Commentary Religion

“Modesty” Is About a Lot More Than a Long Skirt

Amanda Marcotte

In a pamphlet on modesty being distributed at the Value Voters Summit, so much of conservative attitudes become clear: That female sexuality is scary, that women exist to serve men, that women are to blame for pretty much everything. 

In a year where anti-choicers seemed determined to demonstrate the anti-woman and anti-sex roots of their hostility to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—even while still offering lame, unbelievable claims of caring for “life”—the Value Voters Summit is positioned to remove all doubt that conservatives in America only care about restricting reproductive rights because they fear women’s liberation and want to control women’s lives and bodies. Indeed, things got off to a nice start when Think Progress got hold of a pamphlet that was being distributed at the summit called “Modesty Matters.”

The pamphlet lays out an old argument consistently found in patriarchal societies worldwide, even if they technically have different religions: Lust is bad. Men feel lust, something women presumably don’t, which is why they don’t understand and have to be told. But even though lust is a male emotion, it’s not really the fault of men! Men simply cannot be held responsible in any situation where there’s a woman available to blame. So, women are responsible for the thoughts inside men’s heads, which we control by wearing “immodest” clothes. Thus, it’s women’s responsibility to suppress men’s lust by wearing long skirts and shapeless clothes.

There’s so much wrong with this argument that it’s really hard to know where to start. Men can control themselves. Lust in and of itself isn’t wrong, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with someone taking some alone time to relieve strong feelings of lust that can’t or won’t be reciprocated. Lust isn’t a male-only emotion, and women understand it just fine. Even if you assume that lust is naughty and women should take responsibility for men’s thoughts, there’s no evidence whatsoever that draping women in more cloth suppresses feelings of lust; on the contrary, men just re-orient their understanding of normal, so that instead of a glimpse of upper thigh, just a glimpse of an ankle does it for them.

What’s interesting is that neither of these arguments for or against mandatory modesty mentions “life,” the supposed concern of conservative Christians who pass laws controlling female sexuality by attacking reproductive rights. Even the most strained Christian rationalizer who has convinced him or herself that merely looking at a birth control pill causes spontaneous miscarriages of nine-month pregnancies isn’t crass enough (yet) to argue that a man’s stray glance at a woman’s legs in a miniskirt takes any kind of “life.”

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I suppose if you’re really straining, you could argue that inspiring unreciprocated lust in men leads to the death of billions of potential people currently called “sperm,” but so far conservatives have demonstrated a distinct reluctance to extend their “potential people=actual people” argument beyond women’s bodies onto men’s bodies. Anyway, if you did embrace that argument, it would be very difficult indeed to hold women criminally responsible for male masturbation, so for now it’s simply a matter of holding women morally responsible for what men do in their private time with thoughts that exist only in their heads.

Clearly, the common thread running through everything from trying to shame women out of wearing clothes that make them feel attractive to trying to cut women off from contraception coverage they’ve paid for to passing intrusive restrictions on abortion rights is this strong desire conservatives have to control women’s bodies. And, of course, a belief that women’s bodies and identities can be reduced to their sexual functions.

One of the best parts from this pamphlet is how, even when being less obtuse about their fear of female sexuality than conservatives usually are, the authors still had to toss out dishonest arguments.

My men’s bible study group talks frequently about controlling our lust, thoughts, and eyes. Yes the problem and responsibility are ours, but is it really reasonable for the women of the church to make it THIS difficult for us?

Realizing that the argument that what happens in men’s heads is women’s responsibility sounds a little unreasonable and misogynist, they swear that the ultimate responsibility belongs to men. Except that, if they actually believed that, the pamphlet would be written for men and would address topics like learning not to leer and realizing that all women have breasts and thus you should moderate your response appropriately. The fact that the pamphlet is aimed at women and not men makes it clear that it’s women who are considered the responsible ones, and all claims otherwise are just the usual Christian right deflection and dishonesty.

And what becomes clear is that all these so-called concerns about “immodesty” are really just an angle to pressure women to accept a second class status.

All women, whether married of single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.

Modesty: Hiding yourself and avoiding clothes you find appealing, trying your best to be invisible. Responsiveness: Giving men attention and smiles they demand, no matter how miserable it makes you to do so. Gentleness: Giving up the urge to fight for yourself, instead just giving in and submitting. Women exist, in their eyes, to serve and to be invisible when they can’t be of direct use to men. Reproductive rights and sexual autonomy threaten that view of women, because these things suggest that instead of a servant class, women are people just like men, instead of creatures put on earth to serve men.

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