Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Bikini Question: a Rebuttal

Recently, a post on modesty has been making the rounds. The article is simply the latest post to specifically target certain types of swimwear (namely, bikinis) as being objectively immodest, while also perpetuating a kind of false-modesty which operates under the premise that men need women to control their desires for them

The problem with the thoughts expressed in the article is that, though obviously and laudably well-intentioned, they’re not exactly in keeping with authentic Catholic teaching.
This rebuttal will attempt to explain true Catholic teaching on the subject of modesty, but before we go any further, two disclaimers:

 1)  In this post we will be operating under language and ideas which have been established in greater depth in a previous post on the subject, Modesty Once and For All. It’s not terribly long, but it is encouraged reading it if you don’t want to be confused. In addition, if you’d like to further familiarize or educate yourself regarding the theology presented in this post, check out two really excellent posts on purity at Bad Catholic Blog and Faith on the Couch.

 2) The information you’re about to discover is not widely popularized and is therefore likely to strike you as foreign. I’d encourage you to come at this post with prayer and open-mindedness. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated, feel free to take a step back, pray a little, and return to this post at a later date. The purpose of this article is not to educate you to true Catholic teaching overnight, but rather plant the seed for a greater knowledge of Catholic teaching to grow over a period of Holy Spirit-infused time.

Now, without further ado:

Lust and Attraction: the Same Thing?

Though the article does not specifically mention it, much of the information presented operates upon the findings of a widely popular study by Princeton University on men’s mental reactions to bikini-clad women.

The study showed images of women in various states of dress to 21 heterosexual undergraduates at Princeton University, each image being shown for only a fraction of a second. It was found that men tended to associate images of fully clothed women with third-person verbs (“She does”), but it also showed that men tended to associate images of bikini-clad women with first-person verbs (“I do”).
The conductors of the study concluded, based on the information presented, that men associated a personal sense of ownership with scantily-clad women and therefore were more likely to objectify them.
Now, as previously implied, the Church has a major theological problem with the conclusion of the study. Before we get into that, however, it’s worth pointing out some objective flaws with the study itself. A journalist friend of mine writes,

“The men in this survey were rated as hostile sexists in the test that determined who would be part of the study. These men, in the questionnaire before the study, said that [they believed] women are controlling and invaders of male space. 

[Also], these images did not picture the faces of the women. The heads were cropped off. If one is looking at an image with no face, one cannot make a human connection. When one views a sexualized, faceless body which is scantily-clad and in a seductive pose, it’s no surprise that one would view said body as sexualized. 

[Finally], the reactions of the men were sub-conscious rather than willed. A man, through use of his faculties, can will a proper, humanized response to such images. Humans are not animals. We have free will and use of reason.”

All of these are excellent points, particularly the third point that men have more power to control their impressions and responses than they’re often given credit for (more on that later).

However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that this study wasn’t flawed at all. Even if this were the case – and it’s not – the Church would still take major issue with the conclusion of the study. Why? Because the Church doesn’t view sexual attraction in the same way that the secular world does.

Basically, secular society wants you
to believe that all men are like this.
To a secular society, attraction and lust are the same thing. When a woman attempts to be attractive to a man (or vice versa), she’s also attempting to arouse lust. When a man becomes attracted to a woman, he’s lusting after her. The world sees lust and attraction as one and the same.

Therefore, when a study – however flawed – shows that a man is attracted to a woman wearing a bikini, the secular conclusion is that said man is lusting after said woman. With this lust comes a sense of ownership, a desire to possess, and a desire to objectify.

To the Church, however, lust and sexual attraction are two very different things. Lust, on the one hand, seeks to own, enslave, possess and objectify. It’s a warped and incomplete version of attraction which puts both the lusting and the lusted-after in the position of being tools or objects of use. Sexual attraction, on the other hand, is not only a necessity for any creature which reproduces sexually, it is also a divine call to serve.

See, when a man is attracted to a woman (or vice versa), it is his divine obligation to turn that attraction outwards and to use it as an impulse which leads him to serve her better; to communicate to her as best he can her dignity and worth as a child of God. This original purpose and point of attraction is strikingly different than the purpose and point of lust, hence the Church discriminates lust while openly endorsing attraction.

For this reason, when the data of the Princeton University study reports that men associate bikini-clad women with first person verbs (“I do”), the Church does not join the secular world in its conclusion that they’ve just discovered a biological predisposition for lust in men. 

Rather, the Church points back to its own understanding of the point of attraction, that is, a divine call to serve. Of course the men associated first person verbs with those women who they were more attracted to! When a man becomes attracted to a woman (and vice versa), his entire body signals him to love her, serve her, and communicate her dignity as a child of God back to her, all of which are calls to action on his part.

For this reason, a faithful Catholic has no reason to buy into the secular conclusions of the study (that bikinis innately lead men to lust and that men have a biological predisposition to lust).

Alright, but even if that’s true, aren’t bikinis still immodest?

Before I get into this question, I want to make something abundantly clear: this article is not to be taken strictly as a defense of the bikini. Rather, this article primarily seeks to further correct misunderstandings regarding the Church’s definition of modesty and dispel negative stereotypes regarding men and their chastity.

With this in mind, before we can speak to the supposed objective immodesty of bikinis, we have to explore what constitutes immodesty.

Pope John Paul II writes in Love and Responsibility that,

Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

At this point, I understand if some of my readers may have to take a step back. This is pretty revolutionary thought!

First, immodesty has little to do with what is being worn and has everything to do with why it is being worn (intention) and where it is being worn (situation/environment).

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, JPII is saying that immodesty cannot be present when an article of clothing is being worn in the way that it was created to be worn.
So, with this new and startling information in mind, we turn to the question of the objective immodesty (or lack thereof) of the bikini.

If worn with the intention of
arousing lust, even this stuff
is immodest.
Are bikinis immodest? Sometimes, if they’re worn in an inappropriate situation (church or the library are some particularly humorous examples) or if they’re worn with the intention of arousing lust. However, even when they are worn with the intention of arousing lust, they are no more immodest than any other article of clothing worn with the same intention.

Likewise, believe it or not, bikinis can sometimes also be completely modest, if they are worn in an appropriate venue (a beach, perhaps) and without the intention to arouse lust.
Therefore, to say that any article of clothing is objectively immodest is directly contrary to what the Church teaches regarding modesty, even if that article of clothing is the bikini.

What about men? Shouldn’t women help protect their men’s hearts against unchastity?

Ah, the old “let’s protect the opposite gender’s chastity for them” argument. Alright.
When we’re talking about sexual self-mastery, what we’re really talking about is the virtue of continence.

Pope John Paul II writes in the Theology of the Body,

“In order to reach mastery over this drive and arousal, the personal subject must devote himself or herself to a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiments, of emotions, which must be developed from the simplest gestures, in which it is relatively easy to put the inner decision into practice.” (128:1)

The journey to continence is one that each person must take largely on his or her own. Now, I understand this may sound harsh, but think of it this way:

If you wanted to get physically stronger, would you go around telling everyone else to stop working out so that you can look stronger by comparison? When lifting weights, would you lift five pounds at a time, once a month? Of course you wouldn’t. If you want to build up muscle, you have to work hard and not shy away from a challenge. Likewise, a man (or woman) cannot build spiritual muscle by hiding away or requiring everyone around him to dress in a way that directly supports his lifestyle.

To this argument, many people (including the writer of the original article) would argue that God “assigns to every woman the dignity of every man”. This is certainly true, and it’s a fair point. However, it isn’t conducive with protecting the dignity of men to cater or enable their sin. Allowing men to blame women for their lack of chastity, freeing themselves of responsibility, is not protecting a man’s dignity. It’s openly discriminating against a man’s dignity. To support the dignity of the human person is to encourage the human person towards spiritual and moral growth, but nobody grows if everyone’s constantly doing their work for them.

In a grander way, catering or enabling a man’s sin isn’t just discriminating against that man’s personal dignity, it’s discriminating against men everywhere.

Just one example of the truly terrible
theology that's out there.
As represented by the original article’s highly offensive chocolate cake metaphor, there exists a false stereotype which claims that men are, as a general rule, grimier, more carnal, and more predisposed to lust than any woman could ever be. The problem with this “chocolate cake” mindset, this “boys will be boys” mindset, this “Women should help men because men can’t help themselves” thought process is that it is damaging to the entire male gender. Sure, it might be a little easier for men to feign chastity if everyone around them is enabling and catering to their weakness. But in addition to stripping men of any moral responsibility, it also strips them of the nobility and well-deserved pride that comes with achieving continence for themselves. It forces men into a negative, self-hating stereotype which ensures that, no matter how much self-mastery they obtain, they will always feel gross or lecherous. On a personal note, I actually know of certain boys who have doubted their own masculinity when they don’t have major issues with lust, so potent is the stereotype that to be masculine is to be lustful. This is just one example which illustrates that negative stereotypes which belittle a gender – however well-intentioned – hurt everyone.

The darkest and most serious example of this is the fact that such “chocolate cake” mentalities directly contribute to rape culture. Think about it: telling a girl to avoid wearing a bikini to protect a man from lust is the same as telling a girl that, because she wore a bikini, she led a man into lust. And sadly, telling a girl that she led a man into lust because of the way she dressed is not a far cry from telling her that the way she dressed is what led a man to rape her.

Now this has all gotten very dark and heady, but hopefully by this point, you’ve discovered the seriousness of what we’re talking about.

To recap, saying that men everywhere have no choice but to struggle with unchastity is a false and hurtful stereotype. To say that women must take responsibility for men’s chastity puts unfair responsibility on women, absolves men of their own responsibility, and directly contributes to rape culture.

So what’s to be done? What’s the proper response?

The proper response is this: let’s all stop worrying about our wardrobes. Instead, let’s focus on modifying our entire culture with behaviors that directly combat unchastity.
Let’s reclaim attractiveness as a divine call to serve. Let’s remember it, own it, and be unafraid of it.

Women, love yourselves. Dress in a way that makes you feel dignified. If that’s a bikini, so be it. If it’s not, that’s also fine. As long as what you’re wearing is appropriate for the venue and is being worn with the genuinely holy motive of communicating your strength, worth, confidence, dignity and beauty to the world, more power to you.

Men, let’s start taking responsibility for our actions, thoughts, and desires. I promise you that you are capable of so much more than the culture tells you. I promise you that it is possible to become chaste relying on nothing but yourself and the Holy Spirit! I promise you that there is no greater feeling than being in the presence of a woman who may or may not be dressed immodestly and being able to look at her with nothing but love, chastity, and a desire to communicate her dignity to her in any way you can.

Isn’t this all just too idealistic? It is even possible to achieve such things?

Of course it’s idealistic! But isn’t all of Christianity? Isn’t the idea that you’ve been saved from sin by the Son of God dying on a cross and optimistic idea? Isn’t it utopian to spout off scriptures about “Peace on earth and good will towards men”? Of course it is, but we still believe and live those fundamental concepts of Christianity. Let us never sacrifice any aspect of Catholic teaching because it seems too good to be true.

Sure, we’re fallen. But, with God’s grace, we can achieve great things! We can be chaste, we can feel beautiful, we can be strong, and we can change our culture!