This is an essay about the often forgotten remedy for the pervasive phenomenon of sexual harassment that is taking the world like a storm.
This potential remedy is modesty.
As shocking as this sounds, some of us out there still believe that unwanted sexual advances can be averted if people in general, and women in particular, dress in a more modest and less provocative fashion.
Now that I have your attention, and before anyone trips out, let me first state what this essay is NOT about:
First, there is no attempt here to blame the victim. Every man should be responsible for their own behavior and must be held fully responsible and accountable when that behavior crosses the line of what’s legal or acceptable.
Second, lack of modesty should never be used as grounds to justify sexual assault. There is no dress code in this world, not even nudity, that should give the right to anyone to invade the private space of another human being without consent.
Third, this essay is not concerned with offering or applying a normative lens to the world, meaning describing how the world “should” be. Our focus here is to describe the world as it is. In an abstract sense, women should have the right to wear what they please without being harassed by anyone. Reality suggests otherwise, however. What women wear determines, to a great length, how they are perceived, and consequently, how they are treated. This is a sad state of affairs, granted, but its realistic. It is with that perspective of the world that the essay reaches its diagnosis and prescribes a remedy.
Fourth, this essay is not about rape. It focuses primarily on other forms of less invasive sexual abuse such as harassment. Neither does the essay make contentions about managing sexual abuse exacted by family members or people that are close to the victims. This requires a different approach and different arguments. Rather, the essay addresses sexual harassment as a general phenomenon in society, perpetrated by strangers or people who might be known by the victim but not family members.
Fifth, this essay is not suggesting that modesty of a particular woman, at a particular place, at a given moment, could have averted a specific incident of sexual assault. Rather, it addresses a “culture” where the ubiquitous lack of modesty further objectifies women in the eyes of men who are already bent on treating women as objects, and in the absence of legal and moral deterrence, they will take the opportunity when it presents itself to exact assault on an unwitting woman.
Sixth, this essay doesn’t base its contentions upon an assumed statistical correlation between modesty and sexual harassment. Not sure if such data exists, or can be easily generated. Rather, it uses logic and empirical observations to reach its conclusions.
Seventh, lack of modesty is not going to turn men into monsters. It will only create circumstances that may encourage those who already are. Most men are decent, and even if they think a woman’s dress is inviting and enticing, they would not act upon those thoughts. Some men are creeps though. This essay argues that modest dress code limits the creeps, and provocative dress code helps enable a culture in which creeps can thrive.
Eighth, this essay is in no way suggesting that modesty is the ONLY remedy for sexual harassment. Stronger, more enforceable laws, better workplace regulations, paradigm shifts, education and more are all necessary tools in the fight against sexual misconduct. Modesty is just one instrument that deserves more attention.
With that out of the way, let me tell you a story.
It’s a tale of two villages, Vigilantville and Trustytown. Both villages are located next to each other and each one is inhabited by 100 people. The citizens of both Vigilantville and Trustytown are known, for the most part, to be honorable and hardworking. Everyone knows, however, that in each of the two villages there are 5 citizens that are thieves. They find any opportunity to rob the good citizens of the two villages. Now the folks of Vigilantville are known to be, well, very vigilant. They lock the doors of their houses before they sleep, and have strong security systems installed. They always lock their cars and put their belongings out of sight. All their farm animals are kept in secure barns, with lots of guard dogs and bright lights to deter the 5 thieves from plotting anything sinister. Rates of theft in Vigilantville are very low, thanks to the village’s vigilance. Occasionally, one of the five thieves uses force to break into one of the houses to steal, but overall, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the thieves to maintain their dishonest living in Vigilantville.
Trustytown on the other hand, is not as lucky. Its citizens are very trusting and kind. They don’t secure their homes before going to bed, and they leave their wallets laying around on the porch. Their cars are usually unlocked and sometimes they leave backpacks and satchels on the passenger seats. The good citizens of Trustytown often fail to secure their cattle either, because they just assume people should be nice and they hope the thieves won’t rob them. Unfortunately, rates of theft in Trustytown are through the roof. The 5 thieves that live there are always encouraged by the village’s, well, trustiness.
The astute citizens of a neighboring village called Wiseland sent a delegation of sages to help the citizens of Trustytown. Their advice was simple: try to copycat your neighbors in Vigilantville! Be vigilant and protect your property. The mayor of Trustytown, offended, responded to the delegation and said: Why are you blaming us? Why don’t you blame the thieves? They’re the ones that are committing the crimes not us! Why can’t the thieves control their urges? Why can’t they just be decent human beings? Why do we always have to pay the price for their crimes? Why should we inconvenience our citizens and expect them to take their precautions? Why can’t we just live a happy, carefree life and do what we can as long as we don’t hurt anyone? There’s a lot of restrictions in Vigilantville and we don’t want to live like that! We just need better laws to stop this madness! One of the sages scratched the back of this head, mused a bit, and responded: You’re absolutely right! You did nothing wrong and we are not blaming you. It’s the thieves’ fault. But there’s no law in the world that can fully deter crime! There will always be those who are predisposed to break the rules, like the 5 alleged thieves in your town. And because laws cannot fully eradicate crime, we have to take steps to protect ourselves as free citizens, even if those steps are inconvenient. And if we don’t take our precautions, we may enable unbecoming behavior and unwittingly encourage it.
Angry, one of the citizens of Trustytown yelled: Are you saying that if we don’t take our precautions, more people from Trustytown will become criminals? I refuse to accept that! The sage of Wiseland responds, patiently: No! That’s not what I’m saying. To the contrary. Good and honest people will always be good and honest. Your actions may affect, however, whether the 5 thieves stay in their holes, or crawl out in the dark to hurt you.
Eventually, the citizens of Trustytown took some precautions, that ended up making a difference, and brought crime rates to historic lows. The citizens of Trustytown endured some inconvenience, but lived happily ever after.
Now enough silly stories. Let’s talk about modesty.
Sexual assault is a pervasive problem. While rates of all-out rape have generally declined over the last decade, other forms of sexual harassment continue to be commonplace. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. 9 out of 10 victims are female. In the US military, close to 20,000 personnel reported unwanted sexual contact in 2017 alone, and almost 7000 reported sexual assault. These facts were so extremely alarming that they prompted many celebrities to start the #MeToo campaign where women came out on social media sharing horrifying stories about their own experiences with sexual misconduct. As a result, society engaged in a legitimate debate: How can this stop? Many argued for better and more deterring laws, some fought for better work-space regulations. Most encouraged society to “just believe” women and encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward and report their cases. Pressure mounted on so many celebrity males to quit their jobs as result of accusations of sexual misconduct. Most recently, Supreme Court Nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh came under fire during his Senate hearing because of allegations that he sexually assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University professor, in the summer of 1982 when they were in high school. Judge Kavanaugh ended up being confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice.
Throughout this legitimate debate, all voices that suggested that women’s dress code may play even a small role in curbing sexual violence were silenced and muffled. The ready-made accusation is always the same: Stop blaming the victim! Why is that always assumed? When I ask someone I care about to take precautions to avoid harm, is that blaming the victim? If a police officer walks into a crime scene without a vest, and other police officers ask him to wear one, because criminals are not nice people and might fire at him, is that victim blaming when other police officers were shot and killed in the past because they were not wearing their vests? The admonition to consider modesty as a potential method to abate the rampant problem of sexual violence in our society may be considered victim blaming, only if it is pronounced and articulated after the fact, by way of “I told you so, or why didn’t you” kind of of statements. When women come forward to report sexual misconduct, we have a moral obligation to take is as seriously as possible. And once a preponderance of evidence established the veracity of the claim, we must act immediately. But when that admonition is shared before the fact by asking “potential victims” to take precautions, it is not victim blaming, because they haven’t been victimized yet. Its an act of love and care essentially, and not casting blame.
In Western societies, the situation has become dire. We have successfully managed to create a culture in which women are constantly portrayed as objects, whether we are willing to admit that or not. Women’s flesh is literally being used to sell everything in our society nowadays, and the list is very diverse: Ice Cream, burgers, cars, perfume, vacation packages, alcohol, clothes, shampoos, and even chainsaws. Sometimes a woman’s body morphs into the product, so she becomes the car or the shoe or the bottle of beer. At sports events, we invented the puzzling concept of cheerleaders as mere eye candy for male spectators in order to sell more tickets. And mostly male dominated fashion design houses have made it where women in most sports are generally expected to dress very skimpily, compared to men, with no functional utility whatsoever (think running, tennis and beach volleyball). Even Yoga, we’ve invented skintight leggings, and it wasn’t for the purpose of contributing to the spiritual aura. Women are objectified and portrayed as mere flesh in songs and music videos. Their booties, breasts and curves are praised, but nothing more. Everywhere you turn your face, women are objectified: on TV, in the movies, on billboards, and catwalks. The porn industry reinvents itself every day and pushes the limits of its creativity to further the objectification and exploitation of women. Just “sex” is not enough anymore. The most popular porn material in this age is S&M. Men are searching for staged rape videos on porn websites like their lives depend on it. One of the most popular novels of all time is Fifty Shades of Grey, a work of fiction that depicts a woman who surrenders to her male master to use violence on her and exploit her as a mere piece of flesh. The movie was produced and directed by women, to tell you the extent by which this culture of objectification has internalized in the minds of women themselves. Women are displayed for our eyes to feast on everywhere, in ways that are reminiscent of the days of slavery. And of course that woman object is perfect. She has no wrinkles, blemishes, or scars, and her skin is impeccable. She has impossibly long, smooth, and shapely legs. Her waist is so small it’s as though you could break her in two. Her ample breasts and buttocks are gravity-defying miracles. She has a head of silky, radiant hair that looks like CGI. And the list goes on. Our culture sinks its teeth in women’s flesh and feasts on them everyday. Sexual assault is one affirmation of that culture. This is the culture in which we live. A culture that reduces women to their mere sexuality. That’s the air we breathe. It may not necessarily turn decent and honorable men into psychopaths, but it will certainly enable those who already are predisposed to act upon it.
It is understandable that women, and people in general, would rather use their God given free will to make choices in this life without the fear of being bothered, as long as those choices don’t interfere with other people’s freedoms. It is also understandable that we expect strict laws to deter others from hurting us when we exercise our freedom. These are all commendable thoughts. But it is unrealistic to expect that laws can fully deter crime. There is no measure of human legislation that can fully eradicate evil from the world. We acknowledge that in almost everything, except modesty. It is unlawful to hack other people’s computers, but we still install firewalls. It is unlawful to steal from a bank, but we always have security and close-circuit cameras. It is unlawful to commit fraud, but we always scrutinize and authenticate paperwork. It is unlawful to commit sexual harassment, yet, some argue that we shouldn’t have to take any precautions and believe that men will behave themselves! If a woman walks into a store skimpily clad, which is her full right, and then gets stares and inappropriate comments, rationality requires us to admit that she shares at least a small part of the responsibility. And when we ignore these simple truths and a crime is committed, we lament about how messed up society has become and how all men are pigs!
But this conversation cannot be fair without discussing our cultural definitions of masculinity as well. If there’s a problem with how women are portrayed, there is a worse problem in how men are portrayed. Masculine behavior is often depicted as aggressive, demeaning, and overbearing. In popular culture, masculine men are sexist and sex-crazed. They are womanizing and lustful. They have multiple relations and cheat on their wives. They ooze with male sexual appeal and can get a girl to fall in their laps effortlessly. And they always get away with it, because, well, “boys will always be boys”. In the minds of many guys, the ideal man is Don Draper from Mad Men. But there’s another often dismissed, if not completely lost, definition of masculinity. It’s the masculinity of chivalry, of honor and dignity. It’s the masculinity of self-discipline and sacrifice. It’s the masculinity of putting the interests of others before your own. And there is nothing toxic about that masculinity.
In a society that furthers the objectification of women and the aggrandizing of male aggression, disaster abounds. We’re doing everything in our capacity to bring fire as close to gasoline as possible, and pray for the best outcome.
That’s why it defies common sense when some champions of the cause think that the solution to the rampant problem of sexual harassment is to render men more effeminate. After all, there’s nothing ominous about a harmless beta male. Well, this needs to be made clear: masculinity can be practiced and lived honorably, without being toxic! What is toxic is aggressive and immoral behavior that compels a man to cross a clear boundary with a woman. That’s not masculinity. That’s cowardice. The solution to sexual harassment is not to neuter men. Rather, teach men how to be real men and honor women in their society and community. It takes a true man to treat a woman as a human being and not an object.
And this entails that we all practice responsible sexuality. If we expect men to control their urges and show respect to their female counterparts, we have to also expect society to treat women as human not objects. Which inevitably brings modesty into the conversation. Men and women are supposed to vie for good to make their society better. This culture of individualism, of “I do whatever the heck I want and you can’t do anything about it” is what caused us to deteriorate. It’s the core of all evil. Instead, we’re supposed to cooperate with each other to live a good life, which includes paying attention to each other’s feelings and challenges.