A while ago I wrote a post called “The Daughters of Men” in which I cried aloud in the wilderness about a pastor who is deliberately teaching his daughters things that will potentially harm them significantly in their future lives as adults. It looks like this kind of horrifically poorly-done parenting isn’t specific to misogynistic male pastors. Now we have his BFF, Kim Hall, a woman who’s written a tut-tut for young women of today called “FYI (if you’re a teenage [sic] girl)”, in which she informs young women that if they take provocative pictures, they won’t be allowed to be social-media friends with her handsome, strapping sons, whose purity and “integrity” must be maintained at all costs and could be seriously compromised by seeing these pictures.
Speaking as a fellow blogger who’s been suddenly featured somewhere and seen a huge uptick in visitors, I can well imagine how surprising it was to Mrs. Hall when her post went unexpectedly viral. It was just her own passive-aggressive, meddling-busybody way of shaming specific young women of her sons’ direct acquaintance into not taking provocative photos of themselves or sharing these photos with her sons via cell phone messages or social media sites. How dare you! she nattered. Cover up! My boys might get ideas looking at you! Because boys don’t ever get ideas without naughty photos in front of them. And she gave us the undeniably odd image of her in full Helicopter Parent mode sitting around a table with her poor sons vetting these images and deciding which of these lucky, lucky young women would be allowed to remain friends with them based on what clothes those women choose to wear. She ended by reiterating that what a young woman chooses to wear displays her intelligence as well as her “character,” and stressing that “men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.”
The whole thing was about as sexist and as condescending as you could possibly imagine, and considering she was talking about specific young women who’d erred in her eyes, I can’t even imagine the embarrassment she’s caused those young women or how humiliated they must feel (as one responder has pointed out, it surely wouldn’t be hard for anybody familiar with the Hall family to figure out who Mrs. Hall must be talking about).
I can only imagine how shocked Mrs. Hall was at the spike in traffic and how dismayed when the criticisms came rolling in. Indeed, for every positive comment there was a negative one. Many of those criticisms centered on her strikingly weird and hypocritical decision to illustrate her blog entry with numerous photos of her teenaged boys in swimsuits, posing shirtless and flexing like they were male models in a catalog (she’s since changed the photos for ones that are less sexualized, and I’m glad of it; if you didn’t get a chance to see them, it was really shocking considering her topic).
The responses have been rolling in all week, and many of them are excellent. Here’s one from a teenaged girl. Here are others that make some excellent and hilarious points, as well as thought-provoking ones. I want to add something to this growing discontent.
Mrs. Kim Hall, the writer of that original blog entry, is a product of her time and her culture. She is a lifelong Christian and involved in her church’s ministry team, specifically in Women’s Ministry according to her bio on the blog, and it’s hard not to see her attitude as religiously-derived; I myself lived under a very similar mindset for my entire time in Christianity, from Catholic to Pentecostal. The New Testament, unfortunately, includes several verses that instruct Christians not to do things that would cause other Christians to “stumble,” and these verses get applied to women like they’re hammers to the back of the head.
So I’ve got no doubt that Mrs. Hall learned Rape Culture myths at her parents’ knee just like I did, and that’s what she’s passing on to her sons. And what is she passing on? The idea that of course young women are entirely responsible (or even 50% responsible, as some people assert) for how her strangely weak-willed sons think and how they perceive others. Of course she must vet their friends to ensure nobody presents her perfect, handsome sons with too much skin to tempt them from their futures as perfect, handsome men who will get perfect, beautiful young wives who of course always dress demurely and act ladylike, so the two of them will make their own perfect, handsome babies who will learn that other people are responsible for their own reactions and feelings, and that if they have lustful feelings or act inappropriately on those feelings, then surely at least a little of the blame rests on the people who inspired those feelings and behaviors.
The buck. Stops. Here.
It stops here. It stops now.
It damned well must.
Here’s the first salvo I will fire at this sick mindset:
Every person is responsible for his or her own reactions, feelings, and behaviors. Entirely. 100%.
I know that’s an idea that the mainstream patriarchy isn’t going to like, and I’ll tell you why: because it declares that no, actually, men are not helpless little children who can be controlled by the force of a woman’s sexuality; they are not mindless beasts who can be goaded into losing all control, like sharks scenting blood in the water. This salvo declares that men are not, are not ever, entitled to the use of a woman’s body under any circumstances if she does not consent to that usage no matter what she did, wore, or acted like, and that at no time does a woman lose society’s protection or implicitly declare her consent of being victimized. It also declares that blame belongs solely on the shoulders of the person who did something inappropriate, and not even a smidge of it on the shoulders of the person who was mistreated.
By contrast, currently we’ve got a system that I’m sure patriarchal men and women think works just fine: women try their best to dress demurely and act the right way, and as long as they do, they “deserve” society’s protection. As long as they do nothing that could override a man’s inherent good nature and cause him to behave evilly, then they are safe. Men are beasts who can be controlled and rendered uncontrollable by women, who in turn must always guard their dress and behavior lest they accidentally do something to make those men “stumble.”
This mindset is called “modesty” or “purity” culture and it’s a huge part of Rape Culture, that monolithic series of beliefs and attitudes that a society holds and perpetuates that provide a cover for victimization to occur. It’s not always about rape, incidentally, though it does have that in the name; a lot of people who hold these myths dear will never rape anybody. But it’s how that victimization occurs–it’s this process of blame and vilification of the victims, excusing the people doing the victimizing, and the dominant faction maintaining dominance. It’s a whole system, and it depends first and foremost upon people believing that a woman’s worth and purity are based on her appearance and sex habits; secondly, upon believing that men are inherently weak or savage.
Women who dress revealingly or provocatively are considered sluts–lesser women who don’t deserve society’s protection. If they get raped or victimized, it was their own fault. Poor widdle men. They just couldn’t control their widdle penises.
How insulting can something possibly be to both men and women?
If a woman is walking naked down Main Street, that does not remove society’s protection from her. Nothing she does, nothing she is wearing or not wearing, entitles anybody to mistreat her, be it by rape or by a sanctimonious soccer mom wagging a finger at her. Her body is not a shameful thing. She is just as valid of a human being as one who is dressed in the Baptist Burkha uniform of denim calf-length skirt, long-sleeved T-shirt, and Keds with socks. But right now, if a woman chooses to dress that way, as a niece of mine did long ago, she gets demonized for not presenting society with a conventionally pretty, feminine, dolled-up appearance.
And therein lies the problem: that the people who judge a woman’s appearance and make generalizations about her personality and character based solely on some photos, who reduce that woman down to an object that is sexual, an object that can cause someone to lust and “stumble,” these people are in large part distancing themselves from the rest of the human experience. That’s why we saw those magazine covers lately of reputable, famous black people wearing hoodies–to demonstrate that our objectification of a person in an unfamiliar or stigmatized piece of clothing can have serious repercussions on our humanity and empathy as well as create class divisions that can lead to harm. In the same way, a woman wearing a cutout dress and stiletto heels may have a doctorate, but that doesn’t matter because she is going to be seen purely as a sexual being because of that image; nobody’s even going to wonder about what she’s like as a person.
To give an example, I was recently freaked out on Facebook by a provocative photo of Mila Kunis in a stairwell that had garnered some genuinely alarming sexual responses. Did she take the photo to look sexy? Yes. Of course she did. And that’s fine. It’s fun to dress up and have fun. And she was indeed sexy and beautiful in the photo at least by conventional standards. But does that make it okay for a man to talk about where he’d best like to ejaculate on her body, or how hard he’d pound her in bed? If Mila were my sister, my mother, my friend, or my daughter, I’d be downright worried by the extremely graphic and in some cases violent responses to the photo that many men felt entitled (maybe even obligated) to make in response to the provocative image. But Mila’s removed herself from protection by posting such photos, and I think it’s all but assumed that she provoked these responses and should be fine with being seen as a sexual object and treated savagely. She’s not “One of Us” anymore. She’s outside the system.
So is Miley Cyrus; I watched part of a video of hers this evening where she’s stark naked swinging on a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer, and you know, it’s just weird seeing all these people gasping and clutching their pearls with one hand and turning up the volume on their TVs and computer speakers with the other. Meanwhile, every first-grade teacher in the country is watching this same video and going “Look, she’s doing this stuff because it shocks adults. If adults quit giving her so much attention, she’d find something else to do.” We give young women’s sexuality so much power and control over our responses that we can hardly do anything else but give her our full, undivided attention! And you know, friends, it’s totally okay that she’s expressing herself, but if we didn’t have such a toxic fixation on women’s purity, the 2013 VMAs would now be known for Macklemore’s performance and not about her frolicking.
And lest you think I’m overreacting, in the same vein, a few days ago on another blog a professor was featured as fighting against Christian Right overreach in her classroom; the article printed a tiny photo of her, and yes, she was very pretty and looked a lot younger than the article indicated she was. I noticed that and glossed over it, because her appearance didn’t actually matter in the least. But that was enough for one commenter to reply with a simple statement along the lines of “wow, she’s hot”–no other comment, just that. (I’m not listing the blog because he got smacked down hard enough as it was and it’s not like this was a unique situation.) It seems to me that when a woman’s appearance is always noteworthy and relevant even when it totally isn’t, we start extending that attitude from things like a photo posted purely to be provocative to situations where appearance is–and should be–absolutely irrelevant. We give that appearance power where it’s totally inappropriate for appearance to have power.
By making a woman’s appearance and perceived behaviors of such tantamount importance, we create a double standard, of course–it’s not like we require men to keep themselves in nearly as good a shape or dress up to specs, or wear chemicals on their faces. Mrs. Hall is very much living in the Happy Land of Double Standards–just like most people in our society are. In that land, dumpy, pudgy, weirdly-groomed male stars routinely get awarded staggeringly beautiful, size-0 actresses in movies, and next door to them, aging male writers feel entitled to whine about how chiseled the current James Bond is compared to ones from years past and draw uncomfortable parallels between what he’s seeing in the movies and what’s going on in society nowadays regarding our expectations of men in action movies (spoiler alert: hairy, aging paunchy guys with Sylvester the Cat accents are on their way out on the Hotness Scale). Mrs. Hall fits right into that neighborhood. A teenaged girl in a towel? Oh, the humanity! Alert her parents! Pray more! Slut-shame her! But a boy without a shirt on and wearing basically boxer shorts posing like a male model? As numbers of defenders of her strange decision of what best illustrated her blog entry put it, “He’s just dressed for the occasion of swimming!”
But here’s the thing: we’re supposed to take our appearance very seriously, but at the same time be “natural.” People want women to be beautiful and for us pay attention to our bodies and appearances, but not to look like we do or take too much time at it, or else we’re shallow and vain. They want women to be sexy or else we’re frumps, but not too sexy or we’re “whores;” we’re to be “modest,” but not too modest or we’re outcasts. And just about every single person’s idea of what “sexy” and “modest” entails is different. (I admit, I wonder what Mrs. Hall would do if one of those young sons of hers brought home a fat woman for her to meet. Or a non-Christian one. Or a much older one. Or, dare I say, a man of any description.)
There’s so much more I could say here–that Mrs. Hall assumes that girls never, ever have sexual responses to images; that she assumes that integrity is something you can gain or lose by just dressing a certain way; that she assumes that men of integrity never use porn and women obviously never do either (or, heavens forbid, couples using it together); that she links this sick sense of “purity” with desirability in and of itself; that she implies that women can be devalued by what they wear or whether or not they have sex; that how much respect and value she gives a person depends on how well they conform to her standards of “modesty” and “purity;” that she has the right to tell her sons who they will and won’t associate with; and that most of all, women must be controlled because they are inherently dangerous wild creatures who can hurt men’s precious sanctity.
I’m pretty sure I know of another religious system that thinks that way.
Let’s stop this train and get off right here, right in the middle of the wilderness, and make our own way to a new life.
We can do it. We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the talent. We can stop seeing sexual pictures of women and treating those pictures like they have power; we can stop rewarding young women with extra attention when they do self-victimizing things and we can insist on showing them respect regardless of what they wear or do sexually; and we can understand the massive social forces that are bringing them to these passes. We can start seeing the catch-22s that make it impossible for girls–and women–to win, and instead of yelling at them, show a little compassion.
We can stop equating purity with sex and devaluing and demonizing women who have and enjoy and want and need sex. We can stop pushing those who dress or act differently into Other boxes. We can quit blaming women or calling them gendered slurs like “whore” and “slut” when they step outside society’s carefully-prescribed role limits. We can quit judging other women’s choices and holding ourselves as arbiters over their decisions. We can start trusting them to do what they think is right for themselves.
We can stop telling our daughters that they have to look or act a certain sexualized way to be acceptable, then slam them for looking or acting in sexualized ways. We can teach them that they are so much more than just their crotches’ contents, so much more than what they wear, and that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do to make others happy with them. We can teach them how to act with integrity, responsibility, passion, and honesty, and trust that whatever they do will spring from those founts–even if what they do is make informed decisions about wearing sexy clothes or having sex with partners of their choosing.
Most of all we can stop training them to shoulder the awful responsibility for others’ reactions and actions, and while we’re at it, we can stop teaching boys, as Mrs. Hall has here, that they are helpless in the face of the awesome power that is Female Sexuality or that their respect level for a woman should fluctuate based on how much protection she’s earned from society.
I want to shine light on those dark, dank corners. I want Rape Culture gone–I want it to go away already so humanity can get on with the business of moving forward. The only way that’s going to happen is if we stop playing its sick game. The fastest way to stop playing that sick game is to stop simultaneously demanding sexual behavior and provocative appearances from women and demonizing those women who give society exactly those things, and to stop pushing responsibility for our own feelings onto other people.
Because really, as with so many other things, the only way to win with Rape Culture is not to play at all.
What’s chilling to me, downright chilling, is how many parents in Mrs. Hall’s comments applauded her and openly wished that their daughters could meet young men like her sons. No, I wanted to scream. No, you do not. That’s horrifying. Young men who consider themselves helpless beasts who can lose control if the women around them aren’t controlled adequately enough and behaving themselves correctly enough? That is the last sort of person parents should want around their daughters.
The circle must end.
- The Daughters of Men. (www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve)
- 10 Bloggers Respond to Mrs. Hall’s Letter with Thoughts on Slut-Shaming, Respect, and Selfies (blogher.com)