The Flip Side of Modesty Culture

I’ve recently done a few posts pointing out the problems of Purity Culture. There is an important caveat, though, and I’m thankful to this post at Rage Against the Minivan for bringing it up. In short, while a man must be held responsible for his thoughts and especially his actions, a way that a woman dresses can indeed cause some confusion. A woman doesn’t cause him to sin, no, but can definitely cause some confusion. And of course it works for the genders reversed as well, but we usually talk about it in this direction. Some are disagreeing with this, saying that it still is defending the problems of purity culture. Personally I agree with the author but obviously you should consider it for yourself.

Before I unpack that some more, here’s the kind of thing in comedic form that we’re talking about:

In other words, a person goes out of their way to draw attention to their body. Somebody else notices. That person doesn’t initiate any touch, doesn’t stare or make crude faces, doesn’t make inappropriate sexual advances, just is simply caught noticing. The first person gets upset over it.

Sometimes those of us who are making strong efforts to release women from the shame of being told that everything is really their fault (and releasing men from being told we are mindless sex robots who can’t help ourselves if the right stimulus appears) do go too far. Sometimes we just put the shame back onto men:

When a woman goes after a man for noticing her deep v, that’s shaming him. Trading shame for shame is not a win for womankind, my friends. A woman can wear whatever she wants. More power to her. What she can’t do is expect men not to notice. Most men can regard her charms then move on. If she wears a micromini and claims to not want a reaction from men, I’m going to straight up call her a liar but I’m not going to call her wrong for wearing it.
Let me be clear. I am not saying wearing revealing clothing is an open invitation for men to grab you. You could wear a Frederick’s of Hollywood little bit of nothin’, walk down the middle of the street and that still wouldn’t give a man the right to touch you.

I’m not sure there are a lot of women that do this, but it definitely does exist and we should be cautious of it. The comedic clip included at the end of that blog says it well, too. He’s very clear that it is not a woman’s fault if men do anything against her consent, even if she were naked. But we can’t really blame men for that instinctive look and brief admiration of the view either (again: not staring, not objectifying, not seeking out fantasies, not touching, not saying something sexual).

Update in response to a comment on Facebook: Here’s another way to look at it. I think the real problem with modesty culture is that we demonize attraction. Attraction is not lust. It is not sinful in and of itself. Modesty culture starts with the premise that being attracted to someone other than your spouse is wrong and then argues about who to blame. My point here is that this attitude of blaming men for being attracted is coming from the exact same root as its usual manifestation of blaming women for being attractive.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Nancy Babbitt

    This is an interesting post.

    We might consider why this debate of rape culture and modesty culture exists. The U.S. is a multi-cultural country. With this reality, comes the very real possibility of intercultural miscommunication. It is important to consider that approximately 80% of communication is non-verbal. The messages that we send are both through our actions and non-actions in addition to our verbal language and how we choose to use it. We (all of us, male or female) send messages that we might not intend to send, depending on the perception of the receiver. How we understand messages is embedded in our diverse cultures.

    To compound this situation even further, the social construct of gender and what is perceived as acceptable male/female behavior (and also what is inappropriate) is not universal, but instead the product of socialization. The media (and it’s tendency to ‘entertain’ through portrayals of power imbalances and violence) plays an enormous part in this socialization and ideas about gender behavior for many folks. So too, does the family, community and country we grow up in. Notions of gender, and acceptable gender behavior are not the same between different cultures and societies.

    The western worldview promotes objective and oppositional thinking – ‘us and them’ so to speak, and this has an impact on relationships also. Folks socialized in the ‘western’ societies tend to take sides (red/blue, conservative/liberal, black/white, north/south, male/female). This is very convenient for those who do not wish to take a look at their own actions, but instead place blame on those that they perceive as ‘others’. This objective way of thinking also tends to block the way to another way of perceiving. We can learn to see the world relationally, and think in terms of relationships.

    Thinking relationally, and using the knowledge of the complicated interactions and perceptions that take place within the framework of a multi-cultural world might position folks to make decisions about the actions and words they choose so that they may increase the effectiveness of what they communicate and therefore build positive relationships and decrease incidents of violence.

    Understanding rape culture and modesty cultures as two ends of the same spectrum may help us to discover a way heal our social ills.