Women Aren’t Cake, Part 1: Some Definitions and 101-ing

I just got back from an incredible weekend at the Renew & Refine Retreat for Writers, and I have Things To Say about it and the things I learned and what it was like to be in the woods communing with God and like-minded writer-types and lots of mosquitos, but I can’t do that post justice right now. I’m hoping that my resolution to post on my blog more regularly will stick, and you can expect to see a post about the retreat soon. But for now, I have some indignation that needs to be channeled, and so here I am. (Aren’t you lucky!)

There’s a post going around — one of the myriad of posts that pops up every spring when the sun comes back and women everywhere start shedding their sweaters and baring their knees and upper arms — that is written by a woman who wants to explain why she chooses to wear a one-piece bathing suit instead of a bikini, even though she feels it to be a tremendous sacrifice, and why she believes other women should make a similar sacrifice “for the guys around [them]”. Then she makes this analogy to demonstrate how hard difficult it is for guys during swimsuit season:

I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.

So, listen. I’ve seen a lot of smart posts lately about Christian modesty culture and how it fuels rape culture, and I was hesitant to write another one; but I decided that (a.) this is an issue that needs to be chipped away at over and over again, by as many voices as possible; (b.) I have an audience and a perspective that is in some ways unique; and (c.) part of the learning process for me involves writing it out, putting it into sentences and taking them apart and looking at the pieces and putting it back together again.


So I want to start by defining some of the terms used – modesty doctrine and rape culture and other things as I think of them; then I want to deconstruct the post’s analogy between women’s bodies and chocolate cake; and lastly I want to examine the particular way that fat bodies interact with Christian modesty culture. To keep this from becoming a giant wall of text, I’m going to break it up into three posts.

Please understand that I am neither a theologian nor a women’s studies major. I’m taking this on as a layperson in both fields, but also as a woman who lives in a world that is steeped in rape culture and Christian culture and modesty culture and thin culture, and as someone who identifies herself as a Christian, as body-positive, and as a feminist.


Let’s talk first about rape culture. Rape culture is, per Wikipedia, “a concept which links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.”  Melissa McEwan wrote a tremendously helpful 101 post in response to people asking her to define “rape culture,” and I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, […] to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.

Rape culture, put as briefly as possible (which is difficult because rape culture is one of those nefariously multifaceted things that has its fingers in nearly every aspect of our society) is a cultural mindset that “legitimate rape” is only ever violent stranger rape, the kind of rape where a bad man jumps out of the bushes and overpowers a woman who is in no way doing anything (like being intoxicated or wearing revealing clothes or walking alone at night) that could be construed as contributing to his assault of her, and in which she fights back and yells “No” as loudly as possible. Other forms of nonconsensual sex, our culture says, where maybe the woman is drunk or wearing something skimpy or underage or leading him on or she’s had sex with him before or she’s had sex with anyone else before or she’s married to him or she’s trans- or she doesn’t fight back hard enough or she’s coerced into consenting or the victim is a man — those aren’t rape-rape, says rape culture. (Click through to Melissa’s post for links to instances of all of these situations being argued as “not really rape,” if you need proof that this is how our culture really does talk about rape and sexual violence.)

Hear me say this: Any sex that is not with someone who consents fully and without coercion and doesn’t withdraw her or his consent during sex, is rape.


Now let’s talk about how “modesty” is used within Christian culture, and then I’ll circle back around to rape culture and where Christian modesty culture fits into that paradigm.

Evangelical Christian culture centers its modesty doctrines around two key passages: the one where Jesus says that a man who lusts after a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart, and the one where Paul admonishes believers not to cause a fellow believer to stumble. In this context, women are taught that they are responsible for “helping” their brothers in Christ to not think lustfully about them, mainly by dressing in a way that doesn’t cause the men who see them to have lustful or sexual thoughts about them. Men, after all, are visual creatures, says Christian culture; they have little control over the fact that seeing a woman wearing revealing clothes makes them feel lust, and a woman who does so is essentially making a man sin. So it’s up to the woman to cover her body appropriately, or risk causing the men around her to stumble.

There are a few problems with this doctrine. The first is that it conflates sexual attraction with sinful lust. Emily Maynard wrote a brilliant post about this, where she said:

I propose that we’ve lost sight of what lust actually is. In fact, we have confused biological sexual attraction with lust and called it sin. […]

God created you to desire another person for affection, intimacy, and relationship! Being physically attracted to someone is not lust. […]

Don’t get me wrong. Lust is serious and lust is a sin. But lust is about control, not just sex.

Lust is dehumanizes a person in your own heart and mind. It is the ritual taking, obsessing, and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God. Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security, or moral superiority. In lusting, you are creating a world where every other person exists for your approval or dismissal. Lust reduces the complexity of each individual and their story to something you get to manage. Lust certainly can have a sexual component, but when we reduce it merely to sexual reactions, we miss out on God’s heart for all people: infinite value.

Lust is not a passive thing that happens to a guy who sees a girl’s cleavage. Lust is not a boner. Lust is an active behavior, a choice to use a person’s body or appearance or sexuality for your own selfish pleasure. It is taking something that does not belong to you — someone else’s body, whether the physical thing itself or just the image of it in your mind — and using it for self-gratification, filing it away as something to get off to instead of honoring that person as the image-bearer of God. Lust transforms its focus from person to object.

And as such, the responsibility for lust lies entirely with the luster, not the lustee. No spaghetti straps or tight shorts can make a person lust after another person. And no high necklines or denim jumpers can prevent a person from choosing to objectify someone.

There’s a reason that Jesus addressed his rebuke against the lusters, not the lustees. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away!” he admonished — not, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, the woman you’re lusting after needs to put on something less revealing!”*

But within Christian modesty culture, the responsibility for men’s lust lies with women and their clothing choices, and it’s completely fair — expected, even — for men to feel angry at and robbed by women who show more of their bodies than men feel is appropriate. Dianna E. Anderson has compiled a list of comments from men who replied to a Christian “modesty survey” — they include things like, “[Women who dress immodestly] are distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply”; “If you flaunt yourself, you have the attention of lots of guys, but you instantly lose their respect and admiration. I would never consider courting a girl that advertises her body like a product”; “It actually really angers me. I find it disrespectful…. Do they realize that they have just caused someone to have sexual thoughts about them in their mind?”; and “It’s not their body to flaunt. It belongs to Christ and their future husband. How dare they flaunt something that God did not permit them to flaunt?”

These comments are not outliers; they represent the backbone of Christian modesty doctrine, the same doctrine that instructs 8- to 12-year-old girls to check their outfits by bending forward in a mirror to make sure no “future cleavage” — seriously — is revealed, thus conditioning them to the male gaze and their own dangerously sexual bodies before they’ve even hit puberty. Christian modesty culture says that women’s bodies are not only inherently sexual, but inherently sexual at men; and that men will sexualize women’s bodies unless women take active steps to mitigate their inherent sexuality by viewing themselves through the male gaze and covering up anything that might entice a man to “stumble.”


So it should be pretty apparent how modesty doctrine fits in with rape culture. It’s simple, really: modesty teachings center on the objectification of women, and say that being objectified is the natural state for a woman’s body unless she takes care to prevent it from happening. It says that men can’t help but objectify and lust after women’s bodies, and that women are responsible for making sure that their bodies are as un-objectifiable as possible.

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.

When a man is powerless over what his mind does when he sees a woman’s cleavage, it’s not far from there to making a man powerless over what his body does when he sees a woman’s cleavage.

When woman who wears clothing that the viewer doesn’t perceive as sufficiently modest is thought to be “flaunting” or “advertising” herself, it’s not far from there to saying that “she was asking for it.”

Even if the people who promote modesty doctrine never lay a single finger on a woman, they are still advancing a narrative that feeds rape culture, that says that women’s bodies exist primarily to be looked at by men, that says women are responsible for how men sexualize them. They reinforce objectification. They advance a narrative about sex and relationships in which men use and women are used, a narrative that leaves no place for agency or consent. And this is rape culture.


So those are some basics on rape culture and modesty doctrine, which turned into a much longer post than I’d envisioned but which, I think, lays a necessary foundation for the writing I want to do about the Cake Post and about how fat women fit (or don’t) into modesty doctrine.

I’d love some feedback and discussion about this, especially since I Am Not An Expert and this whole topic is pretty new to me. What do you think of this? Have you encountered modesty teachings before? Do you like cake?


*Women can lust too, of course – both sexually, and also emotionally and mentally and morally, as Emily described above. But the conventional wisdom in Christian culture is that men are sexual and visual, and women are emotional; and when our only definition for lust is “feeling sexually attracted to someone because of the way they look” and we’ve erased the fact that quite a lot of women, too, have sex drives and can be visually stimulated, we only ever talk about lust in the context of the male gaze. So while I don’t want to overlook the fact that women can be just as culpable in this area, the only conversations we have about lust are framed in terms of how men view women, and this is the conversation I want to critique.

UPDATE: Here are the links to Part 2 and Part 3 of this discussion.

27 thoughts on “Women Aren’t Cake, Part 1: Some Definitions and 101-ing

  1. I’m looking forward to reading more. I would love to see how this fits into cultures that force their women to cover up to the extreme (burkas, head coverings, etc…) like in the Muslim or Amish communities.

    I also look forward to examining the boundary of looking nice for your spouse and yourself by also being aware of where men’s minds can go.

    I also prefer cheesecake or chocolate torte to regular cake. 🙂

  2. As always, Abi, I am Your Biggest Fan. This is really clear and actually helpful to your non-Christian readers (read: Raging Heathens). I was raised in the Methodist tradition before I fled to my lifelong path, and was thankfully (mostly) able to avoid the insidious “modesty doctrine.” I still see and hear it every day, and am grateful to have a clear and concise explanation of it.

    1. Thanks! I was hoping to write something that would get my Christian readers and my feminist readers (and, of course, there are people who are both, but a lot of my audience are one or the other) on the same page so that I can start deconstructing the Cake Post in the context of both rape culture and modesty culture.

  3. As a man, I would like to comment that modesty and rape culture also encourage men to “be” their genitalia and that this is an excuse for rape. I choose to believe that am more than my genitalia and that men as a whole should expect more of themselves in that regard.

    1. Definitely! Language we use like “thinking with his penis” is dehumanizing and degrading to men, and it both removes their agency and perpetuates the culture of male sexual violence. Booo!

  4. Reblogged this on It's Linds and commented:
    AMAZING post about christian culture and the “modesty doctrine” that is constantly forced on us. It’s a long read, but it’s worth it!!

  5. Love this blog post and how straight to the point it is. I’m most interested to see how (or if) you support the “modesty doctrine”, since I do think it IS something God calls women to participate in. Thanks for this post!!

  6. I might add to your comment “a world where every other person exists ” the distinction that is is also a world where “any other person exists…” As a Catholic new feminist, who necessarily believes in the equal dignity of womanhood, reconciliation of life, and the responsibility to “overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation” of women, I think your words here are to-the-point and vital at this time when that evangelical “culture of modesty” is pouring all over religious boundaries and even into worlds which differ on paper, but whose people often embrace just that philosophy, which is at its core anti-woman, not pro-man.
    I have also written on this topic in my blog, and met the most resistance from a man who deeply wanted me to be responsible for his sin if I put him in its near occasion, even without my knowledge or participation. Sigh.

    Thank you for writing this well, and for keeping the conversation open, because wrong-mindedness will not change if there is no dialogue.

  7. Hi Abi! I really enjoy reading your blog posts and you do often get me to think and sometimes out of my comfort zone. I see your points in this article and I did quite a bit more research on the idea of rape culture. I see that this truly is a big problem and I can also see how modesty (or lack thereof) has been used as a weapon against women. However, I am not willing to let go yet of what I believe the importance of modesty to be. I believe that it does honor God and possibly other men to dress modestly. However I can see the difficulty in defining what modest means to everybody. Maybe you have seen a reference to this study? http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/02/090216-bikinis-women-men-objects.html I would be interested in hearing your views on this. Anyway, I am proud of you and your thinking hard about difficult topics. I am glad to have known you and wish we could hang out in person again.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Thanks for commenting! I understand where you’re coming from about not wanting to let go of the notion of modesty, and as I write more I hope to explore more precisely what our responsibility is to God, to those around us, and to ourselves. I think my biggest problem with the culture of modesty that says it’s a woman’s responsibility to keep men from “stumbling” over her is that it makes how a woman appears to a man to be her primary consideration about how she presents herself — not her own unique self, her likes and dislikes, her comfort, etc. It teaches women that the most important measurement of their character is how men view them, and I think this elevates the male gaze to the status of idol. There are other issues as well, of course, and exactly zero easy answers. I hope you’ll read and comment on the other posts I’m going to put up on this topic.

      Also: what a very depressing study. I’ll have to think more about that.

      Thanks so much for commenting! I miss you too – shame we can never work it out to be in the same time zone at once!

      1. Yes I agree the study is very depressing. I wonder if there is any other research out there on that topic. I do agree that men are totally responsible for their thoughts and actions regardless of what a women, is doing, wearing, saying etc… I think we need to allow or teach men to have self control in this area. They are capable of it!!! Sin and hurting someone is always a choice and that means they can choose not to do so. And aaaack as a mother of boys how do I help teach them that??

      2. Whenever I read news articles that make these kinds of claims, I get a bit skeptical and go search for the study myself. I did the same with this one after watching this Jessica Rey video on modesty http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJVHRJbgLz8 …which was being reposted all over my facebook feed, and kind of made me want to vomit. As I suspected, the study was completely misquoted and not at all relevant to her argument. The study’s aim and hypothesis is this: “Ambivalent Sexism Theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996) contends that sexism combines complementary gender ideologies, held by both men and women worldwide. Benevolent sexism (BS) is a subjectively positive, paternalistic ideology that views women as subordinate; they need to be protected, cherished, and revered for their virtue. In contrast,hostile sexism (HS) is a combative ideology maintaining that women seek to control men and use sexuality or feminist ideology as a means to achieving status. Individuals who score high on HS are more likely to deny that women possess positive, uniquely human, secondary emotions (e.g., compassion, hopefulness, and nostalgia; Viki & Abrams, 2003). Therefore, we expect high HS individuals to demonstrate pronounced modulation of neural responses, specifically in networks associated with mental state attribution, in response to viewing sexualized female targets.”
        These were the results: “In line with our first hypothesis, male participants with high HS scores were faster to associate sexualized female targets with first-person action verbs and clothed female targets with third-person action verbs than the inverse. This suggests that sexualized women are more closely associated with being the objects, not the agents, of action as compared to clothed women, but only for men who possess hostile sexist attitudes. Female participants, irrespective of HS scores, did not demonstrate this pattern of associations. Neither menʼs nor womenʼs BS scores were related to response times. Study 1 provides preliminary evidence that for male perceivers
        with hostile sexist attitudes, sexualization decreases association of agency with female targets.” The rest of the results discuss the brain activity and how there are correlations (referenced in the video and article) ONLY with the high HS, but “No such correlation emerged with BS.” So not only does the study not even examine “men in general” in the first place, but the results aren’t even true of “benevolent sexists” (lol).

      3. Thank you Leah! I tried to find more about that study and got stuck. I appreciate you posting your findings on this. Great stuff! I hate how people misuse information.

      4. Leah, thank you so much for tracking that down! What a GIANT omission in the reporting and citing of that study, to elide “hostile sexists” into “all men everywhere ever.” Way to fact-check!

  8. Well said!
    This is a really nice outline of the current conversation. I can’t wait to send this post around! I guess the one thing I might say is about the use of the modesty survey. The men who wrote in on that survey weren’t the modest spokesmen. Rape culture is a culture this survey is a prominent example of how men are also negatively effected. Looking at the language in their comments very few come off as preachy, instead they actually sounds like their talking about aliens or alcohol. I think we can safely assume that the patriarchal norm is alive and well but there’s a strange tone of trepidation in many of those comments. These guys are taught to like women and someday marry (*own *coughcough*) one, but they’re also taught that women are basically walking time-bombs that will send them to hell at a glance. I look forward to Christian feminism when we can start finding ways to bring men into this conversation to relearn who women are. This is a social conditioning crisis. We really are the mysterious unknown gender in a lot of Christian circles. Gender segregation is the #1 cause of sexual violence. I think in a lot of ways the way America has conditioned their youth to be such polar opposites has a lot to do with this.

    I can’t wait for the next installment!

  9. Your post is excellently written, and you speak the truth. Your words are dead on! Thank you.

    (I am a Christian male and a sex addict who has been in recovery over two years.)

  10. The above article is very well written. However, I want to bring a point, why maybe modesty- not extreme- can be important despite all that. Extremism is bad in either way, I think. Just like you are saying extreme modesty culture enables rape culture,I also think that extreme immodesty isn’t ideal. I do not think it is the women’s job to go crazy and not look normal in order to ward off men, but they do not have to go crazy to attract every man in the world either-including the YOUNG boys who are around! Men may be people who have their head on straight, who won’t go crazy from a little skin. But they also have to prove themselves. Why do men get attracted to the new cable shows, with so much nudity? Many of my women friends would never watch that- while i hear guys saying that the nudity is a big reason they pay for the channels. If guys don’t want to be considered in the way that the speaker mentioned above describes them, then they should stop walking around and saying these sort of things, and the media should stop portraying them like that on so many TV shows! And for the girls, like I said, dress cute, look hot- you want guys (or more importantly, A guy) to notice you and find you attractive! But that could be done without EXTREME immodesty- which I’m sure is what you and most of the readers do already!!!! But that is the point I take from the original post which is being anylized…*if you look at her website, the bathing suits are NOT extremely modest: they do show some cleavage, and legs, just they aren’t bikinis*…I think that is NOT considered covering up like the chrisitan girls are taught…I don’t want to discuss the beach, because beaches are beaches…but like don’t walk around a main street in a bikini, or the like, because even though guys are great people, that is REALLY just sticking it in their faces!And how about the youth- no one mentioned that. Maybe adults can control themselves more, but young minds are pretty impressionable, and they don’t necessarily need to be sheltered all day, but they don’t need things stuck in their face either.. I mean, why don’t all guys wear tight speedos all around, and stick out their six packs…would young girls, who may get caught up easily, or other women (especially those who made a decision to wait until marriage, or those already in a relationship with others…) appreciate that? So maybe the designer of the swimsuit video who bashes guys has guys all wrong..but it doesn’t mean women in bikinis is ideal either..no?

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