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Posted by on Apr 1, 2013 in Featured, Women | 29 comments

The War on Victoria’s Secret

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Mothers and fathers across America are declaring war on Victoria’s Secret. Cindy Chafin, leader of the Mommy Lobby said, “We really want [our daughters] to be innocent and young as long as possible… and [Victoria’s Secret is] not helping that.” Last week a the internet was ablaze with an open letter written by a pastor who fears that a new line of undergarments from Victoria’s Secret will corrupt his vestal daughter:

The line will be called “Bright Young Things” and will feature ” lace black cheeksters with the word “Wild” emblazoned on them, green and white polka-dot hipsters screen printed with “Feeling Lucky?” and a lace trim thong with the words, “Call me” on the front.”

Of course, I am no fan of large corporations, nor their products, nor their advertising, but it’s hard not to read the words of Rev. Evan Dolive (or the post he links to) and Cindy Chafin and not be disturbed by the attitude toward sexuality. Sexuality is not something that should be controlled by parents, nor should fathers be overly concerned with the undergarments his daughter wears. I’m reminded of the treatment of women in theocratic cultures, and it’s hard not to see the parallel when noted Conservative anti-feminist Wendy Shalit writes in support of what she calls “Modestynicks,”

A modestynik is my word for a modern single young woman raised in a secular home, who had hitherto seemed perfectly normal but who, inexplicably and without any prior notice, starts wearing very long skirts and issuing spontaneous announcements that she is now shomer negiah, which means that she isn’t going to have physical contact with men before marriage, and that she is now dressing according to the standards of Jewish modesty.

We learn later that these modestynicks were usually abused; as, Shalit wishes us to believe, will any woman not properly covered. The mindset pervades her book, like when she writes,

I propose that the woes besetting the modern woman–sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even ‘whirlpooling’ (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming, and then sexually assault her)–are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.

In reality, however, “immodesty” is not why most women are raped; rather, rape is motivated by a perverse sense of entitlement, of domination, on the part of men. The best rape prevention method is an enlightenment attitude among the male population and strict laws, not long dresses.

The absurdity of the traditionalist mentality is visible when you replace the a sample sentence (from Mr. Dolive’s letter) with the male adjective:

I want my [son] (and every [boy]) to be faced with tough decisions in his formative years of adolescence. Decisions like should I be a doctor or a lawyer? Should I take calculus as a junior or a senior? Do I want to go to Texas A&M or University of Texas or some Ivy League School? Should I raise awareness for slave trafficking or lack of water in developing nations? There are many, many more questions that all young men should be asking themselves… not will a girl (or boy) like me if I wear a “call me” thong?

I want my son to know that he is perfect the way he is; I want my son to know that no matter what underwear he is wearing it does not define him.

Can’t we see how trite and condescending this archaic vision of sex is? Who would say that a man can’t have a loving relationship and a job? Who would suggest that a man was so frail that his Calvin Kleins could devalue him? Who would suggest that a man’s identity is tied up in his sexuality?

It’s clear that the religious attitude toward sex and procreation isn’t doing our society any good. A recent study finds that teen pregnancy is correlated with religious Conservatism. The United States has, by far, the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, along with the most robust abstinence-only sexual education program. Another study finds that religion decreases sexual pleasure. Of course, these studies show no causal link, and may be debunked (or some alternative cause, like poverty, might drive both trends). Most religious women are beginning to ignore their church’s doctrines on sex.

I’m reminded of the Marlene Dietrich quote, “In America sex is an obsession, in other parts of the world it is a fact.” The quote could use a slight change though; not all of America is sex-obsessed, just though who proclaim so often not to be. And that’s what should have us worried. The religious attitude towards sex is patriarchal; it comes from a time when women were property and we should leave it there.

Postscript: I looked over some of the (generally inarticulate) protests comments on Victoria’s Secret’s Facebook page. Many are making a comparison to Steubenville, a particularly contemptible sentiment for two reasons. First, there’s certainly a “blame the victim” mentality (how could those young men resist a woman dressed so immodestly). Second, I think the causation is reversed: I think a cultural mentality in which men control women’s bodies (how they are dressed, whether they have access to contraception, etc.) will be much more likely to foster men who believe that they can force women to have intercourse against their will.