Saturday, November 17, 2012

What Rape Culture and Modesty Culture Have In Common

Rape culture” is a term used by feminists to describe “a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape…[Examples] include victim blaming, sexual objectification, and trivializing rape.”  That’s from Wikipedia.   My take is that the basic attitude of rape culture is that all men have a right to any female body they want.  ("Rape culture" refers not as much to the act of rape itself as to the cultural reaction to and acceptance of it.)  From this standpoint, rape itself is an act in which a man’s right to have sex with any woman he wants trumps her right to say no (this leads to trivializing rape, because if a man is just exercising his male privilege, why should we call it a crime? It was her fault the experience sucked for her, right?).  It’s seen in victim-blaming: “You shouldn’t have been at that party.” “You shouldn’t have been on a date with him.”  “You shouldn’t have been wearing a miniskirt.”  “Did you do anything that could have brought this upon yourself?”  It’s seen in internet phenomena like the Reddit creepshots, where men post pictures of women taken without the women’s knowledge or consent, basically close-ups of women’s body parts seen out and about on the street, in a store, whatever.  

The idea is, if you’re a woman, your body is there to be exploited by men.  The burden is on you to defend yourself, not on them to be respectful of your privacy, your right to say no, your right to live a life free of sexual violence and your right to present yourself however you choose without being judged, shamed, or taken advantage of for it (example: women with larger breasts are often assumed to be “bad girls” and interacted with accordingly, regardless of their true personalities.  If such a woman is also an outgoing, outspoken woman, she’s automatically perceived as a slut no matter what her real sexual morals are.  If a woman like this ever sues for sexual harassment, she’s likely to lose the case).

I don’t think “Modesty Culture” is an actual term yet.  But it needs to be.  Modesty culture is supposedly a Christian reaction to the sluttiness and rape-iness of “the world.”  (For any of you who aren’t a Christian insider, Christians use the term “the world” to mean anyone who isn’t a Christian, but especially the mainstream culture of America which is perceived as a cesspool of all that is evil and sinful).  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.  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, but the idea is the same: Good girls are modest.  

And this 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 quickly that 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 (sound familiar?).  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 mostly 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.

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; 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 (and the fact that, to be fair, if I were “appropriately covered up”, modesty culture man would be more interested in me as a human being), their initial reaction - ignoring me and seeing only my body - 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 a whole different ball of wax)  But I still 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.

[endnote: Unfortunately I could not provide hyperlinks for a lot of the claims made in this post because I have gleaned them from print media, including my extensive reading of Christian dating/modesty/purity books in the past.  I can provide specific citation for my claim that certain types of women have a much harder time suing for sexual harassment and for the modesty-culture description of a man's arousal response to seeing a woman's body, if you care to ask, but as I am commenting on cultural phenomena it is hard to provide specific citation for other items (for instance the heteronormativity of modesty culture).  I may have read similar arguments in the past to the one that I am making here, but I cannot attribute the argument as it stands to any specific source other than my own reflection and observation.]