I can’t really say I was ever around friends and had a husband remark upon his wife’s body to me, but if I were ever around a couple and the husband smacked his wife’s booty and told her she looked hot in her yoga pants, as our toddlers played nearby, as I examined the stain on the knee of my own leggings and wondered if it was snot or what, exactly, I would think, “Good for them. They’re adorable.” And maybe also a little bit of, “Gag, get a room, you two.”
I barely remember her from the bad Christian pop of the 90s, but apparently Rebecca St. James is still some sort of authority on modesty and whether or not someone deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what they are wearing. I say apparently, because Fox News had her on to discuss a recent spate of “Slut Walks,” which I would describe as a sort of updated “Take Back the Night” rally, in which women march wearing whatever they want, in order to make the point that being perceived as a slut, whether because of one’s clothes or other reasons, is not justification for sexual assault. It’s largely based on lampooning the very concept of the word “slut,” since it can’t be an insult or a justification if those to whom it is applied refuse to be shamed by it.
Anyway, back to Rebecca St. James, she of 90s CCM fame. This is what she said on Fox News (video here):
“I think there has to be responsibility though for what a woman is wearing,” St. James told Hannity Monday. “When a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a proactive way, she’s got to think about what is she saying by her dress.”
“They’re asking for sex,” she continued. “They’re asking for sex if they’re dressed immodestly.”
Here’s the thing. ONLY ACTUALLY ASKING FOR SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED ASKING FOR SEX.
What someone is wearing, whether or not they are drinking, what kind of neighborhood they are walking down the street it: these are not ways of consenting to sex. I’ll put it a bit more clearly:
ONLY ACTUALLY CONSENTING TO SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED CONSENT TO SEX.
St. James seems to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for women who dare to dress in a way that does not meet her cultural standards of modesty. She also seems to take the very negative and insulting view of men that suggests they are sexbeasts who cannot control themselves in the presence of female flesh. And, possibly, she seems to hold the beliefs that women don’t really want sex, and are unlikely to enthusiastically, verbally, clearly consent to engage in it, and that sex is something men must convince or coerce women into having, either by raping them, or exchanging gifts and time (it’s called dating, romance, or maybe even marriage– since an engagement ring is the ultimate gift) in exchange for sex.
Here’s what I think. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best (and should only happen) with someone who wants to be having it with you. Both men and women enjoy and desire sex. Sex should only be had with someone who very clearly, obviously, verbally has expressed that he or she wants to be having sex with you. It’s called a standard of enthusiastic consent, and it handily does away with slut shaming, and “gray rape” and other points of confusion about consensual vs. nonconsensual sex. You don’t have to wonder if someone is sending you signals by their clothing, or by where they happen to be walking, or by what they happen to be drinking. You’ll know.
I’m a long-time subscriber to the Christian publication Relevant magazine, and got my first start in the world of internet interaction as a commenter on their message boards back in high school. I receive their email newsletter, and when it popped up in my inbox this afternoon, I clicked through to read a piece on modesty that was billed with the following: “Ed Gungor says the key to modesty lies in our hearts—not necessarily our dress.” I was immediately relieved, thinking this would not be yet another piece telling women it’s our job to hide our shameful bodies to keep men from “lusting.”
As I read the beginning of the piece, I was even more relieved, as the writer described a time he had been upset by what he thought was immodesty on the part of some teenage girls, only to later realize the real problem was with him and his own history and issues, causing him to perceive their dress as immodest and use it as an excuse for his own sinful thoughts.
However, later, the piece took a turn for the worse as the author suggested that there is something about people’s souls that causes them to be “hit on,” in public– “hit on” being a nice phrase for street harassment, the kind of thing I’ve writtenabout, and something I actually experience fairly regularly. The author writes:
I have spoken to many men and women who told me they were frequently “hit on” as they traveled and went out into public. Though some of them were exceptionally nice-looking and fashionably dressed, many were not. On the other hand, I have spoken to both men and women who were attractive by anyone’s standard—even some who dressed more revealingly than I was comfortable with—but they were seldom “hit on” or ogled by others. Why? What was the difference? It wasn’t their clothing; it was their souls. It has just as much (or more) to do with the person they wanted to present and their own struggles with lust as with what they wore.
Ah! So it’s my SOUL that causes men to scream at me from their trucks as they drive past me while I walk down the sidewalk on my way to the bus stop. Clearly, my soul cries out, “Please! Call me sugar tits!”
I could make a whole defense, posting pictures of myself in my usual summer clothes, which tend to be jersey dresses from J.Crew and skirts paired with form fitting crewneck tees. But the thing is, with so many experiences of street harassment, or “being hit on,” I’ve come to realize something: when I am harassed on the street, it has nothing to do with me. It’s not about what I’m wearing. It’s not about my soul. It’s about the men doing the yelling, and their desire to intimidate me, to make themselves feel like big burly men, to prove their own patriarchal power to themselves.
And the only thing that is going to stop this behavior from street harassers is for us to call it what it is. It’s harassment. It’s inappropriate. It’s designed for intimidation. And it’s not about me, or what I’m wearing, or my “soul” which may or may not be visible from a pickup truck going 35 miles per hour down Calhoun Street, anyway. It’s about despicable people who get off on intimidating and humiliating women who dare to be female and in public. Articles like this one posted on Relevant may be well-intentioned, but ultimately they give harassers excuses– this time, instead of “she was asking for it in that skirt,” it’s “but you should have seen her SOUL!”