not in Primary anymore

policing modesty

Guest post by Darryl Reid. Darryl is an activist, writer, and photographer from Ontario, Canada.

It is often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hope you’ll forgive me if I reword it in a more atheistic way. The road to oppression is paved with good intentions. The oppression isn’t always as obvious as a paperback copy of 1984. Most often it is wrapped in flowery language and the gentle comforter of love and protection.

A perfect example of this is the Modesty Doctrine. If you grew up in the church -like I did- or have spent any time around it you’ll know what I am talking about, so forgive me if I don’t waste valuable space rehashing what the modesty doctrine is. Type the word modesty in the search field of lds.org and you’ll get hundreds of hits.

So how is the Modesty Doctrine oppressive to women? Modesty is not about fashion nor is it about protecting women. It’s about control of the female body; a control men feel entitled to in order to maintain privilege and power over women by controlling the ways they use and think about their bodies.

To grasp how modesty is used to control women, you simply have to look at who controls the narrative of modesty. Who decides what is and isn’t modest? In most cases, it’s men telling women what to wear or say or do or don’t do. Modesty is not about what women feel comfortable wearing, and it’s not about a woman’s agency to decide what she will wear, or how she chooses to present herself to others. Modesty is about what men feel comfortable with.

An example to illustrate this point: an old friend went on a date with a young man in her YSA ward. The young man seemed uncomfortable and stopped the date early, going home without explanation. The next day she received an e-mail from the young man saying that he was uncomfortable with the t-shirt she chose to wear on the date and that it was immodest. He then admonished her to be more modest in the future.

Did you notice it? How this man views this woman? He wasn’t concerned with her feelings. Because he was uncomfortable she had to change. He felt that she was the cause of his discomfort and that he had a right to tell her how to dress.

This ‘blame the woman’ attitude is old and deeply intrenched in the psyche of patriarchal society, which often sees female sexuality as monstrous. Kathleen Barry notes in her pamphlet The Vagina on Trial: The Institution and Psychology of Rape:

[W]omen have been led to believe for so long that they have an uncontrollable sexuality which victimizes men and makes females innately promiscuous -a myth that we must believe at the same time that we believe all women are frigid.”

This is the double bind women in the LDS church face. On one hand they are seen as sexual objects and yet they are threatened, slut-shamed and shunned if they express any kind of sexuality. Even when directed at men it’s only in the context of encouraging or shunning women into being modest.

Neither is there excuse for young men to bare and expose their bodies. The fellows could show courage and good judgment if they encouraged their young women friends to wear modest clothing. If a young man would not date a young woman who is improperly clothed, the style would change very soon.”

(Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, Chapter 17: The Law of Chastity)

In the patriarchal mind the only reason a women would dress in revealing clothing is to arouse and entice men. As the quote above implies, if men stop giving attention to women they’ll stop trying to entice men. Forget that it’s hot outside or that she is comfortable wearing those clothes, men suspect it is only to seek sexual attention from men.

Here’s the real question that’ll blow your mind: Why aren’t women allowed to seek sexual attention from men? I see men in the church do it all that time, I see guys with shorts above the knee, shirts off, falling over themselves to get attention from women, yet when a women does the same she is a slut (or the equalling cutting but more benign phrase “immodest”). This is the other side of modesty, the de-sexualizing of the person. Women in the church are expected to act as if they don’t ever think of sex. If they do express their sexuality it’s an act of immodesty. Believe it or not women like sex! As much as men do. Women even look at pornography at similar rates as men do. So why are men in the church so frequently given the ol’ porn talk while the women hardly ever have it? Because women are too pure to ever want to look at porn, and women must be too virginal to think about sex.

Further to this -and contrary to popular belief- the modesty mentality actually sexualizes the female body and turns it into a sexual object much the way pornography does. Pornography is edited and shot in such a way that it disassembles the female body into a series of sexual objects to be used for the pleasure of others (mostly men). Modesty works in reverse but it is still obsessed with objects such as shoulders, thighs, legs, stomach, breasts and so on. In response to an incident where a group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem spit on an eight year old girl and called her a slut because they accused her of being immodest, Rabbi Dov Linzer said:

The Modesty obsessed gaze is looking at sexual objects not at a human being. Those men who spit on that girl saw her not as a little innocent girl like decent humans would but as a sexual object that offended them. This is not out of concern for temples (the body) or for women in general, it is out of misogyny. When a man is offended by a woman’s revealing clothing it is because he sees her as a sexual object, not a person with desires, dreams, plans ambitions; she is simply a series of sexual objects.”

So how then does a doctrine that blames women, sexualizes their bodies and attempts to control a fundamentally personal part of their life protect women from sin, assault, rape or objectification? Simply put: it can’t, because it’s part of the same structure of oppression that victimizes women, that keeps women in their place as second class citizens. Thus, it comes from the same misogyny that blames women for their victimization. And that’s just contradictory.

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20 Responses to “policing modesty”

  1. Roseanna

    great explanation. Is there a reference you could point me to for this quote: “Women even look at pornography at similar rates as men do.” I’ve never read this before and it would be a great piece of evidence to point to.

    Reply
  2. Darryl Reid

    Some studies show between 60-80% of women Consume porn, where as the rate of male consumption is at about 90-99% (Depends on what studies you look into.) So yes, Men are the typical consumers of pornography, and consume more porn then women, women do in fact consume porn at only a slightly lower rate. Also that percentage is growing.

    Reply
  3. Ryan

    Darrel,

    Your articulation of the sexual objectification of the female body is extremely clear. Thank you for this amazing contribution.

    Reply
  4. Ryan

    Roseanna, as far as I know, the research varies. However, I’ve been told that the most recent research shows that while men do consume more pornography, consumption by women is increasing and approaching the levels of consumption by men.

    Reply
  5. erichansen137

    IMHO, True modesty is more a state of mind than specific types of clothing. I’ve seen men and women act extremely immodest while fully clothed compared to my wife wearing a very good-looking (biased, I know) swimsuit who conducts herself modestly.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Men are more drawn to visual pornography, whereas women are drawn to erotica fiction-i.e. 50 Shades of Grey. All you need do is look at how many millions of copies of those books were bought by women to see the rising trend.

    Reply
  7. Sarah

    Interesting thoughts. I really liked how you pointed out that modesty is mostly directed at women and pornography talks are directed to men. Both genders need both lessons. I don’t really see modesty as a sexuality issue, I see it more as creating good habits so you can wear garments properly – for both women AND men.

    Reply
  8. Jchalk

    It seems the author is more sexually minded than most are. Verfolgungswahn. Look it up.

    Reply
  9. Pagan

    Very articulate article and lots of good points here. But there’s something wrong back up at the top with the beginning premise:

    you simply have to look at who controls the narrative of modesty. Who decides what is and isn’t modest? In most cases, it’s men telling women what to wear or say or do or don’t do.

    While that’s a popular assumption (that it’s mostly men who enforce female modesty) the historical record demonstrates that it’s actually women who are more active in regulating and enforcing female modesty (and female sexuality). Analysis based on sex ratios in various cultures, mother-daughter communications, and an understanding of which gender most benefits from modesty, all point to women as the ones more in control of the modesty narrative.

    Think about it this way: from an evolutionary and resource supply point of view, a more open female sexuality (and less modesty) is much more threatening to other women than to men. Women (especially older women) have much more to gain by suppressing their sexual competition (and its signals via immodest dress or actions). Men, by contrast, have more to gain by the exact opposite. Just ask a testosterone-rich, heterosexual male (in his honest moments) whether he typically prefers to to see none-at-all or a tantalizing amount of skin on other women. Unless he’s thinking of his own sisters, I think we all know his answer here. Hence, women do more policing and control of the modesty narrative.

    The reality is, there’s a lot more Mean Girls (the movie) type female policing of female modesty than there is male policing of female modesty. I’m not sure why we’re afraid to admit and address that.

    Reply
    • Roseanna

      You have a point that it is often women enforcing the trappings of patriarchy. However that doesn’t mean that the concept of police-like modesty was started by women. I am skeptical of that evolutionary psychology scenario. It’s quite possible that women are more invested in maintaining the system for similar reasons that the disenfranchised or less powerful are often more attached to the status quo. They have less power in the system and can’t afford to either think or speak outside its bounds.

      (Some historical/literary examples: in Downton Abbey, one of the aristocracy turns to a butler and asks how he would feel if he were “free” to do work other than that of a servant. He is insulted by the suggestion that his work is not already dignified enough for him, because he takes great pride in his work and his position as the servant of a great house. Similarly, in Gone With The Wind the black characters often have disdain for “freed” slaves and hold loyally to their old “owners” because they so fully identify with their roles as dignified House Slaves and near-members of the family. Point being, those who hold strongly to the systems that are simultaneously oppressing them aren’t necessarily the originators of the system, but potentially those who are already held back by it. That was part of the point of Mean Girls, too.)

      Reply
  10. Tom

    Before Queen Victoria (the Victorian age) people were more free with their bodies. The queen seemed to be either obsessed with fashion, or had serious problems with body image. (body shame)

    Women tend to be more self conscious of their bodies, particularly if they feel their body isn’t perfect. Much of the blame for that is the celebrity industry, both actresses and actors are expected to have perfect bodies.
    I say both men and women, however the movie industry is much more intolerant with women who don’t have perfect bodies than with men. Either way you don’t see many of either gender that are not beautiful or handsome.

    Both genders are objectified by the movie industry. Women more than men. There are a lot more bad jokes about the female body by these so called comedians than there are about men. The movie industry allows men to be more sexually seductive than women.

    This body image is what drives women to be the ones who enforce the body cover up more than the men do.

    If we people were not so obsessed with the way the body looks, and if we were not so obsessed with covering the body the issue of modesty wouldn’t be such an area of contention.

    When I was in high school in the 1960’s it was the time of the sleeveless dresses and the mini skirts. The majority of the girls wore sleeveless dresses and the hem line was commonly about half way from the knee up to the body. When boys and girls were not in school during the warm time of the year a lot more skin was on display, and NO ONE THOUGHT MUCH ABOUT IT. Since that time fashions have changed, not because the prude crowd complained about the skin, but simply because the fashion designers looked for ways to make their designs different, girls started wearing pants, the colors went to mostly dark colors, sleeves to the wrist etc. Now when some one dares to try to go back to the earlier designs where there was more visible skin, they are deemed as immodest.

    Whats also interesting is with the more covered up modesty there are more rapes and sex crimes, more pornography addictions, more same gender attraction, and a lot more body shame.

    Reply
  11. Riley

    I do recognize that often women are focused on when it comes to talking about modesty, and I don’t agree with it. I believe men need to hear it more than they do. That being said it seems the implication from this article is that we should stop teaching the importance of being modest altogether.

    A basic gospel principle is that our bodies are important and sacred, essential for God’s plan for us. It seems to me that learning to properly use and function with our physical bodies is one of our most important goals in our mortal life. Is it not fair to say that learning how to properly respect the sacred nature of our physical bodies includes how to dress it?

    Reply
  12. Jared

    A lot of insightful points, Hannah. As a guy, I agree–men do think about women’s choice of clothing as an effort to get their attention (wishful thinking, I guess)–and I appreciate your illustration of the double-standard at play in our culture. Men are (implicitly) encouraged to see women as sexual objects, and women are made to accept that perspective while being discouraged from having any sexual desires of their own. No wonder Utah leads the country in porn. And plastic surgery.

    The funny thing is, I don’t think men want this system any more than you do. We certainly don’t want to control or diminish women’s desires. If anything, we’re just as frustrated as you are about the situation. I’ve never heard a guy complain that his wife enjoys sex too much; I’ve heard the opposite plenty of times. And as much as guys on TV are depicted as being superficial, when I talk with real men about real women, we don’t talk about their bodies. We talk about their characters, their personalities, their passions. So maybe we men aren’t villains in this story, either.

    What do we do about this? I agree that modesty as currently taught is wrong-minded and objectifying. Should we push for a redefinition of modesty? One that doesn’t look like the Law of Moses–focused on the external? Or maybe it’s sex itself that we need to redefine. Sex is intent, not appearance (as the pornographers would have us believe). I’m interested in hearing more of your thoughts on the matter.

    Reply
  13. Darryl Reid

    First off: I wrote the post as it says in the opening this is a guest post.

    Secondly your argument from what I can pars of it is problematic. at one point you wrote:

    “I’ve never heard a guy complain that his wife enjoys sex too much; I’ve heard the opposite plenty of times.”

    Is this not a sexist sentiment? Men complaining that their wives don’t want to have sex with them as often as the men want them too. Those men should be thanking God every hour of every day that a women would ever want to have sex with them let alone cry about how they don’t give it up enough. Then there’s the stereotyping of Women as being frigid and a-sexual; a myth used to control women and shame them for when they want sex and enjoy sex because men are just so insecure that the idea that a women who actually likes sex is to much for them to bear.

    From what I can figure you are saying: because I’m not a sexist, sexism doesn’t exist.

    My question is: why did what I wrote bother you? I mean if you agree then why try to make a counter point? If men are so frustrated with the system why aren’t more men fighting against it? Why are the women in my life still being subjected to the modesty doctrine?

    Anyway I just woke up and I’m on my third cup of coffee so I’m a bit jumpy.

    Reply
  14. Riley

    I’ll just throw out there I thought Hannah was the author as well.

    I also agree with a lot of what was said but Jared asked the questions I didn’t, namely, “what do we do?” What is the call to action. The implied solution I get from this is that modesty shouldn’t be taught; is that what you are trying to imply? Is there a distinction between “modesty doctrine” and the teaching of modesty altogether?

    Reply
  15. Pat

    I have heard these arguments many times but I would like to know how modesty should be taught, if at all.

    Reply
  16. aweyendp@gmail.com

    We are not planning to explain exactly what a write-up like this may ‘sound’ like, as it’s going to differ from person to person and topic to topic. – All facets of screenwriting is going to be taught, like the essential elements and technical language of screenwriting.

    Reply

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