Modesty has been a recent subject of discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere. In the past I have noticed when it seemed like girls were or were not being modest, but I had never given the topic much thought until it was brought up at the Sacred Friendship Gathering a couple of months ago. I’ve learned that it’s a complicated subject. So I’ve been trying to work through my thoughts on the topic (as I do here on my blog).
In recent history in our culture, modesty has most often been discussed in terms of what a woman wears and how what she wears might attract men sexually through her body.1 But there are three or more separate subjects mixed up in this view: clothing, modesty, sexuality, and our embodied nature. So in reality, the discussion about “modesty” is mostly not about modesty. Or in other words, the word “modesty” has been hijacked and used to cover (?) a lot of things which aren’t modesty. (I use quotes to differentiate so called “modesty” with true modesty throughout this article.) Modesty has to do with humility, moderation, not boasting, and that which is culturally appropriate.
The Crux of the Debate
It seems that the key pivot point in the modesty debate is how much women should influence their decisions (specifically clothing choice) based on the perceived sexualized attention from men it will draw or divert. On one side, people—including many women—argue for “helping a brother out” (that is, women covering their bodies so as not to be a temptation to men). This idea is compelling in a number of ways, so I want to examine it further.
Lust Under Whose Control?
I appreciate the ladies who desire to help us guys out. That’s an attitude we should all share more! Yet within the context of “modesty”, I believe there are incorrect assumptions which can and does often lead to an unhealthy paradigm. The big fallacy and false assumption of this whole debate is that men can’t control their lust. I don’t believe this is true (a caveat being for cases of sexual addiction, yet even here, the object of lust is not in control of the lust.)
Sexual attraction is certainly a very strong desire which confronts us. Because of this, some have taken the view that our sexual desires are out of our control (or at least very difficult to control). While this has historically not always been the case, the popular view in our culture presently is that men are the ones who can’t control their sexual desires. (By deduction, women apparently don’t have as strong of sexual desire, another false assumption.)
If you assume that men can’t control or can barely control their sexual desire, then it’s a small step to believing that women control a man’s thoughts via the presence of her body. Women receive the confusing messages that they must use their body to attract a mate while at the same time, somehow not causing other men to fantasize about or sexually harass them. And many women have confessed that this has caused them to be ashamed of their body, since they view their body as the source of men’s lust and for the religious, his sin and subsequent condemnation. Women with this view can carry a great burden and guilt over this.
But it’s not true. Men can control what they do with their sexual desire. Responsibility can only be taken for that which one has control over. And the only responsibility for lust lies on the person who lusts because they are the only ones who can control that lust. Men’s lust is under men’s control and is their responsibility, not women’s.
What Difference Does Clothing Make? What is and isn’t Lust?
Many people correctly recognize that a woman’s appearance and presentation does affect men. So how do we understand this in relation to what I have just stated: that women don’t control men’s lust? I had to spend some time analyzing my own reaction in attempt to find an answer to this question.
I think that to a certain point, the more of her body a woman reveals, the more attention is drawn to her body. There is a difference between a woman dressed in a winter coat and ski pants and a woman in a swimsuit. There is even a difference between a one-piece and a bikini. But I want to suggest that the difference isn’t in how tempted men are to lust, it’s an increased desire for connection. Noticing a woman’s body isn’t lust. Experiencing attraction—even sexual attraction, curiosity, desire, and longing aren’t lust either. These are all a normal and healthy part of being human. We may not have control over what catches our attention and desire, but these things aren’t wrong. It’s what we choose to do with them that can be wrong, and we have control over this. These become lust when we forget that this woman is a fellow human being (for all practical purposes) and only think about how we could use her to satisfy our desires. Viewing a woman this way is lust and is wrong because it is the precursor for mistreating her (the opposite of love) in numerous ways. (My understanding is that the word for lust is the same as for covet. Basically it is the desire to possess that which is not yours. And possession has to do with control, meaning that lust is the desire to control (use) another for our own selfish desires.)
How We Oversexualize Everything
I believe we associate scantly clad women with lust in our culture for a number of different reasons. There are a couple of lies we’re fed continually which give the impression that lust is a man’s only option. The first is that men are basically animals at the mercy of their own desires. Conservative Christianity perpetuates this belief perhaps even more than our culture at large does. The second and one which feeds into the first is that men’s sexuality is generally more glorified than it is considered a bad thing. Think of our idea of “the Man” (or in other words, a most successful, “real” man). The image that comes to my mind, as portrayed by our culture, is basically a “playboy”—someone who has a lot of money, power, and women. If a guy has sex with a lot of women, we think “he is the man”, meaning that we think he is so good and manly that he is able to get women into bed. On the other hand, if a woman has sex with very many men, we start to think that’s she’s a slut or “loose” i.e. a bad woman. (This differentiation of attitudes about men and women is sexism.) This view of men promotes the idea that must lust when they see an attractive woman. We subtly say that not only is this natural and unavoidable, it actually means you are more of a “real” man! As long as we hold this view of men, we’ll make little progress on the issues of lust, “modesty”, and ultimately the reconciliation between the sexes (something which God intends I fully believe).
In addition to this, there are other things which propel the association of clothing and lust, even if they don’t encourage lust directly. As mentioned, with an increased revealing of the body comes an increased attention to the body. If the body is perceived as attractive, that in turn leads to increased desire for connection (intimacy). This subsequently leads to increased tension (stress). In many situations further connection with that person is not available (or at least perceived to not be available). In order to relieve this tension, men may be tempted to turn to lust (and other subsequent actions). Also, when tempted to lust, a man may think about scantly clad women that he has seen. Additionally, sexual addicts use blame as one means of coping with the conflict of their behavior which is at odds with their beliefs. Seeing a scantly clad woman may be a trigger for some men, but in any case, the woman doesn’t control nor cause the man to lust. If anything it is the reverse: the lust causes the man to sexualize the woman—no matter what she wears.
I believe it’s clear that a legalistic approach to “modesty” fails, because we know that some men will lust even if a woman is completely covered head-to-toe in a burqa, while other men will choose not to lust even when seeing a woman in a bikini—or less. And forcing women to wear burqas (or to enforce other “modesty” rules) is as objectifying and dehumanizing as is lust. (And it is gender discrimination or sexism.) We must view women as people with bodies which can be sexual but which are just bodies in many contexts. Clearly men’s lust can’t be dependent on women’s clothing.
Really, we need recognize that women’s bodies are bodies, not just sexual objects (this can go for men’s bodies as well). As Rachel Held Evans says, “Ours is indeed a culture that tends to assign value to a woman based on her sex appeal rather than her character, and that’s something we must work to change.” The problem is that our culture has been so over sexualized. We sexualize everything, including most expressions of affection and physical contact (other areas the “modesty police” step into). These things can be sexual in the certain context, but they certainly need not be in every context. We need to be able to look at a woman and see a person, not just a potential sexual partner. We need to be able to give others hugs without it being sexual. We need to be able express how we miss someone, care about someone, see their beauty, appreciate them, etc. without it being “gay” or meaning we want “something more”. We need to break down these barriers because strong, authentic relationships with one another will go a long way in helping us learn how to overcome lust. When we begin to see the deeper beauty and value in people, the temptation to lust will lose its power.
What Is a Woman to Do?
Returning to where we began, what about “helping a brother out”? I’ve heard compelling metaphors where alcohol or chocolate are compared with the issue of guys and lust. I agree that it is good to refrain from having a drink or going to a bar if you’re with someone you know is an alcoholic. But I don’t buy the argument that we should never drink because there are some alcoholics out there. We can’t live at the lowest common denominator for everyone. At that point, we become slaves again to the rules of all the things we can’t do. I think it similar with lust. We can’t (or shouldn’t) ask women to not be women or to hide themselves because some or even many men struggle with lust. That’s putting women in slavery and is also misogyny.
It is probably good for a woman to be aware that certain things she may wear may attract certain attention (and I mean just attention, not lust). But it’s up to her when and where she wants to do this. Women’s clothing choice can be and probably should be influenced by modesty (in the true meaning of the word). But a woman’s choice of clothing isn’t determined solely nor even primarily by modesty. Clothing choices are influenced by many things including availability (what clothing is available, which depends on one’s body and affordability), culture, fashion, modesty, occasion, weather, expression, comfortability, etc. She should wear what works best for her taking all of these things into consideration. And figuring out what works best for her takes ongoing experimentation.
I like what one female blogger had to say on this: “Don’t worry about the boys. Just wear whatever makes you look and feel awesome. If you’re not TRYING to manipulate boys by wearing revealing stuff, then I’m sure you’re fine. Please, just don’t worry about it. It’s not fair for women to have that burden.”
We must not judge others; they may be ignorant, simply tried something that doesn’t work, or are just having an “off” day. They may have different views than us, or be from a different culture (I’ve heard that this can vary even by region of the U.S.). Even if it’s fairly clear that a woman is attempting to draw inappropriate attention to her body, we still don’t have room to judge her, even while we believe she has made a bad choice. (And in this case, I understand that it is more often women judging other women than it is guys judging.)
Women do have responsibility but it’s for their own actions, not men’s nor anyone else’s reactions. It is healthy to take responsibility for our own actions but unhealthy to take responsibility for other people’s actions because they are not under our control. Modesty may be a virtue, but is not limited to what women wear.