Purity Culture Part II: Modesty & Rape Culture
If you’re just now joining me for this series on purity culture, welcome. This is part 2 of a 5 part series. Part 1 provided a working definition of purity culture, and an overview of its impact on an entire generation. This week we’re exploring modesty and its direct result; rape culture. [Content Warning: rape, sexual assault, violence against women and girls]
Modesty in and of itself is not only subject to purity culture in the context we’ve been discussing it. The concept can be addressed from a much broader perspective of patriarchy, traditional gender rolls and heteronormativity. The reason I mention this is because I want to point out the way in which our society has already primed girls and young women to be accepting of these norms, long before the purity culture movement began in white evangelical subculture.
In one of my very unofficial twitter polls in which I asked anyone who identified as female when they were a child/teenager to respond, 73% of respondents (out of nearly 700) said they were criticized for their clothing choices in some way before their 12th birthday. In the replies, many respondents further clarified their answers to let me know they were criticized about too-revealing clothing as young as 4, 5, and 6 years old. Many of them had vivid memories of being told to sit or act “ladylike” as young as 5. Now I don’t want to digress too far here, as some of this we’ll address later on in part 4 on gender roles. But I wanted you to see just how young girls are when they learn their bodies are problematic. The shaming of female bodies begins well before puberty. This is something we must take into account when discussing modesty within purity culture in the context of evangelical subculture.
Modesty is one of, if not the most harmful and pervasive teachings of purity culture. Teenage girls were taught that their bodies were nothing more than a temptation to teenage boys and men. This is on top of already being taught their gender is responsible for the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and thereby inferior to males. Not to mention that throughout the bible, women are portrayed as temptresses, waiting around to seduce their next victim. A woman’s ultimate sin in the bible almost always revolves around her sexuality. And she’s almost always depicted as the instigator of illicit sexual acts, no matter the circumstances. Teenage boys are taught that all sexual thoughts are not only sinful outside of marriage, but that those thoughts are uncontrollable. They’re taught that men are visual and women are emotional. Implying that they are at the mercy of their sinful sexual impulses. And that the only way to combat them is forcing the women around them to cover up their bodies, and confessing their sinful sexual thoughts to a group or youth pastor or mentor.
And therein lies the most dangerous thing about modesty: it teaches girls they are responsible for male thoughts and actions surrounding sex, and it teaches boys and men that any sexual impulses are sinful in nature and also inescapable/unstoppable. Modesty leaves no other choice but for victims of sexual assault to be blamed for what they were wearing or their behavior. When combined with the biblical model of repentance and forgiveness, it requires the victim to forgive their abuser, and for the abuser to be forgiven and offered grace no matter how heinous their acts (grace as a weapon is a whole other thing that’s despicable, and I’ve written about it before).
Purity culture is rape culture that has been sanctioned as pious, wholesome and righteous.
I want to pause for a moment and say I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the story of David and Bathsheba. This story is infamous in white evangelicalism, as are a lot of the stories about David’s life. But this story in particular is the perfect example of how purity culture so effortlessly embraces rape culture. Here’s the version of the story I was taught was gospel truth:
David’s the king, he’s in his palace and he looks out the window and sees the roof of regular house. On the roof there’s a woman bathing, nude, obviously. And she looks over and sees David watching her and does not make any effort to cover up. David takes this as an invitation. His attraction to her is so strong, that he must have her. He sends his men find out who she is and they report back she is married. David asks them to bring her to him anyway. They spend the night together and she becomes pregnant. He falls in love, and it’s so romantic because he doesn’t want her to betray her wedding vows, so he finds an alternative way to be with her. He sends her husband to front lines of battle, ensuring he never returns home. Thus, making their relationship acceptable in the given time period.
Sounds eerily like an ancient Hallmark movie, their meet-cute was the proximity of her rooftop to the palace windows. The real story? David saw a woman taking a bath on a roof from his window, sent some guys to kidnap her and bring her to him, raped her, got her pregnant. Then he brings her husband home from war to try to get him to have sex with her so everyone will think the baby is her husband’s. When that didn’t work, he conspired to have her husband murdered so he couldn’t be accused of adultery. He then marries her just to play it safe in case anyone’s suspicious. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a Lifetime movie, not a Hallmark movie. This is the man that white evangelical men use as a godly example of manhood. From the very first time I heard a sermon on this story, and throughout my teenage and adult life, I was taught that David was one of god’s favorites, anointed by god. That he was a man after god’s own heart. That despite his flaws, he was an example of redemption and faithfulness.
Is it becoming clear yet how modesty vilifies women’s bodies? How male rapists and abusers are so easily forgiven in churches, believed, allowed to keep their jobs? And why women are not believed, and worse expected to keep quiet to protect the man’s reputation? Hopefully I’ve painted you a picture you’ll never forget.
Rape culture and purity culture are forever intertwined. What links the two is patriarchy. You can think of patriarchy as the parent, which birthed purity culture and rape culture. In the United States, white patriarchy came with the English and European invaders who colonized North America. One could even say their white patriarchal entitlement is what led them to believe they could and should slaughter and enslave millions of black and indigenous people over the course of a few centuries. And what did they use to justify these atrocities? Why the English bible of course. By twisting and using scripture to their own advantage (hello, David!), white men kept themselves in power while largely denying white women (and everyone else who was non-white) any rights whatsoever. The belief that women were inferior in every way- intellectually, emotionally, physically- led to a society of white men who essentially could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Since all of the judges and lawyers and clergy were comprised of white men too, there was no accountability whatsoever.
Just this March a cis white evangelical man marched into two different spas owned by Asian-Americans and murdered 8 people, 6 of them Asian-American. Activist and author Mona Eltahawy wrote about the contrast between how white Christian men are treated and how Muslim men are treated. She writes, “Who but a cis white Christian man who loved “God and guns” could massacre eight people and be arrested alive? Who but a cis white Christian man who has just massacred six Asian women would be taken seriously when he says it was not racially motivated, with the FBI director ruling out that it was a hate crime? Who but a cis white Christian man could massacre seven women and the words “misogyny” and “femicide” are not uttered by law enforcement? Who but a cis white Christian man could massacre Asian women who worked at two spas where he was a customer and his “sex addiction” be centered and taken seriously, even while so many refuse to acknowledge the dangers of fetishizing Asian women and normalizing violence against sex workers?”
These are the benefits of Christian supremacy in America enjoyed by cis white men, and only cis white men.
White patriarchy and by extension, purity culture, encourages and perpetuates rape culture on a staggering level. Just this year women took to social media by the millions to share their stories of being raped or sexually assaulted regardless of what they were wearing, by sharing photos of what the actual clothes they were wearing when they were attacked. The clothing ranged from baggy jogging pants and t-shirts to business casual outfits to modest dresses and everything in between. All of this just to disprove the myth that women invite sexual advances by dressing a certain way and therefore should take on some or all of the blame for their own attack.
While the United States is not even in the top ten percent of highest cases of rape reported per year, just this year alone there have been 84,767 cases reported. Its only May 10th as the moment I’m writing this. We know statistically that worldwide on average less than 10% of women who are assaulted seek help from law enforcement. So if in the last 6 months alone there have been 84,767 cases reported, its likely 10x that number of women have actually been assaulted. As of the moment I’m typing this, we are 129 days into 2021. That’s roughly 657 women being sexually assaulted every day so far this year- and those are just the ones who reported their attack.
Modesty, just like civility and politeness, is used as a weapon against women. The danger comes from the false sense of security it evokes. Just like all those women who shared the outfits worn during their attacks, we know that in the end modesty doesn’t protect women. It only discourages women from reporting their attack, for fear of being blamed themselves for what they’re wearing. It tells women they should be able to control the thoughts and actions of men just by how they dress. But that lie can and does get women killed all the time. It’s also dangerous because it teaches young girls that their bodies are a problem for all men, just by existing.
We’re taught to hide ourselves, cover up, in hopes that if they can’t see curves or skin or legs they will… forget we have those things? It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. We have to teach our sons that female bodies are not a threat or amoral. And we must teach our daughters that their bodies, and clothing and demeanor are not responsible for the bad behavior of men.
 Eltahawy, M. (Mar 21, 2021) Essay: God Save Us From the “bad days of White Men. FeministGiant.com, retrieved from https://www.feministgiant.com/p/god-save-us-from-the-bad-day-of-white
3 thoughts on “Modest is (Not) Hottest”
I thought that I had “healed” from all the modesty teachings I grew up with, but boy did this last year prove that wrong. The rage I have felt remembering how every piece of my clothing had to be chosen in light of men’s “weakness”, remembering that point as a young teenager when I realized that, as a short, curvy girl, I could never be a good christian girl, and then to have the men who taught me these things, refuse to wear a mask to protect actually vulnerable people!
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Yikes, yeah the pandemic really showed us who people really are. Thank you for reading, and I’m sorry if it brought back too many memories. I get it, its been tough to research and write for that reason but I hope it also helps people heal too.
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