Of Boobquakes and the modesty peddlers

Those up on these things know that today is Boobquake day, during which women are encouraged to show just a bit more skin when out in public. The point is to rebuke the Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who recently remarked that scantily-clad women cause earthquakes.

Without commenting on the Facebook-promoted Boobquake phenomenon itself, I think it’s important to note that Sedighi’s comments, as absurd as they seem to reasonable people, exist on a continuum with the only-slightly-less absurd words of American right-wing pundits and preachers. While a great many social conservatives would dismiss Sedighi’s remarks, one suspects that most would do so more out of antipathy towards Islam than out of a genuine sense that what he said was wrong. After all, while the number who believe that a push-up bra leads to cracks in the earth’s crust are few, it’s common to hear conservatives bemoan the lack of modesty among today’s youth (and by youth, they almost invariably mean young women.)

“I can’t believe what young women are wearing these days” is an ancient lament. While it is axiomatic that what scandalizes one generation is accepted as normal by the next, it’s also true that standards tend to fluctuate rather than steadily decline. Think of the plunging necklines of the early 19th century in Europe, and contrast them with the Victorian prudishness that only emerged decades later. These things go in cycles. It’s simply ignorant to assume, as many anxious guardians of public morality do, that “things have never been this bad, and without radical (state or divine) intervention, things will get even worse.”

The real constant in history is the way in which the bodies of young women are seen as threats to the social order (if not also to the stability of the globe’s tectonic plates). Those who believe in the myth of male weakness argue that the vast majority of heterosexual men are driven mad (or at least unavoidably distracted, tempted, etc.) by women’s unwillingness to cover up. Those who don’t understand how testosterone and Y chromosomes actually influence behavior insist that they render males helpless at the sight of boobs and buttocks and uncovered thighs. The social conservatives adopt a simple formula, basing it on a creative misreading of both Scripture and evolutionary psychology (and yes, it’s notable that many right-wing Christians abandon their hostility to evolution when they see that its misuse serves to bolster their argument that women need to cover up.) The formula: social upheavals (and perhaps temblors) are caused by women’s refusal to police themselves (and each other). Since men are incapable of sexual self-regulation, God gave women (and women only) the gift of self-control. When women refuse to exercise that self-control on behalf of both themselves and their brothers, chaos results.

It’s easy to mock Sedighi. But when we repeat the lie that women are more capable of self-regulation and are therefore expected to exercise modesty as a strategy for restraining men and protecting society itself, we are taking essentially the same stance as the befuddled Iranian cleric. Boobs don’t cause earthquakes. They also don’t cause rape. They don’t cause men to be distracted or unfaithful. Exposed in whole or in part, they don’t portend the decline of civilization or of human decency. We need to repeat this message over and over again.

Building a just society means, among a great many other things, reiterating over and over that each of us has the capacity for empathy and for self-control. All of us ought to enjoy the right to delight in our bodies and display them as we choose. And make no mistake: women’s bodies are only threatening in a culture that denies the possibility of universal male accountability, and denies the reality of women’s sexual agency. (Not to mention a society that is ridiculously uncomfortable with one particularly effective way of feeding infants, but that’s another post.) Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi is an enthusiastic denier of both possibilities. But so too are many others who disguise their medieval views of human nature behind only slightly less ridiculous assertions.

Happy Boobquake day.

See this post for a take on the real biblical meaning of modesty.


In a discussion on my Facebook page beneath a link to this post, my friend Joanne writes:

Showing off my boobs doesn’t really make the people staring at them committed to freedom for Iranian women

I think we all agree to that. Note that I’m not celebrating or promoting Boobquake (it ill-behooves a male feminist to do so). I certainly don’t think that displaying women’s bodies is a particularly effective tool for solving discrimination. But I do think that the enforced concealment of women’s bodies is part and parcel of the problem. To the extent that a public, media-savvy campaign can expose (pun intended) our own hypocrisy about women’s sexuality and female flesh, then I think that events like Boobquake are fine. But they need to be a spur to serious reflection and continued activism.

Check out some thoughts at the Ms. blog as well.

22 thoughts on “Of Boobquakes and the modesty peddlers

  1. I have a hard time being thrilled with the idea of cleavage as a statement about female empowerment. Of course the evangelical modesty police are sexist, but so is society at large treats women (at least those who fit a very narrowly defined standard of “hotness”) as sex objects. No matter what we women wear, men are going to make judgments about us, our characters, and our sexuality. Men, on the other hand, have the luxury of covering their chests and thighs without anyone assuming anything one way or the other about their religious beliefs or sexuality. I own shorts and low cut shirts, but I will start viewing them as empowering rather than as a concession to a sexist culture when men start bearing skin at places other than the gym and beach.

  2. The problem is that if either side “wins,” women lose.

    Women’s cleavage causing earthquakes demonizes and tries to control women’s sexuality by making it shameful.

    Women showing extra cleavage to protest the “boobquake” seems to just bring out the men who want to view women as only sex objects.

  3. I’m happy seeing you say “celebrating or promoting Boobquake” is a thing that “it ill-behooves a male feminist to do”. It’s in contrast to the praise you gave that made-for-journalism stunt involving a women going topless in Central Park last year. I really think that female nudity is such poisoned territory for men that we’d be better keeping our distance (intellectually) from it.

    If there are any men out there who disagree with me, let them say they’ve never opened a Playboy centerfold, or the equivalent on the Internet. O my brothers, our credibility on this is zip.

  4. I think there’s a difference, John, between encouraging women to disrobe in the present and celebrating a post facto event in which a journalist challenged convention. The point I think men can make and then, far more importantly, live out is that our respect and our decency are not contingent upon the dress (or lack thereof) of the women around us.

  5. I’m afraid the convention is “Women will flash their bodies around and everyone will say how interesting it is”. A woman can follow it willingly as in the New York article, or blunder into it as in the Boobquake thing. If only that could change! Respect and decency would indeed occur then.

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  7. Reading the original Boobquake post the thing I was most reminded of was this: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18455-mass-drug-overdose–none-dead.html – a lighthearted empirical debunking of a patently absurd claim. Said claim being well-defined and clearly testable (and thus more obviously absurd) also making it distinct from vague sociological claims about clothing choices constributing to moral decay.

    But the idea that it was particularly about female empowerment (as opposed to scientific scepticism) and the attendant arguing over whether or not this was really the case seemed to be rather missing the point.

  8. Cleavage is empowering. It just is.

    It is rather odd to think American women are grossed out by the speedos worn by European men. (Or gay men.) Men in the US have ‘covered up’, so to speak. 2010 NBA games speak to this.

    Women are free to sample penis in the 2010 world. We talk about the size of any given man. I don’t believe my Mother’s generation (before ‘the pill’ generation) knew much about the intoxicating effect of a larger penis. I doubt she ever talked about or even knew about it. She got what her virginity got.

    However, any woman with any experience will tell other women, (not men, their egos are still fully intact thanks to those who perpetuate the lie), about the delights of a larger penis. Men with small ones will ALWAYS be trying to make it bigger; by money, conquests, or coercion. I would like to say I am mistaken on this, however; the internet bears me out. My spam box is FULL of pitches to “make it bigger”. I wouldn’t be getting these if men everywhere, in secret, weren’t responding.

    We (women) don’t talk about it in our polite society talk because it is such a fragile issue for men. Men, on the other hand, have NO problem discussing our bodies. (She is TOO fat, TOO short, TOO hairy, etc., etc.) How do they know this? We display it. Men resort to money, cars, and, when all else fails, whatever power they can muster.

    Call me shallow. I call it being a realist. If I have previous knowledge that a man is under-endowed, I won’t go there. Experience is a great professor.

    Again, Hugo, the knife cuts both ways. Thankfully, I live in a country that cherishes the freedom for me to discuss it!

  9. I have to laugh Katy, sorry. The best sex I’ve ever had was with a partner whose penis was smaller compared to all the other men I’ve ever slept with. There was just no comparison in the quality of sex to those larger-peniied men. You want to talk about intoxicating, our chemistry was unbelievable. Even though his girth was smaller than average, I would have very gladly had sex with just him for the rest of my life if our relationship had worked out. It was imaginative, intimate, fun, and just downright sexy, probably in part because we communicated really well. None of that is in any way related to penis size.

    The largest partner I had, penis-wise, was completely unskilled and boring in bed. And it hurt. He didn’t listen much when I tried to communicate. He proudly told me that he’d been told he was big, and I had to wonder if that suggested to him that he didn’t have to do much besides stick it in and hump for the sex to be good. The intoxicating effects of a larger penis, my ass.

  10. Hmmm. B. I’ve been with more than ‘one’ BIG. That’s all the evidence you can produce? And really? “Small” hit your g-spot?

    I tried! Was with small. He is smart, witty, we had ‘it’! Great body! We connected on every level. But truth be told…sex was a chore. I started feeling sorry for all of the un-happily married women who don’t want sex from their under-endowed husbands. Lipstick on a pig…’tis still a pig. Technique, soft porn…I tried it all. G-spot. Can’t hit it if you don’t have a bat.

    To each his own. However, if we are going for ‘in general’ here…Men like big breasts. Women like a large penis.

    Generally, I am wary of someone who protests too much. Show me the empirical evidence! How many spam emails are YOU getting telling men to decrease their girth? Make it ‘less’ hard?

    There IS evidence, backed up by real science.. CAT scans are done on the male brain being shown naked bodies of women… and the parts of their reasoning brain shut down…the sexual response fires away! (I will find the link and post.)

    But then, Cleopatra knew that without a few centuries of hard science to back her up. So did Jezebel, as well as Josephine….

  11. Katy,

    If a large penis hits your g-spot perfectly, you’ve got the great good fortune to have it placed nearer your cervix than do many women, or perhaps your lovers have particularly curved penises, no? I’m not a woman, but I’ve taught sex ed for a long time, and been around the proverbial block a time or nine hundred, so while I’ve often heard enthusiastic expressions of desire for a large penis from women, it’s usually about the satisfaction of being filled (girth) than about a specific area being poked.

    The “sexual response compromises reasoning” myth was nicely debunked by McGaughy in her “Caveman Mystique“, which I highly recommend for a detailed take-down of evolutionary/biological explanations.

    In any event, I’m struck by the corollary you make between big breasts and a large penis. For you, clearly, a large penis provides pleasure in that it reaches a spot small penises evidently don’t. But are big breasts really analogous in that instance?

    We are all sexual creatures. But our sexuality only trumps our reason when we refuse, willfully, to acknowledge our capacity for reason to trump all. We have lizard brains, we have mammalian brains, and therein we find the sexual responses and urges. But on top of all of them, we’ve got the cerebral cortex — and that moral centre is what makes us human, makes us have the capacity for decency and restraint and commitment and moral discernment.

    Which means that men can see boobs and still see the humanity of the woman to whom they are attached. I’ll grant you the point about big dicks if you’ll grant me that.

  12. Katy, since when is the g-spot the be-all-end-all of good sex? If I’m on top, I usually get g-spot stimulation from any partner. If I’m not on top, I usually don’t, no matter what the size. I’m not really trying to produce evidence in an empirical way, just sharing from my experiences. The rest of the partners had were neither large nor small, mostly just average with nothing notable to say about their penises except that they had one. Sex with them was of varying quality, from totally mundane to very fun and exciting. Again, their actual sex organ had very little to do with how good the sex was.

    I’m not really sure how advertising is evidence to you. A good marketer can sell anything to anyone. Part of marketing is making us feel like shit about ourselves so that we give people money to fix it. I’m quite sure that half of those things didn’t actually bother many people until an ad told them it should. And I’m really not sure how CAT scans of men looking at naked women has anything to do with how women feel about penis size!

    I don’t know why you think I’m “protesting too much” just by sharing my experience…but as a woman who has sex with people who have penises, I have a vested interest in men not thinking they can be a stud in bed simply by having a large penis. It takes work!

  13. I left out a word in my last post – It should read, “The rest of the partners I’VE had were neither large nor small…”

  14. I bring up CAT scans because parts of men’s brains shut down when confronted with naked breasts. I intuitively know this. It is an empowering feeling FOR ME. I believe it is FOR MOST WOMEN. Unless, of course, they have been constricted by moral beliefs imposed on them by men. However, women, when confronted with a penis in an un-intimate setting, will be using her flight instinct. Women and men ARE different. I embrace this fact. In an intimate setting, a big, erect penis is very much a sexual turn-on.

    My other point being that I have been in groups of women where we nit-pick men. We do talk about how ‘good’ he was, or his lacking skill, size, etc., etc. I do believe the American society has placed a lot of pressure on males…that doesn’t exist in say, the Saudi Arabian society. I am quiet content to live here!

    Should men try to stop the urge to look at breasts? Can they? Isn’t it hardwired? When I put on a tight designer dress, along with 4 1/2 inch heels…and walk into a bar/restaurant in NYC, men stare. Men try to talk to me. Isn’t that a powerful thing? Shouldn’t I like it? Is it a crime to trade beauty for the chance to widen my circle of potential suitors? I don’t feel disrespected because men stare. I know they will, and it is empowering.

    I am also aware it is WOMEN, not MEN, who turn up the sexist volume when confounded by a beautiful woman. (Ahhh, she is pretty, she must be stupid. Ahhh, she has money, and she is pretty, she must have inherited it/be on alimony. Ahhhh, she has probably had plastic surgery.)

  15. Katy, a big penis is a good time, but anyone not a hard-core masochist (and no offense to them) will agree that too big is worse than too small, and way more difficult to compensate for.

    That aside, you’re coming off like a cock infomercial and it’s kind of weird. Women who fuck are aware of what we like, okay? All of us, not just you.

  16. Katy:

    “To each his own. However, if we are going for ‘in general’ here…Men like big breasts. Women like a large penis.”

    I can assure you that, generally, men may like A Show of big breasts, but when reality strikes and the game is on, most men just don’t care one way or the other. Again, generally, comparative dick size is a subject that stops coming up in male conversation by age 25. I can’t really speak to, or of, the male population that is secretly pining for an ‘exclusive membership’, but I wonder if this is a market that is driven by the access to and of pornography, and thus maybe more of a fantasy destination for those men who are convinced of Katy’s point of view, that a big dick is a better dick, without any hard evidence (pun intended), or experience to proove the point.

    One of the absolutely, breathtakingly sexiext women I ever dated almost never wore anything that exposed her cleavage, until then one day she turned up wearing a push up bra and a dress with a plunging neckline. I’m sweating a little bit just recalling the memory, as were my friends at the time who had never seen her dressed immodestly(and I’m thinking that even my use of the word immodest betrays a not so subtle sexist attitude. Disappointing in one who considers himself a little enlightened.). So, “yes” Hugo, breasts are distracting, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that they aren’t. All those folks using the barely dressed woman in fashion ads aren’t stupid. Allowing a show of boobs to distract us, as men, enough to ignore the rest of the human package however, is not acceptable, but that takes effort, and effort is work, and the work ethic is a conditioned response. So perhaps demystifying ass, tits and dicks is something we should be teaching our kids in grade school, and not waiting until they are of an age at which the media has had a chance to soil the blankets.

    Maybe someone could weigh in on whether or not women in countries where breasts are bared without embarassment are more subject to sexual harassment than in other cultures.

  17. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/2333237/posts

    Personally speaking I only look at breasts that I can see, if that makes any sense. In other words, if you want me to ogle your endowments then by all means make them visually accessible. If your breasts don’t want that kind of attention keep ’em covered. I’ll be responsible enough to keep my response to your display within bounds, but you must be responsible enough to realise that your display does not exist in a vacuum. This does not excuse bad behaviour, but there is certainly a case to be made that women who choose to reveal parts of their bodies in public, and in full knowledge of the attention they are likely to receive as a result, be willing to acknowledge that said attentions are related to their manner of dress, and not solely the result of aggressive male sexual behaviour.

    “There IS evidence, backed up by real science.. CAT scans are done on the male brain being shown naked bodies of women… and the parts of their reasoning brain shut down…the sexual response fires away! (I will find the link and post.)”

    So what? Hugo’s point is that no matter the stirrings in the male reptile brain or pants, men posses the ability to reason and react to stimuli in a manner that transcends hormonally driven excess. So given that we men aren’t all thugs and rapists, its reasonable to suppose that the reasoning part of the brain that shuts down is the part that reasons that it’s OK to attack women that we find sexually attractive.

  18. “Allowing a show of boobs to distract us, as men, enough to ignore the rest of the human package however, is not acceptable…”

    I agree and well said.

    “In other words, if you want me to ogle your endowments then by all means make them visually accessible. If your breasts don’t want that kind of attention keep ‘em covered.”

    The fact that men notice women’s breasts is not exactly news. Advertisers are certainly well aware of this. I wouldn’t and don’t have any interest in men who are focused on my upper endowments. I don’t find it empowering and tend disdain males who behave like that. On the other hand, men who respond to as you would say, “the rest of the human package” would illicit a more favorable response, or at least a first impression. Men that demonstrate that they’ve evolved beyond the basic stirrings of the reptile brain would also make more suitable potential mates.

    Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I really didn’t get the link to the psychopaths and men’s urge to look at breasts, other than the link about remorseless, manipulative killers was interesting….how that fit into the discussion…well you lost me.

  19. Karen:

    “The fact that men notice women’s breasts is not exactly news. Advertisers are certainly well aware of this.”

    Advertisers, AND WOMEN TOO! Hugo’s points about dressing for comfort notwithstanding. I would not imagine that having men stare at your breasts is particularly empowering, that is unless you want them to. The problem with boobs as bait though is that for every decent and nice guy that comes along and that can see, or is willing to see, beyond the obvious, there are going to be a whole bunch of assholes as well.

    The link about psychopaths wasn’t mine.

  20. Pounding Sand,

    “I would not imagine that having men stare at your breasts is particularly empowering, that is unless you want them to.”

    You’re right about this. It is not empowering nor have I ever felt compelled to display myself to get attention either, which is often how I view people who do dress provocatively (not dressing for comfort). There’s a lot to be said for “right time, right place”.

    I’m certain many men are well aware of a woman’s shape even if she is dressed modestly. Likewise, decent men–tend to cultivate a more sophisticated repertoire of communication skills and will temper their appreciation of women to appropriate time and place. There’s a lot to be said for and I tend to align myself with a particular view best summed up by the phrase, “for your eyes only”.

    I cannot speak for other women, however boorish clods, mindless dolts and fools or as you so generously (and accurately) described them as (“a bunch of assholes”) are NOT a powerful attractant to me. I disdain them and thus would not ever feel compelled to flaunt myself at them.

    So, yes I agree with your general assessment of the problem with “boobs as bait”. In dressing modestly I’ve encountered enough problems with the “bunch of a’s” that you describe. They need no encouragement and I don’t suffer fools!

    “The link about psychopaths wasn’t mine.”

    I realize that, but was not clear in my response. It was meant for the person that linked to it. Apparently she has moved on.

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