a modest(y) proposal

(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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7.  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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Jordan

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19 thoughts on “a modest(y) proposal

  1. Ahh yes. This whole debate.

    I’m never exactly sure what to say when people tell me that women who dress in a certain way are just asking to be lusted after or ogled. While in some ways I find this belief ridiculous, I also can understand where some people are coming from.

    I agree with Ms. Maynard when she states that it is both the job of men and women to control their own lust, and that women shouldn’t have to take on the whole responsibility. Growing up in a conservative community, I know exactly what Ms. Maynard is talking about and it’s very unfair the way certain people or groups expect women to always dress in a way that is almost unappealing. We are supposed to be attracted to each other! But not in a way that detracts from an individual’s worth in the eyes of God.

    I’m torn. There is a very fine balance between the two mindsets of total conservative crew necks and thinking that one is entitled to wear whatever they want, even if it is completely revealing and possibly inappropriate. This could lead into the whole “women should dress in a manner respectful to their bodies and as children of the Lord” debate, but I won’t go there…

    Marie

    • Marie, I think there is plenty of room to have conversations about what kind of attire is appropriate for a particular social setting, how clothing fits in with cultural and personal identity, and exploring the reasons one makes the choices one does.

      I absolutely advocate for this type of relationship and discussion within safe communities and participate in them regularly! However, we can’t really have these conversations until we move away from sexism, blame, shame, and enforcing or advocating moral or psychological assumptions based on what someone is wearing.

      Does that make more sense?

      • Oh yes, definitely and I agree with you. These conversations need to start happening. I feel in some ways the American culture at least is beginning to move in that direction. We still have a long way to go though.

  2. I mostly agree with your comments, Jordan. I do think we need to be careful about how we talk about who owns our bodies. In an ultimate sense, our bodies are not our own. They are God’s. We are stewards of our bodies, just as we are stewards of our finances, belongings, etc. At the same time, as embodied beings, our bodies are clearly ours in a different sense.

    Scripture also teaches that married people mutually own each other’s bodies. Otherwise, however, it is certainly the case that no one else’s body will ever be my own.

    • So, not to take over the entire comments section, but I might as well add a memory of an editorial we had in The Echo, our student newspaper at Taylor. The editorial was written by a woman asking men to be more modest. She’d complain about the men on the cross country team running shirtless, for example. People didn’t take it very seriously. One of the parts that seemed most ridiculous to people was the idea that Taylor had “very quiet” men struggling with homosexuality who, like women, might struggle with lustful thoughts from seeing shirtless men. Of course there can’t be men like that at a Christian college! (That reaction might have just stuck out to me the most, since I was that very quiet man struggling with homosexual feelings.)

      I’m not sure what modesty actually means for men, and I’m not sure I necessarily agreed with all that editorial said, but I was disappointed at how poorly the point was taken. Modesty as a male virtue is something we should explore more.

      • I have to admit, I’m not there when it comes to feminism. I know a lot of Christians I respect who are egalitarians, and I’ve leaned egalitarian at times, but for me the Bible seems too clear in both the Old and New Testaments. That of course doesn’t mean that I believe women are less valuable or shouldn’t be listened to, but it does mean that there is apparently some difference in role. (I’m not sure at all what exactly that difference in role is.) That doctrine has certainly been abused to oppress women, but to me that has strong parallels to the way side B doctrine has been used to oppress LGBT people. In neither case am I convinced the doctrine is in error. (It’s also clear to me that if feminism is taken too far and gender roles don’t matter at all, they shouldn’t matter in sexual/romantic relationships, and side A logically follows.)

        But this is getting pretty far off the topic of modesty, and I don’t want to hijack your thread. I just think it would be interesting to discuss that with you at some point.

  3. Here is a helpful verse that goes along with this topic.
    1 Corinthians 8:9 “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” As a woman, I do kind of want to just say, oh, gosh, women, just wear whatever you want and let men deal with their problems. But saying that would break the brotherhood that we have as believers. This verse says that we should work together to help one another when we have struggles. Many men have trouble with lust, as well as many women. As women, we must respect the struggles of men and seek to aid and encourage them. Women have a unique kind of power and as with any power, comes great responsibility (Spiderman). We are entrusted with this power, but we must not abuse it. We must respect ourselves and our fellow Christians and God and remember that our bodies are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19). If we dress immodestly, are we glorifying God? Or are we glorifying our bodies? And dressing modestly does NOT mean that you have to look unattractive. It just means that you are not depriving yourself the respect of being considered a whole being made in the image of God, and not a sexual object. Women can look beautiful without being immodest.

    • Thanks for the comment! I don’t have tons of time to respond, but the one thing I would say, that I wish I could have said more about in the post, is that the “power” you speak of, though in some ways very real, is also, I think, not really “power” in the sense of being an advantage for women. At the end of the day, the “power” to make men desire you still plays into the advantage of the male hegemony, cementing women as objects or sex-toys at the disposal of men rather than equals to be taken seriously for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with sex-appeal. It’s “power” that requires the approval of men to function. It’s “power” that perpetuates marginalization and objectification. That, I think, is one of the greatest tragedies of the whole thing.

      Mini-rant, sorry! Thanks again, and I think you’re absolutely right, women definitely can look amazing without being immodest.

      Jordan

      • I didn’t mean to offend. I think that men and women both have some extent of appeal to the other, something to offer. I only meant that men and women do have something that the other wants, either willingly or unwillingly, and we need to respect each other and recognize each other’s desires.

      • I’m so sorry if I sounded offended or upset at you. Not at all! (Darn text-based communication media!) It had just been something I’d really wanted to express in the blog, and it more or less erupted the first chance it got. I think you’re absolutely right, we do each other and ourselves a disservice if we pretend we have no influence over one another, and we need to steward that well. It’s such a hard thing to remember though.

        Thanks so much for the follow-up! I hope you are well.

  4. On the cultural side of the equation, I believe that the objectification of women is largely a legacy of a male dominated world. Until roughly 40 years ago, men mostly controlled the media message and many women sought to become the man’s ideal.
    I worry that we are now objectifying men in the same way (have you seen the A&F media campaigns- who needs porn?). Perhaps this is a result of women’s influence on the message and a (positive) cultural notion that women have a say in the relationship. However, just like girls and women have had to deal with unhealthy depictions of ideal women, boys and men are increasingly under the same pressure.

  5. There is obviously a whole other side issue in how it hurts and degrades men to be told that they are stricly sex-driven animals with no power and no agency in their lust, but I will leave an actual man who can speak to that with experience to address that one.

    As a woman, however, I can say that modesty culture had the opposite effect on me that it had on Emily Maynard. The reasoning goes like this: Men are driven by sex, women’s value is in sex, therefore if I am NOT inciting lust, there is something wrong with me. Plus, in the church I attended in college, the attractiveness of a man’s wife was a huge measure of his status, which reinforced the idea (already put forth by all those “men, if you wait until marriage to have sex, you will have awesome perfect sex with your porn-star-esque wife 4 times a day until you die and she will never get old or fat) that the primary duty of a Christian woman is to be attractive. The messages I got from high school yourth groups, church in college, and sexually-repressed straight male friends in college reinforced that I have to be incredibly attractive all the time to have any value. I spent most of my time at Wheaton College dizzy and breathless, trying to survive (and climb those dang stairs to the top floor of Blanchard) with no food, or having recently “purged” myself of food I felt forced to eat for social reasons. I also spent my first 3-6 months of marriage thinking that if my husband’s sex-drive was not absolutely insatiable (like, multiple times a day, every day), I was failing as his wife. Thankfully, my husband never bought into all the cultural crap that I did and has the patience to help me grow out of it and learn how to see myself as a person again.

    Ironically, modestly culture led me to an immodest focus on myself and an attitude that I was inevitably going to be an object, I was going to do everything in my power to be a good one.

    • Laura, thank you for being so vulnerable here. I’m so sorry you had this experience. It’s really heartbreaking the things that we tell men and women in the church, unwilling to see that they are causing so much harm. I’m thankful that you’re speaking up and that you’re healing. Love and peace to you!

    • I wanted to thank you, too, for being so bold and honest! It really kills me that Wheaton could foster such an atmosphere, but I spent enough time in the counseling center to see a little of that reality.

      Thanks again for being willing to share your wisdom and story here – you’re modeling truth in a profound way.

      For what it’s worth, I always enjoyed our brief interactions at Wheaton! I hope you are well!

      Jordan

      • Thanks, Jordan. I’m not really at the point of being totally honest with everybody (especially when using my last name), but I am not really convinced that’s necessary since my issue isn’t one that is denied or ignored. Or maybe I am just scared and don’t have a firm enough narrative in my own mind to talk about it much. Either way, I deeply appreciate your honesty on here, and I think it is so important that you keep telling your story. The least I can do is reciprocate with part of mine when you ask for it 🙂

        I also enjoyed our interactions at Wheaton. I’m glad I got to know you a little bit.

  6. Congrats, Jordan 😉 you sound like a legit feminist theologian/liberation theologian with points number 8 & 9. …It’s a privileging of the narrative of the oppressed, a prescribed reversal of the current power dynamic – not forever, but in order to balance the scale so-to-speak. This happens only because we are situated within time. The privileging of the woman’s narrative would no longer be prescriptive if the tables were turned and women were suddenly in power and misusing it. (But actually i’m not sure if the point of the privileging of the oppressed narrative is to “balance the scale” so much as it is a removal of power from the one who abused it so that he or she does not abuse it any longer and so the other can be healed/restored… maybe those are the same? maybe only sometimes?).

    Anyway, I’m finding recently that all theology is so contextual. With regard to women, …or for example, with regard to a woman who has been sexually abused, the relevant theology is not that she must dress more modestly (if that was a relevant accusation) or that she must forgive immediately – though modesty and forgiveness are both definitively Christian virtues and part of the bigger equation. But perhaps instead, the most urgent message is that she is loved, that she is a precious human being, and that the act of her oppressor was evil and condemnable by God. The most urgent & primary message is that her body, coercively used by another as an instrument of evil, is still separable from that evil and not to be itself discarded. Only once she has seen the act as evil in the eyes of God – and not merely “what she deserved,” and not inseparable from her – only then can she begin the process of forgiving the other for distorting both of their humanity through that abuse and only then can she begin forgiving herself for any actual implicitness in the evil of that moment.

    (When I first typed this out, by “sexually abused” I meant a woman abused in a physical way… However, in re-reading what I wrote, I’m also struck that Jesus preached about lusting after a woman being the same as adultery and thus struck by the idea that lust can actually be a form of abuse…? i.e. if I lust after someone, they have no power to resist me… and I can mentally use them for whatever the heck I want… stripping them of their humanity in just as destructive a way as if they were physically suffering that abuse…?)

    Ultimately, women and men should both be exhorted to live modestly in all respects. However, in the arena of sexuality, women are essentially threatened with the guilt of another as punishment for not obeying that exhortation carefully enough. I should never be considered guilty for another’s sin, though I may be guilty for their temptation (thus sharing in the present evil). …I don’t know. What do you think?

  7. Thanks for posting this. Emily’s article expressed a lot of the frustrations and problems I’ve dealt with from the “modesty rules.” In #6, I think changing “influence” to “cause” would be closer to the truth. We cannot CAUSE, or prevent, lust in others; to think that we can is codependent.

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