Reducing the complexity of a woman to her body or equating her character to the way she dresses has been a damaging way to deny women their humanity and to victim-shame survivors of sexual assault and rape. In public schools, young girls across the country have been kicked out of proms and suspended from school for wearing clothing that was deemed too “revealing” and distracting, sometimes in light of overly rigid dress codes. Unsurprisingly, the common targets of such policing tend to be women and it’s sadly only a microcosm of a larger culture in which women’s bodies and clothing choices are perpetually policed and shamed.
Rape victims are still being interrogated about what they were wearing at the time of assault, despite the fact that the length of a woman’s skirt should never be seen as a measure of her consent. Rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone at any time under any circumstances – whether they are wearing a burqa or a bikini. Society should know by now that this is a crime driven by a need for power, not by passion or sexual desire.
Yet even today, a woman’s “character” comes into question should she ever choose to dress or behave in a way that society deems as immodest. Just a month ago, NYPD police claimed that a 18-year-old woman could not possibly be a rape victim because she posted provocative selfies. But why on earth would posting “provocative selfies” ever negate the experience of being violated? Why are women constantly asked to cover themselves and be responsible for the potential reactions and actions of other people, especially predators?
This expectation of modesty has been placed on women far too long and has been used against them to excuse, minimize and rationalize horrific acts of violence.
Modesty shouldn’t be a prerequisite for respect and it shouldn’t be the sole indicator of self-respect. The level of modesty a female victim is perceived to have in her clothing choices is irrelevant – she is not to blame for the actions of her perpetrators.
There are many ways to respect yourself that have nothing to do with clothing. Modesty is a personal preference and is just as legitimate of a choice as a woman choosing to dress in a more revealing manner.
The problem with controlling the way women dress in an effort to control the predatory responses of other people is that clothing itself is not the problem.
We are, as a society, conditioned to see women as objects. Their bodies – however modestly wrapped – are already over-sexualized even as young teens (or, as the disturbing show Toddlers and Tiaras shows us, as children). This means that whenever we see a woman who bares her legs, cleavage, or even her collarbones, we reduce them automatically to objects rather than multifaceted human beings. We forget their humanity in the process.
The double standard is that our male counterparts are rarely, if ever, as scrutinized for being a “distraction” or reduced to anything less than human if they dare to bare their bodies. In general, women are far more policed when it comes to clothing not just in schools but in society as a whole.
For example, when fashion company Suistudio released a new ad campaign featuring powerful women in business suits using naked men as “props” (very much like the way women have always been used in advertising), it caused an uproar because it was unsettling to see men depicted in the way women are – as objects, as props. When the tables are turned or flipped, the absurdity of such conditioning and objectification is revealed.
Equating female modesty with character means that women are taken less seriously as human beings due to their perceived lack of modesty. Their intelligence and accomplishments are frequently obscured by judgment cast on their clothing choices, whereas men can wear what they like while still having the “luxury” of being seen as full-fledged human beings.
“Our culture is so overwhelmed by the concept of females as sexual beings that whenever it comes to light, it is immediately seen as the only facet of a woman. It’s perfectly fine for us to see women as sexual objects, but once she becomes a sexual subject, she can’t be anything else. She can’t be ladylike, intelligent, politically conscious, or respectable…We seem to be afraid of women who can be all of this and more when really, we should admire and learn from them.”
— Isabella Milch, Sex, Power, And The Multifaceted Woman
Society has no problem exploiting a woman’s naked body to meet its own needs, but it cannot handle a woman reestablishing control over her own body. As Milch writes, when women dare to step outside of being an object and become active subjects, taking control of their sexual agency and how they are presented, they are inevitably punished for it.
There is much backlash for any woman who doesn’t neatly fall into the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. It’s okay for women to be objectified in the media, but in society’s eyes, it is not okay for women to take control over how they dress or their sex lives. It’s not okay for a woman to be multifaceted – to be both intelligent and sensual, to love her body, to be respected for her talents and to (gasp) be a woman who enjoys sex just as much as men.
In addition, let’s not forget that some women’s bodies are seen as “inherently problematic” – especially bodies that are curvier or voluptuous. These bodies are often unfairly judged by society to be lewd or vulgar regardless of what clothing women wear.
Women who are curvier tend to be more shamed for wearing clothes that might otherwise be seen as “elegant” on someone with a different body shape.
“The modesty doctrine isn’t about clothes, it’s about bodies. It’s a method for punishing women who do not conform to an idealized, asexual, inoffensive body type…When I was rebuked for my clothing as a teenager, it was often identical to the clothing all the other girls were wearing. The only difference was that I had ‘developed’ first. The modesty doctrine defines some bodies as inherently problematic.”
— Suzanne Calulu, Modesty, Body Policing and Rape Culture: Connecting the Dots
How Arbitrary Standards of “Modesty” Leads to Victim Blaming
With the recent outpouring of stories exposing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment along with the massive response to the #MeToo movement, it’s more important than ever that we reevaluate the ways we police women’s bodies. It is clear that this “modesty doctrine” can feed into a victim-shaming culture that continues to let the perpetrators off the hook while blaming the victims.
Actress Mayim Bialik came under fire recently for suggesting in a NYTimes op-ed that her modesty protected her from the sexual advances of Hollywood predators. She later issued an apology saying that victims are never to be blamed for being assaulted.
She’s not the only woman who has suggested that modesty protects women from being assaulted. In response to fellow gymnast’s Aly Raisman’s plea that survivors of rape not be judged or blamed based on their clothing choices, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas (also a survivor of assault) suggested that women should not dress in such a way that it would “entice the wrong crowd.”
These responses from women themselves are a representation of another problem – internalized misogyny. Female victims of assault are usually told they were to blame – and thus they internalize this as self-blame. Rather than looking more closely at the institutions and beliefs which give rise to the idea that victims are responsible for their own rapes, we are taught that we have to “own” our part of the problem.
Self-blame and internalized misogyny perpetuates the idea of the mythological “perfect victim” which simply does not exist. There is no way to truly avoid being a victim because anyone, at any time, under any circumstances, including the people you trust – could be a potential predator.
As women, we are often pitted against each other to compete and shame each other (and of course, this is how the patriarchy continues to be reinforced). There is an illusion that being the quintessential “good girl” protects us from heinous violations, despite the fact that a majority of rape victims are actually assaulted by someone they know and usually trust. Rape has nothing to do with a victim’s behavior or manner of dress.
This illusion of safety created by victim-shaming only creates a more dangerous society in which predators are rarely held accountable and victims are fearful of speaking out.
Now, should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them. — Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
It’s about time that we start respecting women’s decisions about what they wear and stop using the ideals of modesty to control their sexuality or sexual agency.
Rape happens because rapists rape, period. People are “distracted” by revealing clothing because of societal conditioning that has us equating women’s clothing to character – a phenomenon that rarely happens when men wear revealing clothing. The way women dress is more heavily scrutinized because they have been objectified and sexualized. It is because there is a need for society to see women as human beings and honor their complexity. This is a product of the patriarchy and it needs to be reexamined, not reinforced.
Women’s bodies don’t exist to please anyone. Women don’t exist to dress for or cater to what society wants them to be. Whatever your opinions on clothing choices may be, let’s agree on one thing: women should have the right to choose how to represent themselves on their own terms and they should not be blamed for being victimized.
Rather than making women bear the burden of other people’s responses to their bodies or clothing, it’s time to start dismantling some of the sick societal conditioning and double standards that have kept victims of assault and harassment silent for centuries.