Well, this week has been fun. I remembered why I hate talking about modesty. So I’m going to talk about it some more.
I’m going to talk about it in terms of consent and context, which totally revolutionized this whole conversation for me.
One of the biggest problems with the typical modesty wars is the assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, should be seen as inherently sexual, and must be seen as inherently sexual. There’s an assumption that any time a woman wants to look attractive, she’s somehow seeking male attention, sexual attention, or wrong attention. There’s an assumption that “looking good” is prideful.
There is no concept of the beauty, power, and goodness of the female body apart from sexuality.
I completely reject this idea. It’s a byproduct of a culture uncomfortable with the female body (looking at you, Christian West) and exploitative of the female body (looking at you, current culture).
Most of the women fed up with being told they’re a stumblingblock to men aren’t, as people often assume, wanting to do away with concepts of decency and appropriateness. They want to do away with the idea that their bodies are inherently sexual, all day, every day, no matter what they’re wearing, doing, or saying.
Many articles talk about how clothing “speaks” — and I agree, it does. Clothing conveys meaning. Clothing informs a social conversation, a social dynamic. The problem is that some people, having it drilled into their heads that women’s bodies are sexy, sexy, sexy, have become deaf to the other facets of the social conversation.
Here are some of the women sick of the stumblingblock argument:
The woman who had a change of heart about dressing modestly, layering her low-cut shirts with a tank top to hide all cleavage, and was still told on two separate occasions to wear a higher top.
The girl who was asked to change her tank top to a t-shirt lest she cause her biological brothers to stumble.
The woman who was catcalled while wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves.
The girl wearing a cute vintage one-piece that prompted a guy to tell her he had to avert his eyes because of her bared thighs.
The woman who was sexually assaulted while dressed in her conservative best.
The young teenager who “caused” adult males at church to sin by wearing a shirt with a normal neckline.
The big-busted lady whose breasts and butt are prominent in whatever outfit she chooses.
What’s the common theme in all of these instances of violation and lust? I’ll give you a hint: not skimpy clothes.
In all of these situations, none of the women were signalling sexual attention. None of them were engaging in a context that invited sexual attention. Not even their clothes were asking for sexual attention. Sexuality was imposed over and against every other cultural cue in these interactions, simply because they had female bodies.
That’s the problem here — when the sexualization of female bodies gets superimposed onto nonsexual situations.
Do women actually seek sexual attention? Of course. Do women use clothing to seek sexual attention? Of course. Should you assume a woman is seeking sexual attention based solely on how much skin is showing or what article of clothing she is wearing? No.
I say no with such vehemence because clothing by itself, divorced from context and consent, is not as clear a message as people make it out to be.
Our society doesn’t agree on what counts as “modest” or “immodest” clothes. (Check out the comments on my last post if you need any proof of that.) This guarantees a confused conversation. This guarantees distress on both sides, men insisting that women are trying to be sexy when they wear X and women insisting that they’re just trying to live their lives.
The elixir of clarity in this mess is not, as some posit, women adhering to a dress code. The solution is factoring in other social cues into the conversation — namely, context and consent.
But before we go there, we need to get rid of the toxic assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual.
Christine Woolgar cuts through the modesty kerfuffle with the most reasonable and rarely heard suggestion: modesty is not about the body; it’s about knowing when to display your “glory” and how to display it without excluding others.
This eliminates the underlying assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and by extension, inherently inappropriate for view.
For many women, attractive bodies are their glory. There is absolutely nothing wrong for a woman to draw attention to her figure or dress — for the right reasons, in the right context. There is nothing absolutely sexual about a woman drawing attention to her figure or dress. An attractive dress or an exposure of skin does not automatically make her prideful, sexual, or inappropriate.
And, incidentally, if a woman is displaying her glory appropriately, in the right context, she should be prepared for people noticing her glory.
Let’s talk about complimenting women.
If a man stops a woman on the sidewalk to say, “You look nice in that dress!” she will probably feel threatened and degraded and walk away thinking he’s a creep. “But she was displaying herself!” the poor man might protest. “She was wearing an attractive dress! Shouldn’t I have the right to comment on something she chose to wear in public?”
No, because clothing alone does not get the last word.
The context of a sidewalk and a strange guy does not invite attention. In fact, that’s the classic scenario for a scary, uncomfortable situation.
But change the context to a night out dancing, and you’ve got a totally different situation. People dress up to go dancing. They go dancing to interact with people. There’s an understanding that flirting and small talk — including niceties such as “You look good in that dress!” — are accepted. There’s common ground between the guy and the girl, a mutual understanding of why they’re here and what their interaction might be.
This context gives extra meaning to people’s dress, words, actions, and intentions. When somebody dresses up for dancing, she’s probably okay with getting attention on her appearance. When somebody gives a compliment, he comes across more as a gentleman than a creep.
That’s the power of context.
Context is more than just a place. It extends to who the individual is and what your relationship with that person is. We automatically know not to feel attraction for our relatives or minors. We automatically know that a stripper at work wants a sexual response. And if we know the individual, we’re aware of how he or she perceives things — or how they perceive us. Our relationship gives us insight into how we should perceive or interact with another.
But there’s another crucial element in this social conversation — consent.
Consent operates on all three levels — clothing, context, and signalling.
If a woman is standing in the back of the dance floor, arms crossed, her signals outweigh whatever she’s wearing or whatever context she is in — she is not interested in attention. She is clearly not consenting to whatever is happening in this context or whatever associations people are making with her clothes. She wants to be left alone.
It’s consent that makes up context. If a workplace establishes a dress code that forbids cleavage for ladies and bare chests for guys, they’re not consenting to a woman coming in with her boobs spilling out over her push up bra or a guy walking in shirtless to purchase his gas. A nudist colony consents to viewing and displaying nudity in a nonsexual way. Our society has not consented to public displays of nudity.
This makes it inappropriate to wear certain clothes to work, to walk around naked on Main Street, or to claim nudists are trying to tempt you sexually.
Consent applies to what you’re willing to wear and potentially convey, too, especially as your context and signalling changes.
If you’re going to display cleavage, you’re going to have to be okay with people noticing your cleavage. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub, you’re going to have to be okay with people assuming you’re drawing attention to your well-endowed figure. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub and make eyes at the dashing man across the room, you’re going to have to be okay with him interpreting your signals as a flirtatious advancement — maybe even a sexual one.
Does all of this automatically mean a woman wants sexual attention? Nope. After all, language still gets garbled — maybe she was unaware of how sexy her dress looks, or maybe she meant to be friendly rather than flirty.
But it does mean that it’s unrealistic to speak the language of sexual attraction loud and clear and get horribly offended if someone interprets it that way.
You’ve got to be aware of what your clothes, context, and signals convey in combination with each other. That’s knowing how to speak the social conversation.
That’s the essence of decency.
How is this different than arguing that women shouldn’t wear X article of clothing because it conveys sexiness or that men shouldn’t be expected not to interpret her clothing choices as a cry for sexual attention?
I’m arguing for a whole person, big picture approach — one that takes into consideration more than just a female body and/or a particular article of clothing.
Instead of trotting out the much-used bikini, I’m going to turn the gender tables and talk about shirtless men.
Is a shirtless man signalling sexual attention in and of itself? Depending on your experience or inclination, yes or no. Does he give consent for certain parts of the body to be noticed (not ogled, noticed)? Yes. If you’re ogling a guy simply for being shirtless, you’re potentially misreading the situation. If you notice his toned abs, you’re being a normal human with eyeballs.
Move on to the context. Is the context signalling sexual attention in and of itself? If it’s a beach, probably not. If it’s a sorority beach party where all the hot young singles come to hook up, potentially. If it’s the Bachelorette at the poolside with all her boyfriends and he’s one of those boyfriends, yes, he’s definitely presenting himself sexually.
And then finally, consensual signals. Is he swimming with his family? Probably not interested. Leave him alone. Is he reading a book on his beach towel? Probably not interested. Is he flirting with a group of girls? He might be. Did he laugh nervously and turn away when you made a comment about his abs? Not. Interested. (But don’t beat yourself up for making an honest mistake.)
Bodies are not (or should not be) the problem. An article of clothing is not (or should not be) the problem. The problem is when men equate “female body part shown” with “sex,” even when her signals and her context are screaming loudly that she has no interest in sexual attention.
The problem is when women ignore how they’re coming across in a particular context with their particular signals.
The problem is that many people won’t allow a context for nudity or physical beauty apart from sexuality.
And the problem is that not everybody interprets clothes, context, and signals in the same way.
The solution is paying attention to the cultural conversation that clothes, context, and signalling speak. Hopefully we can come to a clearer language that leaves everybody less frustrated, misunderstood, and objectified.
P.S. Want more modesty talk? Here’s my favorite momsplanation on decent dress. And seriously, read Christine’s piece, “Modesty 101: Modesty Is Not About Clothes, Rather Glory and Context.”