Female Modesty, Sexuality and Autonomy: The Conversation Christians Need to Have

When left to their own devices, women reveal their true natures: the subversive Eve, the vain and pagan Jezebel and the temptress, Potiphar’s wife. This is the misogynistic mindset found so often in Christian culture. Female modesty and chastity are heavily intertwined and enforced in this culture as an attempt to subdue and control women who might otherwise wreak havoc on men seeking purity and righteousness.

Harsh? Maybe. And I in no way want to paint every Christian with this broad brush, but this thinking certainly exists within our culture and we need to call it for what it is. We need to talk about it because it pervades many Christian communities and harms the spiritual well being of girls and boys who grow up with it. I don’t want people to get defensive and say, “That’s not me, how dare you!” Maybe it isn’t you. But maybe it’s your Dad. Maybe it’s your brother. Maybe it’s an elder in your church. And maybe…maybe it is you.

Matthew 5:27-28 is a source of much tension among men: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of taking this as a charge to practice self-control over their own thoughts and sexuality, many men decided it would be easier to shift much of this responsibility towards women. So long as women were dressed modestly – that is, in such a way that wouldn’t give dudes boners – there would be no chance of men committing adultery in their hearts, remaining pure as God intended.

Richard Beck raised some brilliant thoughts on the struggle of male sexuality and the concept of the temptress in the Bible:

“It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido–the fact that men are sluts–is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It’s not our fault, the men say, it’s the whore’s fault.”

Of course, in many Christian circles today, modesty is not presented as oppressive concept, but as a positive and “romantic” ideal that you are saving your body for your husband’s eyes only. Many women have internalized this patriarchal mindset and agree it is their responsibility to protect their brothers in Christ from temptation. Chastity is a cooperative effort between both sexes to guard each others’ purity – with a considerable emphasis on the ladies’ willingness to not dress like sluts.

One of the best examples of this is found in The Modesty Survey, created by twin home schooled teen brothers Alex and Brett Harris through their blog, The Rebelution. This blog was created when I was in high school and became instantly popular among homeschoolers. That is not to say the Harris family operates within a small corner of evangelical Christianity, however. Their father, Gregg Harris, is a well-known homeschooling advocate, and their older brother Josh wrote the insanely popular Christian relationship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Ask any evangelical Christian who grew up in the 90s and they’ll have likely read or heard of this courtship-manual. The Harris twins had a vast evangelical base at their fingertips before they even started The Rebelution.

Here’s a description of The Modesty Survey from Alex and Brett:

“The Modesty Survey is an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007.

… Some Christian girls have fathers or brothers to provide godly input on their attire, but many more have none. Many girls seem oblivious to the destructive effects of immodest attire on their brothers in Christ. Others desire to honor God and to protect their brothers, but don’t know where to start.”

They note the survey should be taken as a resource, not a set of rules and the wishes of your parents are more important than the survey results. Also, modesty is a matter of the heart, not wardrobe, so please “faithfully pursue the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

The survey is incredibly detailed, highlighting just how incredibly paranoid girls become in this culture about their appearance, seeking male approval for not only their clothes, but posture and accessories. The Harris’ claim this survey is not about legalism, yet they present such absurd questions like whether necklaces draw too much attention to the bust or if seeing a girl take off a hoodie even if she has a shirt underneath is modest. Regardless of the men’s answers, the fact that the Harris’ even address these questions can’t help but lead to a legalistic viewpoint. Combine that with the link between modesty and spirituality, a girl learns she is more Godlike or spiritual by complying with what the men in her life find appropriate for her to wear. It also teaches boys that the female body, and subsequently women and their sexuality, is something to be feared and thus subdued. Again, the Harris’ will reiterate that the bottom line is a matter of the heart, but if it were really about that, they sure as hell wouldn’t be talking about tights with striped or polka-dot designs on them.

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Some say this is at least a far better alternative to the pressures of female imagery in secular culture, where women must be perfect human specimens on display to be admired and exploited by men. At least, they say, encouraging a woman to cover up shows more respect for her body than “putting it all out there.”

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This comic made the internet rounds awhile back, brilliantly addressing the modesty issue. Two women are walking past each other, one with sunglasses and a bikini, the other wearing a burkha. The bikini girl remarks on the burkha saying, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male dominated culture!” While the girl is the burkha comments on the bikini saying “Nothing covered but her eyes! What a cruel male dominated culture!” Both seek the validation and approval of men in different ways. And that is the issue – it’s not modesty, it’s men telling women what to wear and denying female autonomy.

Besides, covering up doesn’t necessarily solve anything. In her memoir Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts the words of her male friend after the Muslim Brotherhood moved into Somalia, drastically influencing the way women dressed.

“Before the Brotherhood came, you could see everyone’s arms and legs. We never used to notice. But now that the women are covering so much, all I can think about is those round calves and the hair, smelling of coconut. I never used to think about a neck before, but ooh, a neck is so sexy now.” P. 135

Wait, so even if the women were fully covered, men were still getting worked up over necks and calves? What to do then? Just keep women inside? Unfortunately, some do just that. Or, you know, men could respect and honour women and their bodies like Jesus said – practice self control and not freak the hell out over the fact that women are shaped like women. Women are human and deserve as much control over their own bodies and choices as men.

Actor Will Smith was surprisingly poignant in addressing why he and his wife Jada let their 12 year old daughter Willow shave her head (emphasis mine):

“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”

This type of freedom not only teaches a young girl that she is in control and therefore responsible for her own body, but that she is free to celebrate her personality and express her personality through what she wears. Sartorial choice is a truly important and phenomenal method of personal expression. Clothing is practical, necessary for survival, and yet we have managed to turn it into art, the same way we’ve done with cuisine. This is amazing – we can wear art to survive. And we will not only survive, but live enriched with the freedom of choice, to express ourselves artistically every day. Regardless of what you wear, it’s your choice, suitable for your life, your body and no one else’s.

Now, I’m not saying clothing should be off-limits for criticism, but let it be a matter of style and taste rather than morality or spirituality, alright?

The great C.S Lewis brings home the gold in Mere Christianity when he says “a girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes” could be considered modest according to the standards of her own society. He goes on to explain:

“I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ’emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.” p. 95

While modesty and chastity are not always connected, I believe a positive body image certainly factors into a healthy sexuality. Christianity teaches the point of modesty is delayed gratification, that when you share your body with your spouse for the first time in consummation of holy matrimony it is free, pure and spiritually fulfilling. But is that always the case? Sex for the first time, for many women, is uncomfortable, even painful. And while that’s not always the case, let’s face it, no matter the circumstance, there’s a certain degree of awkwardness. Logistics. Not to mention it’s even more daunting when you’ve been taught your entire life that your body and sexuality are a source of sin, to now share it with someone else “in righteousness.”

Richard Beck again has some interesting thoughts on the subject:

“Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And [according to this mindset] if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.”

Christians love talking about the Song of Songs and what a beautiful celebration of married sex it is. They love to tell you that the couple is naked, free, and bangin’ in the best way possible. They love to inform you the wife performs an erotic striptease for her husband. Look at what a blessing sex is within the confines of marriage!

And yet the church never addresses the transition from not married to married. For many, sexuality is simply a switch that turns on when you say “I do.” Before then, it must be denied, despised and hidden. But today, sexuality becomes a part of our lives far before marriage does. We don’t even have a say in it, our body enters puberty on its own schedule.  Everything from this point forward, others’ reactions to these changes, our own acceptance of these changes, will eventually factor in to what our sexuality will look like as an adult in married life.

The best way for a woman to be free and comfortable with her own body in marriage – as generous and confident as the woman in the Song of Songs – is to be free and comfortable with her body before marriage. The concept of a “switch” from Madonna to whore shouldn’t even exist. Neither does her body and sexuality go from being under her father’s care to her husband’s. There should only be one setting: autonomous woman. A girl needs to be encouraged as she grows up to embrace autonomy, to be free with and responsible for the body God has given her. To think any other way is to keep the church irrelevant to issues women face today and sexuality in general.

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Update: Welcome all readers from Rachel Held Evans’ mutuality synchroblog! For a bit of context, I started writing this post before Rachel even announced Mutuality Week, but I just so happened to finish in time to contribute to the conversation. If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment. I hope to start conversations and continue important discussions others like Rachel have already started. Thanks for reading!

14 thoughts on “Female Modesty, Sexuality and Autonomy: The Conversation Christians Need to Have

  1. Pingback: RHE- “Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog” | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  2. Very much enjoyed your post. I followed your link to the survey and must say within the framing of your post it made me very uncomfortable very quickly. Thank you for putting your perspective out here, I have very much appreciated it.

  3. I have a question.

    If someone is an alcoholic, it’s not my fault. If we happen to cross paths during which time I happen to be drinking some wine, he will probably want to have a drink, even if he has vowed to stay sober. If he has a drink then, it is not my fault. If I, knowing full well that he is a struggling alcoholic, invite him on a picnic, pull a bottle of booze out of the basket and make a show of drinking it with rapture, it is still his choice whether he takes a drink himself or not. I’m not responsible for his twisted desires or addiction. But I sure am an ass.

    How would you reply to this sort of mindset with regards to the modesty issue? A woman is not responsible for a man’s thoughts, however she dresses, but could she be said to inappropriately “encourage” them?

    • Yes, and I think women should try to avoid directly manipulating men with the way they dress. But if I’m going shopping, I’m not going to know what is going to be a stumbling block to every single guy I see in the mall, I can’t be responsible if one particular guy’s weakness is bare shoulders.

      Also, I think that’s another thing we need to talk about. What exactly is lust? I don’t think lust is a sexual attraction – because that’ll happen involuntarily. It’s a natural thing, completely normal. You can’t call a biological response a sin. That is the exact kind of sexual repression we need to avoid. I think if you’re dwelling on that attraction and fantasizing about it, when you let it control your thoughts and actions, then it becomes lust.

      I dunno, any guys want to weigh in?

      • In terms of alcoholism, the alcoholic can’t avoid alcohol throughout his/her own life, and must deal with the feelings he/she faces when alcohol is present. Coincidentally, this is brought up in the original post here about taking responsibility for your own body and its reactions.

        To flip this alcoholism analogy over, Carla do you think a man could encourage a woman in the way he dresses? If no, then why yes if it’s a woman encouraging? If yes, then it becomes clear that both sexes need to become more comfortable with their bodies.

        Let’s not forget that the guy, while remaining pure before marriage, is also expected to please the wife almost immediately. When, really, if sex is built up this much the wedding night is more likely to be a short and awkward one. Not only that, but sex (whether first-time or not) when depicted in the media is either passionate angry sex or sensual experienced sex; both depictions are completely unrealistic.

        This isn’t to say the solution is that both sexes should *not* wait until marriage; you should follow what you believe in. What I’m trying to say is that this issue goes both ways, even if it’s a bit more pressing on the women’s side if only because they are the ones subdued.

      • Its also important to recognize how much our cultural constructs have influenced what is modesty ect. I work part time in a South Pacific Island museum and a lot of the traditional dress there consists of just barely covering sexual parts. As a consequence, there are a lot of naked boobs and butts. Despite this, or probably because of it I believe that they have minimal, if any issues relating to lust purely caused by the female body. It’s just because they’re so used to it it has become a natural part of their every day life.
        However, it’s probably very different now. These photos are from early 1920’s onwards, and you can see the effects of the western missionaries as the converted Islanders wear more clothes – women in long dresses and men in pants and shirts. It would be interesting to see what effect that change in dress has had on the Islander’s perceptions of both the female body and sexuality, as well as their perceptions of the ‘unconverted’ and their dress.
        And then there’s the other extreme, where men in conservative societies get “excited” over a well turned ankle. It seems like no matter what we do, there’s always someone more conservative and less.

      • I’ll try and give a male perspective but I’m not a typical guy. (Also Keep in mind I don’t have any religious context to pull from personally so some words might have a different meaning to me.)

        Staring at girls is a biological response for me. I can’t help but to look at women, my eyes just start looking at the face and make their way down to the bust and even though I do it only for a half a second, it is about sex. I’ve tried experiments where I forced myself to not look but I found that just suppressed my own sexuality to a point where it was doing damage to my own personality and was unable to connect with women in any way. It all becomes too frustrating as I basically had to ignore girls completely.

        I believe we are closer to animals then we think or else there wouldn’t be a desire to have sex other than just to have children (which becomes a logical decision at that point, largely removing a portion of the passion involved with such things). The women I am most attracted to (and most men will agree) are healthy. Not supermodels with 4% body fat (ribs gross me out), and not the obese. And think about it, healthy women mean healthier children. I believe that I’m wired to give my children the best chance possible and that drives me to be healthy and attracts me to healthy women.

        Now lust is something different. Its a want of something, be it a beer for an alcoholic or a person wanting someone of the opposite sex (be it for whatever that person has in mind). The use of self control is important and something many people struggle with and the ways we deal with it differs between people. Some people have the discipline, others might use religion to give them that strength, and others use other methods. I look at women outside my initial sexual response, and to that end, could never bring myself to have sex with someone who I can’t respect and trust.

        But this brings up a different question, where is the line between healthy desire and lust? Desire is good and lust is evil? Desire only creates positive while lust only creates negative results? One is selfish, the other positive for both parties involved? Without desire for someone there would be no dating and no finding that love of your life, and that desire has to be for both people involved. But say you want a healthy relationship with someone but find out later the other person doesn’t, was that lust you just let into your heart? Maybe it just comes down to intentions?

        So where does modesty fall into this? Well no one can be considered modest to all people as everyone has different understandings of where modesty is on a seemingly infinite scale. It should again come back to the autonomous person, be it man or woman. I’ve walked down nude beaches and to me its not a big deal, people are naked, so what does that change? They’re are the same people they are with clothes on. Yet at jiu jitsu I’ve had a few of the girls walk into the change room (we only have enough space for the one change room) with me standing in my boxers and they cover their eyes and apologize profusely. Again, why? I am no less covered then I am at a pool in swimming shorts (and not any more layers of fabric either). But it might also be good to cover up to build up that sexual desire and create stronger emotional responses when the clothing is removed. I prefer more modest looking women, tells me they have personality and aren’t just looking to use a guy and throw him away.

        I think modesty is only definable by the individual and each individual has a different standard. Listen to others then decide for yourself. (Sorry for the novel)

  4. Thanks for the replies, everyone!

    Emily, I agree that no one can know what every man in the mall thinks of any particular item of clothing, but the general patterns are pretty clear cut. More guys are going to have an issue dealing with a miniskirt and a strapless crop top than with jeans and a t-shirt. I guess what I’m asking is whether you are arguing to disregard modesty as something good to be valued, or whether you would hold that modesty is a good thing, but unfairly overemphasized with women when the focus should be on the man controlling himself? I’m not quite clear on your position.

    Sarah, I do think a guy can encourage a woman with how he dresses, and I personally appreciate it when he is thoughtful enough to dress modestly. I don’t NEED him to dress modestly, but I appreciate it. Perhaps it would be better if everyone could walk around naked without anyone thinking anything of it, but we’re not there, and until we are, we still have to deal with the issue of whether or not knowingly tantalizing people with the way we dress is an acceptable route to that goal or not.

    Tash, I agree that what “excites” people is different from culture to culture. It differs even within our own culture, depending on the context (eg. beach vs office). According to CS Lewis, who Emily quoted, true immodesty has less to do with clothing and more to do with behaviour. A bikini may not be a big deal in the South Pacific islands, then or now, but suppose I know that wearing a bikini in a particular context is likely going to make it difficult for a bunch of guys to control their thoughts, but I wear it anyway. Am I being an idiot or not?

    • When we talk about modesty it’s easy to think of extremes – like a bikini or burkha. But I’d like to focus more on the every day – worrying about a v-neck shirt that might show a tiny crack of cleavage, worrying that a pair of earrings might be considered suggestive, concern that if a guy sees you reclining he might be inclined to lust. This gray area is really where the argument lies – when it’s tough to tell if an outfit is modest or immodest, who gets the final call? A man? That’s ridiculous. If you do not comply with the man’s request, then you can be deemed as immoral. Modesty is a great concept, but it is not as important as free will.

  5. Nice post. Modesty is indeed directly descendant from male-dominated hierarchy, and thus won’t be put to rest in the Church until hierarchy is. God assigned men to protect and defend all the beauty God created, from the Garden to Eve and so on. I wish I could remember exactly where I saw it but there’s a great video clip stating we need to stop training men to be predators upon, or consumers of, beauty and instead raise them up to the protector roles once again. [But, of course, this would require men to admit something or someone is as valuable as they are–oh wait, they ARE capable, as proven in things like a willingness to die for sake of patriotism. Hmmm….so men will die to protect my freedom but not my freedom from their own oppression and abuse?] The idea of taking thoughts captive cannot be exclusively about preventing the sinful thoughts from occurring, since the Bible tells us Satan & Co. will intentionally insert thoughts into our minds for us. The principle is REPLACEMENT. Replace bad thoughts with good ones. Men who are raised up properly to have a mental framework that values women as equals and are worthy of protection will react with “Wow, God, that’s some beautiful work You did there, nice job.” or “Shut up, Satan, I’m not taking the bait. I respect her far too much to reduce her to a body part.” It’s not the eyes we need to control, it’s the beliefs about identity and value.

  6. Oh and I just want to add, total autonomy is dangerous. Most of us do not make good decisions in our teens and 20’s, and the consequences of those decisions can be utterly devastating. Many well-intentioned youth are so idealistic they will be very…er….giving….of their bodies without sufficient heed to the totality of the outcomes because they’re not even aware of all the outcomes yet. So it’s important for each person–male or female–to have as much autonomy as possible within good boundaries and those are both taught and enforced by others in family or community. Boundaries are necessary and are healthy. Agreeing on where those are is the tough part. After everything I’ve been through, I would definitely say boundaries should be discussed and set by women for younger women/girls and by men for younger men/boys, and should include no less than 3 generations’ worth of collected insight and no less than a dozen different families’ experiences. Because no one has the whole picture by themselves. Societies used to do this more than our current (Western) societies do. I think we’re missing out on not only that wisdom sharing but also on the relationship bonds doing so creates. Rather than just letting the teenage wail, “you’re not of this generation, you just don’t understand!” fall to the floor in harrumph, it needs to be thoroughly discussed what things have changed over time to present never-before-faced challenges and what things are consistent to the human experience in spite of what appear to be different wrappings.

    • Definitely agree about the boundaries. Like Will Smith said, Willow is slowly given more autonomy over herself and her body, right now that means doing whatever she wants with her hair until she can “hold the full weight” of her life. She’s growing into her autonomy – she doesn’t get it all at once, but at least she knows that’s the goal.

  7. Pingback: Why I Am a Feminist | it's always fair weather

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