In my Weekend Wows post, I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility” I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.
For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency. They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.
A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust. As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.
First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea. It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.” Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other. “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.” Seriously. Think about it. If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions? Do we really want to go back to that age?
Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency? I know men are visual creatures. I AM ONE. I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts. ME TOO. I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust. It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.
Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall? Of course not. Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God. They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear. A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.
Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively. We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long. And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight? It doesn’t matter. Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.
There’s another problem with this scenario. “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture. When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition. In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed. In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth. And they started a good conversation. But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.
So what does it mean to dress modestly? What does it mean to you? Tank top? Jogging shorts? Cap sleeves? Skirt to your knees? Long sleeves? Skirt to your ankles? Head covered? Face veiled? Burqa?
You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark? Sarcasm? A joke? It’s not. When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty. They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men. Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things. They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.
The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.
The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth. Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.
If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model. In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.