A coworker recently showed me an article (well, one of those click-bait articles, anyway) on Facebook about a girl who was kicked out of prom because her dress and dance moves were considered too suggestive by the school staff. The provided picture, a bathroom mirror selfie, wasn’t very clear, but the dress appeared to be a strapless bodycon type of thing. The article itself was pretty neutral, but the comments were anything but. They overwhelmingly fell into two camps. One group complained that in the good old days, girls weren’t permitted to be dangling their bodies in front of men like they are today, with the other opining that the patriarchy needs to stop body-shaming young women. It was a spot-on illustration of how the modesty conversation today is completely off the rails. Generally the literature that I see, anyway, is on the very outside edges of the target, missing the Biblical bullseye, so to speak.
Today I want to explain the two popular viewpoints that we see expressed in the culture and the church respectively, and then consider what the Bible actually has to say on this topic, and how that’s relevant to us as young women in the 21st century.
The ‘traditional’ church viewpoint
There is an idea that is still lingering in many churches and homes today that women are somehow guardians of sexuality and that they have a responsibility to protect men from their own carnal desires by dressing and comporting themselves as demurely as possible. I’m reminded of a Little House on the Prairie book I read as a child where Ma recalled being scolded as a teenager for allowing the tops of her ears to show as if that were somehow inappropriate.
This idea, like most worldly ideas, is a corruption or exaggeration of Biblical principles like humility and concern for others’ struggles. It is also the view that many people in the world around us are rebelling against today, as they rightly see that it’s an unbalanced standard and essentially removes responsibility from men for their thoughts and places it on women. Now, I think that in all but the most extreme instances, conservative/traditional people are not suggesting that men have no responsibility for their thoughts about women who are dressed provocatively. However, there are definitely some double standards in Christian circles. Have you ever heard a boy admonished at church for dressing in a way that calls attention to his body? I certainly haven’t, although I’ve heard plenty of whispers, particularly from older ladies, about girls wearing high heels or snug dresses.
In the worst case scenario, this thought pattern even leads to the kind of thinking that is described as “rape culture,” the idea that women who are promiscuous (or even provocatively dressed) are “asking for it.” This is an idea that is reinforced by pornographic materials as well, but that dark and tangled issue deserves its own post.
Frequently, religious people use one verse out of context in order to prop up this viewpoint. This is the one verse in the New Testament that discusses modesty in dress:
“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” (I Timothy 2:9)
In fact, this verse is in the context of orderliness in worship, and although the terms ‘decency’ and ‘propriety’ could be construed different ways, the point that Paul chooses to drive home is: don’t wear flashy jewelry and show off how rich you are at church. Note that he doesn’t say: stop wearing such sexy outfits, you’re making all the men drool!
The common ‘progressive’ viewpoint
On the other side of this culturally charged coin is the progressive view that women are completely free to make their own choices regarding dress without pausing to consider the effect that their clothing might have on men, and that it is oppressive and misogynistic to try and enforce dress codes in schools.
This view, rather than putting all the responsibility for sexual thoughts on women and ordering them to cover up, instead encourages them to dress however they please, and tells men, “Deal with it! Stop being such a Neanderthal.” This is basically a huge overcorrection from times gone by when women were overly tasked with being pure while culture winked at mens’ inappropriate sexual actions.
This view is definitely the prevalent one on the campuses of most universities and colleges I’ve been to. At NC State last year, I was chatting with a group of classmates and the topic of school dress codes came up. Since I never had to deal with one, I didn’t voice much of an opinion, but the other girls all agreed that it wasn’t their problem if someone is turned on by their outfit, and they basically said that if the boys at school were going to behave like animals and ogle them they shouldn’t be allowed to go to school. Now, while there’s actually a good bit of truth to that, I think it’s a pretty unhelpful viewpoint. It also creates the idea that a man’s appreciation for a woman’s beauty is somehow dirty or unacceptable. Obviously, not every teenage boy is genuinely admiring teenage girls with respect and appreciation for how amazing they are, but when people say that dress codes exist just to keep men from being reduced to an apelike state, it sounds like a man’s interest in a woman is inherently base or selfish.
The Biblical viewpoint
As I’m sure you noticed there are a couple of things in common between the first two viewpoints.
First, they pit the sexes against one another, and assign all the responsibility on one side. The traditional view is that women should know better than to wear mini skirts because they need to be guarding their bodies from men, who are hardwired for sex. They are their brother’s keeper, and they absolutely must protect him from stumbling! Or the progressive view will say that men should be able to control their own thoughts, and that they are disgusting if they are aroused by a low neckline, and how dare they suggest that women have a responsibility to accommodate men in how they dress.
The idea that responsibility is one-sided leads to a very adversarial conversation. That’s why the comments section can get so heated on a lot of modesty and purity related articles! Rather than coming together and saying, “Our goal is to ensure that women can be comfortable and feel respected and that men can be comfortable and feel respected,” groups start shaking their fists and shouting about who ought to be doing what in order to appease them. That’s never going to lead to a meaningful discourse. And it’s certainly not going to change any hearts. Personally, I’ve had much better results trying to identify common goals and common ground than by using all caps to state that women who wear short skirts are sluts or that men who are attracted by those short skirts are probably rapists or perverts.
The second big commonality is that these two incomplete viewpoints implicitly hold that sexual attraction is somehow dirty or wrong. When we tell women to cover up so men aren’t caused to stumble, because they should’t be exposed to skin, we say “Your sexuality is not acceptable.” Now, I’m not advocating lingerie as church wear! There’s certainly a limited amount of sexuality that’s acceptable in a public context. I’m just saying that just telling women to dress modestly isn’t enough. There needs to be an understanding that it’s to honor God (and our husbands, if we’re married) that we choose how we dress, not because we’re responsible for how men on the street look at us. We also can’t be legalistic. I don’t think that it’s a big deal if your skirt is X number of inches above the knee, so long as the outfit isn’t selected with bad motives. There’s nothing wrong with wearing attractive, stylish clothing, it’s all about your heart!
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the progressive viewpoint doing the exact opposite. Tired of hearing women blamed for men whistling at them, they tell men, “Your attraction to a beautiful woman is chauvinistic and misogynistic, you should be ashamed.” Now, it is very shameful to lust after a woman, no matter what she’s wearing or if she’s wearing anything at all. Jesus came down very hard on this behavior when he said “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). What he didn’t say, however, is that men shouldn’t be attracted to women or that it’s inherently wrong to notice beauty. God did an amazing job designing men and women, and he also designed us to notice that!
Ultimately, the solution to the issue is to approach it as a team. I’d love it if pastors and parents and church leaders would stop telling teenage and college age girls that they need to stop wearing immodest clothing because they’re causing their brothers to stumble. What I’d like to hear is this:
Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to love one another as perfectly as He did. We need to stop assigning blame and shaming men and women, and start having frank conversations with one another. We need to study the Word and see what God says about how to relate to one another. We need to think “How can I treat the men and women in my life with respect? How can I show God to those around me with how I act and how I treat others?”
It’s not about the specific details or playing the blame game. The saddest part about treating purity like a hot potato is that it undermines the beauty of sexual attraction. It’s a wonderful thing that men and women find one another alluring! We shouldn’t be looking for a way to quash all sexual attraction between men and women, that’s a hopeless and harmful quest! We should be looking for ways to establish meaningful discourse between the sexes to lead to openness and understanding of individual needs, failings, and hopes so that we can work together in the way we act, dress, and relate to one another.