Warning: Long Post Ahead…!
For the first post on this topic – in which I looked at a conservative Christian view of desire – see here. Since I wrote that post, I’ve read some other blogs which discussed The Modesty Project (and the associated modesty movement in the US) from a feminist point of view.
I’ve been thinking about something humbition said in his comment: “we are fascinated by the idea that some people have desire that is wrong and can never be put right.” Christianity certainly has an ‘inclusive’ idea of what wrong desire is, but it is not the only religion or historical movement that has attempted to define what is good and what is bad when it comes to our sexual drive. Indeed, as long as there has been ‘civilisation’ there has been some attempt to define this. Ideas about a free sexual society have, historically, tended to arouse anxiety and anger amongst those who claim that the definition and regulation of desire is essential to an ordered lifestyle. Most arguments centre around what constitutes ‘correct’ desire, whether it is correct for oneself or correct for society: the anxiety is often focused on what is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Egalitarian approaches have often voiced it as: healthy desire is desire which does not hurt another. There are some problems with this view, but before I look at those, I want to follow up by finishing off some of the thoughts I had previously.
Since in my first post, I demonstrated why the Christian view of desire is important to non-Christians, and informs and influences common western notions on the topic both explicitly and implicitly, in this post I’m going to continue looking at what The Modesty Project tells us about the nature of ‘desire’ and the problems I have with it.
The Modesty Project focuses on types of clothing, although it touches on related issues such as posture, movement etc. Desirous thoughts (which are a sin) are triggered by ‘stumbling blocks’ – the survey seems to suggest that a ‘stumbling block’ is a visual cue that a man feels he is receiving from a woman whenever she dresses immodestly. Certainly the comments indicate that the subjective experiences of sinful desire are visual in nature. So we can see that:
1. This frames Desire as almost purely visual. What about the other senses?
Or should I say – because this is how it is pretty much presented in the survey – MEN are described as purely visual creatures when it comes to desire. This is such a tired old trope, it seems so strange that lots of people seem to take it as real. The many blind men who have no libido are proof after all.
How about HUMANS as visual creatures? Except, we are creatures of all senses, working together; visual clues tend to be the fastest to process (neuroscience theorises right now) but are not dominant in affecting the brain, as far as I understand it. I believe there are different theories regarding the senses and sexual attraction – pheromones etc. My point being – these are THEORIES. There is SOME evidence for all of them, and no conclusive evidence, as far as I am aware, that one and only one sense creates sexual desire. We’re all (most of us) visual. We’re not ONLY visual.
Even if it were to be proved, beyond doubt, that men were more visual, then what about women? In such a biologically determined, heterocentric universe where we are prisoners to our differently-wired libidos, then what causes a woman’s desire? Hearing? Touch? Smell? If women are less predominantly visual, then that suggests a couple of possibilities. One of which is that women are predominantly aroused by another sense – so where are the edicts encouraging the Christian brothers to stop speaking immodestly, or to refrain from wearing a particularly stimulating fragrance or even – according to SOME biologists – sweating in an immodest manner around women? Whatever it is that’s supposed to cause women’s desires, I don’t see anything about curing men’s behaviour.
Oh wait – there is another possiblility. Women’s desires work similarly to men’s but are not so strong, easier to control…or women don’t actually have SEXUAL desires. Just the desire to have kids. Or get married. Or something. Those lesbians, queer and childfree women must be, well, wired a little differently. From actual women. I am saying nothing about the so-called science behind the quasi-evo-psych assumptions, or the ‘common-sense’ assumptions, or even the religious assumptions here. Any scientific theory which claims to tell me how men and women are different, naturally, is bullshit as soon as it assumes two categories. Gender is a continuum. And SO is biological sex. As you can tell, gender essentialist I am not.
2. As this survey kind of points out, it’s not ‘seeing’ something that’s the problem. It’s seeing something which causes you to ‘imagine what’s underneath.’ So, although the ‘trigger’ for desire is visual, the actual experience of desire is, in fact, mental and imaginative.
So…imagination is the problem. Not seeing – not the first look – the visualisation, the second look. This is where I have a problem with the whole ‘don’t trigger my desire’ thing. Nobody can control or stop you visualising but you. In Victorian times, ankles were considered immodest, to the point where table legs were thought so vulgar they needed cloth coverings. Take the modesty argument to it’s conclusion and it will result in some sort of burkha, if not complete restriction of movement for certain people, usually women. It’s an argument that makes no sense. If the sight of a forbidden area causes a man to have ‘immodest’ thoughts, then that woman should cover up, in order to ‘help’ him not have those thoughts. I can see the logic. It’s like an alcoholic asking that people are sensitive and not drink alcohol around him. Oh wait – it’s actually not. Because it’s more like an alcoholic asking everyone else in the world to stop drinking, now and forever, to close all the pubs and ban the drinking of alcohol altogether for all time, because it might be a little bit more difficult for him not to drink, especially if he knows that everyone else is drinking and having fun and it’s all just to spite HIM.
This sort of request is not reasonable. Not only that – it isn’t very feasible. Even with this survey’s narrow sample, there isn’t full agreement on exactly what constitutes immodest dress. Even the woman’s posture – innocently lying on the floor, ‘even when with her friends’ – i.e. the survey has made it explicit that she is NOT DOING IT FOR YOUR attention – some % think this is immodest. The question ‘what do you think of women who flaunt their attractiveness’ – all replied either pity, anger or hate. Not one pointed out that maybe, the purpose of a woman’s dress was nothing to do with them.
But back to ‘seeing’. What about nudists? Why aren’t they rampant sex maniacs? There’s an argument that desire is actually inflamed by the obstacles to it’s satisfaction. That ‘what’s hidden’ has more power than what is exposed. I don’t actually buy into this paradigm – it posits desire as a need or want to possess, consume; and while it may be that partially, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It’s one of many narratives of desire. With this one we’re back to a Victorian sensibility of titillation again. Whatever it is that is forbidden will become that which is desired – in a Foucauldian sense, the transgression is what excites us.
In some way the Christian ideology behind the Modesty Project acknowledges this – that the area, for example, of the breasts is created as sacred (for the husband) and it’s sacredness is due to it’s exclusivity and preservation. Naomi Wolf wrote on this type of desire narrative. I think it becomes true, to some extent, purely because it is a culturally created narrative. We can choose to believe in it, if we want, and it will excite us.
But it isn’t the truth. It might be ‘a’ truth. There are other societies, where showing the breasts is routine. Other areas – the tops of the thighs, the genitals usually, become sacred instead. Erogenous zones become that which a society agrees on; same with taboos. But, maybe, if you believe that the breasts truly are a sacred, sexual part of a woman’s body and should be covered due to the extreme reaction they might provoke in a man, you could argue that in other societies where they are not covered, men have simply seen so many breasts they become ‘devalued’. They lose their power. I return to this: are nudists doomed to never experience desire? Are they desexualised, desensitised through the traditional paradigm of over exposure?
No. In some strange way, desire becomes what we believe it to be. If we believe that seeing a woman’s breasts will inflame us, then it will. If we believe that we can become desensitised through ‘immodesty’ displays, then we will, if we believe that a woman can lose her ‘value’ through her actions sexually then we will cease to desire her for it.
And if, we believe that we are lustful, sinful monsters then maybe we allow ourselves to become so.
The Modesty Survey sends out the old, old message: women are culpable for the sin of men’s desires. (Actually, it sends out the message that teenage girls are responsible.) It purports to be a humble document, seeking to aid these young people in their spiritual celibacy and avoidance of lust. Most of the boys and men interviewed do acknowledge that ultimately, their success or failure at conquering this lust is their own burden. But the way the survey is set up – as questions ‘posed by Christian girls’ – and as results directed as advice towards Christian girls – reads as control.
One of the endorsements for the Modesty project comes from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who writes on the site:
“The principle of ownership means that my body does not belong to me. It’s not mine. Now, in the last thirty years we’ve had a huge emphasis on a woman’s right to her own body. It’s your body, you do what you want to with it.
Some girls have taken that philosophy to the extreme and have abused their bodies with eating disorders, with substance abuse, with drugs and alcohol. It’s my body; I can wreck it. I can trash it. You know, how sad to think how cheaply some girls consider their bodies.
But to recognize the principle of ownership is to recognize that my body is not my own. It’s not mine; it doesn’t belong to me (1 Cor. 6:19).
You know what, it doesn’t make God happy when you and I take these bodies He’s given us and give them to somebody that they don’t belong to. An immodestly dressed woman is giving away something that doesn’t belong to her. This principle of ownership means that you and I are not free to dress in any way we please.” (Bolding mine).
As far as I understand it, the Corinthians quote is not gender-specific. It speaks to humanity. So why does it always seem to be girls and women who are targeted for these advisory talks?
I don’t actually have a problem with people who are religious, who believe in the bible as a tool for ethical living or as a real message from God. Life is hard and sometimes, I wonder whether spiritual direction isn’t needed in order for us to become better to one another.
But I do have a problem when I see what I believe to be to misuse of religion in order to dominate and control others. At it’s most benign, this is a misguided attempt to help others: it is people translating religious texts, interpreting the spiritual message in judgement, on what they regard as the sinful lives (or sinful clothing) of women. At it’s worst this tendency is responsible for much bigotry, shaming and hatred.