Since spring, women worldwide have taken to the streets to protest rape culture in several “SlutWalks.”  So, for the uninitiated, what is “rape culture”?  According to Wikipedia:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

In a nutshell, rape culture is whenever we task victims with the burden of rape prevention.  It is also viewing rape as somehow more understandable if the victim is attractive and healthy (whereas raping children or the infirm or the elderly is more universally reviled); it is whenever rape is viewed (on any level) as a form of flattery.  If you’d like to see a more comprehensive description of “rape culture” try this.

On January 24, 2011 Constable Michael Sanguinetti spoke on crime prevention to Toronto university students in a safety forum.  He said: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”  Although he later apologized for the remark, the first Slutwalk was organized in April of this year to protest the remark.  At the protest, organizer Heather Jarvis shouted to a cheering crowd:  “As a slut, the only thing I’m asking for is consent.”  Since April 3, more than 50 SlutWalks have taken place across Canada and the US and around the world.

Although women were encouraged to participate wearing everyday clothes to demonstrate that violence toward women is an everday occurence, some women elected to dress in revealing or “slutty” clothing to flaunt the term used by Constable Sanguinetti.  Some women wore the decidedly non-slutty clothing they were wearing when they were raped:  usually jeans, sweats or pajamas.

Response to the movement has been mixed, even within the feminist movement.

  • Australian commentator Andrew Bolt observed that guidance on how to dress in any given context is simply risk management that doesn’t constitute victim-blaming.  (Feminist retort:  simply having a female body shouldn’t pose an inherent risk.)
  • Journalist Rod Liddle says:  “…I have a perfect right to leave my windows open when I nip to the shops for some fags, without being burgled. It doesn’t lessen the guilt of the burglar that I’ve left my window open, or even remotely suggest that I was deserving of being burgled. Just that it was more likely to happen.”  (Feminist retort:  leaving one’s valuables hanging out is not equal to merely possessing a female body; women of all shapes, sizes and clothing are raped.)
  • Feminist blogger and writer Jessica Valenti says: “The idea that women’s clothing has some bearing on whether they will be raped is a dangerous myth feminists have tried to debunk for decades.”  (Even women in an abiya are raped).
  • Feminists Gail Dines and Wendy J Murphy state:  “Whether we blame victims by calling them “sluts” (who thus asked to be raped), or by calling them “frigid” (who thus secretly want to be overpowered), the problem is that we’re blaming them for their own victimisation no matter what they do. Encouraging women to be even more “sluttish” will not change this ugly reality.”  They view the word slut as being inherently indivisible from the binary view of women as madonnas or whores, making the word “beyond redemption. . . . Women need to find ways to create their own authentic sexuality, outside of male-defined terms like slut.”
  • Writer Debra Arthurs criticizes the use of the word “slut” because “far from empowering women, attempting to reclaim the word has the opposite effect, simply serving as evidence that women are accepting this label given to them by misogynistic men. . . .  Women should not protest for the right to be called slut.” 
  • Melinda Tankard Reist who is active in opposing the sexualization of children in modern culture said:  “I believe the name will marginalise women and girls who want to be active in violence prevention campaigns but who don’t feel comfortable with personally owning the word slut.”
  • Louise Bagshawe (a British Conservative MP) objects to SlutWalk on the grounds that it “lionises promiscuity”, which she says is harmful.  She also added “promiscuity is not equality.”
  • Tanya Gould, columnist for The Guardian, in her article Marching with the SlutWalkers states:  “Slutwalkers have internalised their abuse.”

Protesters during a Slutwalk march for the right of women to wear what they want without harassment on June 25, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. The Slutwalk began with a small protest in Toronto, Canada, when women marched against a policeman who claimed he was told women should 'avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized'. Slutwalks have occured and are scheduled for major cities around the world.

Is the LDS church’s current teaching on modesty and chastity evidence of an underlying “rape culture”?  While the term is clearly provocative, it also seems troubling to me to apply the term to people who would never actually commit a rape or condone a rape, but who unwittingly trivialize rape (e.g. “I got raped on my taxes this year”).  Isn’t there an important distinction between actual rapists and those who trivialize rape through ignorance?  Yet, the SlutWalks, IMO, are an important step in educating people who are ignorant about rape, who mistakenly think that it’s related to a woman’s dress or who think that consent is a luxury for “good girls,” and that the promiscuous do not have protection under the law. 

The church has also distanced itself from damaging teachings of the past, such as the idea promoted in Miracle of Forgiveness that a girl who did not die in the process of fighting off rape has been unchaste.  While not promoting rape, this is a blatant example of victim-blaming, especially damaging to victims of incest.  To be told that you would have been better off dead when you’ve already been victimized in one of the worst ways possible is truly unbearable.  Distancing ourselves from MoF is evidence of progress.  How do current teachings stack up then?  On the whole, the section on Chastity in Gospel Principles was well done, IMO.  But once we get to the topic of Modesty, the whole lesson falls apart.  Here are a few questionable excerpts from Gospel Principles:

  • Weird Off the Wall Comment We should also help children understand gender roles. This will help a child have a good feeling about being a girl or boy. Parents who feel good about their roles as men and women pass this feeling along to their children.  How does this in any way relate to Chastity?  Placing limits (roles) based on gender does not promote good feelings so much as resentment.  Is this comment inserted to prevent children from becoming gay (under the debunked notion that gay children are mimicking the wrong sex)?  Or to promote motherhood so females will willingly choose to be baby farms?  The comment is totally off the wall and not explained.
  • Theological Foundation for Modesty?  Since the time of Adam and Eve, the Lord has asked His children to cover their bodies. No further examples are cited, so perhaps this means that no retraction of the original request was made.  Until Eve was tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden, she and Adam did not know they were naked. After eating of the forbidden fruit, they became aware of their nakedness. They tried to cover their most sacred parts with aprons of fig leaves. Sounds itchy.  However, the Lord’s standards for modesty are greater, and He gave them coats of skins to cover themselves—even though at that time they were alone in the world.  This is the only theological foundation for modesty cited in the manual, and it’s somewhat tenuous.  This also means that we can walk around in just our garments (ew!), but instead we cover our garments.  Or at least we try.
  • Clearly rape culture / victim blaming.  “We are responsible for the effect our dress standards have on others. Anything that causes improper thoughts or sets a bad example before others is not modest. It is especially important that we teach young girls not to wear clothes that would encourage young men to have improper thoughts.”  Given the law of Chastity, it’s probably OK to tell girls and boys to not dress with the object of provoking lust, but implying that they can avoid creating improper thoughts in others based on how they dress or worse, that they bear blame for others’ thoughts, is completely unrealistic and unfair.
  • When all else fails – use guilt!  “We can measure our standards of modesty by asking ourselves: How would I feel about my clothing if I knew the prophet were to visit in my home? Is my clothing a good example of what a Latter-day Saint girl or woman should wear?”  Because the Lord looketh on the heart, but your fellow Mormons will tear you to shreds for minor dress code violations.
  • Please, not in front of the kids!  We should practice modesty within our own homes. Even small children should be modestly dressed and taught about modesty.  Children are innocent and should not be sexualized, either through parents dressing them like Brittney Spears or through parents freaking out over a tank top. Can’t we just let kids be kids?  Surely we’re not saying kids are to blame for pedophiles’ urges.

Given the flimsiness of the write up in our Gospel Principles manual, “modesty” is a topic we should stop teaching because we can’t seem to find either a logical or a plausible theological foundation for our arguments.  On the contrary, we stir up a whirlstorm of judgmentalism and crazy fundie talk. I think our best bet would be to stick to Chastity and let remarks modesty follow naturally, based on common sense.  That way, only what is truly linked to Chastity (which is defensible) will be discussed.  To me, modesty (as it is described here) is creating hedges about the law (the law of Chastity in this case).

What do you think? When we preach modesty are we promoting rape culture?  Is the SlutWalks movement making an important difference in eliminating victim-blaming?  Discuss.