At first glance, it would seem that the push for modesty is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “raunch culture” — the trend in society to hyper-focus on sexuality (particularly women’s sexuality), which encompasses everything from short skirts to athletes posing in porno mags. Indeed, those who crusade for modesty often cite expressions of raunch culture as why people (mostly women) need to “cover up,” and there are many aspects of raunch culture that can be attributed to a backlash against forced modesty.
But, what if they were just two sides of the same sex-negative coin? What if they were just two different ways of controlling women’s sexuality? Looking at it another way, isn’t it just a new spin on the Madonna/Whore complex?
I. Why the concept of “modesty” is sex-negative
When I talk about “modesty” here, I’m not talking about people who prefer to dress in a more conservative style. I’m not talking about people finding baggy shirts more comfortable, or those who favour pants over skirts (I would be one of them, although I’m re-thinking that given that Japan summer is really hot). Nor am I talking about choosing not to wear makeup. When I talk about “modesty”, I’m not talking about the way we, personally, choose live our lives, but rather the cultural push for “modesty” and the baggage that comes with it.
The primary idea behind modesty is that the human body should be covered up for reasons other than warmth or fashion. In modern Western culture, it is often (but not always) supported by religious arguments, which interact with the secular ideas of gender essentialism. Often there is an undercurrent of disgust for the human body, as well as an objectification element, especially when it pertains to women.
At best, women are told that they’re “unprofessional” if they don’t fit some arbitrary version of modesty, at worst it’s used to blame them for transgressions comitted by men. We’ve all heard the “short skirt” defense for rape, and that’s just the most visible of the “boys will be boys” arguments. Some of the more extreme proponents of modesty campaign against not only “raunchy” clothing that emphasizes cleavage and/or butts, but also tank tops, shorts, and bikinis because they show a lot of skin.
Modesty, as it is pushed in Western society, relies on defining for people what parts of their bodies are, and are not, acceptable in public, or even semi-private places. It uses tactics of shame and guilt in order to force people to comply with its guidelines, and in many cases “modesty” guidelines are part of laws (ex. many states still hold that a topless woman is indecent, whereas a topless man is not) and dress codes. In that way, it is very much a part of, and a method of perpetuating, a sexually negative culture.
II. Why “raunch culture” is anything but sexually liberating
There are a lot of aspects of sexual culture that we, as individuals, can find as liberating. In a very personal way, I can understand how freeing it can be to give a big middle finger to the “morality police” and wear clothing that I choose because I want to wear it. After a year of being forced by an abusive boyfriend to wear the shapless, baggy clothes of his choosing, I’d have to say finally being free to figure out my own style definitely counted as “liberating” for me. Now if I choose to wear my “boy” shirts and “boy” pants, I know it’s because I want to, and I know that tomorrow I could just as easily choose the cleavage shirt and short skirt that lives next to it in my closet.
That said, just as the choice to adopt “modest” dress does not live in a vaccum, neither does the choice to wear “revealing” clothing. There is a lot of pressure on young girls to adopt a particular style of dress. Now, there’s a lot of pressure in every subgroup to adopt the clothing style, as well as the lifestyle, and men are subject to that, too. But take that, and add it to the pressure for women to enact being “sluts” while still (mostly) remaining “virginal” and commercialize it by having visible female role models hawking it, popular culture normalizing it, and the “moral police” making it taboo (and therefore more enticing) by saying, “no, no, no, that’s bad,” and what do we get? Well, as Ariel Levy puts it, “What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.” (Female Chauvinist Pigs, p. 5)
But what, exactly does this brand of sexuality say about the concept of sexuality if it is, indeed, sold as the expression of female sexuality? Just like “modesty” puts the onus on women to cover up, so does “raunch culture” put the onus on women not to cover up. Female sexuality is turned into something that is primarily for entertaining the men, and if a woman says that she isn’t into that kind of exhibitionism then she is often labeled as “prude,” or “frigid,” or “puritain” (I got that one when I was younger, joy of joys), or some other implication that she is somehow bad for not submitting to being an object of their lust.
Raunch culture guilts and shames women into putting on a sexual performance for men, whether they want to or not. It sets up a “right” way to express sexuality, and by pushing the notion that men are entitled to sexual gratification, even if it’s just in the form of women wearing low-cut shirts, it ignores the fact that true sexual liberation comes from people being able to make choices about what makes them happy without being guilted and/or shamed into acting a certain way. In that way, it is very much a part of, and a method of perpetuating, a sexually negative culture.
One aspect at the heart of sexually negative culture is holding women responsible for men’s lust. Modesty, for its part, claims that women provoke men’s lust*, this is bad, and therefore women should be covered up so as not to “tempt” the men. Raunch culture may see men’s lust as a positive, but in this case the response is to encourage women not to cover up, because men’s lust should be catered to. In both of these scenarios, two positions that take the opposite side on an issue (men’s lust) do it from the same frame: that women’s sexuality is the province of men, not the women whose sexuality it is. And that, at least for the women involved, is sexually negative.
* Just to be clear here, I’m using “men’s lust” to mean the dominant paradigm for men’s lust that’s used in these cases, which includes the idea that men are entitled to sexual gratification, that to get off they need to objectify and dehumanize women, and that this is not so much a “bad” thing as it is a biological “fact.” I’m perfectly aware that the reality of what men do, and do not, find attractive is a much more complex subject.