Modesty Culture is a False Narrative

To be alive and paying attention in American society means that you are aware of the collective rage and pain of generations of women who are finding their voice and courage to share their #MeToo stories. And for every one that you hear, I can almost guarantee you that there are likely five more  you are not hearing and maybe never will.

The statistics vary, but in the year of 2018, it is said that one out of every three women has been sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

This is staggering. 

Look around you. Are there any women currently in your line of sight?

I see one daughter putting away dinner and through the door, another one working on her math homework. Between the three of us, one of us has been or will be sexually assaulted. (Actually one of us has already been, but I'll tell that particular story another day.)

Now look further out to the classroom in which you learn or teach -- to the gym you work out at -- and yes, even at the church you attend. It's not for the faint of heart, but if you are brave enough, count off 1, 2 and 3 and 1, 2 and 3 until every woman in that class, gym or church has been counted in the most horrific of societal tallies.

For those of us who have been sexually abused, there are few statements that grate more upon fragile hearts than these:

What were you doing?

What were you saying?

What were you drinking?

and the very worst one of all...

What. Were. You. Wearing?

All of these questions send a not-so-subtle message to the victim that our assault was potentially preventable. That we could have avoided being violated if we had just...

Done something differently.

Said something less suggestively.

Drank something less irresponsibly.

Worn something less invitingly.

And the collective anguish rage and sorrow builds because what no one is saying is the very thing we all are desperate to hear.

No matter what you did, said, drank or's not your fault. It's not your fault that someone decided to view you as a piece of meat or ass rather than a human being with a soul and a heart and blood flowing through your veins. It's not your fault that someone decided their need for power or their lust was greater than your right to remain intact and whole. It's not your fault that someone else decided that their strength should be used to exploit your perceived weakness.

It's. Not. Your. Fault.

But unfortunately, this is rarely what is said aloud and it's even more rare to hear this in the private agony we share with so few people.

I'm not sure exactly how and when human beings started blaming victims for the behavior of their abusers. But I think it's probably been since the beginning of the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. No one wants to take personal responsibility. Yet, as a collective society, we are also uncomfortable living in a society where 91% of rape victims are female, and in eight out of ten cases, the victim knew the perpetrator.

Rather than admit that we have a endemic social crisis on our hands and get down to the painful but honest business of addressing the why's, how's and who's, it's apparently much easier to lay the blame at the feet of the very ones who have been hurt and victimized.

And so we blame the clothing.

It must be the clothing.

Even though studies have shown again and again that rape is not just about sexual release, but about power, we still want to make someone culpable. But for some reason, it's not the rapists, molesters, predators, we want to keep accountable. We want "both sides" to be accountable.

Even though there have been art exhibits showing the clothing worn by sexual assault victims, and the overwhelming percentage of them are not sexy in the slightest.

It's a symptom of a sick society. It's a symptom of a society still steeped into patriarchal practices and cultural mores. And for some reason, millennia later, we're still drinking this poison.

And for me...a former pastor's daughter who was raised in church, it's nowhere more ugly than it is when it's practiced in the "name of God" and happens within the Church.

I am just starting to understand how much of my former belief and life in Christian community has been steeped into the movement of Purity Culture and modesty as dictated by Patriarchy. I can't pinpoint the exact place and moments I learned it, but I grew up understanding that my body was the source of temptation and potential illicit thoughts and behaviors by the boys and men in my life. I learned that I had to guard it like a precious treasure and keep it locked down so that I didn't cause my fellow brethren to stumble.

I didn't hear any teaching on not objectifying women's bodies or isolating specific body parts and using them for sexual gratification or pleasure. It was more about us females keeping it locked down and covered up until such a time (marriage) as it was permissible and then anything could go. (The harm in this way of thinking is another post unto itself for another day.)

This is why during the Jesus Movement as young hippies were flooding into churches with their mini skirts, they were given ugly elastic-banded skirts to cover up, lest their thighs....well, you get the picture.

This is why some churches had a "no shorts on campus" policies -- lest the smoothly shaven legs of an adolescent girl tempt the boys into lusting. Although this didn't stop a boy off a church campus who was two years older than me from running his hand up my fourteen-year-old ankle past my knee up to my thigh and sighing, "Smooth...just the way it should be."

As if it were his God-ordained right to put his hands on my body and pronounce it acceptable. I didn't have the courage or words to voice how violating and objectifying it felt sitting next to him in that backseat for the duration of the car ride. 

You might say, well that was then...we've come along way since.

Have we, though?

The recent public groping of Ariana Grande on stage and on camera tells me that we have not come nearly far enough. Again, it's another post for another day, but you can clearly tell from her body language that the bishop's invasive and unrelenting touch is unwelcome and uncomfortable. His non-apology sealed the deal for me that we haven't gotten the message as a collective society. And scrolling through many of the news articles and posts, the number of women who shared that they understood Grande's likely distress was heartbreaking and more so because they were responding as women who had been groped and abused within the church.

And then came the questions....and the loudest was, "why did she wear that short black dress?"

The church could and should be doing better. We need to stop focusing on women's attire (or lack thereof), their speech, the way they sing, move their bodies, and general way of being, well...women as an indictment and proof of our intrinsic intent to lead men into lust and sin. (We can't even get into the many cultures that do not fetishize breasts but see them as means to feed offspring and thus, do not even bother to cover them.)

Because there are so many of us who are hurting and have been broken down by the very culture we live within. And there are many who still look to the Church as a safe haven for their weary souls. And what are we concerned with? Whether or not they are showing too much cleavage.

Truly, one of the saddest things I ever witnessed happened in the bathroom of a very prominent evangelical church. I was in line to use one of the stalls and a young woman who was very visibly distraught (you could tell she had been crying) was hurriedly trying to clean up stuff off of the not so-big-counter. From what I could deduce from the hiking backpack next to her and the toiletries and towels and random gear out, she had been trying to use the sink to "clean up" (her hair was wet, etc) during the worship portion. As we women are wont to do, we flooded out during the transition time and her private cleaning up quickly turned into a show. She seemed embarrassed.

We all just sort of waited in line and watched her struggle to get her items in her pack. There was some serious distressed energy pouring off of her and because I was a visitor and wasn't sure of what to do/say, I didn't do/say anything. I will add that she was wearing a very low cut tank top over a very colorful lacy bra which was very visible.

But then an older woman spoke up who was in line ahead of me. I recognized her as sitting a few rows ahead of me inside the sanctuary. She had been singing enthusiastically and had responded as part of the prayer team during the time of worship. She looked like a motherly type for someone who honestly looked like she could use a mother in that moment. So I was ready for her to say something of import to this young woman. 

And you know what she said? 

"Dear, you might want to put on another shirt or sweater, because it gets pretty chilly inside the sanctuary and we wouldn't want you to be cold."

My insides crumbled because the way she said it left zero doubt that it was not out of concern for this young woman's comfort but out of a desire to cover her up. All of us in that line understood that this was a passive-aggressive way to shame this young women into changing or putting on more clothing.

I shuffled into the next available stall and struggled with what I should say or do. And I didn't honestly didn't know. So I washed my hands, dried them and slid a decorative button over towards her that she had overlooked and said something lame about guessing it belonged to her. 

And then I left.

I'm not proud of that. I went back inside the not-chilly-at-all "sanctuary" and saw the back of that lady's head, shaking in affirmation over the points made in the sermon.  As my shock and sorrow subsided, I could feel the anger building inside because here was this distraught young woman IN CHURCH -- the very place she should be welcomed and she was being told, "you don't look right. Please change. Your boobs might cause my husband/son/friend to stumble and that's more important than the state of your heart/soul."

I resolved to find that young woman and try to say something. To do something. But when I went back, I couldn't find her. And I never saw the young woman again.

I have a lot of regret about what I didn't do or say that day. But, I'm grateful in a way that it still stings because it forever changed the way I think of modesty and its place in our society and within the Church. I hope that young woman found someone else who was kind to her that day who didn't talk about her clothes, her intent or her modesty, but told her that she was of value, and that she bore the image of Christ.

I so desperately hope she heard that message and received it. Because I am her. She is me. We must rise up as a collective society and refuse to sexualize bodies and clothing and anything else that will make the awful statistic of 1 out of 3 go any lower. I refuse any notion that one day I would look around at one of two beloved women of this Sisterhood and wonder which one is the statistic.

This. Must. Change.

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