(Trigger warning: Men who believe “that they’re entitled to control women’s bodies” do, condone, encourage and instigate some really awful deeds. This post deals with some of them.)
“Beyonce’s Clothes Do Not Create Sex Trafficking,” Amanda Marcotte writes.
That seems obvious. Mrs. Carter, after all, is only 31 years old, and I’m pretty sure that sex trafficking existed before 1981. While her Super Bowl show was almost enough to convince me that Beyonce has super powers, I still doubt those include transcending time and space in order to be the cause of something that began thousands of years before she was born.
And yet this Huffington Post writer argues exactly that. She says Beyonce’s supposed “immodesty” is “feeding a demonic myth” that promotes the forced prostitution of young girls.
And that’s where Marcotte’s response comes in. After noting that countries that strictly police women’s “modesty” are among those with the worst records for sexual trafficking, she cuts to the heart of the matter:
Sex trafficking has a simple, straightforward cause: Men who believe they are entitled to control women’s bodies. Both pimps and johns that go to trafficked prostitutes simply believe women are theirs for the taking, and act on that belief. Feeling lust for a woman does not automatically translate into believing you get to use her however you like. Millions of men stare at Beyonce’s beautiful body all the time without even having a moment of thinking that they get to rape her. Sexual desire doesn’t create rape. The belief that women are property does.
I get why it’s tempting to police women’s clothing and sexual choices in an effort to stop sex trafficking and other forms of rape. It stems from a hope that there’s something women can do to stop rape: If you cover up more, behave more modestly, discourage male lusts, etc., maybe that will stop rape and trafficking! But it’s bullshit. The only thing that stops sexual abuse is to stop men from developing the belief that they’re entitled to control women’s bodies. I realize that seems like a tall, daunting order and it feels easier to tell women to cover up — even though that’s wholly ineffective — but it’s the only thing that will actually work. After all, most men do not actually rape, become pimps, or seek out trafficked prostitutes. So it’s not like it’s impossible for men to get the message.
Siccing the modesty police on Beyonce won’t help to stop sex trafficking. Beyonce isn’t part of the problem. But the modesty police are. They feed the same ideology that fuels sex trafficking: “the belief that men are entitled to control women’s bodies.”
Another part of the problem comes from the comrades in arms of the modesty police: the Purity Brigade and “purity culture” more generally.
Earlier this year we saw an astonishing wave of articles and blog posts from evangelical Christian women standing up and rejecting the damaging “purity culture” that American evangelicalism has embraced in lieu of a credible sexual ethic. The substance of this critique echoed what folks like Libby Anne, Dianne Anderson and Sarah Moon had been saying for a while, but it came to a boil for dozens of others — people who maybe didn’t think of themselves as feminist — sometime around when Sarah Bessey’s “Damaged Goods” essay was posted at Deeper Story. Those folks began speaking up and telling their stories — stories of the harm done by or excused by this Christian “purity culture.”
This week we heard that same story told yet again, but this time in a more extreme context. As Libby Anne writes in linking to this Associated Press story: “Elizabeth Smart, a girl who was kidnapped at age 14 in 2002 and held captive for almost a year before she was rescued, recently explained that these exact ideas about sexual purity can aid and abet human trafficking.” Here’s a bit of that story:
Rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart said Wednesday she understands why some human trafficking victims don’t run.
Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”
Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
… Smart says children should be educated that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”
This purity culture teaching of “damaged goods” and “that chewed up piece of gum” is just another expression of the belief that men are entitled to control women’s bodies.
Richard Beck responded to Smart’s recent comment by revisiting his earlier post on what he calls the “toxic” psychology of Christian purity culture. Do go read the whole thing, but here’s the crux of it:
We treat sexual sins and the loss of virginity very differently from other sins, as a class of sin unto itself. And how do we make that happen? We accomplish this by framing these sins almost exclusively with purity metaphors. And in doing so we recruit a psychological system built upon a food-aversion system, a system driven by disgust, revulsion, and nausea. But instead of directing these feelings toward food we are now directing the feelings of disgust, revulsion and nausea toward human beings. More, we teach our children to internalize and direct these feelings toward themselves.
And I think we can sharpen this point even more.
Based upon my experience, I would argue that male sexual sin isn’t generally framed as a purity violation. The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor. If a boy losses his virginity it’s a mistake, a stumbling. Consequently, this is something he can easily rehabilitate. He’s not damaged goods. He can simply resolve to do better going forward. How is this so easy for him? Because his sexuality is being regulated by a performance metaphor.
By contrast, and this is the heart of of the matter, the loss of female virginity is almost exclusively regulated by the purity metaphor. For females the loss of virginity is a bit more than a performance failure. It’s a loss of purity that, because of the way purity works, is catastrophic and beyond rehabilitation. And because of this she’s got no way to move forward, metaphorically speaking. The game’s over. And thus she reaches the only conclusion the purity metaphor makes available to her: She’s damaged goods. And all the emotions related to that judgment of contamination rush forward as she internalizes all the shame, disgust, revulsion and nausea.
This is the psychology that makes the Christian purity culture so toxic.
It is not surprising that sexual traffickers and other predatory men are able to harness this toxic purity culture for their evil ends. That’s what it was designed to do. That’s what it’s for.