Modesty Culture Is Bullying Culture

Once upon a time, my high school relationships class was separated by gender and tasked with each making a list of things the other gender does to cause your gender sexual temptation.  When the boys returned, their list was proudly headlined with this item:

Bending at the waist

Brett's Banana

Somehow nobody cared when we were trying to be suggestive.

That wasn’t the only odd item on the list– “playing erotically with straws and other objects” was another, opening the door for us girls to constantly wonder whether what we were doing with a straw might be considered erotic–but that particular entry stands out in my memory as the clearest evidence of the obvious: Teenage boys will be horny no matter what you do.

I attended a Christian school, hence why we were making the lists in the first place, so while there was a lot of laughing and heckling, we didn’t actually throw the boys’ list out the window, but rather extracted from them a more specific description of what, exactly, entailed appropriate and inappropriate waist-bending, and dutifully promised to avoid the latter.  Purity culture did its thing and life went on.

It’s only now that I can look back and wonder: Why did we feel the need to make lists of appropriate and inappropriate behavior to keep other people from lusting after us when it was copiously apparent that it wouldn’t do any good?  Why was it assumed that the best people to control teenage boys’ thoughts and actions were not the teenage boys, but the teenage girls?

There’s another phrase, this one from elementary and middle school, that stands out in my memory, and maybe yours too:

Just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.

Remember that?  It was what everyone–teachers, principals, counselors, your own parents–would tell you when you were being bullied.  It was never the bullies’ job to leave you alone, nor yet the authority figures’ job to make them behave: It was your job and your job only.  It never worked.  How could it?  Even setting aside the impossibility of not doing anything that could be construed as a response (even calmly walking away got treated as a victory), bullies didn’t want a response.  They wanted to exert their power over weaker kids.  Ignoring them only proved that you were one of the weaker kids who wouldn’t give them any trouble.

All those teachers and principals had to know this.  Why did they keep giving you advice that they knew wouldn’t work?

Now that I’m older, I can see the social-engineering aspect of that approach.  Bullied kids disturbed the appearance of a well-ordered classroom and made the teacher look bad.  Not so much the bullying itself, which could happen very unobtrusively, but the complaints and obvious misery of the victims.  Dealing with the bullies would solve the problem, but it was much simpler to deal with the victims.  Give them a “solution” that doesn’t work.  Then, when they continue to be victimized, blame them for not using the solution correctly.  The bullying is now their own fault and you can, with impunity, tell them to can it and stop being so obviously miserable*.

Bullying culture is, thank God, finally becoming unacceptable, as programs are launched that focus on preventing kids from bullying, mobilizing bystanders, and creating a safe environment, rather than simply giving the victims a list of dos and don’ts.  But modesty culture is prominent and growing.  And it uses the exact same logic.

The culture warriors left me alone because they weren't sure I was a girl.

The culture warriors left me alone because they weren’t sure I was a girl.  (But can you spot the purity ring?)

Just like the victims of bullying, girls are told that the unwanted attention they receive is their own fault.  They are given a list of rules to follow to prevent that attention.  It’s an open secret that the rules don’t work (or are impossible to follow), but when they fail and the teenage boys shockingly continue to be horny, the girls are blamed for not following the rules closely enough.  Thus the girls are recast as the offenders and the boys as the innocent victims.  The girls and their desires, complaints, ideas, and struggles can then safely be discounted, because they “have no self-respect” and just look how they torment those poor boys.

It’s no different than telling the kid with glasses that he ought to be different if he doesn’t want to get bullied.  And it’s just as reprehensible.

Oh, and if you’re an adult male and you’ve ever thought a thirteen-year-old was dressed “provocatively?”  The neighborhood cops may have some questions for you.

*My sixth-grade teacher told me to stop crying in class after I had been bullied.  I called her a jerk and got sent to the principal’s office, an early experience in the dangers of speaking truth to power.



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3 responses to “Modesty Culture Is Bullying Culture

  1. Great post, katz!

    [Content note: sexual harassment]

    By the way, I think this report is relevant to this entry, specifically the part of being told to ignore bullies:

    Only 9% of harassers interviewed unintentionally harassed other people. The remaining 91% intentionally harassed people. Moreover, the most commonly reported reaction to sexual harassment was ignoring the harasser, yet harassment victims generally were negatively impacted, claiming that they felt sick to their stomachs, didn’t want to go to school, had difficulty concentrating, couldn’t fall asleep, and so on.

    Of course, this is just sexual harassment, but sexual harassment and bullying go hand-in-hand very frequently.

  2. Claiming that it’s girls’ responsibility to prevent sexual harassment always struck me as a ridiculous, seeing that in cultures where women wear burqas, they still get raped.

    @Ally S- in my personal experience, ignoring sexual harassment really doesn’t make you feel better. I had repeated encounters with a man and at first I was too shocked to do anything but walk away. But finally I confronted him and it was such an empowering experience that I actually remember it favourably.

    About modesty culture in general, I agree that it has destructive potential. However, secular society tends to dismiss modesty culture as solely oppressive, while ignoring certain benefits that can be learned from it. For example, women wanting separate bathing time and a female lifeguard at beaches and pools can be seen as part of an oppressive culture forcing segregation. Or, you can reframe it as the women desiring to enjoy themselves in a safe space, free from the male gaze.

    Obviously, a healthy modesty culture depends on the emphasis put on the men’s personal responsibility for their own conduct. That is, acknowledging their own control over their thoughts and desires.

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