Modesty, Body Policing and Rape Culture: Connecting the Dots

Modesty, Body Policing and Rape Culture: Connecting the Dots December 17, 2012

by Sierra

Definition: The “modesty doctrine” is the belief that women need to cover their bodies to prevent men from being attracted to them, because sexual attraction is lust that leads to sin and death for both.  The modesty doctrine is not the same as wearing conservative clothing. You can do the latter without believing the former. The modesty doctrine is found in fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam, with milder echoes in mainstream Western culture.

In my previous posts on the modesty doctrine, I’ve written about how, as a teenager, I believed that the only solution to the problem of male lust was to have a sexless body. This desire for androgyny contributed directly to my eating disorder, as I deliberately tried to purge myself of curves. Is self-starvation extreme? Yes. Is it illogical as a response to the modesty doctrine? Not at all.

I posted this excerpt from Feministe’s article on the Stuyvesant school dress code on Monday, but it bears repeating:

Beyond the treatment of young men as uncontrollable animals and the treatment of young women as rape-bait, the Stuy dress code enforcers also appear to fall into a common problem with dress codes generally — defining an “appropriate” body. As the students quoted in the Times article implied, some of them technically met the dress code but were still told they were “inappropriate,” not because of what they were wearing, but because of how it looked on them. I don’t know what those students look like, but I’m going to guess it comes down to boobs and butts. Flesh is what’s often considered “inappropriate” — B-cup boobs in a turtleneck are fine, but double-Ds are not; straight hips in a pencil skirt are fine, but curvy ones are not. It’s the body that’s being policed, not the clothes.

The modesty doctrine isn’t about clothes, it’s about bodies. It’s a method for punishing women who do not conform to an idealized, asexual, inoffensive body type. The “offenders” are women with large breasts, wide hips, or discernible “booty.” The modesty doctrine claims that the right clothes conceal a woman’s figure, and that the wrong ones expose her curves. The problem is, some women have figures that cannot be concealed. Even denim sack jumpers will reveal a curvy woman’s hips or breasts when she moves. When I was rebuked for my clothing as a teenager, it was often identical to the clothing all the other girls were wearing. The only difference was that I had “developed” first. The modesty doctrine defines some bodies as inherently problematic.

The hyper-vigilance of fundamentalist men and women to root out “immodesty” conceals a hatred of female sexuality: secondary sex characteristics should not be visible except in approved circumstances. The system is designed to ensure that the only time a man is “turned on” by a woman is when he is allowed to act on his urges: in the marital bed. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex. Although I don’t think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. “Immodest” women are “asking for it,” or it’s “false advertising” if a woman in a short skirt won’t go home with you, or (in the terms of the Christian patriarchy movement) a woman “defrauds” a man (literally, deprives him of a right or property) by allowing herself to be attractive in a situation wherein sex with her is illicit or unwanted.

The modesty doctrine frames this idea in terms of clothing to preserve the veneer that women are somehow to blame for this, and that there’s something they can do about it. There isn’t. The modesty doctrine revolves around the assumption that a man has a right to sex with every woman he finds attractive. In Christian fundamentalism, he only has a right to sex with his wife. Therefore, other women who are attractive to him seem to taunt him with something he can’t have (extramarital sex). That’s why certain women get singled out as threats, despite trying their hardest to be “modest.” It doesn’t matter what they wear; if men find them attractive and can’t marry them, they must be punished. This disproportionately happens to curvy women because their sex is impossible to erase.

Something’s missing here. I hope you’ve picked up on it. The woman does not have any agency in this model of male sexuality. What she wants or doesn’t want is either erased or subordinated to what he wants or can’t have. The relationship is between the man, her body, and the law (monogamy). Similarly, entire facets of male sexuality are written out. Men are not allowed to see themselves as objects of desire, to consider themselves attractive or to enjoy the idea of sex with an initiating woman. The corollary to accepting that sex isn’t about having a right of use for another person’s body means enjoying the experience of having a woman express genuine interest in you. In the fundamentalist model of sex, men are aggressors and women are reluctant recipients. Relinquishing the right to sex with a woman and replacing it with mutual consent means finally experiencing sexual interest that isn’t forced. It threatens patriarchal masculinity, however, because having that experience (being wanted) means letting go of superiority and admitting to having the same experience women do. It means acknowledging a woman’s capacity to be the one with desires and one’s own capacity to be an object of desire. Fundamentalist men also aren’t allowed to acknowledge that, despite their monogamy, their bodies will occasionally feel attraction to others, and that attraction does not in itself have a moral value.  Every misplaced flutter of the heart explodes into anger at being “defrauded.”

A similar dynamic takes place when men justify the modesty doctrine by arguing, “I wouldn’t want other men looking at my wife like that.” That expression reflects the pride of possession and defensiveness fundamentalist men are taught to feel regarding their wives’ bodies. If a man believes women who dress “immodestly” are depriving him of his right to sex, he also believes that men who look at his wife with sexual interest are trying to assert a right to sex with her. In other words, they’re threatening what belongs to him.

This is all quite dehumanizing. It sounds scary and extreme. I can see the heads shaking already. That’s fine. What I’m analyzing is a system. I certainly don’t think that most fundamentalists – or even most people – have thought the problem through to this degree. Most of my thinking as a fundamentalist girl was reactionary (“That guy is staring at me. I need to go change.”). Most men that I grew up with never interrogated themselves over why they were so disgusted with an unattractive (to them) woman wearing shorts. They never outright said “she’s offering me something I don’t want,” but they did say things like “nobody wants to see that,” which isn’t too far off. It doesn’t take into account that she might have reasons for wearing shorts other than for them to look at her. They assumed (probably without recognizing it) that women’s bodies were for looking at whenever they weren’t completely hidden.

Feminists will probably find all of this annoyingly familiar. What am I saying, after all? The modesty doctrine is rape culture. It is inseparable from patriarchy. It is the very means by which patriarchy reduces women to mere flesh. “If I can see it, it’s mine” is the motto of a thief. If a woman’s body is the “it,” it’s the motto of a rapist. “If I can see it, she’s defrauding me” is the motto of Christian patriarchy. The Christian patriarchy movement attempts to obliterate a woman’s sexual agency in several ways:
First, it demands she cover up to keep men from wanting what they see.
Second, it sanctions sex with a woman based not on her consent but upon marriage vows (“it’s impossible to rape your wife because her body is yours”).
Third, it places control over marriage vows in male hands through courtship (father and husband). Consent is therefore farcical.
Fourth, it demands that women, not men, face the consequences of sex: either the guilt of adultery for the imagined sex a leering man has with a woman he finds attractive, or the perpetual pregnancy resulting from marital relations, as birth control is forbidden.

The modesty doctrine goes way deeper than the denim jumper. It’s a central pillar of patriarchal religion. Doing away with it means finding another support for ethical sexuality. I think it means replacing the idea of possession with the idea of sharing. It means seeing consent as a permanent requirement, one that doesn’t expire upon marriage. It means moving beyond a toddler-like vision of the world (“everything is here for me to look at”) to an adult one (“I can see the world around me, but it isn’t about me”). It means ceasing to fear that you can be defiled by something you see (it’s what comes out that defiles you). It means taking responsibility for your own actions rather than accusing others of “forcing” you to sin. It means ceasing to assign respect or perceived moral character to women based on how much or how little of their bodies are visible, or how curvy they are. Finally, it means replacing a functional definition of women as bodies with a recognition of women as full human beings who can wear whatever they damn well please.

Comments open below

Read everything by Sierra!

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog  the phoenix and the olive branch

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • This is fantastic, Sierra. Thank you so much for spelling this out so clearly.

  • Wow. Well-said. Finally I understand what they mean by “defrauding.” And it’s scary.

  • jochanaan

    Yes! Blaming the woman is never the answer. And we men can be reconditioned to see women not as objects, but as sisters, no matter how they are or aren’t dressed.

  • Seth

    I want to bring up two ideas that I think you need to consider when looking at this topic.

    The first is a basic reality when it comes to modesty, sex and attraction. Most men have the ability to take sex from a woman. I find that most discussions regarding this topic ignore this fact.

    For example, many of the patriarchal religions that you feel reduce women to mere flesh were developed in a different time and place where it was not uncommon or out of practice for men to take sex from women. Perhaps the religious rules were not designed to objectify women or deprive them of their humanity, but as a reaction to a culture where forced sex was not uncommon or even considered immoral. Even today, a majority of people live in a society more similar to what I’ve described than to Western civilization.

    Contextually, you live a society with a secular law enforcement structure. One where a significant amount of resources are devoted to protecting you from baser elements of society, with men trained to do violence on your behalf if your personal security is threatened and a court system to bring justice should those men fail at preventing you harm. That is not a statement that would be true for the large majority of the world’s population.

    While the modesty doctrine is probably not the best or most healthy system for men and women to relate to each other, it was probably an improvement over what came before. A robust discussion on this topic would include the benefits under this doctrine and not just a chronology of its faults.

    Second, is more of a practical application. I have a two year old at home. There are things that she isn’t supposed to do, and we usually try to discipline her when she does these things. But sometimes, if its late or she has missed her nap, she does some of these “no-no”s and we don’t punish. Why? Because we recognize that she is tired and lacks the ability to function normally. She is at an inbetween stage where what might be reasonable to expect out of a 5 year old isn’t reasonable to expect from a 2 year old.

    This relates to both young men and young women. I don’t think of young men as uncontrollable animals. But I recognize that young men have adult bodies, with some powerful hormonal urges and they haven’t learned how to control/deal with all they are feeling/ experiencing in part because its all new. The ability to control your urges and to rationally and through a moral, ethical, and socially appropriate filter might be a stage or two developmentally beyond your average teenage male. As a society I would say that we are regressing in our ability to properly train and raise boys into men who can control their baser instincts, rather than progressing.

    Relating to young women, You are probably pretty good at this point in your life at being able to pick out the creeps, cretins, and criminals out a group of guys. Not perfect, but good. Probably a lot better now than when you were in high school.

    Regardless of whether or not we agree on your vision for a more egalitarian and sharing culture in regards to adult sexuality, the problem of how to set up a system which allows for the safe development and interaction of immature individuals still remains. As does a recognition that the modesty doctrine was probably designed to address concerns outside the sphere of healthy relations between adult men and women and to identify and address those concerns via different means if you are advocating abandoning that system.

    Finally, I don’t disagree with your conclusions about the drawbacks of the modesty doctrine, or necessarily with the direction to move. These are just points you should address to have a more intellectually robust discussion.

  • Great insights there!…
    That’s why Naturism or Nudism as some prefer to call it is a great equalizer, at a non sexual organised Naturist/Nudist resort nobody lusts after each other & men/women/families can enjoy each other’s company without the hangups of society.
    Unfortunately the first thing the non nudist world thinks of is sex when they think of nudity, but once they walk in the gate of a true Naturist resort or go to a organised nude beach & discover that there is total lack of sexual tension it is a great revelation.
    Do yourself a favour & look up the Naturist organization in your state/country for more details on wholesome non sexual nudism.

    Michael aka @nudeyman (twitter)

  • It’s simply astounding to men that I don’t dress for them 24/7

  • Saraquill

    I’m still wrapping my head around that idea that the aforementioned high school has a dress code. In my four years there, it was very much an anything goes sort of place. Policy changes I guess.

  • Fantastic post! You connected the dots between a few things I hadn’t quite reached yet.

    I’ve started a blog that discusses the purity movement, and I’m definitely going to recommend this article on there!

  • Maria

    Excellent post!

  • Gigi

    So well written, Sierra. Thanks for this. I’m sharing.

  • David

    I think you raise a very valid point in that we ought to analyze the historical significance of concepts. Knowing our past helps us understand who we are and why we are such a way, so I think you are pointing out something valuable about the interactions between men and women historically, and potentially the evolution of the necessity of the modesty doctrine, when you bring up history and what are likely reasonable assumptions about average male and female physical attributes. And perhaps this practice, as biased and oppressive as it may be, is a pragmatic solution that is in the best interests of protecting women in more primitive societies.

    But we live in the 21st century. I’m typing this on a device that weighs under two pounds, which communicates with hundreds of other devices, passing packets of electrons and photons, to transmit messages to people around the world. In our neck of the woods at least, such a doctrine is not just unnecessary but purely backwards. It perpetuates the primal law of might makes right, and that those who have power can take from those who don’t; if you don’t want to have something taken from you, then you are to live on the defense. This is not the society that we live in anymore. We live in a land of laws, as you point out, which defend all people equally. Why, then, should women have to live under a different set of rules than men? Why should there be an implicit understanding that they must live in fear, or change how they would express themselves, simply because a stronger man may take it away?

    Our backwards views on sexuality and gender relations contribute to continued violence against women. If we don’t go about changing what we as a society deem acceptable, then what has civilization really brought us except for new toys? If we want true progress and to evolve beyond a set of rules that was developed in the dawn of history, then we have to start now.

  • We are totally on the same page here. I grew up with this crap, and I’m done. Thanks for speaking up.

  • Thanks for writing this. Here’s something I disagree with (and why):

    “Although I don’t think many men think this consciously, the idea crops up in misogynist rhetoric all the time. ‘Immodest’ women are ‘asking for it’…”

    Many men not only don’t “think this consciously”, they don’t think this way at all. Further, I would argue that those who do are in the minority; the unacceptable incidents of rape notwithstanding. As a man, I find that what I conclude about women is disproportionately influenced by those I either surround myself with or tolerate within my sphere of daily living. Further, it’s easy for me to draw a negative conclusion and see examples all around me. Why? Because (just as there are the idiotic men you refer to) there are idiotic women. Better said, there are idiotic people. The challenge for men and women is to be very mindful of how we generalize; if only for our own grasp of the truth.

    Keep up the writing and good work!

  • Raymond W

    “The modesty doctrine isn’t about clothes, it’s about bodies.”
    I don’t disagree; still, have you seen the pictures of Walmart customers that are posted, from time to time.

  • anna

    right? and that the worst insult they could offer is that they don’t find me attractive. creeps don’t want to have sex with me! horrors!

  • Cheryl

    Imagine that every woman in the entire world keeps her appearance “modest” according to these people’s strictest definition, at all times. Now, does anyone believe for one second that none of the men in this scenario would ever have a sexual thought, at a time when he couldn’t actually have sex? Of course they would. So. What would they blame it on then? The answer is, they would find something – and it would be just as false an attribution of blame. Sex is just something people think about, men or women. No further cause need be sought, because it doesn’t exist. The problem comes from believing that there is something inherently wrong with thinking about sex and/or thinking that it’s possible to stop thinking about sex altogether. There’s a reason for the laws enacted in some times and places against having sex with one’s sheep. Was it that the sheep were immodestly dressed?

  • One of the problems I have with the article is that, from my perspective, few men in the modesty movement have going on underneath the idea that they have the right to take what they see. When coming at modesty from the Christian perspective, they are looking at passages that discuss the fact that when a man looks at a woman and lusts after her it’s conducting adultery in his heart.

    First, the modesty movement puts the wrong emphasis (I believe) on this, because it tasks the woman with the responsibility for the man’s sin. Jesus is confronting the man, not the woman, with his sin. Some have taken this passage and gone another step to tell women not to cause a man to lust with your dress. The problem here is that, regardless of what a woman wears, a man can still lust after her.

    Second, when the Bible comments on modesty, it refers to both external and internal– emphasis on internal because it’s the source of all things. A woman is told that she’s different and expected to look different than a man– not androgynous. However, she’s also not to dress in a way that draws attention to herself or her external appearance– Peter mentions all sorts of things that women of the time period mention– but I would add that anything that draws attention to your body rather than who you are is being immodest.

    So as a person who runs a site where we discuss modesty, where do I stand and what do I do? I attempt to help women see what things could cause unnecessary male gazes, and recommend ideas that would make what they’re wearing modest. I attempt not to judge, but to give women a view into what a man sees. For those that want to attempt to help their brother not stumble, it helps them.

    I don’t see it as wrong to encourage a modest appearance, and that desire needs to come from inside the woman– her heart, her desires– not imposed or forced from the outside. I know many may think that what my site does is imposition, and some have escaped from that environment, but there’s a big difference between something someone is seeking and something someone is forced to do.

  • MIntheGap– I have noticed that the passages about women’s modesty in the Old Testament are not about showing off sexually, but about showing off wealth. But I also think it’s important to see that even if Christian men today don’t consciously feel they have the right to take what they see, the patriarchal view is that in the broad general sense, women’s bodies exist for men. I think Jesus’ teachings were against this notion, but it was the way men of his time viewed women. By putting the responsibility for choosing to lust (and the way it’s worded in the original text includes the idea of choice, not just the body’s natural reaction) directly on the men lusting, Jesus laid a foundation for change in the way men viewed women and their own responsibilities. I think Christian patriarchal teachings undermine male responsibility and re-objectify women, and the blog post is quite correct in pointing this out.

  • Sorry– I meant in the New Testament. Don’t know why my fingers won’t type what I want to say, or why when I try to read over it before posting, my brain still reads it as saying what I did want to say.

  • suzannecalulu

    Looks like pawned your ass today Minthegap. Your site is down completely.

  • chervil

    Ewww, pervy middle aged man spends waaaaay too much time thinking about young girls and their virginity.

    This is like the O’Reilly Factor where throughout the hour long show, Bill airs already-pulled not-ever-going-to-air-anywhere-at-any-time-except-on-the-O’Reilly-Factor soft porn type ads featuring scantily clad gyrating women as a teaser so that at the end he can talk about it and pretend to be all outraged about an ad portraying scantily clad gyrating women. That no one would have ever seen except he had to air it on his show.

    You really should consider finding a new hobby before you end up behind bars.

    Jezebel. Love that site. The writers are great and the commenters are hilarious.

  • “I would add that anything that draws attention to your body rather than who you are is being immodest.”

    I have often seen that claim from modesty supporters – it usually contains the word “countenance” – and I’d still like to know what that means.

    What kind of clothing draws attention not to your body, but who you are?
    Clothes for work in the same colour as my office walls, so my body blends in with the background? A T-shirt with arrows that point to my face, so any (un)happiness, (un)kindness or whatever in who I am can be drawn attention to? T-shirts with slogans about the kind of person I am? Dressing in bright colors when I am happy, in dark colors when depressed? Dressing just like other people who think like me, so my world view can be identified by my clothing?

  • suzannecalulu

    Retha, ‘contenance’ as the QF-Fundamentalist crowd uses it means ‘face’. That’s what Michelle Duggar used to say why the girls and her wore huge jumpers with elaborate fancy collars, so attention would be moved from their bodies towards their faces for modesty’s sake. I guess that went by the wayside along with a lot of the things the Duggars used to do early on in their specials. They’ve been changed by their exposure to the tv viewing audience and the comments.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    Looks more like you help them see what you see. Besides that, who decides that the clothing draws attention to women unnecessarily? Modesty based on clothing is a rat race of insane proportions because one can always be more modest.

  • Nick

    I love this article, and commend you for its brilliance. The only problem with articles like these is that they presume that the offenders are willing to listen. I was blown away by the excellent writing here, but I’m in the choir. Those whom it concerns.. well call me a cynic but I doubt it would influence them one way or another. I guess I just wonder what to DO about the issues it addresses, rather than what to say about them. How do we affect change?

  • Louise Chan

    Usually girls are told to be careful, it starts when they are very young, which deprives them of their freedom. At the same time everyone lets their sons roam the streets unsupervised. But what needs to be done instead is to get the boys off the streets, making it safer for girls, and tell boys from early on what rape is, why it is despicable and teach them respect for others. Parents should do that and it should be part of sex education in schools. (Show them (only the boys, no need to torture the girls with it) a video in which girls who have been raped tel them what that felt like and how now their childhood (or more) is ruined.)

  • Morquen

    While I can’t speak for all people I would say the problem with a fat woman wearing shorts isn’t that “she’s offering me something I don’t want” but really is “no one wants to see that”. I take the same stance on a fat man jogging shirtless. In my mind doing either of those shows disrespect for the people you shall be around the same way not bathing for a month does. I don’t expect everyone to constantly be wearing expensive perfumes or colognes, but I do expect people to maintain basic hygiene and not dump an entire bottle of axe body spray on themselves. The same thing applies to appearance, you don’t need to be wearing a cocktail dress or a three piece suit, but make sure the clothing you choose is appropriate for your body.

  • Interesting article. I am a staunch supporter of modesty and “patriarchy” and this is because both are advocated in the Bible. Also, I come from a much more liberal background, so I’m familiar with modesty bashing and extreme men-hating feminism.

    I think what is being described here is a corruption of what modesty and patriarchy really are. Modesty is about putting the importance of others above yourself. Everyone needs to have modesty, men and woman. It’s a heart issue. However, if you have a modest heart, you’ll dress accordingly.

    What this article depicts is when modesty goes wrong, and too much emphasis is placed on the external. You can dress modestly and not be modest.

    But modesty is GOOD!!! Not just because life is a battle for men and boys against lust and we wish Christian woman not aid the enemy, but because modesty is good for women as well. Modesty isn’t about erasing female sexuality, it’s about protecting it. Or supposed to be.

    And this is also an example of “patriarchy” gone wrong. Patriarchy is not supposed to be about men ruling over women, but about men serving woman. Men are supposed to honor and protect and sacrifice for woman. Men are supposed to hold women as higher than themselves. That’s what real “patriarchy”, as described in the Bible, is supposed to be like.

    Again, interesting article. I’ve not encountered this view on modesty before. I’m used to the teachings of sexual free-for all, and that girls should be wearing as little as possible so they can be attractive and be desirable in the eyes of men. I encounter very few modest woman, and I the guys I interact with pretty much only see woman as valuable if they’re sexually attractive…but they’re not thinking about the good of women at all, only on their selfish desires. I think that is much more dehumanizing of woman.

  • You say “Patriarchy is not supposed to be about men ruling over women, but about men serving woman. Men are supposed to honor and protect and sacrifice for woman. Men are supposed to hold women as higher than themselves.”

    Does that mean, as patriarchy gives different roles to the genders, that patriarchy should be about:
    > women NOT serving men.
    > Women being supposed to dishonor and endanger and NOT sacrifice for men.
    > Women being supposed to hold men as lower than themselves.

    You see, under patriarchy there are things only expected of one gender. Only if you mention them, are you really mentioning the nature of patriarchy.

  • Here you are purporting change in our so-called patriarchal society, yet questioning why the Duggars have changed. Hmmm, convoluted and mean-spirited thinking much?

  • Bravo, Reagan!

  • What is so hard to grasp about men and women being created equal, with differing roles?

  • Nea

    Because in practice it is NEVER, EVER equal. Furthermore, it is outright damaging to the lives of men and women who do not fit easily into the roles which are being imposed on them.

    I must ask… why is this hard to grasp?

  • I find Biblical gender roles hard to grasp because nobody can explain to me what mine is:

    If you can, please come to my blog and answer what my gender role is.

  • dragonfly

    Excellent article, Sierra! I wonder if there are another couple of dots you could join here…Patriarchal fundamentalist men hate lesbians because lesbians refuse to be ‘had’ by any man – an insult! And they fear and despise gay men because gay men are thought to desire them sexually, to want to ‘have’ them like women are ‘had’ – a degradation!

  • Emily

    This is a great article that I’m sharing widely, and it would have been perfect if the author had gone into how racism affects different women and perceived notions of their purity and sexual appetite. Historically, Black women and Native women have been seen as lascivious, promiscuous, and unrapeable, regardless of what they’re wearing and what their body type is.

  • Des

    You are absolutely right. A male co-worker once told me that some men would sooner be intrigued by a woman who was very modestly dressed than a woman who wore very little. Why? A scantily dressed woman leaves little to the imagination, while the modestly dressed woman makes them curious. It’s all a matter of the kind of mind a man may have, therefore. Controlling one’s own thoughts and behavior is up to the individual.

  • prisgaley

    Actually, according to my reading of “patriarchalists,” what is meant by defrauding, is that since a man is easily stimulated visually, a woman wearing “immodest” clothing is presumably enticing him to commit “lust.” In other words, she defrauds him by causing him to lose his purity. The woman as property idea is quite a stretch, in my opinion. I have never heard anyone say this. Another assumption is that Bathsheba was at fault for taking a bath on her rooftop, and thereby enticing David. Nothing in the scriptures says she did this purposefully or that she knew she was being watched or could be seen. (Surely, with at least a half dozen wives, David had some recourse besides the one he chose.) So women who wear slacks or other types of immodest clothing are acting like Bathsheba and luring men to lust after them.