In the last year or so there have been approximately two million blog posts on modesty. This post will make it two million and one. Approximately. These posts are not about the kind of modesty that deflects praise – “Oh, no, really. Don’t mention it. It was nothing.” This is not modesty as an antonym for arrogance. This is something else entirely.
It’s time to define our terms again. In biblical patriarchy modesty means to dress so as not to draw attention to yourself – particularly sexual attention. While in theory this goal should apply to both males and females, most modesty teaching is directed at girls and women. You can hear that emphasis in C.J. Mahaney’s definition of modesty: “Modesty means propriety. It means avoiding clothes and adornment that are extravagant or sexually enticing. Modesty is humility expressed in dress. It’s a desire to serve others, particularly men, by not promoting or provoking sensuality.” For the purposes of this post let’s use Mahaney’s definition and call this idea “Modesty Doctrine”.
I want to lead with who I am. I was raised by a fairly modest mom, with fairly modest standards. No halter tops, no strapless dresses, no bikinis. I still tend to be on the conservative side with my daughters. I’ve never purchased a bikini for any of them, and fought a losing battle against strapless dresses. I’m hardly a libertine when it comes to clothing, but I’ve become less and less comfortable with the usual arguments we give young women in the church for how they should dress, and why.
Help a brother out?
Designer Betsey Johnson famously said that women don’t dress for men: they dress for themselves and for other women. This may be true elsewhere, but in the patriarchal church women are absolutely instructed to dress for men - because it is so easy, you see, to cause a brother to “stumble”. If you’re not from these parts, you may not understand the use of that word, so let me give you the scripture from which it’s drawn:
” Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” Romans 14:13
To “cause” a brother to “stumble” is to cause him to sin. Many, many young women are taught that their manner of dress has the power to do that very thing. I heard it myself, as a teen. Men are “visually oriented” and a loving sister in Christ will be aware that her appearance may cause her her spiritual brothers to fall into lust, or worse.
I’m going to share several excerpts from posts making this argument so that you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I understand that our culture has placed a huge significance on gender independence and that considering the struggles of men while choosing your clothing seems almost oppressive, but as a man I can tell you that we are sinning constantly as we try to fight through this culture of sexual openness. Proverbs 5 makes it apparent that God designed the female body to be pleasing to a man. We are warned that we are to be satisfied visually by our wives and to avoid the women who try to entice us. God created your body to be a sacred object, it is a powerful tool that is meant to be used to created desire in your husband. To show off your legs, chest, stomach, or butt is to take something that God intended for the marriage bed and put it on display for anyone to see. This public display not only cheapens the value of your body it throws a massive stumbling block in the way of men who were designed by God to be drawn to your body. – G.N. Davis, “On Modesty”
“But it’s HIS problem if he lusts after me” you may say, “If what I am wearing causes him to lust, then he has bigger issues that need to be dealt with before God.” And though that may be true, it DOES NOT negate the fact that you are still partially responsible because you are the “walking temptation” to begin with. Is that to say that had you not been around this brother would not have lusted after someone else, no, but that is to say that YOU are responsible to make certain that you are not causing your brother to stumble. - Kristy Ferguson, “Are You a Stumbling Block for Your Brother?”
Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed I’ll say to myself, “She probably doesn’t even know that 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again maybe she does.”… I don’t know because I’ve never sat down with a girl and asked why. All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it all costs…..I must confess that even church can have several mines scattered about. To the girls who are ignorant please serve your brothers in Christ and have your dad screen your wardrobe….And to the girls who don’t follow the pattern of the world, thank you….You are following scriptures commands and you are helping your brothers in the process. - a college student’s testimony from C.J. Mahaney’s book “Worldliness”
Bad ideas, worse consequences
There are many problems with Modesty Doctrine as articulated above, but I’ve made a short list of some of my concerns. What’s wrong with encouraging modesty in order to prevent men from stumbling?
1) There’s no consensus on what modesty looks like. Many Christians refer to Paul’s instructions in I Timothy for guidance:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. I Timothy 2:9-10
There’s no mention there of the “stumbling brother” argument, but that doesn’t stand in the way of those who tie the aforementioned passages together. What modesty means, practically, differs widely depending on who you listen too. The Mahaneys have a checklist which includes items such as banning visible underwear lines or bras peeking out of sleeveless shirts. This checklist is even more specific, giving “finger” measurements for necklines and hemlines. This minister’s wife makes sure all of her sleeves comes to the elbow. Jack Schaap used to rail against open toed shoes. For the Duggars modesty means being covered from the neck to below the knees, even when they’re swimming. Jamie Balmet is a young wife who has written an entire series of posts on modesty, and yet her suggestions would be considered immodest by many others in the patriarchal church. Does modesty simply require covering certain parts of the body, or should clothing be loose enough to conceal shape, as well?
So if there’s no universal guideline that we all agree on , how can we hold each other accountable for failing? And yet people are held responsible, blamed and shamed for falling short of subjective standards – which leads me to problem number 2.
2) Modesty Doctrine holds women spiritually responsible for men’s responses
You may not see an issue with a bikini – but if it puts lustful thoughts in a man’s head – you have just caused sin in your brother (sic) life. You have now sinned. One day you will give account for that..Is dressing immodestly sin? Yes. There is no way around it. God’s Word tells us clearly to dress modestly – therefore if you or I don’t we are in sin and will one day give account for our actions. – Jackie Osinski, “Should Christian women dress sexy?”
Girls, do you know what we would really like? We would like to come among our Christian sisters and not have to fight and struggle in theflesh. We do not need to have to wrestle in the flesh at church or at church activities. We men, whether young, old, single or married, are faced with this every day among girls of the “world.” But we would like to have rest in our Spirit man when we come among Christian girls…Thank you, dear Christian sisters, for hearing our hearts on this subject. Once we have conveyed the truth of the matter to you, you become responsible before God for what you do with the truth.- “A letter from Christian guys”
Lip service is sometimes given to men’s responsibility for their thought life, but the burden shifts quickly back to women and their appearance. “Now, granted there are a few people out there who could be stirred up by a cardboard box all the way from head to toe,” Michelle Dugger writes, “but regardless we want to maintain modest dress….I realize that you can’t keep somebody from having wrong thoughts, but I do think you have control at least on how you present yourself.” And why should you control how you present yourself? “We don’t want to play peekaboo so that there’s a visual element that might defraud someone.” (Defrauding is an important concept in this discussion, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.)
3) Modesty Doctrine presents a distorted picture of female sexuality.
“Males are visually oriented. They react to what they see. Women react to what men say, or to touch.” I heard it over and over as a teen and young woman, explaining why female modesty is so important. I’m not here to suggest that there’s no difference between the sexes, but I’m certain it’s been exaggerated. Women do respond to visual stimuli and a culture that says otherwise creates a new set of problems. Perhaps that’s why the church has been slow to address the increasing number of women using pornography. A girl raised to believe that women don’t experience visual stimulation is in for a world of confusion and guilt when she experiences it firsthand. But boys are not in much better shape, because…
4) Modesty Doctrine creates a shame-based attitude toward sexual attraction in men.
Jesus took lust seriously, no doubt. But is all sexual attraction lust? Contrary to what Modesty Doctrine says, I believe sexual attraction and even sexual arousal are completely normal, morally neutral components of our humanity. What if, instead of teaching our sons that sexual desire is sin, we taught them to keep it in perspective? Desire may lead to lust, but it is not lust in and of itself. Perhaps we could teach our sons (and daughters) the difference, and we could also teach them to view others (regardless of how they’re dressed) as people, not traps. The unfortunate alternative is this – a boy going through the world with his head down, seeing every attractive girl as a potential problem. Modesty teaching is harmful to men and women, as Sierra writes in this excellent post:
When you’re taught that merely seeing something can defile you, guarding your eyes from “evil” becomes your eternal chore….Men who are raised with the modesty doctrine learn that everything women wear is directed at them. When an “immodest” woman walks by, it feels like both a test and an assault.
5) Modesty Doctrine objectifies women
Over and over in modesty culture women are talked about in ways that turn them into objects or commodities. From G.N. Davis, quoted earlier in this post: “Proverbs 5 makes it apparent that God designed the female body to be pleasing to a man…God created your body to be a sacred object, it is a powerful tool that is meant to be used to create desire in your husband.” I’m not denying that desiring and being desired is part of what it is to be human, but to see women only in that light is lopsided. Do we exist only to satisfy men? Debi Pearl thinks so:
When a woman gets old and realizes that there is no man to love and cherish her, it is sad indeed, for she has failed in the very purpose for which she was created.
Or consider the famous “chocolate cake” analogy, used in a post to discourage women from wearing bikinis:
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. 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…This is how I imagine it is for guys. Girls are walking around all the time with barely any clothes on at the beach or pool! Guys can never get a break from it, even if they’re trying to see past all the bodies to find the smiles and personalities within the girls. – Rachel Clark, “The Bikini Question”
Twice while researching for this post I ran across the phrase, “If it’s not for sale, don’t advertise it.” One of those was in a an open letter from Christian men to their “sisters” in Christ. Really? Is this the respect women can expect from their “brothers”? Or listen again to that victimized college student telling “immodest” young women that they are “bait for my sinful mind.” And what if the young man does, in fact, take “the bait”? Then….
6) Modesty Doctrine blames women for sexual assault
Yes, I went there. Some of the arguments for modesty don’t simply suggest that immodest women drive men to lust. It’s worse than that. Listen to blogger Kristy Ferguson on the subject:
Lust turns men into wild ravaging dogs, and causes them to do and to think things that (if they are men of God) they are FAR from proud of afterwards. Why would you want to be responsible for causing another to sin ? Why would you want to have to stand before God and answer for that ? – Kristy Ferguson, “Are You a Stumbling Block for Your Brother?”
And about that chocolate cake analogy….what is cake for? I mean, for what purpose does cake come into existence? Easy answer, right? Cake is made to be eaten and women are made to be…..
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. – Rachel Clark, “The Bikini Question”
I suspect that if I spoke to either of these bloggers they would say they were simply talking about lust, not rape or assault. But the logic is right there on the surface. Women drive men to lust, lust turns men into animals, and who could blame the man if he breaks down and “eats the cake”?
Here I want to return to Michelle Dugger’s use of the word “defraud”. That’s Bill Gothard terminology, by the way, and here is how the Duggers define the word:
For us the definition of the word defrauding is to stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled…Growing up I would wear a bathing suit or shorts and not realize that it was revealing. When I got older I really felt convicted about my responsibility for how I was causing others to be defrauded. And I began to cover up because I felt responsible for my part in that.
From the male perspective, defrauding seems to mean something like this: “You promised something and failed to deliver. You started something that you won’t finish.” Remember, we’re talking about sexual desire here. How is that not enabling to rape culture?
Many years ago, in my 20s, I worked as a church secretary. One afternoon I was waiting for the bus ride home, as usual. I remember exactly what I was wearing. My skirt was a dark blue, fell below my knees, and was pleated and full. My top was a long sleeved button-up pink blouse with a wide, girlish collar – the sort of goofy thing I wore a lot back then. I was wearing hose and blue flats. I would have passed almost anyone’s modesty test, and that was the afternoon I was sexually assaulted. A man pulled up in a car and asked me for directions. After he said he couldn’t hear me, I stepped closer to his car – close enough for him to reach out his window and grab one of my breasts.
Let me ask you, which article of clothing was it that defrauded the man who assaulted me? What exactly was I wearing that made me a “walking temptation”?
Stating the obvious
We shouldn’t have to say this, especially among Christians, but nevertheless, I will: Women, you are not chocolate cake. You are not bait or a landmine. You are not for sale. It doesn’t matter what feelings you “stir up” through your appearance, you are not sexually obligated to anyone. Here’s only one of many differences between chocolate cake and you. Chocolate cake cannot consent, or refuse to consent. You can.
Men, you are not “wild, ravaging dogs”. I know this because I’m friends or kin to lots and lots of you and I’ve seen that you are capable of interacting with all kinds of women in ways that do not dehumanize either them or you. Don’t buy the lie that every attractive woman is dressing at you, or that every sexual desire is a sin.
We can do better.
Is real modesty a worthwhile goal? Yes, of course. Is real lust a problem in the church? God knows it is. But as is so often the case, the patriarchy addresses these subjects in a way that is gendered, hierarchical, authoritarian and simplistic. And the cure may be worse than the disease.
Other posts in this series:
Talking back to patriarchy, part 1
Talking back to to patriarchy, part 2: Watch your language!
Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority
A footnote on modesty: Why no one gets to drop the mic
A footnote on modesty: For my children