Some bloggers have gone so far as to link Christian modesty culture to rape culture. Bechtel writes, "when women are responsible for how men mentally use their bodies, it's not a far from there to making women responsible for, or at least complicit in, how men physically use their bodies." "Kelly," the pseudonymous author of a blog called Imperfect Homemaking, writes, "How much of a leap is it to go from, 'Don't wear a bikini on the beach because you will cause men to lust after you' to, 'Of course she was raped, did you see that dress she was wearing? She was practically asking for it'?"
When one in five women in this country reports being raped or sexually assaulted, and when paltry systems of recourse exist for women on many college campuses and military bases, the church must speak out against anything that justifies rape and sexual assault. Especially anything emerging from its own ranks. Still, I wonder if Christians—and all people of faith—can find a way to recover modesty and the virtue behind it. In the long tradition of the church, modesty is not ultimately about lists of appropriate attire or figuring out who's to blame for sexual transgressions. Rather, modesty is about a person, male or female, choosing to foster an inner spirit of humility and dignity, and communicating that in outward, culturally contextualized symbols of dress and behavior.
Read together, Rey's proposal and the reactions to it offer a modesty ethic that avoids blaming women for men's sexual misbehavior (or, in Christian parlance, "for making a brother stumble"). Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men's sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents--talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power. In Rey's words, this is "the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly."
Of course, men of all stripes will continue acting like the ones in the Princeton study, ogling women whether they wear bikinis or burqas. And it will take more than clusters of women donning one-piece swimsuits to counteract things like Porn Star t-shirts for six-year-olds and American Apparel ads (the ones supposedly for women, that is). When it comes to the pervasive sexualization of women and girls in Western culture, change needs to occur at the top levels of corporate leadership and political power. But it can also begin at the level of personal choice. Many women have an enormous amount of agency in choosing what they wear or don't wear, in a variety of social contexts. Women can conscientiously signal, via symbolic dress, that their sexuality is only a piece of their personhood. Sure, a one-piece swimsuit will go only so far in stemming the tide of female objectification. But it may be a start.