3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
–Titus 2:3-5 NIV
Emma Gray with the Huffington Post has another* post up titled The Truth About Sluts. In the post she interviews feminist author Leora Tanenbaum, who admits something feminists have long been in denial of; the word slut can’t be reclaimed.
My central argument is that it doesn’t matter what the intent of the name-caller is, because the result is always negative. It always leads to policing and judgment and shame, even when the initial intent is lighthearted or neutral.
The problem with trying to reclaim the word is it has real meaning. While sluts have the power of being desired, only a foolish man would fall in love with a slut. Sluts are in this narrow sense unlovable, not to mention unfit to marry. As a result, even hard core sex positive feminists fear being labeled either directly or indirectly as a slut. As Tanenbaum explains, this creates a dilemma for women as they compete for men’s attention:
Digital culture and social media have ramped up this unspoken rule of femininity: You’re always supposed to be sexy, but you’re not supposed to be slutty. And today we’re all living in this world of wall-to-wall surveillance. When your female body is being tagged, tracked, liked, it creates all this pressure to present yourself as this sexy — yet never slutty — person.
You don’t wanna be a prude and you don’t wanna be a slut. It’s really impossible. We are evaluated and judged through a sexual prism no matter what we do. Either we’re not sexual enough or we’re too sexual.
The problem for modern women is that feminists have succeeded in destroying the very protection they now crave. In the past, older women like Yiayia enforced the rules of modesty. Now older women are more likely to shop at Forever 21 than do or say anything to police modesty. While Yiayia’s rules of modesty might seem arbitrary, change some from one culture to another, and even change some over time, what mattered was that the rules were clear. This is essential because young women naturally compete with one another for sexual attention, and knowing the exact location of the line between good girl and slut is required in order for them to effectively compete.
In a sense this isn’t all that different than auto racing. While NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, etc. have different rules about what is permitted, what matters is that the rules are understood. In order to compete effectively you have to go right up to the line but not over it. But with modesty there are no longer any clear rules. Each woman finds herself trying to go up to what appears to be the line based on what the other women around her are doing. This has been going on for several decades, and not surprisingly it has resulted in a continuous drift of what is deemed acceptable. Yet what seems like a rule is an illusion. Without Yiayia defining and policing the rules the only rules are the laws of indecency, and even these are somewhat subjective.
While the rules of modesty are undefined, one of the clear rules of women’s intrasexual competition is that women can’t be seen as overtly competing for men’s sexual attention. As Tanenbaum explains:
…femininity is all about “effortless perfection.” The slut is somebody who never understood that or understands it and is disregarding it. She’s being sexy in a way that is considered overt or too attention-seeking.
…young women have to walk on this razor-thin tightrope to not be a prude, not be a slut, be sexy but just the right amount, not show that they’re exerting any effort — you just woke up looking sexy in this very understated way.
Like other aspects of women’s sexuality, misdirection and denial are critical when competing for men’s sexual attention.
Modern Christian Modesty: The Empress’s New Clothes
All of this is in play not just for feminists, but for modern Christian women as well. They are also compelled to compete while denying they are competing, and lack any clear set of rules on what is permitted and what is slutty. However, for modern Christian women the stakes are higher, and as a result the level of denial is higher. This is why the issue of modesty is such a radioactive topic with Christian women. Any discussion of modesty by Christians carries an implicit but generally unintended charge that the woman who is being immodest is a slut. The unspoken rule is:
Good girls don’t advertise the goods; only sluts do that!
This leads to all sorts of rationalizations for why modern Christian women (just like women in the larger culture) wear revealing clothing. The hamsters start spinning, and anyone who references modesty is treated to a stern lecture about how Christian women are entirely unaware that the outfit they chose looks sexy, because they dress strictly for practicality and/or comfort. They have no idea you can see down their low cut blouse, that you can see everything with the yoga pants they are wearing, or that their strategically placed rhinestone cross directs men’s eyes to their rear end. This is of course nonsense, and is proven by the first thing every woman does when she puts on a pair of pants; she checks to see how her butt looks in them.
Christian blogger Veronica Partridge inadvertently set off a firestorm last month when she announced her decision to stop wearing yoga pants and leggings in public. As she explained in her follow up post:
These past few weeks have been shocking, to say the least. I have weathered the most hateful comments of my life. People have called me a countless number of names, some I can’t even repeat. Women have talked about my husband with graphic sexuality asking for favors and soliciting their bodies to him.
What Partridge hadn’t anticipated is that by announcing that she was choosing to be more modest she instantly put women who didn’t follow this rule on the wrong side of the good girl/slut line. She poked the anthill and the ants came out stinging. This is true even though she took great pains to explain that this was her personal decision, and not something she expected other women to follow.
Partridge couldn’t anticipate this because she was in denial of what was really going on. In her mind she wasn’t wearing revealing clothing to compete with other women for men’s sexual attention. In her first post she explains that she originally struggled to believe that wearing this kind of revealing clothing had any impact on men (emphasis mine):
Was it possible my wearing leggings could cause a man, other than my husband, to think lustfully about my body? I asked my husband his thoughts on the matter when he got home. I appreciated his honesty when he told me, “yeah, when I walk into a place and there are women wearing yoga pants everywhere, it’s hard to not look. I try not to, but it’s not easy.”
Sure, if a man wants to look, they are going to look, but why entice them? Is it possible that the thin, form-fitting yoga pants or leggings could make a married (or single) man look at a woman in a way he should only look at his wife?
While Partridge deserves to be commended for going against the grain and doing the right thing, her level of denial here is breathtaking. She had no idea that these pants showed off everything and therefore caused men to notice her. She didn’t stop wearing them to repent of her own sin of desiring inappropriate sexual attention, she merely wants to avoid tempting those dirty men into sinning. Interestingly though in her follow on post she notes that other women do indeed wear leggings to get sexual attention (emphasis mine):
…To men, the clearer the woman’s form to their eyes, the more sexually stimulated they are. In my opinion, this is also one of the reasons why leggings have become so popular. Women have naturally noticed more male eyes in their direction when wearing form-fitting leggings. This has reinforced their choice to wear them more often. At the biological level, this is normal…
…when a man can see the outline of a woman’s butt, or her underwear line, or even the outline of her vagina, their sexual stimulation naturally increases.
In my experience, many women wear leggings that show such details…
The fundamental problem is not that men like to look at women’s bodies and women like to have their bodies looked at. This is as Partridge explains natural. Just like anything else, there are proper expressions of these natural desires. A man should direct his desire to look toward his wife’s body and avoid indulging it with other women. Likewise, a woman should direct her desire to have her body looked at toward her husband, and not other men. The problem we have is the modern Christian blind spot to women’s temptation to sin, combined with women’s vehement denial of their own desire for sexual attention. As a result, we have a comical pattern where whenever anyone points out that something is immodest, the immediate retort is that the person who pointed this out wouldn’t have noticed if they hadn’t been looking. Only a pervert would notice such a thing.
Custody of the eyes has gone from a reminder to men to avoid sin, to a cover for women to indulge in the counterpart sin. You have to admit this is a deviously clever tool to silence all discussion of modesty. Yet the problem remains. Without a defined line of modesty women will drift towards all out nakedness in their competition for sexual attention, and there is no line they can point to proving that they are one of the good girls. Large numbers of women are now in both a literal and figurative sense naked, and the only thing covering them is the cultural taboo against acknowledging it.
*Gray created the flowchart I referenced in my previous post.