Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


Editor’s Pick
JULY 22, 2011 4:55PM

I Can Dress Myself, Thank You.

Rate: 6 Flag
Although I am a godless liberal, I am not generally opposed to religion. I understand that religion has the potential to do a lot of good for many people. I realize that shared mythologies can be powerful contributors to cohesive societies. That said, what I am strongly opposed to is the harm that arises from intolerant patriarchal dogmas. I especially dislike the way that superficially innocuous behavioral strictures seem to always lead to bigotry, subjugation, and even acts of violence against large swaths of people. In some cases, roughly half of all people are targets.

Maintaining power and control over women appears to be a common theme that underpins prominent factions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  The three major religions all have strong edicts about women’s sexuality (they’re against it).

Religious patriarchs frequently appeal to the authority of their particular god to dictate women’s behavior, including micromanaging how women dress themselves. Women’s clothing becomes a form of religious regalia that places women in a lesser social strata than the men who are largely free to dress however they like. Adherence to the clothing memes of one’s faith can even become a marker of status among followers.

Women’s clothing seems to me like a laughably trivial concern in a world wracked with wars, poverty, hunger, and myriad other instances of abject human suffering. I can only wrap my mind around it as a tool for infantilization and control.

It’s easy to dismiss Middle Eastern religions as the only violent fashion-police outliers, but some Christian men also have strong opinions about women’s clothing. I saw a link to an instructional video on Jezebel recently. It is a glimpse into what some Christian “guys” think about how women should dress.

If you don’t have time to watch it, the overview is that owning a penis is an endlessly distracting and onerous burden. It is incumbent upon women to keep men’s penises flaccid (?!) by obliterating any evidence that they are women.

Because, and this is important girls, that ominous-looking black fellow at 2:20 is becoming aroused by momentarily glimpsing the outline of your patellae. Even now, he’s imagining feasting you with all kinds of delicious chocolate sin. He is having impure thoughts about you. (Which I would love to speculate about at length here, but I don’t type well with just my left hand.)

Here’s the video on You Tube.
Another helpful Christian clothing-related resource from the Jezebel comment thread is this modesty survey. It’s both hilarious and endlessly fascinating:

“We're not telling you what to wear -- we're just telling you what we, as guys, have to guard against. It is God's Word, your own heart and conscience, and your parents and godly friends who should help you decide what to do about it. But, to help you reach your own conclusions we've provided some excellent resources that strike a balanced, non-legalistic tone.”

From here on the outside, all the handwringing about women’s clothing seems creepy and insane. Especially when dads get involved in choosing their adult daughters’ clothing.

Throughout the survey, the phrase “stumbling block” seems to be code for “gives me an erection.” Everything is a “stumbling block” for the young men who took the survey.

Millimeter of exposed skin below the collarbone? Stumbling block.

Pantyhose that mimic bare skin? Stumbling block.

Messenger bag slung across your body? Stumbling block.

I attribute this hair-trigger arousal response to the developmental biology of the guys who answered the survey (most were aged 12-19) rather than to a credible data set that reflects arousal responses for men in general. I might pay more attention if the age distribution wasn’t so heavily skewed to pubescent teenagers.

I also can’t help but wonder if the survey failed to account for cultural diversity. From the limited respondent demographic information, it appears that the majority of respondents were (probably white) Christian teenagers, 43% of whom had been home schooled. What this demographic finds arousing might not translate universally across other demographics. For example, the ominous-looking African American man in the video might not respond in an immediate and sexual way to a momentary glimpse of knee. His trigger, perhaps, is not quite as risible as those of the survey respondents.

There was one interesting article in the modesty literature that explicitly lays out why men get to tell women how to dress. Women are not autonomous beings. We do not own our bodies. God does, and men are in charge. Which brings me to a major reason I harbor deep and cynical reservations about religiously-inspired power disparities and the attendant edicts that open the door to abuses.

Violating subjective stylistic standards is often conflated with invitation to rape, even in the larger American society. Sadly, every single time I read a news item about the rape of a woman, or even of a young child for that matter, someone arrives to comment on how she was dressed, or to ask what she was drinking, or to determine if she was physically small or otherwise vulnerable in any way. Somehow and always, the victim must have provoked the attack.

Women can be lured into believing this myth as well, because it allows us to cast the victims as Other and falsely conclude that rape would never happen to us. Except that it does. In a society that systematically fails to render equality, anyone can fall victim to a crime that is based solely on power and control.

Criticism of religion has the potential to offend some readers, and that is not my intent. I do use  what I believe are representative examples of religious fucknuttery to illuminate my perspective as an outsider looking in. I acknowledge that not every religion, or sect, or individual of faith confirms my biased analysis. In all seriousness, I would love for readers to prove me wrong in the comments.
This article originally appeared on Does This Make Sense. 

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religion, gender, sexism, culture

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Thanks so much for the Editor's Pick!
Thanks for this Anthro Under.
I watched the video on Jezebel, and as a liberal Christian, I only have one comment:


While I might be able to give a pass to a conservative preacher saying, "You know, women, give men a break and don't show so much leg/cleavage/middle", because, you know, conservative. What's creepy is the "if you want to be submissive to God and a servant to your [Christian] brothers... oh, and ask Daddy if you're dressed okay" patriarchy. That goes beyond conservative and right into disturbing. A "servant"?
Why is there always a slimy, incestuous, bondage/S&M feel to someone telling me how to dress/live/comport myself as a female member of the human race based on their idea of what being a "good Christian" constitues? You think God's concerned with those platform shoes I wore back in the '70's as a "stumbling block" for my "brothers" (again..eww). think He's got alot more important things to hash out.

My good Christian brothers might want to invest in a little something called self control fer cryin' in a bucket.
this post gave me a stiffie!
Thanks for the comments Scarlett Sumac, Nole Experiments, and Horns of Dilemma!

Penrose, I'm so sorry you were raped, and I want to thank you for sharing your perspective.

Yes, sexual arousal is a natural response, and arousal triggers vary among individuals. And, I don't think we should make people feel ashamed by their biological responses.

It was not your fault. No matter what you were wearing or not wearing, it wasn't your fault. Not, not, not your fault.

We should be able to walk around naked and not get raped. Other people can get aroused all they want, but they are obligated to control how they act on that arousal. Rape is never okay. We need to change the culture that blames victims.

Rape is a crime of power and control, and arousal is the excuse. One of my links is about unlikely victims--male soldiers who are raped by other male soldiers as a form of hazing, or punishment, or establishing social rank, or whatever. It really is all about power and control.

I absolutely reject the idea that it's up to women (or children, or disabled people, or hospital patients, or hospice patients, or the elderly, or soldiers.....) to keep ourselves from getting raped.
When I lived in England, it was not uncommon to read in the papers about a rape that occurred because the woman was too drunk to consent and the man too drunk to recognize she hadn't consented.

Women should be aware that getting drunk impairs their judgement and makes them vulnerable to predators or guys whose judgement has also been substantially impaired by alcohol.

As a side point, think of those poor, horny, fundie Christian teens. Their hormones are normal, they've been taught that lusting in the heart is a sin. According to the mythology, they are not supposed to think about sex until their wedding night. So, they have a choice acknowledging that they are vile sinners and will go straight to hell, or blaming their thoughts on someone else. Is it any wonder that many of them decide that it's all women's fault?

You get warped societies whenever there are strongly expectations to act in a way incompatible with human nature.
Malusinka, my Trophy Husband said something similar to your comment. And, I agree that women should be aware of how not to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations. Alcohol and/or drugs add another layer of complexity.

And I completely agree with your poor fundie teens your warped societies comment. Thanks!