Modesty: Rape Culture, Rape Apology, Young Women, Young Men
[Trigger warning for rape and body policing.]
I have recently come across a few posts regarding what Young Women wear, and what they are told to wear. Some say Stop Telling the YW to Be Modest for the YM, and some rebut with Please Keep Telling the YW to Be Modest for the YM. Of course, whenever we veer into telling someone what to wear, there is a possibility for blame. If we tell the Young Women not to show their shoulders, their legs, their skin, or even the outline of their body, it sends a clear message: You are responsible for how the boys think and react to your sexual body.
While discussing what YW should wear, two different friends of mine used typical victim-blaming language. One friend essentially said that he didn’t think women are responsible for dressing modestly for men, but just that the men would appreciate it. And another friend said that it would irresponsible for him not to teach his daughters that they can avoid unwanted sexual advances by how they dress. I emphasize the italicized parts, because they are the most vital to understand the rape culture we live in.
The problems with these two statements? It’s still not a good reason to dress modestly for someone else, even when a benign word like “appreciate” is used. It’s still for someone else, essentially making women responsible for men’s reactions to women’s bodies. And when women are responsible for how they dress “making” men aroused, the victim-blaming has commenced. As for the second statement, how you dress has been shown NOT to affect rates of rape and sexual assault. It could not be more clear that when we teach our young women how to dress for safety, we are not arming them with safety at all but simply reinforcing rape culture under the guise of concern.
This situation with good friends puts me in a difficult position, aptly described as The Terrible Bargain, where I either keep quiet about their rape apologetic answers or I do bring it up and risk friendships and credibility as I will most likely be seen as a shrill harpy for being so difficult to talk to. In this case, I spoke up.
I pointed out to my friend that even if we tell our daughters to think a little bit of what they are wearing and how it makes men react, then it is still victim-blaming. I also talked about how we generally deal with rape as “how can people avoid rape as victims”, as opposed to “how do we hold perpetrators responsible”. Why are we so focused on the victims? Because rape culture perpetuates our default explanation to be geared towards the victims.
It’s easier to deal with victims than with aggressors. It’s easier to tell women what to wear and how to act and how to avoid rape, than to root out sexual violence in our society and culture. Easier is not good enough for me. I expect more. Let me say that again: I expect more. Maybe instead of worrying about how we talk to our daughters about what they wear and and how they act and how that will get them raped, we need to be talking to our sons about how they treat women, or objectify women, or use women.
Addressing rape culture and the rape apologetics that we have all heard is a tricky business, but it is vitally important. And here’s the rub: people you know, people you like, people you respect, and people you love will, at some point, apologize for rape or victim-blame. I still do myself sometimes, and I care about this issue passionately. I am personally committed to eradicate victim-blaming from my thoughts, speech, and actions. I expect more from myself, so I feel confident that I can reasonably expect more from people in my life.
The truth is that I’m not trying to hurt someone’s feelings when I ask them to examine what they are saying. I care too much about women to let rape apologia reign. The truth is that I am not dense. I understand what someone means when they say they want to protect their daughter by teaching her to avoid rape by dressing modestly. But like so many other feminists, I expect more.
So in my defense, let’s have a little quote, the portion that deals with how women dress in particular:
Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.
–Melissa McEwan from Shakesville, on FAQ: Rape Culture 101
Amen. It’s harmful to young women to be saddled with not only their own growing and changing bodies, developing sexuality, and insecurities, but also with the responsibility not to tempt boys and men. And not just to tempt them in an impure-thoughts kind of way, but not to tempt them in a it’s-your-own-fault-if-he-rapes-you kind of a way. No woman deserves that kind of pressure and responsibility.
So not only is the question of rape culture and rape apology a tricky one, but now we get to figure out how we DO talk to our children and the Young Men and Young Women about sexuality, modesty, responsibility, and boundaries. How do we navigate those waters without victim-blaming? How do have these conversations without blaming women for men’s thoughts? If anyone can figure this out, it’s our community here at The Exponent. I’d love to hear your progressive, body-positive, feminist ideas.