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.

14 thoughts on “A Response to “Modesty, Lust and My Responsibility”

  1. I can see your point to a degree, but here is my concern:  If I am supposed to be aware of how my clothing choices affect men, how do I account for different tastes and preferences?  What do I do if I get inappropriate attention when I am wearing something I consider to be modest?  Do I eliminate that garment from my wardrobe? 
     
    I am kind of a wallflower, so it doesn’t happen that often, but the number of times I receive attention for my appearance — either appropriate compliments or objectifying comments — are much greater when I am dressed for work in heels and an office-appropriate dress (not too short/tight and not low-cut) than when I am out running errands on the weekend in shorts and a tank top.  In the former clothes, I am much more “covered up” than in the latter, so I have to guess the attention when I’m dressed up has a lot more to do with personal taste and perception than with the actual clothes I’m wearing.
     
    I agree that walking around scantily-clad is probably not best in many situations, but I also don’t think the answer to issues with lust is simply asking women to be more conscious of how they dress. That is still putting the responsibility on women and many of us simply do not have the time or resources to consider every male’s personal preferences and weaknesses when choosing our wardrobes.  Where is that line drawn so that an individual is not taking on more responsibility for the thoughts/actions/behaviors of others than is fair?  I’m not sure what the answer is, but I look forward to reading if you and Emily can figure it out!

    • Loved this post! Love the dialogue that is happening! loved hearing Trischa’s thoughts.  I do think that Shane mentions toward the end of his post not wanting any of us to feel the need/pressure to account for any and every variety of Lusty-McLusterston out there– but rather to have good faith that our brothers in Christ are struggling and fighting to reject the socially accepted objectification of women and girls and to instead see females (despite strong incentives to the contrary) as whole human beings and as sisters. I think this post is just about  encouraging Christian women to match those efforts by not objectifying ourselves( despite equally strong incentives to do so).
       
      I commiserate with Trischa in her wardrobe confusion. I think that part of the problem is that many women have a very distant relationship to lust prompted by visual cues and therefore we have an earnestly difficult time deciphering what might be “distracting” to someone else — I think of myself as someone quickly and  devotedly attracted to a variety of men but I rarely have a hard time concentrating based on what they are or or not wearing when I  am with them. Furthermore, many women have been so socialized to hate our bodies that there is hardly anything we can imagine wearing that would send men into any sort of sexual undoing. Nevertheless, I think if we are self-honest there are some ways of dressing that are designed to fragment or adorn our bodies in ways that are overtly sexual– so if we can just pledge to ourselves and to our brothers and to our God that we will fervently try to avoid that, I think we are doing ok. 
       
      Finally, I think it is key to keep Emily’s premise in mind that attraction is not the same as lust.  Just because a man tells me that I look nice in my work attire or evening attire or exercise attire doesn’t mean that I should be ashamed. That continues a cycle of self-loathing that seems to plague women and it presupposes that men are incapable of finding someone attractive without immediately dehumanizing them in their minds. I don’t think that is the case.  I eagerly look forward to the next installment!

    • @trischagoodwin Finding that line is WAY above my pay grade. Ha. You’re right, asking women (or anyone) to dress modestly is definitely not the answer to lust. 
      If a person aims to lust, then they can lust at someone scantily clad or wearing a parka. In the same way, a person who sets their mind to surrender every thought to Christ can resist temptation, even in the presence of a very immodestly dressed person, but obviously that’s much harder to do. I guess my point is that yeah you can definitely get unwanted attention when wearing something you consider modest, there will always be people who set their minds to lust, but that’s the issue I’m speaking of. Does that make sense?

      • @beardonabike
         Clearly I didn’t have an answer about finding the line either, or I would have just left that as my comment.  🙂
         
        I’m pretty sure at least part of the answer has something to do with looking at the bigger picture of how we frame all of what we say and teach in the church about men, women, friendship, relationships, sexuality, respect, humanity, etc., etc., etc.  I can tell you that the men in my life I feel most respected by and with whom I have the most “normal” interactions are men who do not attend church and/or were not raised in the church, my husband included.  And….. I just realized that fact as I was writing this comment.  Wow.  I think I need some more time to mull this over. 
         
        I will say that I very much appreciate this conversation.  Thank you.

  2. I appreciated reading your post. I do have one comment and it’s a broad one.
    When we have conversations about modesty instead of focusing only on women’s modesty, what if we focus on being modest people? Men are not the only ones to struggle with lust or pornography. So let’s make the conversation about what it looks like to respect each other and be aware of the battles someone else may be fighting (i.e. with lust) whether they are male or female.

    • This is a really good point. I even thought about adding a paragraph acknowledging that lust & pornography were not exclusively struggles of men, but the post was getting too long as it was, and it would make the writing more cumbersome to say “When a man/woman lusts after another man/woman.” So I just elected to leave it as is. I hoped to make this a conversation about what it looks like to respect each other and be aware of the battles someone else might be fighting, as you said, I just meant to use this issue as a case study.
      Good comment!

  3. Thanks for this very considerate, articulate discourse! Can’t wait to read Emily’s reply.
    On your final point, as to how both men and women should behave in community (i.e men shouldn’t lead women on and women shouldn’t making recovering from pornography addictions more difficult for men), I would say that in a Christian community, we should all be striving to be more like Christ. In different cultures and societies, that may look different on the outside as culture determines a lot of what we consider acceptable in dress, language, etc. But if both men and women are truly striving for “modesty” – meaning humility and not drawing undue attention to oneself – as well as healthy sexuality and healthy personhood, they won’t be trying to dress to get sexual attention to validate their self-worth or trying to provoke emotional responses to buoy their self-image. They won’t use their words or their dress to toy with or lure in another person, because they are striving to love that person with the love of Christ. I think that should be the foundation for what we ask people to do, not the fact that some (or even a lot of) people are struggling with sin and we want to prevent that somehow.
     
    When you put it in terms of “sides,” (“I think we would hope to think that our Christian brothers and sisters were on our side”) is a little bit of a misdirect in my opinion. Clothing is really not the best way to judge whether someone is practicing Christ-like love towards others in their community. It may be a small piece of evidence, but because cultural practices vary so much, it’s a dangerous one. You’re right – we should all be on the side of men and women recovering from porn addictions (not to mention other kinds of addictions and struggles). But I think we do that through friendship, through open and honest community, and genuine conversation and support throughout their struggle. When you make clothing the main way to support others through that process, and you make it the standard mainly for women, and you make it the standard across a whole congregation or community, it becomes dangerous for all of the reasons you detailed earlier in the post.Thanks again for hosting a thoughtful discussion!

    • @ElizabethK I love these thoughts.
      I hope that it didn’t sound like I think that ‘the fact that some (or even a lot of) people are struggling with sin and we want to prevent that somehow’ should be the foundation. I wholeheartedly agree  that striving to love a person with the love of Christ should be the foundation, I just think that when we are doing that, that we will be conscious of the struggles of others and strive to help rather than harm. 
      Of course clothing is not the best way to judge whether someone is practicing Christ-like love towards others, or the main way, but clothing was the subject at hand, the one that Emily wrote about and I was interacting with. 
       
      Love this – “if both men and women are truly striving for “modesty” – meaning humility and not drawing undue attention to oneself – as well as healthy sexuality and healthy personhood, they won’t be trying to dress to get sexual attention to validate their self-worth or trying to provoke emotional responses to buoy their self-image”
      I will say too that I believe there are many women/men who are not purposefully trying to draw attention to themselves or validate their self-worth by the way they dress. I think some just aren’t conscious of the struggles of others.

      • @beardonabike Thanks for the response! And I definitely agree – we should learn to be more conscious of each others’ struggles and be considerate (without needing to feel ashamed or guilty). Being considerate is an often overlooked virtue in a self-focused culture, and I think that’s actually what a lot of discussions of “privilege” are about – learning to be aware and considerate of ourselves and others. So thanks for making that clear. Dress is definitely one way we can consider others. I just grew up hearing that it was pretty much the most important way if you were female 🙂 Sorry if I read that into your post!In the end, I guess it’s one of those tightropes between being basing everything around other peoples’ struggles vs. not considering their struggles at all. But it’s always better to try to walk out the tension instead of just falling to one side or the other. So thanks for engaging with this topic in a healthy, constructive way!

        • @ElizabethK Don’t get me wrong, there is A LOT of correction that needs to be made in the church concerning how we teach sexuality, and there’s been WAY too much emphasis on dress. 
          Thanks!

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