Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Our Search for the Perfect Victim

Here in our country, we live with the illusion of equality: legal equality. Women have the same legal rights as men: they can own a business, vote, go to work, raise their children, divorce, have affairs. They can have their own bank accounts, file taxes, own property, sell property, and a woman is a whole person in the eyes of the law.

Public opinion on women being equal and a whole person seems to shift when they become a victim of the most personal crimes: domestic violence and sexual assault.  We speak of these things at first in hushed tones.  It is often considered a private matter, but then we talk about all the wrong things. We go on to discuss the victim. We excuse victims of the past because of their lack of resources, but women today should know better. Women today should always be cognizant of abuse red flags. Women today should dress in a way that does not attract attention*. Women today should take care of the family they chose to have because they had the option to contracept or abort**. Women today should know, from the moment they meet a man, whether or not he is capable of abuse. They should not drink***. They should not hang out in shady areas or with people they do not know****. They should always have a plan and when they are sexually assaulted, masturbated to in public, raped, or trapped in an abusive relationship… they must have done something to deserve it. They liked it. They wanted it. They should have known better.

This is where we are failing. When we sit here from our arm chairs and judge the decisions, locations, and clothing choices she is making instead of supporting her and her children and helping them to be as safe as possible until she is both safe and stable enough (mentally, emotionally, physically, support-wise) to be able leave, then we are part of the problem. When we judge a sexual assault victim on many of these same things, we are part of the problem.  When we are focused on the actions of the person that seems the easiest to control, we behave just as the abuser behaves. The abuser's actions are criminal, not the victim’s*****. Talk about what he is doing wrong and ways to stop him instead of about the illusion of support you think she has.

There is no such thing as the perfect victim. We will never find someone that the public eye will respect enough, that the law will support enough, or that we like enough. We can either continue to find ways to tear her apart and point out her flaws, or we can turn our focus to the criminal actions. What gave the perpetrator the right to hit her or threaten her? How dare he create violence in front of children that will haunt them for life?! Why did he think that he could rape her? What can we do to prevent this act of sexual or physical violence from happening again?


* Yet fashion centers on how sexy a woman should look and our focus is on how women should be attractive to men from the earliest of ages. A pornified culture sets women up to fail.

**Nevermind the alarming consequences of hormonal contraception and the emotional scarring of abortion, just to start.

***Women should not drink. Unless they are busy looking sexy and selling alcohol. Or a modern woman who can do as she pleases. Really, they just should not drink on nights they will be assaulted because if they do they are asking for it.

**** Why was she walking alone to her car? She met him in a bar, what did she expect?

*****There are many elements to abuse that we do not understand as outsiders. She is manipulated and coerced into a variety of behavior and her life hangs in the balance. Criminalizing her actions without intimate knowledge of what her life is like is dangerous.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


*I would like to preface this post by saying that I am seven months pregnant. At this stage, my thoughts feel like they are complete, but sometimes they are not! I hope that if something in the post speaks to you positively or negatively, you would let me know and engage in some conversation if I need to clarify something. This issue is a difficult one to talk about at times, and I often benefit from discussions on modesty. End preface.*

As I have mentioned previously, I spent two summers in college working for an amazing catechetical program called Totus Tuus. It was an incredible period of my life, to say the least. My first summer, I was asked to give the modesty talk for the high school girls camp. I was equally honored and scared.  There were so many things I wanted to say, and I wanted the talk to impact these girls and make them think about modesty in a way that they had not considered.

I was typically the kind of kid that, if I was told not to do something, I just didn't do it. There are always exceptions of course, but when it came down to the big issues of faith or teenage peer pressure, I was always astonished when asked to participate. “I can’t smoke pot! It’s Illegal!” “You guys are going to get some beer? But we aren't 21!” “You are breaking up with me because we are not having sex? We aren't married, though. I don’t understand…” “You are skipping Mass this weekend? Are you sick?” And so it went for the most part. It would follow that I also listened on the edge of my seat to modesty talks. It was my job as a Christian woman to help guard my brothers in Christ. This happened to fit right into my own inability to wear most standard fashions as I was just taller than most, and did not enjoy it when my stomach was hanging out the bottom of my shirt, or I did not have adequate posterior/breast coverage. I was made for t-shirts and jeans, so modesty was my game.

 Teaching Totus Tuus began to make me think about modesty in an entirely different way. At first, it was good. I liked the way that the program emphasized team work when it came to modesty. Clothes should be clothes, and not a way to draw unwanted attention to your body. There was at least the fa├žade (more on that later) of gender equality with modesty amongst the teachers: the men shouldn't walk around shirtless, etc. either. As I began to think about my big talk, I wanted to draw attention to modesty of our thoughts, words and actions, not just the clothing we were wearing, but what it meant to be a woman of God in a more holistic sense.

I very nearly had the talk taken from me just after the first week of teaching. A former teacher was supervising our first week, and there was one night my teammate was overheard having a “modesty” talk with a few of the high school ladies. Praise was heaped on her for how thoughtful and realistic she was with them, and that it sounded like she really reached out and they heard her. (I’ll vouch for her: she’s my best friend to this day and she is fantastic at witnessing!) It happened to be the same night that I accidentally changed into the wrong pair of jeans after Mass, and they were a little lower in the back when I sat down so the shirt I was wearing did not quite meet the waist. The former teacher informed my team leader of how inappropriate I was dressed. He took me aside privately to let me know and I was mortified. It was strike one.

In a week or so my teammate and I were approached about switching our camp talks as she was now dubbed the Modesty Police. To say the least we were both offended and refused to switch. I was grateful that she was as upset as I was. Little was said again about the issue until camp was underway. She and I spent a few nights arguing discussing fighting about talking modesty with a priest and a few of the teachers. I began to see how one-sided the modesty debate really was amongst my peers and even my educators. Guys are different. They have a physical response that women do not have, so a girl running in a sports bra is leaps and bounds more offensive and inappropriate than a muscular boy running without a shirt. After a few hours of incredulous head-shaking and rather loud, defiant arguments, the priest ended the conversation by telling us that we were refuting years of women telling him the opposite, so he simply did not believe us. Strike two.

Over our summer break, and my teammate and I had gone shopping. As a birthday gift to myself, I purchased an orange V-neck shirt and a tank that went under it. I was very pleased with the purchase: I never found orange tops that fit correctly! I wore it once over the break and then happened to be wearing it the day of the modesty talk. During the boys camps, the female teachers took more of a helping role (as the male teachers did during girls camps) so when it came time for the high school boys camp, I was ready to fade into the background a little and concentrate on my talk and prayer. I do not think I spent more than an hour the entire day around any of the boys. After the talk, we went into the chapel for Liturgy of the Hours, and on the walk back into the main gathering space my team leader informed me that one of the campers had asked that I change my shirt. I felt my face flush red. I was hurt, and trying not to cry in front of a seminarian. I complied and spent an hour or so in our sleeping area feeling as though I was a hypocrite or a sinner or some awful example of a Christian woman. Strike three.

I look back on things now, and I am amazed I was able to give the modesty talk successfully. My confidence was shaken on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my teammates and I grew in my faith in ways I did not know were possible. I am a stronger person today because of my time with Totus Tuus and I still love the program and pray for its success. However, now that I am an adult and I have spent some time thinking about feminism and Catholicism, I see that there were some attitudes and ideas that held me back from growth as well. (The word “accountability” still makes me want to vomit. A story for another time, perhaps…)

To save myself some time, I will be blunt here: Modesty is a good thing, but the general ideas and attitudes that surround it really are not, because attraction knows no bounds. Women in a potato sack with only extremities visible might be the only way to be sure we are guiding our brothers in Christ away from sinful thoughts. Even then, some guys like toes: maybe even fingernails. Yes we can exercise some caution in our wardrobe choices, but I cannot get behind the idea that I must do so only to be supportive to a man.

In my experience as a young Catholic woman, I certainly was given many reasons for modesty. These reasons included valuing and respecting my body. The experiences I outlined above were not about me, but about men and their struggles with modesty.  I know that this issue is complex, but what message do we send our young women when we tell them the clothes they wear are about men’s thoughts? Isn't that just as bad as telling them that they should wear fewer clothes to attract men? What do clothes, make-up, or our hairstyles have to do with men in the first place? What messages do we send our young men if we tell them that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep them from sin because they cannot control their own actions?

I ask these questions honestly. I have a son and a daughter. I work harder than I should have to in order to find my 17-month old daughter clothes that are appropriate for the things a 17-month old does (Such as play, run, eat, fall down.) The battle has already begun to keep her from a sexualized childhood. I work harder than I should have to in order to avoid clothing choices for my three year old son that glorify violence and promiscuity. I fight the same fight when choosing their toys, and I will continue to fight these fights as long as I am their mother. When it comes time for the more direct modesty conversations, I will avoid relying on the “brothers and sisters in Christ” model of modesty, because I find it to be damaging to our young women and men.

What are your thoughts on modesty? How do you plan to talk about modesty with your children?