Since at least the 1950s, conservative evangelicalism’s overarching sexual ethic has put a substantive emphasis on “modesty”?—?that is, how [Christian] women dress, specifically in terms of highlighting their sensuality.
I admit that I hesitate to make a blanket statement like this, because I don’t mean to belittle the entire conversation around sexual ethics and how our Western culture’s obsession with sex and perfect bodies is unhealthy for anyone to immerse themselves in, Christian or not. That’s another post for another time, and well worth exploring. BUT?—?my opening statement is not at all an unfair assessment. Modesty has undeniably enjoyed front-page headline status in Christian conversations about sexuality for decades, almost irrespective of particular church tradition.
I’m hoping to push back hard on this narrative that has dominated the evangelical landscape for some time now. I grew up in the 1990s, in a very extreme group that would have liked to place the blame for all of society’s woes squarely at the feet of miniskirt- and bikini- clad women. It was about as Puritanical as you can imagine. When I left that tradition for more mainstream evangelical circles as a teenager, I encountered a much more subtle and “balanced” sexual ethic that, though less extreme (and therefore less obvious to me at the time), had a lot in common with the cult in which I was raised.
One of the chief commonalities was this theme of modesty. Side note: in case it’s not already obvious?—?it really only ever applied to females. So… really, female “modesty.” Or, in other words, cover up your sexy parts, ladies,
Modest Is Hottest.
(Yes, this was actually a slogan, printed on t-shirts, and became an entire movement, with events and conferences behind it.)
Usually the idea of modesty was presented innocuously enough, often at big concerts and conferences led by eloquent, attractive young artists and writers like Joshua Harris and Rebecca St. James (on whom I most certainly had an adolescent crush), and, I would venture to assume, with largely good intentions. The idea, or so I gathered as a teenage male, was that young ladies ought to respect themselves enough that they don’t have to wear “scanty” clothing (whatever that means) to attract the lustful attention of men/boys. Furthermore, our good men and boys who are trying so hard to fight the onslaught of increasingly sexual images against their virgin eyes are having a hard enough time because of the wicked times in which we live, so let’s act charitably and not “cause our brothers to stumble” with how we dress. After all, church/youth group should be a safe place, no?
While I agree wholeheartedly that we all have a responsibility to each other to love one another and not intentionally lead one another down destructive or unhealthy paths, there’s at least three glaring problems with this line of teaching/thinking:
1. No one really knows what “immodest” means.
I’m dead serious. Every man is different with what turns them on. According to Granny Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, Ellie Mae’s search for a husband ought to include the occasional flash of her ankles to attract a man’s attention… (I guess men in rural Tennessee have a thing for a little Achilles action?) Just listen to a couple hip-hop songs, and you’ll quickly discover that some dudes are really into butts, while others are boob guys, and for some strange reason lost on this blogger, some dudes are into neither. Moral of the story?—?what might seem “modest” to one person/tradition/culture might seem immodest to another. There’s no universal agreed-upon standard for what turns men on. It’s a self-defeating exercise from the outset.
2a. It puts the responsibility for a man’s lust and fantasies squarely on the shoulders of women.
Many conferences and books have even gone so far as to name women the “gatekeepers” of sexuality. He will go as far as you let him, the narrative goes. Wow! This a staggeringly unhealthy narrative to promote to our children about the way sexuality works, and plays directly into the hands of a rape culture such as the one in which we live: if you are a female and ever get catcalled, abused, molested, raped, or any number of other sexual advances, you are probably at least partially to blame. What were you wearing? What did you say to him? Did you bend over to pick something up? Was your perfume too sensual?
How is this a complex we want to instill in either our girls or boys? Aside from the profound shame this places on the shoulders of girls and women when they are violated, think about what this narrative is teaching boys: you don’t have control over your own body and urges; if you “stumble” sexually, it’s because some slutty woman influenced you to it, or wasn’t sufficiently careful to “guard your heart” and eyes from the sensuality she exudes. This thinking only exacerbates what is becoming more and more a cultural epidemic of men objectifying and abusing women as sexual playthings.
2b. It grants men and boys amnesty from the responsibility of their own sexual choices.
Not only is this insulting to men, as though we are merely creatures of instinct, like dogs that can’t control their incessant need to hump everything in sight, but I would argue that it conditions boys and young men forthe “struggle!” I have a 3 year old boy, and one on the way, and I don’t want them to grow up thinking that they are incapable of controlling their sexuality. Of course they are going to “struggle” in the sense that they are males with a sex drive, and they will notice beautiful women and be attracted to them, but there’s no need to condition my little boys to notice every time a woman is dressed “immodestly,” as I was as a child, pointing out “inappropriately dressed” women at the beach in bikinis, or drawing attention to every hint of cleavage, bare midriffs, or even tight pants. This only conditions a child’s mind to notice these things and view them as forbidden, rather than training them for self-control through the simple acknowledgement that humans are by nature sexual beings, and that the female form is beautiful, something to be appreciated and not objectified.
This is the legacy I want to leave with my sons: they, as well as you and I, can notice beauty and curves without immediately letting our minds go to sinful places. Anything less than this dishonors both the character of men as well as the women and girls we are hoping to protect.