(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)
I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.
But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.
This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.
But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.
Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)
For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.
- Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
- The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
- Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
- I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
- Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
- Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
- She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
- Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
- Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
- The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.
There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.
Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.