This is what I was wearing when I left my house for a walk yesterday evening: A pair of Tom’s, gray corduroy pants, a high-necked coat that covers everything from my chin to my calves (tea length, is that?) and a plaid trapper hat. The only way I could have been exposing less skin is if I was wearing a ski mask.
I bring this up because The Modesty Debates have been flaring up again, spurred by a seemingly well-meaning middle-school teacher writing in The Atlantic about enforcing modesty dress codes for young girls. Hugo Schwyzer at Jezebel lays out the standard (but clearly falling on deaf ears all over the place) feminist objections to this sort of modesty-mongering: That it teaches young women they’re responsible for controlling and deterring male sexuality; that it teaches young men that they’re not responsible for (or capable of) controlling themselves.
“That modesty culture places an unreasonable burden on girls is undeniable,” Schwyzer writes. “What gets missed is that it also … teaches boys that they are at the mercy of urges they can’t be reasonable expected to control” and that lust is incompatible with learning.
Modesty culture shames women, but it does something else almost as destructive: it tells boys a lie about what it means to live in a male body. Instead of familiar laments like Lahey’s, what boys need to hear is that while hard dicks may not have a conscience or the capacity to cogitate, their owners still do. In a world that will present most of us with attractive distractions for the rest of our lives, learning to interact respectfully and attentively with people for whom we’re casually lusting is a basic social skill for men and women alike.
YES. Right? Yes yes yes all of that. Boys need to hear that how they handle sexual desires, whims and impulses is contingent on themselves, not what the females around them are or are not wearing. Which brings us back to my walk last night.
A man grabbed me. I was walking by when he said something like, “Hey gorgeous.” I gave him the closed-lip smile and slight head nod I reserve for passing strangers and kept walking.
“Hey, come here,” he said. I kept my head down and my feet moving. He stepped closer. “Come here,” he said again, this time reaching out and grabbing me by the arm—not so hard that I couldn’t wriggle away, but hard enough that I could feel his fingers pressing into my skin. The physical contact was surprising and unusual, but not the attention. Finishing out my walk, I received at least another two verbal advances.
No one could argue that I wasn’t dressed “modestly” last night. Some folks would probably point out that my coat is kind of form-fitting. That I was wearing red lipstick. That I swing my hips when I walk.
Is any of that grounds for being grabbed on the street by strangers? Of course not. But that’s my point: It doesn’t matter how much skin you’re showing, how your hair is fixed, the type of shoes you have on. Having a female body, alone, is enough to provoke male desire; and having a female body, alone, is enough for some men to consider you asking for it.
Teaching young women that they need to dress modestly to avoid tempting boys sets up the rape-culture-perpetuating idea that what a woman wears is evidence of her level of sexual availability (as opposed to, say, explicit consent), and that’s bad in it’s own right. But it’s also just based on a flawed and naive premise.
Because women cannot control the way men think about them simply by adding a cardigan and avoiding stripper heels. The modesty movement really wants that to be true, but it’s not. And it doesn’t matter. Our goal shouldn’t be changing the way men think about women, but the way they act toward them. Lust exists. Lust is neutral. Let’s teach boys that no matter how much they lust, they don’t get to pin it on another person; that women’s bodies don’t exist for public perusal, pleasure and consumption, no matter how hot their ankles or trapper hat may be.