Modesty in our culture is most often used in relation to women’s appearance and dressing. In this instance, it’s often synonymous with decency. Decency, that nebulous word that means different things to different people in different cultures and time periods. Let’s talk about the problems revealed by something that on the surface seems so innocuous, a call to just be decent.
Situates the feminine as sinful
There’s something about the female body, we’re led to believe that just demands it be covered. If it’s not covered, bad things happen. That’s the basis of modesty culture. One of those bad things is it incites men’s desire and because fleshly lust is demonized in many religious traditions, women’s bodies must be covered. They incite sin and that must be stopped. The effect of classifying more than half the population as a site of sin cannot be overstated and that’s before you introduce creation stories that suggest death entered the world because of women’s disobedience. The psychological impact of living with this spoken and unspoken understanding is terrible and lasting.
Aims to control women
Modesty culture is about controlling women. It’s about determining what women can and cannot do. What is acceptable and what isn’t. What warrants praise versus what demands punishment. It should go without saying that in any free society, everyone has absolute bodily autonomy. That means they have the power and agency to make choices over their bodies without coercion or fear of violence. As long as you live in fear of making certain choices about your body because of what other people can do to you as a result, you’re not free. The goal in any and every decent society should be the absolute freedom of the members in word and practice. Women must be free to do with their bodies as they will and that includes dressing our bodies however, we want.
Transfers blame to women
Modesty culture finds great utility when it is used to transfer blame for men’s violent actions to women. Men apparently cannot control themselves and so it’s up to women to not only control themselves but also work extra hard to help men get their lust under control. The way women do that is apparently through being modest. Through covering their lust-inducing bodies and if they don’t do it sufficiently enough to ward off male aggression and violence, it’s their fault, not the man’s. Modesty culture exists to exonerate and infantilize men. As long as women’s appearance can factor as the cause of them being harmed, men will always be off the hook. That’s why all talk about modesty is dangerous. Any suggestion that a man’s violence can be caused by anything but him is dangerous and false. Men abuse because they want to and because they can, it has nothing to do with women.
There’s nothing inherently sinful about the female body. There’s nothing wrong with sexual desire. Ts the demonizing of sexual desire and by extension the female body that induces it that leads to the need to control women. If society just accepts that we are sexual beings who will experience sexual desire, much of this problem will be solved. Then we can move on to solving the problem of why men feel the need to dominate and harm women from rape to femicide to domestic violence and so much more.
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