Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Stripped: Against the Over, Under, and Asexualization of Women

 A friend pinned this cartoon via Pinterest today:

 She tagged it with a few things, like 'feminism' and 'oversexualization'. I do not intend to accuse her personally of necessarily thinking any of the following, but the way I took those hashtags in tandem with the picture was that it intended to convey something like this:
"Women/the female body have/has been oversexualized to the point where there are extant double-standards that allow men to dress and behave in ways that are condoned, while women are subject to harsh censure for the same or equivalent behavior and fashions. This is a bad thing."
Now, I understand that there is significant backlash to the modesty-culture rampant in Protestant and some Catholic circles.

Modesty culture places a very heavy onus of responsibility for modesty on women, asserting that it is their appearance and behavior solely that evokes men's lustful responses, and that if men are reacting to them with lust, they must be doing something immodest. Women are expected to be actively modest; men passively so--by not looking or by verbally correcting women in their lives who are not being modest. Advocates of these ideas post vehement articles littered with phrases like 'custody of the eyes' and warn of the beauty of the female body as though it is a detriment, not a God-given reality.  They also claim that women are assigned value as an inverse result of the valuation of modesty, which results in an inadvertent (or, intentional, depending on who you are talking to) devaluation of the woman as a person.

(Disclaimer: This post isn't endorsing the extremes of far-right modesty culture. It's taking issue with the mentality of the above cartoon, that male and female nudity--understanding 'nudity' as nakedness with a sexual connotation--should be defined on a one to one basis in Anglo/American culture).

The subsequent push-back against the modesty culture tends towards an opposite extreme.  Even if they are not condoning some kind of orgiastic response to right the injustices inherent in female-based modesty, they usually do call for a great equalizer: the flesh. Women are humans; men are humans. There is nothing innately sexual about the female body, they say, any more than there is about the male body.  All the sexuality associated with the female body is an arbitrary cultural construction.  Any and all exposure shows equality, not indecency. Flesh is flesh.

The seductive danger of the cultural construction model is that it is partially true. In Africa, it is not abnormal or overtly sexual for women to go topless. Indeed, when we see African women on a TV show, or African men in barely-there loincloths, here in the States, we aren't scandalized or incited to lust. It is understood that this is a cultural norm, foreign to ours.  But just because it is cultural does not make it arbitrary.

Furthermore, because our culture does associate sexuality with certain kinds of nakedness (whether or not you condone that), the way in which the counterarguments against modesty culture are phrased cannot be and are not non-sexual.
To uncover, as a woman, cannot be non-sexual in a culture so over-saturated with sex, and with such a historical underpinning of the mystery of the body.
More than that, however, I'm troubled by this apparent desire to erase the feminine qualities which started this whole debate in the first place. Boiling the whole thing down, the argument is over the oversexualization of the female body.  One extreme is the Miley Cyrus-style commodification of the female body.  The other end of the spectrum:  women's bodies should be such neutral territory that they could walk around topless or in revealing clothes and not one man would look at their bodies in a sexual way.  The problems with the former extreme are obvious; the problems with the latter are no less serious, if slightly more subtle.

Doesn't this insistent uncovering, and shrill 'equality'/homogenization do a grave disservice to women? However misguided or over-enthusiastically applied, the modesty culture is a result of a desire to preserve the dignity of women, and prevent them from being completely objectified for their bodies (and for men to be prevented from doing the objectifying).
In response to an oversexualization of women, people on the opposite extreme call for an asexualization--for the removal of the unique and--properly contextualized--beautiful aspects of the feminine form to be neutered as harshly as they accuse shapeless dresses and loose shirts of doing.
On a related level, it's as if proponents of the anti-modesty culture hate the female body and what it means to have one.  The kind of rebellious flaunting of everything without shame, without regard or reverence for the beauty and art of our bodies, as crafted by God, bespeaks a virulent devaluing of them.  You don't burn an effigy because you love the person it represents.  You make a public spectacle or public revelation in this way to bring shame and degradation on the object, or to remove reverence of it.  There is something inculcated in human nature about reverence for the unseen or the hidden, and a perpetual saturation and overexposure not only desensitizes but also debases it.

Finally, to return to the irony.  Part of what is so violent and disfiguring about the act of rape--so often linked with modesty culture as a so-called cause and horrible effect--is that a woman is forcibly uncovered and violated.  Somehow, when such uncovering is voluntary, and the violation is of the eyes and minds of men or children--this is laudable. Did someone mention a double standard?

I'm hardly excusing men from guarding their own purity. Just because a woman decides to walk naked down the street does not mean you have to stare at her and commit mental or actual impurities with her. But--and I've used this analogy before--knowing that we have something so appealing to men, to defiantly shove it in their faces while simultaneously demanding them ignore it is equivalent to knowing your husband is an alcoholic but surrounding him with the smell of alcohol and trying to hold his nose and pour it down his throat, all the while berating him for being tempted to drink.

What I'm getting at is this: if what is truly desired is an equal standard to regulate the relationship between sexuality and the human form, allowing women to go without a shirt because men can is not a solution.  Rather, asking both men and women to cover the sensitive, sexual areas of their bodies out of self-respect and out of respect for the eyes and minds of those around them would be real equality, and would indicate a true understanding of (ungendered) human modesty and sexuality.
Both modesty and sexuality are utterly deplorable influences when decontextualized or homogeneously, disproportionately applied. 

Really quickly: I realize I've begun many of my posts with 'I read something a friend posted' or 'On a classmates' facebook'... This is not to say that I'm attacking those friends/coworkers/classmates. One of the primary forces that sparks me to write about a topic is seeing something I strongly agree/disagree with via people I know. So don't take it personally ;)

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