I Can Dress Myself, Thank You.

Although I am a godless liberal, I am not generally opposed to religion. I understand that religion has the potential to do a lot of good for many people. I realize that shared mythologies can be powerful contributors to cohesive societies. That said, what I am strongly opposed to is the harm that arises from intolerant patriarchal dogmas. I especially dislike the way that superficially innocuous behavioral strictures seem to always lead to bigotry, subjugation, and even acts of violence against large swaths of people. In some cases, roughly half of all people are targets.

Maintaining power and control over women appears to be a common theme that underpins prominent factions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  The three major religions all have strong edicts about women’s sexuality (they’re against it).

Religious patriarchs frequently appeal to the authority of their particular god to dictate women’s behavior, including micromanaging how women dress themselves. Women’s clothing becomes a form of religious regalia that places women in a lesser social strata than the men who are largely free to dress however they like. Adherence to the clothing memes of one’s faith can even become a marker of status among followers.

Women’s clothing seems to me like a laughably trivial concern in a world wracked with wars, poverty, hunger, and myriad other instances of abject human suffering. I can only wrap my mind around it as a tool for infantilization and control.

It’s easy to dismiss Middle Eastern religions as the only violent fashion-police outliers, but some Christian men also have strong opinions about women’s clothing. I saw a link to an instructional video on Jezebel recently. It is a glimpse into what some Christian “guys” think about how women should dress.

If you don’t have time to watch it, the overview is that owning a penis is an endlessly distracting and onerous burden. It is incumbent upon women to keep men’s penises flaccid (?!) by obliterating any evidence that they are women.

Because, and this is important girls, that ominous-looking black fellow at 2:20 is becoming aroused by momentarily glimpsing the outline of your patellae. Even now, he’s imagining feasting you with all kinds of delicious chocolate sin. He is having impure thoughts about you. (Which I would love to speculate about at length here, but I don’t type well with just my left hand.) 

Here’s the You Tube link.

Another helpful Christian clothing-related resource from the Jezebel comment thread is this modesty survey. It’s both hilarious and endlessly fascinating:

“We're not telling you what to wear -- we're just telling you what we, as guys, have to guard against. It is God's Word, your own heart and conscience, and your parents and godly friends who should help you decide what to do about it. But, to help you reach your own conclusions we've provided some excellent resources that strike a balanced, non-legalistic tone.”

From here on the outside, all the handwringing about women’s clothing seems creepy and insane. Especially when dads get involved in choosing their adult daughters’ clothing.

Throughout the survey, the phrase “stumbling block” seems to be code for “gives me an erection.” Everything is a “stumbling block” for the young men who took the survey.

Millimeter of exposed skin below the collarbone? Stumbling block.

Pantyhose that mimic bare skin? Stumbling block.

Messenger bag slung across your body? Stumbling block.

I attribute this hair-trigger arousal response to the developmental biology of the guys who answered the survey (most were aged 12-19) rather than to a credible data set that reflects arousal responses for men in general. I might pay more attention if the age distribution wasn’t so heavily skewed to pubescent teenagers.

I also can’t help but wonder if the survey failed to account for cultural diversity. From the limited respondent demographic information, it appears that the majority of respondents were (probably white) Christian teenagers, 43% of whom had been home schooled. What this demographic finds arousing might not translate universally across other demographics. For example, the ominous-looking African American man in the video might not respond in an immediate and sexual way to a momentary glimpse of knee. His trigger, perhaps, is not quite as risible as those of the survey respondents.

There was one interesting article in the modesty literature that explicitly lays out why men get to tell women how to dress. Women are not autonomous beings. We do not own our bodies. God does, and men are in charge. Which brings me to a major reason I harbor deep and cynical reservations about religiously-inspired power disparities and the attendant edicts that open the door to abuses.

Violating subjective stylistic standards is often conflated with invitation to rape, even in the larger American society. Sadly, every single time I read a news item about the rape of a woman, or even of a young child for that matter, someone arrives to comment on how she was dressed, or to ask what she was drinking, or to determine if she was physically small or otherwise vulnerable in any way. Somehow and always, the victim must have provoked the attack.

Women can be lured into believing this myth as well, because it allows us to cast the victims as Other and falsely conclude that rape would never happen to us. Except that it does. In a society that systematically fails to render equality, anyone can fall victim to a crime that is based solely on power and control.

Criticism of religion has the potential to offend some readers, and that is not my intent. I do use  what I believe are representative examples of religious fucknuttery to illuminate my perspective as an outsider looking in. I acknowledge that not every religion, or sect, or individual of faith confirms my biased analysis. In all seriousness, I would love for readers to prove me wrong in the comments.

This article was an Editor's Pick on Open Salon in 2011.