A Response to “Modesty, Lust and My Responsibility”

Since making a serious go at this blogging thing I’ve come across many talented bloggers whose writings are wisdom filled, insightful, and poignant. Not the least of which is Emily Maynard. I think I first came across Emily on twitter. Her pithy and often hilarious tweets drew me in and that led me to read her writings on her blog and on prodigalmagazine.com. One particular post on PM entitled Modesty, Lust and My Responsibility piqued my interest. There’s a lot to like in that post, but ultimately I think I had to disagree with its conclusion.

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I contacted Emily, told her my experience and asked if she’d be willing to dialog a bit with me about the post. I told her that I had somewhat of a disagreement with her post and would like to respond to it in a respectful and productive way. The plan is for me to respond to her post which I am about to do and then I’ve invited Emily to respond to this post, either as a guest post on my blog, or on her own blog and I’ll simply link to it. Emily responded and kindly agreed.

My hope is not only to delve further into the topic at hand, but to also model a productive discourse that treats both parties with kindness and respect, something that rarely happens on the internet these days.

With that said, I’d like to begin the discussion. I’m tempted to summarize Emily’s original post, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t do it justice and it’s worth the read, so if you haven’t already, please take a few minutes to read Emily’s original post Modest, Lust and My Responsibility.

Now that you’ve read the post, let me start with the things I really liked about it.

Emily astutely addresses the pitfalls that often come with conversations about modesty especially in the context of conservative Evangelical circles. Emily writes

“It didn’t take long for me to absorb the idea that I wasn’t a person with a body, I was an outfit with the power to control the morality of men.”

I too grew up in a very conservative Evangelical environment, so I’m well acquainted with this lie that Emily points out. One of the biggest problems with this sentiment is that it reeks of Gnosticism, the belief that physical/material things are inherently evil. Once again NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope, seems pertinent because it corrects the erroneous belief that things on earth are evil, that we aren’t meant for his world and that in Heaven, our real home, there won’t be anything physical and our bodies are just a temporary shell for our soul until the day we can break free from them. If we read our Bibles, we’ll see that our bodies will be resurrected just like Jesus’ and they’ll be with us for eternity, not entirely different from the bodies we have now.

The other problem that Emily alludes to is the bizarre legalism that often came with discussions of modesty. I can remember youth group discussions about what specifically was and wasn’t good for women to wear. I think these legalistic rules fall apart quickly. If a man (or woman for that matter) set’s his/her mind to lust after a person, then no amount of clothing is going to change that.

Emily says later…

“Because of a lack of boundaries and the constant pressure of my culture’s Modesty Rules, my relationship with my body has been disjointed at best, my interactions with men were stunted, and my friendships with other women have been filled with jealousy and judgment.”

Yes and yes! An unhealthy sexual ethic taught by a group of well-meaning evangelicals has really messed up a generation of people who are legitimately trying to seek and honor God in their relations with the opposite gender.

I remember on a youth retreat witnessing a demonstration of how to counter act a frontal hug and turn it into a side hug. I found out later that this is actually something that is being taught in at least one very conservative seminary. I think I bought into it for a while, but quickly found it to be silly. For one thing, turning a real hug into a side hug is the mostly awkward and uncomfortable experience imaginable, and for another thing, as a human being touching another human being is a God given need that has nothing to do with sex.

One female friend recently confided in me that this attitude towards hugging has “messed her up” to this day because she doesn’t know how to have a normal interaction with a man in a situation that legitimately calls for brother/sisterly hug.

Emily astutely points out…

“I propose that we’ve lost sight of what lust actually is. In fact, we have confused biological sexual attraction with lust and called it sin. This is one reason why shame is so rampant in Christian circles, why we hide rather than confess our reality, why we try to control rather than offer each other the open love and freedom of Christ: we have made into sin something that is not sin.”

I don’t have much to say about this other than – Yeah, what Emily said. Many times we’ve taken God given attraction and called it sin. I hate to think of what would happen if God took away that “sin”.

Then Emily acknowledges the seriousness of actual lust…

“Don’t get me wrong. Lust is serious and lust is a sin.”

Let me finish this section with some more general things I like about this post.

Much of Evangelical Christianity has in the past, and still does today, embraced a patriarchal model that elevates men and marginalizes women. The way we speak of modesty often perpetuates this way of thinking. Until women get married they are told to act and dress like a puritan, for the sake of a man. When they get married women are expected to be the ultimate seductress, again for the sake of a man. As Emily points out, this is often rooted in control and one sided submissiveness.

Here is where my disagreement comes in. Emily says…

“In the last few years, though, I am learning a subtle difference in responsibility. I have learned that, yes, people should be responsible, but not to me. God created each person with a level of autonomy and responsibility tied directly to Him.”

I do believe that God created each person with a level of autonomy and responsibility tied directly to him. However, God also called us to live in community with each other. When Cain asks God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the insinuated answer is… “well, yeah.”

Understand I think this can be taken too far and it absolutely has been taken too far concerning women’s responsibility to keep men from lust. When women have been made to feel culpable for the sin of men, that’s not righteous or just.

I suppose to summarize my position, I would say that I would ask not tell women to please be conscious of their dress, not because they are culpable for a man lusting after them, but because he is culpable, because there’s distance in his relationship with God when he lusts, and if a you love him like a brother and you love God, then you would want to protect it.

If the argument is that the temptation to lust is unaffected by dress of the opposite sex, then that’s just not true. Of course it’s easier to lust over a scantily clad woman than one that is dressed more modestly. That’s why Hooters dresses their waitresses the way they do, to take the effort out of lusting. This is no different than any other addiction: alcohol, food, drugs, etc. The level of temptation rises and falls in certain situations. I live in Austin, where the summer time is “lace shirt with no bra” season, and I have to confess, it’s pretty distracting, even though I’m not a sex-crazed pervert, even though I deeply want more communion with God and I know that lust disrupts that.

If the argument is that the temptation to lust does matter but that’s you’re problem and not mine, then that feels unloving and indifferent to the battle that most men are fighting.

Once in college I had a conversation with a female friend who was frustrated by some guys who acted certain ways that unintentionally led girls on and made them think there was a possibility of a romantic relationship when there really wasn’t. I immediately thought and (I’m embarrassed to admit) said out loud, that if what a guy was doing was unintentional, then those misplaced feelings the girl was having was on her. But, I quickly realized with the help of my female friend, that this really wasn’t a loving attitude. See where I’m going with this?

It’s important to understand that I’ve never had a conversation with another man in which the conversation of pornography and lust came up, and the other guy has said “I’ve never really had a problem with that,” never, not once. Every time it’s come up, men say that they have, or still are, struggling with it. To the men who have overcome pornography addictions it’s been through a hard fought battle, and even when the addiction is broken the battle still rages on, and for the ones that have still yet to overcome the addiction, it is not for a lack of desire to escape it. Please know that the epidemic of men’s pornography addiction is not the fault of women, they are not responsible, but for a man going through this, they would want to think that Christ following women want to make it easier not more difficult.

I realize that unless we decide to never leave our homes we’re going to have to be in the presence of someone who’s not concerned with modesty or our sexual purity, but I think we would hope to think that our Christian brothers and sisters were on our side.

Please understand that I’m not interested in charts and graphs to find out exactly what is modest and what isn’t, I think that’s where the efforts to control others come in. I think legalism has no place here. I think what I’m asking is for people just to be conscious when choosing attire, and remember that others are fighting a hard battle.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.