewing men as sexual objects no matter how men dress and act. Men are capable of doing the same.

    • I know this is an older post but I wanted to respond. I also disagree. Guess what… I am a woman and I think about sex constantly. I know it’s maybe shocking to hear that from a women because for whatever reason no one likes to talk about the possibility that a woman also thinks about sex all the time. It is most definitely a choice whether a man looks at a woman just as it is a choice that a woman looks at a man. “A woman’s body has an affect on them that does not translate for us as women” I don’t understand where you are getting this from. First of all a man’s body can have a huge affect on me causing “lustful” feelings. And yet men are not taught that they need to be modest so as not to cause women to “stumble.” Also I frequently find a woman’s body very attractive and capable of inciting “lustful” feelings in me as well. It is not a one way street. Men are human beings, women are human beings, and we ALL are sexual beings that have a choice as to who we look at, what we think when we do, and the actions we then do or do not take. It is not anyone’s job to “help” any other person not to lust after us.

      • Good comment Larrisa.

        Being a guy I can say that what a man might think in his mind as a result of what he is often hard to control.

        I also want to say; It makes sense that modesty culture men are pegged here for objectification. I think I understand why this young lady is saying that. As men though, ours is often the stronger and more recurring sexual drive. Most of us would hope for intimacy with our wives a few times a week if the time is available. My point is A: We (men) often deal with sexual urges more frequently than women do

    • The problem is with Western culture/religion’s obsession with sex, not human nature. In the hot humid Amazon, men and women have lived together naked or nearly so for thousands of years: seeing women’s bare breasts, men’s exposed penises, etc., accepting each other’s differences without problem. (I know because I’ve been there.) Only when Catholic priests and other missionaries invaded the area did that change. Western religions control people by teaching shame about sex. That says something much more shameful about religion than about the human body.

  • Thank you sooooo much. I have never been able to verbalize these ideas that well

  • Pingback: Is Patrick Henry College Patriarchal? | The Wartburg Watch 2014

  • I see your point on how they are somewhat alike.
    But you are a female, as am I. Like it or not many guys are fixated on sex. I am not so I will take the word of the guys I have talked to about this. Not a ton but enough to know it doesn’t take much for a guy to completely ignore what you are saying because they have sex on the brain. Whose issue is it. It is the males issue. Yet if there is something I can do to help I will. I really don’t get why women oppose to dressing modestly. I don’t like all the hubub about inches and stuff. I don’t think it is any women fault if they get raped. There are certainly things that should never be done. Even if a woman is walking naked down the street. But I think dressing modest is classy. And it is wrong to be raped just because you dress a certain way, as is wrong to steal a purse that is left in a car, as is a whole host of things that I counsel my children not to do. I tell my boys to look and think about girls respectfully no matter what and to always act respectably. I tell my girls the same thing. It would be irresponsible for me to tell my girls to dress however you want were ever you want. I want m,y girls to be safe. Should it be that way, no. But I live in reality

  • Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Neither of us has a really good grasp of the other’s biological imperitive and perspective. To say men are attracted to women is to understate the situation. We don’t require conditioning or a bell to drool in the presence of a distaff member of the species. I won’t attempt to speak for women about such matters. However, every man and woman is entitled to respect in their own person. Unfortunately, our society has become promiscuous, and worse, narcissistic. The male role of protector is out of fashion and what has replaced it? Nothing. When society stops teaching men to respect, honor and protect women, things move rapidly to very scary consequences. Predatory behavior toward women is only the tip of the iceberg. A society that allows the abuse of the weak, among which, like it or not, women are numbered, is sick — UNTO DEATH.

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