20 March 2013

Your sexual morality is not my responsibility!

I can still remember declaring that to my male classmates, utterly exasperated with the discussion we were having about our school's dress code. I went to a small, Mennonite high school in rural Ohio and (for reasons I don't remember) we were discussing the merits of our strict dress code in class. The boys, many of whom were my close friends, were attempting to convince me that they couldn't help but think about sex if they could see my shoulders or thighs. The way I'm restating it isn't the way they said it; but, honestly, that's what they were trying to convince me - that if my skirt came above my knee or if my shirt didn't have sleeves, they would be overcome by deviant sexual thoughts. But, more importantly, both these boys in my class and the administration of my school were trying to tell me that this was all my problem and not the boys'. My teenage mind knew as well then as my adult one does now "Your sexual morality is not my responsibility!"

This, in my opinion, is a seemingly innocent component of rape culture. In the wake of Steubenville (which is not very different or far from where I grew up) I have been thinking a lot about what we teach our youth about responsibility. What about the teens at these parties in Steubenville who stood by and took photos? Why didn't a single one of them take the responsibility of doing something to stop it? I can't know for sure, but I would imagine that some of them were thinking "Well, if she didn't want this, she shouldn't have gone out with these guys. If she didn't want this, she shouldn't have gotten drunk. If she didn't want this, she shouldn't have been dressed so provocatively." And how can we blame them for thinking these things if we are teaching boys that they are sexual animals, incapable of controlling themselves, so that burden lay on the women around them? Of course these boys thought that rape was something I needed to guard against and not something that they needed to worry about. And if it's my responsibility alone to guard against their sexual depravity, then it's my fault when I don't.

I'm not saying that modesty is not important, but teaching our young women that the only reason to be modest is because their bodies are dangerous to the men around them is extremely harmful. Rather, we should be teaching them to be modest out of respect and love for themselves. They should be modest because not being modest is giving in to the world telling them that their only value is as an object. When we teach girls to cover up because the object of their body is the issue, we are teaching them to objectify themselves. Modesty should be taught as a celebration of inner beauty and a rejection of the world's objectification of women, not as a way to guard against the sin of others.