Modesty, Rape Culture, Pots and Kettles

(Eds. note: Recently, Jake and Joey wrote an article on The Gospel Coalition about whether the normalization of pornography contributes to the rape culture.  We encourage you to read the article, if only because it gives a definition of "rape culture." Today's post is a sort of follow-up to that post; Jake analyzes whether the modesty movement contributes to the rape culture. He's also, incidentally, a man, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt, and look for a follow-up post (having nothing to do with modesty) coming soon regarding the general discussion of standards of holiness v. legalism.)

“I’m going to let you in on a secret; conservative evangelicals have an unhealthy obsession with the female body, or, more specifically, with covering it up. Doing so is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is it explicitly objectifies the female body and at least implicitly considers the female body shameful. With discussions about checklists, do’s and don’ts, six inches here and two inches there, bag-straps and bikinis, conservative evangelicals love nothing more than finding the perfectly biblical and modest way of hiding female bodies. Sometimes, they go so far as to blame immodest women for the crimes committed against them. That’s why I feel comfortable making the following pronouncement: the modesty movement, springing mostly from fundamentalist evangelicals, contributes to and is a part of the rape culture.”

Does the previous argument sound familiar? If you’ve read certain sections of the Christian blogosphere regarding modesty and rape culture over the last two years, it should. But is the critique fair? Does the modesty movement contribute to the rape culture? If evangelicals should move to the forefront of those seeking the elimination of the rape culture, as I am on record as advocating, is one helpful way of doing so an elimination of our own modesty movement?

First, what is the modesty movement? Like the term “rape culture” itself, the modesty movement is difficult to define. It is not strictly an evangelical phenomenon and most would not even identify themselves as part of a particular movement (also similar, I hope, to the “rape culture”); secularist forms of the movement have gotten attention from such outlets as The Huffington Post. At its core, the modesty movement encourages women that they can dress confidently and beautifully without dressing scantily or overtly sexually. Evangelical forms of the movement, of course, interject the element of biblical calls for modesty and self-control. At times (and subject to most of the criticism), those who advocate for modesty give specific and practical advice as to what does and does not constitute contextual modesty in today’s fashion choices.

If the modesty movement consistently preached that immodesty is the cause of rape or other unwanted sexual attention, and thus immodest women are responsible for any crime (or lesser sexual sin) committed against them, than surely the answer would be yes. But categorizing everyone who writes about modesty as holding those beliefs is probably unfair. Most of those in conservative evangelicalism who write about modesty understand, as Janelle Garrett wrote, that modesty is ultimately about a disposition of the heart. Any specific and practical advice, like the advice the apostle Paul gave, for instance, is arguably merely an outflow of that theological belief. Thus, the only way the modesty movement ipso facto contributes to the rape culture is if the very discussion of dress contributes to the rape culture.

Self-expression through the choices we make by the way that we dress is an ongoing and necessary conversation in our culture. We are consistently evaluating what is fashionable, normcore, sexually provocative, socially conscious and so on as we decide how and why we dress the way that we do. Surely, as Christians, a discussion regarding opinions about what is and is not appropriate and God-honoring in specific contexts is an acceptable element of that ongoing conversation. It is difficult to see how interjecting a biblical element into a discussion about how we should dress also necessarily interjects an element of objectification that was not previously present.  Any discussion of dress and fashion is objectifying, in the strictest definitional sense.  A discussion that includes an analysis of modesty goes no further unless it goes further. 

Assuming that it is possible to discuss specifics of modesty in our modern culture without objectifying women or encouraging, in some form, sexual violence, than critics of the modesty movement fall into the same trap they accuse others of falling into. Instead of shifting the focus from women who may or may not be dressing immodestly to those that are sexually violent or to those that either explicitly or implicitly passively accept things that fuels such violence, critics shift the focus from women who may or may not be dressing immodestly to those that encourage women to dress by certain conceptions of modesty. It is one thing to argue that it is difficult to talk about modesty without succumbing to legalism or inflating your own perspective; it is quite another to argue that it is impossible to talk about modesty without encouraging male sexual violence. If women, however they are dressed, are in absolutely no way responsible for the rape culture (and, quite emphatically, they are not) and if emphasizing sexual expression (or at least the permissibility of independent decision-making entirely free from any evaluation of the freedom for women to wear whatever they want) is not to blame for the rape culture (and its not), than neither is emphasizing modesty, in and of itself.

Let’s be clear; the rape culture exists because some in our society explicitly encourage male sexual violence. It also exists because even more accept things that are unacceptable: subtle devaluing of women in the form of catcalls and sexually-tinged comments, judgment-free normalization of pornography, clear objectification of women in many magazines, films and video games, unbiblical and patriarchal confusion about our equality and identity in Christ, and so on. Blaming those who write about and emphasize the biblical call to modesty (most of whom, not for nothing, are women) makes about as much sense as blaming women for wearing short skirts.

That is not to say that discussions regarding modesty cannot, in some way, be influenced by or contribute to the social factors that undergird the rape culture. Of course they can. Are some of those advocating for modesty doing so by explicitly objectifying female bodies and implicitly contributing to the rape culture as an extension of their generally patriarchal and unbiblically restrictive worldview? Probably. But surely some, probably most, of the modesty movement is doing so in an effort to genuinely encourage and help fellow believers who are attempting to navigate a sexually confused culture “become convinced in their own mind” regarding their convictions, and in doing so glorify God in everything they do, including how they dress. To the extent that modesty advocates are actually blaming victims for the sins and crimes of others, they should be challenged and confronted. But most are not. And refusing to discern between nuanced and differing approaches to a given social issue and instead lumping every view and perspective together as unbiblical and unhelpful, while perhaps an enticing option, is also supposedly the province of the very form of evangelical fundamentalism that is allegedly the problem.

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