Some Rambling and Unwelcome Reflections on Modesty Debates

Did you know that, wherever you stand in the Christian blogosphere, you are never more than one foot away from a post on the subject of modesty?

Here is another.

Every couple of months or so, the topic of modesty flares up again like a bad case of acne, prompting a fresh outbreak of outrage and opinionating. This latest case was provoked by this post, on the subject of teenage girls’ revealing ‘selfies’, receiving enough publicity to merit the standard snark treatment on Jezebel. Many, many other people have written in response to this particular piece; it is not my intention to focus upon it here. Rather, I would like to make a few more general observations about these modesty discussions (I have posted a few initial thoughts on the subject here).

At the outset, I should point out that I believe that modesty is an extremely important virtue and that the way that we dress is one way in which we can and should express this. Although I am defending modesty as a cultural value, I am not defending the particular form that this value has taken in many quarters of American evangelicalism. I don’t belong to that context and have some fairly strong differences with it on this and several other related issues. I strongly agree with many of the criticisms that have been made of it.

One of the problems that I have with these debates is the degree to which all sides tend to allow the particular forms that modesty takes within American evangelical culture to determine our relationship to the principle of modesty more generally. On the one hand this can lead to the uncritical swallowing of a host of problematic notions, values, and practices that have been wrapped up under the category of modesty. On the other it can lead to the reactive rejection of the principle of modesty in its totality or a failure to give a thoughtful and positive account of it that goes far beyond a deconstruction of conservative evangelicalism’s form of it. Such accounts are more akin to constant attempts to break free from evangelicalism’s gravity than serious attempts to think through the subject of modesty on its own terms.

This post will probably offend many. This is not my intention and if I am guilty of offending anyone unnecessarily, I sincerely apologize. However, this is a subject upon which direct speech will often prove highly unwelcome. It hits areas that are uncomfortable for many of us.

All or Nothing?

One thing that is striking is the hyperbolic arguments of many of those attacking the concept of modesty. Any suggestion that many girls should cover up more is presumed to be tantamount to saying that they ought to be wearing burkas. The suggestion that there is any responsibility placed upon women relative to male desire can be reacted to as if the suggestion was that women are entirely responsible for male desire and that, conversely, men have no responsibility whatsoever. The suggestion that men do not find it easy to master their desires is interpreted as if it were being said that men can’t exercise any control over their desires and behaviour at all.

With increasing frequency, we are also seeing the application of feminist terms of analysis to the modesty debate, in particular the notions of ‘rape culture’, ‘victim-blaming’, and ‘slut-shaming’. Once again, one frequently sees these concepts deployed in an all-or-nothing manner. The presence of any feature typically associated with ‘rape culture’—in particular the idea that women can have a responsibility for inciting male lusts—is presumed to indicate the acceptance of the whole thing in principle.

The heavy dependence upon absolute conceptual archetypes—such as ‘patriarchy’ or ‘rape culture’—within such feminist analyses tends to produce a habit of extrapolating any disagreeable element within a culture to a gross caricature of a conclusion, without attention to all of its countervailing commitments and values, which can be treated as so much dissembling. Likewise, the heavy use of a hermeneutic of suspicion produces an inattention to things that contradict or call into question the usefulness or applicability of the archetypes, whose universal truth is axiomatic for most analysis.

The heavy dependence upon such external terms of understanding also leads to an inattention to a culture’s own terms of understanding. The Church is thus interpreted in terms of contemporary feminist theory, rather than in terms of the larger system of values articulated in Scripture and embodied in its practices, within which modesty can play a far more developed role, a role that might challenge the value that contemporary feminism places upon it, if it were carefully heeded.

Unfortunately, the more I have reflected upon the character of many of these challenges to modesty, the more I have wondered whether they are best understood as advanced attempts to rationalize personal defence mechanisms, often arising from unpleasant or abusive experiences of a ‘modesty culture’ in the past, rather than careful and attentive analyses of the value itself (or even of the cultures that celebrate it). The problem is that careful analysis can only occur once the hyperactive ideological immune system has delivered the individual’s psyche from the immediacy of the perceived threat. Until then extreme all-or-nothing reactions are probably to be expected.

While such reactive analyses are often not at all directly illuminating of their supposed subject and are compromised in their most fundamental impulse, they can be worth reflecting upon nonetheless. The sense of personal threat that they can reveal must be taken very seriously, for instance, even when that sense is paranoid—paranoia seldom materializes out of the blue and even when it makes wild and ungrounded claims can itself be a symptom that something is badly wrong. Ungrounded fears must be truthfully allayed; justified fears must have their causes identified and addressed.

What I am looking for here is an attempt to move beyond all-or-nothing-style approaches. Modesty is an area where much wisdom is required, where things are seldom if ever black and white and the nature of such things as responsibility is complicated. A legalistic approach will often be a fairly blunt instrument here.

Sexual Double Standards and Victim-Blaming

People’s black-and-white reactions in such areas are particularly unhelpful given the complexity of the issues that we are dealing with here. For instance, people continually complain about the presence of a sexual ‘double standard’ in such areas. Women’s dress and sexual behaviour can be subjected to far more rigorous norms than men’s in many areas, something that, since it flies directly in the face of our cultural value of equality, is presumed to be manifestly unjust. In particular, the burden of the teaching of modesty falls overwhelmingly upon the shoulders of women.

One of the problems with many objections to double standards is that they operate on the assumption that men and women are relatively interchangeable in the relevant areas of analysis. However, there are many important differences between the sexes, differences that make certain standards fall with far greater weight upon one sex than the other, even when it is clear that both sexes are held subject to them. If we pay attention, this differential weighting of moral norms can be witnessed in Scripture.

For instance, such things as the general differences between male and female forms of desire, male and female bodies, the relationship between male and female bodies and identities, and the cultural framing and clothing of male and female bodies all lead to the burden of modesty and purity standards weighing far more heavily upon women than on men. On the other hand, differences between male and female bodies and their relation to sex and reproduction, men’s typically greater strength, and general differences between male and female economies of desire mean that the responsibility for obtaining consent is (quite rightly) far more exacting in its expectations of men (leading us, for instance, to view sexual assault of men by women, which happens with much greater regularity than many believe, rather differently from the assault of women by men). Consent is presumed to be something that the man requests and the woman chooses (or doesn’t choose, as the case may be) to grant. None of this means, of course, that men shouldn’t be modest and pure, or that women shouldn’t ensure that they have consent before making strong sexual advances.

Black-and-white thinking can also afflict us in many ‘rape culture’ style analyses. While there definitely lie huge dangers in the direction of victim-blaming, there are also dangers in presenting women as possessing no responsibility relative to male desire and sexual behaviours. Where responsibility is denied, power and agency can also be implicitly denied. Where the level of the threat of abusive male sexuality must be viewed as in no sense and to no degree related to women’s own actions, it can become a constant in relation to which women are powerless, raising their sense of vulnerability and fuelling an unrealistic sense of the nature and location of the threat. While the final responsibility for the handling of their desires must always lie with men, in many situations women’s behaviour can also have a strong effect upon the way that these desires are managed.

For instance, in the well-intentioned and thoroughly appropriate desire to ensure that sexually abusive men are in no sense and to no degree absolved of their full responsibility for their actions, there is often a tendency to deny the right to make any distinction between different situations of abuse and the relationship that the victims bear to them and their dynamics. And, as discussions of men’s rape of women currently frame much of wider society’s discussions of sexual responsibility, there is an implicit tendency within ‘rape culture’ narratives to absolve women of sexual responsibility and moral agency that they were once perceived to possess.

When distinguishing different victims’ moral and sexual agency is perceived to involve complicity with the evil ‘she was asking for it’ excuse, which lays responsibility for sexual abuse by males at the door of the woman, all such distinctions will be resisted. However, such distinctions do exist, and they can be very significant. For instance, willing participation in a drinking and hookup culture is a huge factor in the area of sexual abuse, lowering important inhibitions, reducing quality of consent, and dropping defences for both sexes. Just as men are rightly presumed to have some responsibility and power to uphold women’s levels of consent, so women should be presumed to have some measure of responsibility and power to guard and encourage the healthy moral inhibitions of the men around them. Moral failure in such areas does not mean that a woman ‘deserves’ any sort of abuse, nor does it absolve the male of any of his full responsibility for his actions, but it is important nonetheless.

Different Accounts of Sexual Desire

One of the things that continually strike me in modesty debates are the differing accounts of male sexual desire that underlie them. One commonly witnesses women presuming male sexual desire is quite analogous to their own. For instance, in a fairly typical interaction of this subject, I recently found myself discussing this with a women who was speaking of this in terms of ‘appreciating beauty’. ‘Appreciating beauty’, however, is an almost entirely different sort of thing from the reality of male sexual desire that can fuel modesty discussions.

While guys definitely appreciate beauty, this really is not the sort of experience of looking at women that is at issue here. That experience is a more particularly male experience and it isn’t often that one encounters women who really seem to manifest that deep of an understanding of it (this is well worth listening to on the subject—it really resonates with my experience and describes the sharp difference between a more typically female and more typically male experience of desire). The supposedly analogous experiences of women’s own that some describe rather illustrate their failure to understand the character of male desire, and why they can struggle to understand why men can’t just easily resist. Listening to many women’s attempts to speak about the reality of male desire and the level and nature of men’s control relative to it does help me to understand the frustration occasioned by women’s experiences of ‘mansplaining’, though!

For the sake of clarifying what is being referred to here, let me describe how this is experienced by many of us as men. Such direct discussion of the nature of lusts obviously is not something that we should engage in more than necessary. However, sometimes it is important to combat deep misunderstandings of them. I believe that this is one such occasion.

My purpose here is not to sensationalize. While strong, these desires can and should be managed. On the other hand, I do want to resist the tendency of many (perhaps especially male feminists) to present matters in a way that is calculated to validate many women’s desired or comforting vision of reality, one in which all of the supposed dimensions of masculinity that obstruct the aims of feminism or might provoke feelings of insecurity or vulnerability arise from dysfunctional socialization and men’s recalcitrance and could entirely be changed by men’s unilateral assumption of a new moral responsibility (Hugo Schwyzer’s confession is highly revealing on this particular front).

Many women also feel uncomfortable thinking about the men in their lives experiencing such desires, wondering how those desires relate to them and to other women, and men can be uncomfortable speaking about them honestly and directly because they provoke such insecurities. This is an unsettling and difficult reality that shouldn’t be airbrushed for the sake of our sensibilities, not least on account of the danger of denying the power of our lusts. We all have a tendency to wish to regard those dimensions of human nature and desire that unsettle or resist the tidiness of our vision of the world and the way that it ought to be as if they were pure choices or social construction (hence the desire to regard homosexuality as a choice).

Male Sexual Desire

So to actually describing the experience of male sexual desire. When it comes to looking at women, one typically doesn’t choose to look at all. Choice doesn’t enter into it: there is an extremely powerful internal insistence to look that arises completely unbidden. Rather, one must choose not to look, and … keep … on … choosing, sometimes requiring rather a lot of gritting of one’s teeth along the way. Like trying to resist the urge to scratch a powerful itch until it goes away of its own accord, this isn’t a pleasant experience and requires self-control and determination. This isn’t a free choice to admire someone’s beauty at all (we have those occasionally too), but a strong lustful compulsion, something that can occur with some regularity, even when you aren’t given into it at all.

It also isn’t just about the other person’s ‘beauty’ or ‘attractiveness’. There is something inherently depersonalizing in the nature of this visual urge. For one, it can be atomizing. With relatively high frequency, it will focus upon a particular body part and react to that, screening out every other aspect of the person standing in front of you. A woman’s breasts can eclipse every other aspect of her when this visual urge is not strongly resisted, for instance.

There is also something inherently pornographic about this visual urge, characterized by a depersonalizing and intensely sexualizing lust. The personhood of the other party can be experienced as an irritating obstacle, as something to be overcome or suppressed. Their body is something that our lust wants to satiate itself upon and their independent agency should not intrude or feature.

Now, let me be extremely clear, and here I will move to discussing my own experience more directly: I don’t think that I am alone among men in experiencing this urge as a highly dangerous thing, both to me and to others (although I know it to be in many senses a natural one). It is not something that I want to justify or give free rein to. It isn’t something that I have invited, welcomed, or freely indulged. I always know that I must master it, or it will master me. My experience of it is not of a feature of my agency, but of a powerful force and instinct within me that can resist or undermine my agency, and occasionally as something profoundly alien, threatening, and terrifyingly overwhelming (this was especially the case at the onset of puberty—things do get somewhat better!). These hormone-driven urges are like strong winds within me. Handled wisely, they might even propel me on a healthy and desired course. However, they are dangerous forces, beyond my power to suppress and I must treat them with respect and a degree of appropriate fear, lest they capsize or run me aground.

Do I want to obey this visual urge? No. It typically directly militates against my moral values and the respect with which I want to treat the women with whom I come into contact. I generally keep myself strictly to a ‘no lingering glances, no second looks’ principle. This is a necessary means of self-control (if that is weakened, everything will become so much more difficult) and a way of showing respect for that woman and the other women in my life.

When women complain about men objectifying them, they often speak about it as if men consciously intended or even conspired to do this, as if they had complete power over their actions. This isn’t typically how it happens. Rather, there is an insistent impulse to regard women in an objectifying fashion deep within many of us as men and some choose to obey and give into it. It isn’t something that we chose to put there and many of us would be very happy to be rid of it, rather than constantly having to resist it. Once again, my point here is not that we should tolerate objectification, or cut it more slack, but that we should understand the sort of thing with which we are dealing and handle it accordingly.

Can we ‘help ourselves’? Yes, we most definitely can. We can and we do. By the time that we arrive at mature adulthood we should be well practiced at ‘helping ourselves’ in this area. I know for myself that this urge can be resisted in a consistent manner. It is important to have people around us who remind us of the fact that we are capable of resisting and overcoming our lusts. However, it often isn’t at all easy to do so. Not at all. It can be a daily and an uphill struggle, even though we are not completely at the mercy of our desires unless we have capitulated to them in the past and allowed them to overrun us. While the possibility of success in the struggle should constantly be affirmed, the difficulty of the struggle must also be acknowledged.

Others’ Responsibility for our Urges

Perhaps an analogy with women’s own experience might help here. I suspect that many women would be annoyed if men treated them as entirely culpable for the mood changes that their hormones can occasion at various points, suggesting that these were chosen states. Although women can ‘help themselves’ when it comes to not taking out hormone-driven moods on others in their lives, men should recognize that this isn’t always easy for them and that understanding, support, and kindness can go a long way. They should also have enough sense to refrain from judging women by an analogy drawn from their own moods, which are probably much less naturally volatile in many respects.

Just as it would be easy for men to hold women culpable for handling their mood swings poorly, when they may actually be baiting them in various ways at a vulnerable point or time, so it is easy for women to do the same with men when it comes to their handling of their hormone-driven urges. We are responsible for controlling ourselves, even at times when we must learn to deal with difficult hormonal states in a self-controlled manner. We should not allow others to become victims of our inability to handle our states. That said, the behaviour of other people can make a big difference: they can make our struggle of self-control considerably easier, or they can unwittingly or even wilfully provoke us.

And, getting to the point, yes, the way that women dress and comport themselves does make a big difference for us, as does the general culture support given to the management of our urges. This is one of the reasons why the widespread cultural toleration of pornography is so poisonous, destructive, and oppressive for men. It is also why a cultural standard of modesty in the cultural expression and portrayal of sex and sexuality is really important if we want to bring out the best in men.

The final responsibility for managing our urges always lies with us and should never be placed upon women. No matter what many women do—especially women with certain body shapes—we will experience these natural urges when we are around them. Nevertheless, women often behave or dress in a manner that powerfully and unnecessarily incites male urges. We don’t have to go to any extremes in order to say that this should be discouraged.

Modesty

Modesty gets a bad name nowadays, often deserved on account of the way that it has been handled as a means of blaming women for men’s lusts. However, I believe that a case should be made for it. At the heart of the virtue of modesty is the principal of behaving in a manner that is unassuming, moderate, and reserved. Modesty does not seek to draw attention to itself, eschewing an ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ approach in all areas of life (money, status, connections, intelligence, looks, physical strength or dominating presence, etc.). It wants to ensure that we bring out the best in those around us, not intimating them, eclipsing them, leaving them without the space to be themselves, or making them feel inferior, controlled, or uneasy. It isn’t just about dress and sexual attraction.

A woman who dresses in a more sexual manner may well find that it feels empowering and helps her to get her way, much as the rich man who flashes his stuffed wallet, or the physically imposing man who throws his weight around might find that it really helps them to get their way. However, in all of these cases, such behaviour has a tendency to bring out the worst in others (and the worst types of others) and to prey on them, rather than treating them with dignity and respect. Also, when we behave in ways that incite the lust, envy, anger, or avarice of people, by bringing out the worst in the people around us, we set ourselves up to be hurt by those awakened and strengthened vices in the future. Those of us who have struggled with such powerful natural lusts in ourselves have a sense of how dangerous they can be and know that anyone who would incite them thoughtlessly in others is playing with fire.

I want to treat the women in my life with respect and dignity, as persons who are my equals. I want them to encounter my virtues and by protected from my vices. I want to be a person who is guided by a moral compass, rather than by my lusts. Part of my task of doing this is resisting some fairly powerful natural urges, urges that would damage me and hurt the people around me if I let them off the leash. Women who dress or act in a way that incite my lusts in order to overcome my will could perhaps get their way, but they are playing with some powerful and destructive forces, forces that have little regard for them at all and have a corrosive effect on my character. On the other hand, a woman who dresses and acts modestly (not the same thing as dressing unattractively) is more likely to bring out the best in me, strengthening me against my lusts, encouraging and supporting my desire to treat her with dignity, honour, and respect.

Unsurprisingly, many women will strongly resent the idea of toning down their dress in order to bring out the best in men. However, all of us have to make allowances for those around us and moderate or tone down things that we would love to express on account of the weaknesses of others. As guys, for instance, we have to make a lot of allowances for the fact that women are typically physically weaker than we are, can often feel intimidated by our presence, and are often less able to flourish in the more combative context that many of us thrive within. For some of us, constantly making allowances in these areas does feel restrictive. However, creating a situation within which all can flourish requires a commitment not to exploit our strengths at the expense of others from all of us.

Modesty, in its various forms, is one of the ways that we put our neighbours before ourselves. It is a way in which we honour others and refuse to take advantage of our strengths at the expense of their weaknesses. A culture that values modesty in women’s dress in a healthy and non-effacing manner is a society that seeks to bring out the best in the character of men and, by that means, to respect women in their full personhood.

As cultural and personal experience should make clear, this isn’t an easy end to accomplish. We are seeking to help people, many of them uncooperative, to gain a measure of mastery over some very powerful natural urges. Even in a culture that values modesty, the reality on the ground will be messy and many men will probably try to use the notion of modesty to absolve themselves of responsibility. However, despite such abuses, for many of us as Christian men a cultural valuation of modesty is something that empowers and supports us in our determined desire and moral commitment to resist sinful lusts, to seek to develop godly character within ourselves, and to treat the women that we encounter and relate to with the dignity and honour that belongs to them as those created in the image of God. Not least for these reasons, it shouldn’t be lightly abandoned.

Update: See some follow-up thoughts here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Some Rambling and Unwelcome Reflections on Modesty Debates

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Many of the same people who object to talk of modesty often also object to the idea of a woman keeping up her appearance as much as possible, so as to help her husband remain faithful to her.

    Now, of course, not every woman is all that beautiful to begin with, none of them can put off the effects of aging forever, and men often desire variety as well as beauty, so male control will always be a necessary thing. (This is especially true as male attractiveness tends to go up precisely as female attractiveness is going down.) But mostly the advice for women to remain as attractive as possible for their husbands is common sense, and contrary to no Christian principle.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Like everything, this can be abused. I would be opposed to most plastic surgery, for example. This can also feed into the unfortunate cultural trend of everyone trying to look as young as possible, forever.

    • I think that the concern on this front, one that I strongly share, is that such talk not uncommonly introduces a sort of implicit perverse conditionality into men’s fulfilment of their wedding vows, vows whose moral demands upon men should be entirely unconditioned by the appearance of their wives. It is the implicit blackmail and consequent victim-blaming that they can invite that makes me very cautious about making such remarks.

      Besides, how would we feel if women made similar remarks? ‘You should make sure that you increase your wage packet/lose your paunch/not lose your job, to help me to remain faithful to you.’

      One of the greatest problems here lies with men’s completely unrealistic expectations of what it means for women to look as effortlessly attractive as possible. We live in a society in which mass media exposes us to countless stunningly beautiful women and where the impact of porn upon men’s sexual and aesthetic appetites is profound. Within such a culture, the sort of expectations that men have about the average woman’s appearance is, frankly, ridiculous, as are the comparisons that they expose them to. Far more effort should be exerted on snapping men back to a sense of reality in these areas as they are typically far less realistic and reasonable than women are in their expectations and behaviour here. This is where the primary issues lie.

      And, when we start to take very seriously—not just as a light acknowledgement on the side—the effects of the ageing process, the effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body, changing hormone levels, and the lack of the free time that many single women enjoy to maintain a gruelling fitness and diet regimen and to devote to the application of cosmetics, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the levels of physical attractiveness that many men would regard as the fundamental datum are entirely unsustainable.

      Also, when we consider the degree to which women’s value and regard within society can be made contingent upon their looks and appearance, we should recognize that naturally decreasing levels of attractiveness can be an immense challenge to many women’s identities and can involve a crisis collapse of self-esteem and traumatic relationship to her own body. What a woman needs at a time like this is not a man who pushes her to conform more diligently to an exacting and unrealistic cultural standard that is increasingly slipping away from her grasp, but a man who, in expression of his absolute and unconditional commitment to her, dedicates himself to seeing and assuring her of her unique beauty in his eyes, even as her looks may fade.

      A man who commits himself to this is more likely to find delight in his wife and is more likely to find himself the husband of a wife who wants to be a cause of delight to him.

      Finally, I think that a hugely important distinction must be made between discouraging women from acting or dressing in a manner that incites or provokes men’s lusts or vices and treating them as if the burden of responsibility for those lusts and vices rested so heavily upon their shoulders, which is what telling women not to ‘let themselves go’ so often can amount to.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        This is a rather ill considered rant, quite unworthy of you. I will give you a chance to do better before commenting further.

      • I am sorry that you feel that way. Beyond saying that my remarks were not intended as an accusation against you, but as an expression of my deep concerns about where such remarks can lead us, I don’t intend to move away from my position expressed above. I apologize if I offended you through some lack of clarity, perhaps through some apparent suggestion that I believe you to be personally guilty of holding the dangerous opinions I mention above. However, the position I articulated above is one that I firmly maintain and won’t be budging from any time soon.

      • I concur with the Man Who Was on this response. It seems ill considered considering how balanced the actual post was. It seems that the common sense and Bible need/requirements for women to be sexual available/submissive/etc to their husbands was met with, something along the lines of “that is a result of a pornified culture”. That a woman’s looks/body changes over time and with potential children is undisputed That her time is also split somewhat differently due to children and other concerns is also undisputed.

        However for one thing Paul explicitly states that the only reason for spouses to deny sex to one another is due to mutual consent for fasting and prayer. Today almost no one fasts so their is no justification for denial of sex. But such does occur on a regular basis in Christian circles.

        Is such rebellion, a justification for a husband to look elsewhere for sexual fulfillment/release? No, but on the flip side, one would not be justified in laying on the blame on him. Such a position does not imply that there is an aspect of conditionality in the relationship but it does simply keep the situation real.

        As far as the comment, “let themselves go” goes…such could mean simply that one is no longer 21 and one should take drastic and time consuming even perhaps surgical efforts to roll back time. But such was explicitly denied in the comment above. On the other hand such could mean that one still have a priority to properly make oneself sexually attractive to one’s husband even if one’s libido has decreased.

      • I stand by my remarks.

    • e says:

      I totally agree. When husbands make sure that they are intellectually attracted to their wives and make the effort to foster their love so it grows deeper with age, a wife will have no problem remaining as attractive as possible to her husband.

      Because you aren’t talking about external beauty, are you? You see, my expectation of men is contrary to no Christian principle–they must be clever and smart and capable of reasonable expectations of their wives and don’t try to blame their wives when they choose to look elsewhere.

      • Thanks for the comment, e!

        I am not sure that I would want to encourage an internal/external beauty dichotomy here. We are always embodied persons and so it seems to me that we should be those who seek to trace in other’s bodies the beauties of their characters. True sexual desire is always desire for an embodied person, not a person detached from their body, nor a body detached from the person (if either were truly possible).

        A husband’s desire for his wife’s body should always be driven by the fact that it is her body. And for genuine personal love, another’s ‘imperfections’ and ‘flaws’ can actually be loved as much as and sometimes more than anything else. For true love, the one who is loved is absolute for you. You don’t love them so much despite their ugly features: rather, the true lover loves those imperfections (though not the vices) of another, because they belong to and set apart the other. The attractions of some, not clearly apparent to the wider world, have a secret scrutability known only to the lover and the exclusive possession of the keys to these attractions should elevate their worth in his eyes.

        So, for instance, the husband should be able to trace in the lines of his wife’s face the laughter and sorrow that they have shared and borne together. In her stretch-marked belly and drooping breasts, he should see the beauty of the bodily sacrifices that she made in order to bring about the life and love of a family. In her greying hair he should read the beauty of the changing seasons of a life lived together. The body of such a woman has become a body rich with memory and while the mode of such responses to it will change, should be greeted with no less honour, desire, and delight than that which it received in its youthful flowering of beauty.

      • e says:

        I agree with you, Alastair; I simply didn’t focus on the external beauty in this instance. In no way to I want to approve of a gnostic approach to the body and soul; I do find, however, that when wives are blamed for their husbands’ infedelities, that it is precisely a gnostic approach where only the body matters that is ultimately at fault.

        I’m afraid I was being a bit too sarcastic, trying to point out the error of focusing on the body, and of laying obligation to be externally beautiful with the woman only.

      • e,
        I don’t believe the argument that if the husband was perfect then the wife would happy follow submit works any better than if Jesus was perfect then the Church would always happy and joyfully submit to his leadership….Wait a minute…

        I think the words of Pastor Voddie Baucham Jr. work very well here –
        “But here’s what else I know—even if your husband led perfectly, you would rebel against it because that was the curse in the Garden. “Yes, well, what if my husband is not even being obedient to God?” Isn’t it great that there’s a Bible verse for that? First Peter, Chapter 3, “Likewise, wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the Word—” Yes, it’s in there!

        By the way, when he says, “Likewise, wives,” do you ever wonder, “Like what?” If you go back to the previous chapter, and the previous paragraph, he’s talking about slaves who have evil masters and how a slave, with an evil master, should submit, even to the evil master. It’s after that that he says, “Likewise, wives.” I don’t write the mail; I just deliver it. “

      • e says:

        I’ll have to disagree with you about what the passage means, Hermonta. It no more supports the ongoing argument that women should submit to their husbands than it does argue for continuing slavery.

      • e,
        It is very difficult to disagree with what the passage means because it is quite straight forward. Now if you want to say that you do not care what it means / you disagree with inerrancy, then I am fine with that. However to say the issue is simply one of interpretation just does not fly.

      • Thanks for commenting, Hermonta.

        I believe that God does call women to submit to their husbands, although I suspect that we have a different understanding of what that involves. What God doesn’t say is ‘husbands, bring your wives into submission.’ The command that God gives to husbands is to love their wives. This commandment is not conditional on how their wives look, behave, or how sexually available they are. The husband is not the enforcer of the calling that God has given to his wife. He just has to focus on doing his duty towards her. The focus upon men policing their wives in such respects in many conservative Christian circles appals me, to be frank. God may call my wife to submit to me, but he never made me her master. If she doesn’t submit, she is answerable to God, not to me. I just have to love her either way.

        Loving and submitting are both about putting the other person and their interests before our own. Both are unilateral commands, not conditioned on the behaviour of any other party. A loving husband does not force his will on his wife, is attentive to her needs, and seeks to serve her. A submissive wife does not fight her husband to get her way and treats him with respect. God never gave Christian men a ‘trump card’ to get their way, because this is explicitly opposed to his command to men: love does not seek its own.

        None of this is about some inherent right and superiority of men, but is a matter of the woman as a servant of God honouring the role of another servant of God, not because of some inherent prerogative of that servant, but because of the claims of his master. The woman is called to submit to her husband as one who as a servant represents (but doesn’t possess) the authority of his master, Christ. The man is called to love his wife as one representing his master’s love for his Church. Both men and women are submitting here, but their primary submission is to Christ. Let’s not throw out the biblical teaching on these matters, but let’s be clear about how they are applied to women and pay a lot more attention to the commands that are applied to men.

        One general point on a different matter: I would request that you refrain from remarks like ‘Isn’t it great that there’s a Bible verse for that?’, ‘Yes, it’s in there!’ and ‘I don’t write the mail; I just deliver it.’ Such asides are quite unnecessary and your points stand without them. Sarcasm and a condescending or passive aggressive tone do not make for healthy Christian discourse. I want my comments to be a place where people can disagree sharply without resorting to this.

      • >>I believe that God does call women to submit to their husbands, although I suspect that we have a different understanding of what that involves. What God doesn’t say is ‘husbands, bring your wives into submission.’ The command that God gives to husbands is to love their wives. This commandment is not conditional on how their wives look, behave, or how sexually available they are. The husband is not the enforcer of the calling that God has given to his wife. He just has to focus on doing his duty towards her. The focus upon men policing their wives in such respects in many conservative Christian circles appals me, to be frank. God may call my wife to submit to me, but he never made me her master. If she doesn’t submit, she is answerable to God, not to me. I just have to love her either way.<>Loving and submitting are both about putting the other person and their interests before our own. Both are unilateral commands, not conditioned on the behaviour of any other party. A loving husband does not force his will on his wife, is attentive to her needs, and seeks to serve her. A submissive wife does not fight her husband to get her way and treats him with respect. God never gave Christian men a ‘trump card’ to get their way, because this is explicitly opposed to his command to men: love does not seek its own.<>None of this is about some inherent right and superiority of men, but is a matter of the woman as a servant of God honouring the role of another servant of God, not because of some inherent prerogative of that servant, but because of the claims of his master. The woman is called to submit to her husband as one who as a servant represents (but doesn’t possess) the authority of his master, Christ. The man is called to love his wife as one representing his master’s love for his Church. Both men and women are submitting here, but their primary submission is to Christ. Let’s not throw out the biblical teaching on these matters, but let’s be clear about how they are applied to women and pay a lot more attention to the commands that are applied to men.<>One general point on a different matter: I would request that you refrain from remarks like ‘Isn’t it great that there’s a Bible verse for that?’, ‘Yes, it’s in there!’ and ‘I don’t write the mail; I just deliver it.’ Such asides are quite unnecessary and your points stand without them. Sarcasm and a condescending or passive aggressive tone do not make for healthy Christian discourse. I want my comments to be a place where people can disagree sharply without resorting to this.<<

        The Pastor Baucham quote extended to two paragraphs, and I did not add anything to them. I'll be more careful on what and how I quote in the future.

      • I apologize for my misunderstanding, Hermonta. It was unclear that you were quoting someone else throughout those two paragraphs.

      • Sorry Alastair my previous post was completely chewed up and i am not sure why it happened. It came out as if I did not respond to any of your points when I went into depth on each one.

        Let me try again.

        “I believe that God does call women to submit to their husbands, although I suspect that we have a different understanding of what that involves. What God doesn’t say is ‘husbands, bring your wives into submission.’ The command that God gives to husbands is to love their wives. This commandment is not conditional on how their wives look, behave, or how sexually available they are. The husband is not the enforcer of the calling that God has given to his wife. He just has to focus on doing his duty towards her. The focus upon men policing their wives in such respects in many conservative Christian circles appals me, to be frank. God may call my wife to submit to me, but he never made me her master. If she doesn’t submit, she is answerable to God, not to me. I just have to love her either way.”

        Remember the context of 1 Peter is that Paul makes an analogy between master servant and husband wife. One would never say that Masters could not bring their servants to submission or that to do so would be against the love due to one’s subordinate. Love is not opposed to chastising or correction.

        You are correct that love is not conditional but you are simply not correct concerning rebellion having no counter. Every form of leadership/headship has a method of dealing with rebellion. Pastor/Sessions have church discipline. Bosses have firing, demotions etc. Parents spank or ground children.

        If one is required to rely on the goodness of the subordinate to follow without a tool to enforce such, then one is simply not the head of the team.

        You may be appaled by the focus on disciplining the wife in various circles, but I have no idea how you can argue against such Biblically, Theologically, HIstorically, or Otherwise.

        At bottom, it seems that the only way for your view to make sense is to either assume the non falleness of the women or the non headship of the husband.

        “Loving and submitting are both about putting the other person and their interests before our own. Both are unilateral commands, not conditioned on the behaviour of any other party. A loving husband does not force his will on his wife, is attentive to her needs, and seeks to serve her. A submissive wife does not fight her husband to get her way and treats him with respect. God never gave Christian men a ‘trump card’ to get their way, because this is explicitly opposed to his command to men: love does not seek its own.”

        On what basis do you assume disciplining rebellion etc is about seeking one’s own interests above the interests of the other or the team? Could such be said categorically about God’s disciplining his Church, Parents disciplining their children, Church leadership disciplining their flock, or a Master disciplining his servant?

        Yes it could be done in a non loving fashion but that is not inherent to any disciplining.

        Saying that a loving husband does not force his will on his wife makes as much sense as a loving God would not force his will on his subjects, or a loving pastor would not force his will on his church, or a loving master would not force his will on his servant. It just doesnt hold or follow.

        “None of this is about some inherent right and superiority of men, but is a matter of the woman as a servant of God honouring the role of another servant of God, not because of some inherent prerogative of that servant, but because of the claims of his master. The woman is called to submit to her husband as one who as a servant represents (but doesn’t possess) the authority of his master, Christ. The man is called to love his wife as one representing his master’s love for his Church. Both men and women are submitting here, but their primary submission is to Christ. Let’s not throw out the biblical teaching on these matters, but let’s be clear about how they are applied to women and pay a lot more attention to the commands that are applied to men.”

        Given the structure of your argument here, it would seem that you would have to also oppose church discipline. If you do not, then why not?

        Next, In 1 Peter 2 and 3, Paul explicitly makes the analogy between master servant and husband wife, with 1 Peter 3:6 having Sarah’s calling Abraham lord being used as a template for other women.

        I am at a loss on how you can get through such a passage and retain the belief that everything a husband tells a wife is simply a suggestion that can be accepted or rejected as she sees it.

        Lastly, I would say that we need to focus on all the commands that are directed at both genders and not be selective.

      • Thanks for the comment, Hermonta.

        In response:

        1. Peter (not Paul) makes no such analogy in 1 Peter. That is just founded upon a clumsy misreading of the word ‘likewise’. If the word does in fact function in the way that Baucham says it does, then Peter immediately says that husbands should be like wives (1 Peter 3:7) and later points out that the younger people should behave like the elders (1 Peter 5:5).

        2. If we want to give a thicker meaning to the word ‘likewise’ we could point out that wives are to be like Christ who is the subject of the immediately preceding verses, not slaves, who overcame through turning the other cheek, neither reviling nor threatening, committing himself to God’s good judgment. The treatment of tyrannical unbelieving husbands is thus aligned with the behaviour of those who crucified our Lord. The way that they treat their wives isn’t justified for a moment. Like Christ, or like David with Saul, wives overcome such treatment, not by reviling, threatening, or trying to avenge themselves in wrath, but trusting in God to avenge them and overcoming evil with good, treating their husbands with more honour than they deserve (much as David acted towards King Saul).

        The following ‘likewise’, referring to the husbands, would then be seen to relate to the corresponding honour that a good husband must accord to his wife, irrespective of her behaviour to him. The good husband must treat his wife with understanding and gentleness (as the ‘weaker vessel’).

        Perhaps most importantly, he must treat her as a co-heir of the ‘grace of life’. In this statement, Peter teaches husbands that their wives are every bit as much heirs of the kingdom of God and members of Christ’s body as they are and are not second-class in any respect. This cautions husbands to recognize that their wives are their equals in the kingdom of God and must be treated with the honour, love, and respect due to an heir of God. Where this does not take place, the implication is that their prayers will not be answered. Any authority that the husband has is given to him in order to serve and build up his wife, not to lord it over her.

        2. The Bible gives powers of discipline to Church leaders, to parents, and to masters of servants. Where does the Bible clearly give husbands the right to discipline their wives in a like manner? I would like you to show me.

        3. First of all, I would be interested to know what you are including under the term ‘disciplining’ here. How exactly does a husband ‘discipline’ his wife? Grounding? Cutting off allowance? Corporal punishment? Excommunication? To be honest, I find the implications of your position here profoundly troubling, and founded upon some very tendentious biblical readings. Also, are you suggesting that a husband (and a loving one) should ‘force his will’ upon his wife? If so, what exactly is this ‘forcing of will’? Surely this is the sort of claim that marital rapists and domestic abusers would use to justify their actions. Let me be absolutely clear on this point, if I knew that a man was living out the seeming implications of such a position in his marriage, I would call the police.

        Where exactly does the husband get the right to force his will upon his wife? Does God just underwrite the wills of husbands? Is this really about letting husbands get their personal way, or is it about husbands as servants of God with a ministry to empower and edify their wives?

        Husbands truly have an authority. It is not a blank cheque sort of authority. Rather, it is authorized to the extent that they are lovingly establishing the foundations and guarding the boundaries of the godliness and ministry of the household in a way that honours, supports, edifies, and empowers their wives and children in their vocations. Wives are to submit to this authorized authority, showing honour to the calling, even when the one exercising it is a wicked or tyrannical person, much as we must honour the office of president or prime minister. As in the case of evil political leaders, wives have means given to them to protect them from evil and abusive husbands, being permitted to bring divorce proceedings in such cases. The authority of the husband is determined by his vocation to serve his household. When he steps outside or beyond this vocation he has no inherent authority.

        What the husband says isn’t necessarily just a suggestion when he is acting within his calling (and the authority that he has is fairly limited, not a general authority to get his way in the household and its decisions). However, the wife isn’t forced to follow him: she follows him as a fellow servant of God, recognizing God’s authorization of his ministry.

        Husbands don’t need a coercive force in order truly to possess authority. The authority of the husband doesn’t need to be coercively enforced. It is an authority that has been granted by God. Where it is not honoured (much as when the right and dignity of the wife is not honoured), God, who is their master, will judge. That, not some power given to husbands to discipline their wives, is what undergirds their authority. The authority of husbands operates by means of loving persuasion and by the honour accorded to the ministry of the husband and father by his wife and children. Parents have the right to discipline their children, but such means are temporary and educative, leading to mature moral agency, which is addressed through persuasion or judged through punitive sanctions in severe cases. The right to exercise such punitive sanctions have been given to the state, not to husbands. Husbands don’t have the right to treat their wives like children or like criminals.

        4. The Church has been given means of discipline. However, the Church has not been given the right to use coercive force. What authority the Church has depends upon its God-given authority being exercised and recognized. Where it acts beyond the authority given to it, it has no inherent authority. Where its authority is not recognized or rejected it can deliver a person to God’s judgment in excommunication. Church leaders don’t lead by forcing their wills upon congregations, but as God authorizes them and congregations honour that authority, even though it possesses no force of its own. Church leaders act in the authority of another, not in an authority that belongs immediately to them.

        5. Yes, let’s not be selective in our treatment of the commands. Within these comments and the post above, I have addressed the responsibilities that are placed upon many different parties. I haven’t restricted myself to speaking about the duties of men at all. Unfortunately, in my experience, some Christian men like to speak a great deal about the responsibilities of women in these areas, acting as if they have been given the duty to police them. If all that we spoke about was the duties of women, they would be ‘amening’ all the way. However, as soon as we speak forcefully and directly about the duties of men and husbands suddenly they will be complaining that we are ignoring the duties of their wives.

        God has given duties to wives, but he didn’t make husbands the enforcers of these duties, much as God didn’t make wives the enforcers of their husband’s duties. Our wives are God’s servants, not ours. They must ultimately answer to him, not to us.

  2. “We are responsible for controlling ourselves, even at times when we must learn to deal with difficult hormonal states in a self-controlled manner. We should not allow others to become victims of our inability to handle our states. That said, the behaviour of other people can make a big difference: they can make our struggle of self-control considerably easier, or they can unwittingly or even wilfully provoke us.”

    This.

    Frankly I think I ought to be able to walk down the street naked if I want to without fear of being raped. Don’t worry – I won’t be testing this theory! In that sense, I hold men ENTIRELY responsible for the management of their sexual desires.

    Where my responsibilty lies is in, as you say, behaving in a way that supports men in their quest, and doesn’t hinder them – to not cause a brother to stumble; to recognise that everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. With that in mind, it is my choice to dress and deport myself in such a way as to assist the men I know as they try to live celibate lives or monogamous ones, or as they try to bring the strongholds of their minds into submission, or resist pornography or whatever.

    What I find difficult, however, is managing my desire to look ‘nice’ with my desire to be ‘modest’. ‘Nice’ for me never involves knowingly wearing sexually provocative clothing, very low cut tops, very short skirts or whatever – or that new thing that seems to be the fashion where you wear a brightly-coloured bra under a sheer top – what is that about?! Sometimes I’m glad I’ve hit 40 and don’t have to bother with fashion any more🙂 But as you so eloquently point out in your post, a woman never really knows what it is that a man will be homing in on at any given moment! If I put make up on that accentuates my eyes? My lips? If I wear killer heels? If I wear a draped skirt that swirls about when I walk? Am I provoking a reaction in the men around me?

    And when I say I want to look ‘nice’, what does that mean? Who am I looking nice for? If it’s just for me then fair enough, but I think there are few women out there that would claim truly not to care whether other people think they look nice as well. Of course, ‘other people’ must include men. And why do I want other people to think I look nice? What reaction am I looking for? Of course I don’t want to be objectified or to be attacked, but I must clearly want people, including men, to look at me and approve, so in that sense I must be dressing to provoke some sort of reaction, even if my dress could be considered modest.

    So the issue of modesty, dress, deportment and desire is a very complex one which is perhaps why people get so wound up about it. Maybe I don’t really want to start thinking too deeply about what I’m doing when I dress up for an event, when I put make-up on, or wear a dress that skims my shape, or wear heels that make my legs look longer, so it’s easier just to shout loudly about how it’s all the fault of men. There can be no rules because every situation is different – there are times and situations when a woman can look breathtakingly attractive wearing a bin bag! To not deliberately dress to provoke is a start but after that, there just seem to be a lot of grey areas.

    • Thanks for these reflections, Suddenly Mummy. I always appreciate your input in the comments here.

      The fact that men are completely responsible for managing their desires and behaviour irrespective of the dress or behaviour of the women around them, really isn’t something that we can stress enough. Whatever responsibility women have in no way absolves men of this responsibility, being of a different nature and far more limited in its ends.

      The point that you raise about just how unclear the particulars of ‘modest’ dress can be (something that is especially the case for particular figures) is a very important one. My point in the post above was to focus on the principle of modesty. The particulars of modest dress can be a real minefield, which is one reason why I believe that it is important to take cognizance of the clarity of the principle, before we reflect upon the far more muddy reality of the particulars of the practice, distinguishing the acknowledgement of the former from the discernment of the latter. For various reasons, some of which might become apparent as I proceed, this way of approaching things can be helpful.

      The following are some general thoughts around this. I don’t think that anything that I am about to say cuts through the sorts of difficulties that we face in this area, but I think that they are some important principles that will serve to knock the problems down to a somewhat more manageable size.

      1. Women’s dress, for cultural and other reasons, is subject to constant judgment of one sort or another. On account of the nature of our society, whatever a woman wears will be perceived as meaningful in some manner, whether she means it to be perceived as such or not (this is a great illustration of that fact). And the meaning imputed will be inconsistent, often varying from culture to culture, context to context, observer to observer. This subjection to capricious judgment seems almost calculated to produce a sort of paranoia.

      And these problems are only exacerbated for women with certain figures.

      2. If we asked enough men what they find sexually provocative or attractive and made modesty laws on such a basis we would have to abolish women. Men easily confuse the fact that their lusts will make women their objects on almost any visual pretext with the belief that the women themselves are provoking their lusts.

      Men also often lack a good vocabulary for their desires and lusts. Consequently, a sense of a women’s beauty, or even of her sexual attraction can be confounded with lust, for instance. When this occurs, everything that might reveal the attractiveness of a woman becomes a problem and no distinction is drawn between such things and those behaviours and forms of dress that positively invite the lustful gaze. There is a huge difference between not comporting oneself in a manner that invites the gaze and ensuring that you dress in a manner in which the gaze could in no manner find any place to feed itself in looking at you. The latter really is quite an unreasonable expectation to make of women.

      3. As I pointed out in my comment above, there is a key distinction between expecting women not to incite or provoke men’s lusts and expecting them to manage them. Far too often, modesty culture has taken the second route.

      4. Much of our problem here lies in legalism. Legalism is the preferred camping ground of those who lack the maturity of wisdom and discernment and also of those who wish to escape the spirit of the law, provoking male lust as much as possible while remaining technically modest.

      Unfortunately, most people’s experience of ‘modesty’ is one of legalistic strictures, inconsistently applied, founded upon capricious judgments, in contexts where the actual spirit of modesty is often routinely neglected. It is my firm conviction that the prevalence of this legalistic form of modesty is one of the greatest problems that we face. Unsurprisingly, given the way that women are treated by such modesty culture, a significant number of them react against it.

      One of the problems in the area of modesty is that its primary area of application is to younger persons, persons who often lack the necessary knowledge and wisdom to make appropriate judgments. Consequently, people teach a set of external laws, rather than the Christian virtues that should drive behaviour in this area.

      My conviction is that we should really relax on the rules front and focus far more heavily upon identifying and fostering the positive virtues that we should be pursuing. Beyond some very basic ground rules, I believe that these are issues that we should leave with people’s consciences, which, rather than a set of rules, should be the primary driving force here.

      5. The teenage years are precisely the time when people need to learn further how to act in terms of deeper gospel principles, rather than legalistic rules, which is why modesty should be seen as a teaching opportunity. As part of this training, we need to teach teenagers how to develop the strength of conscience to resist victim-blaming, to know where their responsibility begins, and where it ends. This is perhaps one of the most important things of all: teaching young women to have robust consciences, that will neither offset their responsibility through the manipulation of technicalities, or be the victims of men’s attempts to offset their responsibilities.

      6. Most important of all is not a particular way of dressing, but women’s commitment to the virtue and godliness of the men around them. Once this is appreciated, there will be a lot more ‘give’ when it comes to the particulars of dress and a lot more slack can be cut for unwitting errors in this area. The particulars of dress are only a manifestation of something much deeper: the desire and commitment of the women around us to be the cheerleaders and encouragers of our best selves, never to exploit our weaknesses for their own selfish ends, never to reward our lust, and to believe in our capacity to be men of character and virtue. It is this, more than any rules, that will undermine a culture fuelled by lust. Laws by themselves can just invite a poisonous hypocrisy.

      • *sigh* Laws are so much easier to get along with aren’t they?! How comfortable it would be to relax into easy legalism. But in this area, as in every other, we find that the expectation upon is us so much greater than simply following a set of laws which, as you say, not only fail to address the issue, but positively invite rebellion.

        It is good to have honest conversation though. As other commenters have said, discussion of the experience of men is almost totally lacking in Christian circles. This saddens me because it means that not only do women not see where men are coming from (and therefore fail to help them get where they need to go) but, I believe, many men are confused about themselves as well, leading to guilt, shame, unrealistic expectations of marriage relationships, pornography etc. etc. I hope that somewhere (perhaps in men’s meetings) proper conversations are being had with young men about their sexual desires. I did love your point 5, by the way – can’t say I ever really tackled modesty properly during all my years of youth work and now I wish I had!

        One last, less serious thing . . . in recent years I have been introduced to the concept of ‘baby modest’. This is where clothes that seem completely demure when you’re trying them on in the shop, suddenly become anything but when a baby is added to them! All that bending down to pick them up, grabbing hands hanging off your neckline etc. etc. Quite a few of my clothes have been consigned to the back of the wardrobe on that account😀

      • Thanks for the follow-up comments!

        Yes, I am really thankful for the straightforward and honest yet friendly conversation that we are all having here. In my experience it really is rather rare. In such areas in particular, both of the sexes seem to lack much of an understanding of the other—men of the unreasonable demands that modesty culture can make on women and women of the character of male desire—which is why it is great to have contexts where we can hear each other’s viewpoints.

        Your point about the need for men to understand and learn how to grapple with their experience is also such an important one. Failures in this particular area prove so destructive for both men, women, and their relationships. There are discussions of these issues in some all-male contexts, but in my experience they are often shallow and really don’t provide men with the understanding or practical counsel with which to master their desires. Many of us just have to muddle out an understanding for ourselves.

        This is the first time that I have heard of ‘baby modest’. One learns something new every day!🙂

  3. As I mentioned on twitter, I appreciate your thoughts about the ‘all or nothing’ nature of much of these modesty discussions. I read a lot of the criticisms of the ‘Mrs Hall’ post and agreed with a little of it, but these same voices also loudly advocated that in Miley Cyrus’s exhibition at the VMAs she was just expressing her sexuality. Of course it is her ‘right’ to do so, but does that make it ‘right’ or admirable and do we really want to use our energies defending these kind of displays? (Especially when they are also racist) The idea that ANY suggestion that women dress (even in certain settings) with modesty contributes to ‘rape culture’ is bizarrely as fundamentalist as the opposite notion.

    One other thought I had was that I personally dress ‘modestly’ (ie not too flashy, not necessarily with no skin showing!) as much for other women as for men. I don’t really think about being a temptation to men but I don’t like to dress in ways that encourage constant comparison and competition with other women.

    I enjoyed this thought provoking post, Alastair.🙂

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Adele. Your point about comparison and competition is a very important one and worth reflecting further upon. It was actually brought to my mind yesterday when reading this piece, which deals with a feature of the body that most guys wouldn’t register, but which is apparently a source of great competition and comparison, and consequent insecurity, for many teenage girls.

  4. @ Alastair

    Another way to think about this would be quantitatively – degrees of modesty, rather than modest or not.

    It seems clear that reducing the degree of modesty carries benefits and also costs – and that these costs and benefits do not fall equally (some people or groups benefit from reduced levels of modesty at the expense of others) – and this also applies to the sexes and within the sexes.

    As a generalization, women benefit more from reducing levels of modesty than men, esepcially younger women rather than older, single rather than married, divorced rather than married.

    Among men, extravert, confident, promiscuous men benefit from reduced levels of modesty rather than the opposite.

    Institutionally, reducing modesty works against the institution of marriage, and in favour of other kinds of sexual arrangement.

    Reduced modesty benefits those who it benefits in the short term much more than the long term.

    And so on…

    All in all, it is easy to see why in today’s society, with todays rulers, there is a trend to reduced modesty.

    *

    Note – modesty is ambiguous as a term, since it seems to refer to uncovering the body. In fact nakedness is not the limit of reduced modesty – it is obvious that many forms of dress and self-presentation are much more lust provoking than total nakedness. What is at issue is something more like ‘signals of sexual availability, or sexual interest’.

    The typical style of dress for women (young and middle aged) out in the streets on evenings in Newcastle on Tyne (where I live) is essentially crafted to be a signal of sexual avaiability and sexual interest – and the women then ‘manage’ the … (ahem) ‘interest’ that these signals bring from (some) men.

    Of course the situation in Newcastle is much cruder and more obvious than in most places (fuelled by endemic binge drinking) – but it does repesent the situation wrt ‘modesty’ with stark clarity.

    • Thanks for the comments, Bruce.

      In some respects and contexts, speaking in terms of degrees of modesty, rather than in terms of a modest-immodest binary can be helpful. One of the important questions that should underlie our use of such descriptors, however, is whether we are applying them to a person’s physical appearance, detached from their intentionality, or whether we are speaking primarily about a person’s general way of comporting themselves in the world. The terms can often begin to gravitate to the former in an unhelpful manner.

      There is obviously a difference between our instinctual judgments of others on the basis of their appearance and the reality of their agency within the world. Many people look ‘modest’ without being at all modest. Likewise, many find it extremely difficult to look ‘modest’, while being exceptionally modest. This might be similar to the way that many men just don’t look ‘gentle’ and can be prejudged as threats on this basis, when they can be exceptionally tender-hearted when you get to know them. Likewise, many with ‘gentle’ faces can be quite vicious in character.

      Modesty requirements can often be akin to telling the former man to make sure that he looks gentle, rather than focusing on his responsibility to be gentle. Obviously, a gentle person will want to minimize the degree to which he is perceived to be threatening by others (and I am sure that struggling with being unfairly perceived or reacted to as threatening is a very common experience for us as guys), but he will also recognize that this is, to a large degree, something outside of his control. Others are primarily responsible for their perceptions.

      If we are using the term ‘modest’ to refer chiefly to someone’s virtuous exercising of their personal agency rather than to the way that their bodies appear, the language of ‘modest’ and ‘immodest’ will be used in rather different ways. Commitment to virtue, while not without a sort of quantitative dimension, is often something that we speak of in somewhat more absolute language.

      The cost and benefit aspects that you mention here are also worth reflecting upon. In addition to the things that you mention, I would add that there can be a prisoner’s dilemma character to the issues facing women here. An immodest woman in a more modest context can really take advantage and disadvantage others, which is one reason why cultural stigma and social consequences have often been so severe upon such persons.

      Knowing the nightlife in Newcastle by its national reputation and from occasional encounters with it as a non-participant, I know exactly what you are talking about! As you observe, there is typically an attempt to appeal powerfully to men’s basest desires and then manage those provoked lusts. A dangerous game.

      You speak of ‘signals of sexual availability or sexual interest’. I agree that those are things of crucial importance here. I also think that your point about modesty being about much more than the uncovering of the body is spot on. However, I think that there are other issues underlying modesty debates that are seldom addressed with much clarity.

      In particular, modesty culture is really less about managing ‘attractiveness’ per se than it is about managing particularly overt forms of sexual attractiveness. Many women can be stunningly beautiful and profoundly attractive, without being seen to provoke the sort of lust that is problematic here. It is not attractiveness as such but a particular quality of attractiveness—and not a quality that many women can simply turn on or off at will—that really is at issue here.

      We use different words to characterize women’s prepossessing appearances. Some women are elegant, others are pretty, cute, beautiful, handsome, graceful, shapely, sexy, etc. These terms attach themselves to different sorts of bodies and behaviours. ‘Handsome’, for instance, is a descriptor of a very particular type of attractive appearance and is not appropriate for every attractive woman.

      The problem that modesty culture is often trying to deal with is not so much the fact that women can be very attractive to men, but with particular qualitative forms of attraction. Certain incredibly beautiful women’s bodies are not really a problem for modesty culture. This isn’t because men don’t desire sexual relations with them, often considerably more than they would desire such relations with women whose bodies are a problem for modesty culture. Rather, it is because their profound attractiveness has less of an overtly sexual character. This isn’t simply about the degree of a woman’s attractiveness.

      Perhaps an analogy and some examples of what I mean here would help. This analogy needs to be kept very strictly within appropriate bounds, as the comparison that it suggests could be profoundly problematic when taken outside of them. Different objects of desire can evoke different forms of appetite in us and they can evoke these appetites in different ways. These forms of appetite vary in quality, so comparison purely in terms of degree or quantity alone can be unhelpful. It is less the degree of appetite that is often the problem than the quality of the appetite and the manner in which it is evoked.

      An analogy is the way that different foods can evoke appetites within us. Some foods mutely evoke our appetites as we look at them and imagine what it would be like to taste them. Others, however, hit us full bore with an arresting smell, like freshly baked bread, or with associated movements (the sensuous ‘drizzle’ of melted chocolate), sounds (the ‘sizzle’ of frying bacon), or other sensual features. Sometimes these features are purposefully elevated and foregrounded, as one finds in commercials for restaurants. However, in many cases they are very difficult to disguise. How does one cover up the scent of freshly baked bread? None of this means, of course, that these foods that powerfully arrest our senses on many levels are ultimately preferred by us to those that don’t, just that they evoke our appetites in different ways and that the former can be much more difficult to manage.

      And, in this one particular respect, there are similarities with the way that men’s sexual appetites can be evoked by women’s bodies. Some bodies evoke these sexual appetites in a far more overt and unavoidable manner, while others evoke those sexual appetites more with imaginative reflection upon them, requiring conscious activity on the part of the imagination, rather than seeming to hit it unbidden. It is those bodies that are far more overt in the sexual quality of their attractiveness that are problematic for modesty culture.

      If we want to get to particulars, we might list such details as long and vibrant unbound hair, heavy eyes, prominent lips, a larger bosom, a pronounced hip to waist ratio, a hip-swinging gait, etc. Such features of appearance can be far more intrusive upon a male’s attention, even when the woman in question is less desired than another for whom these features aren’t anywhere near as pronounced. While with many sorts of female bodies, a man has a lot more power over whether and how he chooses to look or to imagine, with some sorts of bodies he really has to struggle not to.

      Now, in most of these cases, while a woman can tone down or somewhat disguise the overtness of these features, she really can’t just turn them off. An example of this difference might be that between Keira Knightley and Kim Kardashian. While many of us would find Keira Knightley much more attractive than Kim Kardashian, Kim’s body hits our attention in a rather different way. Keira’s body won’t be such a problem for modesty culture to handle, not because she is less attractive but because her body much less overtly and immediately evokes heavily sexual appetites in men. It is also much easier for most of us to look at someone like Keira and admire her beauty in a chaste manner without trying to avoid being derailed by assessing her appearance (positively or negatively) on a more sexual register than to do the same for Kim, even when Kim is not at all our ‘type’. It is this fact that makes ‘modesty culture’ a huge burden for some women in particular, who have much less power over the lustful character of the male attraction that their bodies will, through no choice of their own, fairly naturally draw to themselves.

  5. Two small points-modesty is one of the Catholic minor virtues and it comes from humility. Humility does not draw attention nor cause distress.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marie. One of the things that I really think that ‘modesty’ debates could really benefit from—something I remarked upon in this post—is discussing modesty in terms of a deeper and more integrated account of Christian virtues, rather than as a detached and legalistic set of requirements. The more integrated vision that Catholic theology often brings to the moral life can be especially helpful at points like this.

      One of the other benefits that this more integrated account will give is that it will show that modesty and its underlying virtues are not things that are exclusively or even particularly to be applied to women, but that they are no less needed for men, although the manifestations of them will typically take somewhat different forms and emphases.

    • By the way, can I also take this opportunity to say that I have really enjoyed following your blog over the last while! You are one of the most prolific posters that I know.🙂

  6. Caned Crusader says:

    This is a very good post. I especially appreciate the honest description of male sexual desire. I think evangelical Christians really have a problem discussing this in a nuanced way as much or more so as that of women’s modesty and sexual comportment. The involuntary character of what you describe; the sense of danger and the requirement of mastery; the reoccurring wish that would all just “go away”; these are all things that i, and many other guys, have experienced. I think because American Christians are not quite sure how to be blunt about these characteristics while maitaining appropriate discretion, many guys can get discouraged. There is, in some contexts, implicit shaming of those who have not completely mastered their sexual desire though they are trying. This is not, of course, to excuse sin. Instead, we need to be aware of the shame that comes with the kind of sexual desire a “typical” male often feels. The grace of Christ in the Gospel supported by a CHristian community that engages in full-orbed Christian practice is really the only way to integrate all of these things in a healthy way.

    If I had a question, it would’nt be so much modesty-related. It would be: Is there a way we can look at the characteristics of male desire described above in a positive light? must those characteristics simply be suppressed (a bad idea, to my mind) or can they be integrated into a larger parctice of Christian virtue in a specific rather than general sense? (By that I mean addressing the specifically masculine in sexual desire rather than sexual ethics in general.)

    • Really important question, Caned Crusader.

      I am not sure that I could give a comprehensive answer without much more reflection on the subject. However, here are a few thoughts.

      Male sexuality is very much part of the broader male condition. For many—quite probably most—of us as men, our sexual desire is often experienced as a drive with an intense urgency and force, something that really won’t soon leave us alone unless we find release from the pent-up pressure somehow. Our sexual desire is also outward-focused, insistent, and aggressive.

      In my experience, at least, this sexual desire cannot easily be detached from broader existential masculine drives and the way that we handle it has knock on effects for the way that we experience and relate to those other drives and vice versa. It is hard to deal effectively with the force of our sexual desire unless we are throwing our energy into other outward-oriented, forceful drives. On the other hand, if we allow our sexual drives to overcome us, we may begin to lose drive in other areas.

      Our need for release, then, should be interpreted as a more general imperative to find an outlet for all of the pent-up drives within us to escape. While sexual outlets typically present themselves most immediately, the drives that press us towards such outlets become considerably more manageable when they are giving healthy and godly outlets, outlets that need not be sexual in character.

      Our desire can feel as though someone had slammed their foot onto the accelerator of our bodies, heading straight for the wall of sexual sin. We can’t remove the foot from the accelerator, but we can redirect it. And one of the benefits of this is that, handled well, it gives urgency, intensity, and force to our being in the world.

      You ask about the way that we should look at these male drives in a positive way. I think that this is where we find an answer. These insistent and aggressive sexual desires are an expression of the force of a distinctively masculine form of drive. Masculinity has this drive at its heart, a drive which, in its essence, is incredibly important and empowering. Masculinity focuses upon outward-driven agency. If we can master the drives that come with masculinity and direct them in a healthy way, they will empower and thrust us out into the world, pushing us towards more empowered action. It is these drives that can make us especially assertive, pioneering, inventive, forceful, entrepreneurial, ground-breaking, socially outgoing, initiating, creative, etc. The untamed force in our chest will prove to be our greatest ally if we are capable of mastering it.

      Of course, frustration is the greatest problem that we will face in these areas. The danger of succumbing to sexual sin is greatest when we are frustrated, tired, or depressed, those times when we lack the will to steer our drives, or a sense of an outlet where they could find release. Lust is what happens when unmastered and undisciplined drives start to master us. Consequently, we need to ensure that we keep outlets open and open up new ones whenever we can.

      It is actually interesting to see these issues lying behind a number of discussions, but never truly being identified. For instance, occasionally one encounters debates about the morality of masturbation in Christian circles. Something that I immediately observe reading various accounts, but which is seldom if ever flagged up, is the fact that masturbation and the sexual desire that relates to it seem to have a rather different character for men and women. As a result, a ‘one size fits all’ analysis of masturbation doesn’t adequately do justice to the widespread areas of difference between men and women, differences that I am surprised that few seem to pick up upon.

      Female masturbation is typically spoken of more in terms of a relationship with oneself and one’s body, as a more self-oriented act, ‘exploring one’s body’, discovering sensations, imagining what it would feel like to be intensely desired, etc. and characterized by a lower level of urgency. Male masturbation, by contrast, is more typically spoken of in terms of an insistent need or compulsion for release. It is not a self-oriented act to the same degree, but typically depends upon an external fantasized prop, typically pornographic, and is very difficult to extricate from lust. Given the differences between male and female desire, masturbation poses different dangers for each (whether and to what degree masturbation is permissible is a debate for another day: my point here is that it has its dangers). For men—whose masturbation is by far the more problematic, I believe—drive towards a fantasy world and fantasized women can substitute for the actual world and actual women and weaken their masculine drive and have a toxic effect upon their relationship to these things. For women, the dangers lie more in the direction of a sort of self-involved or narcissistic solipsism that screens out rather than substitutes for—as male masturbation does—the other. These different pathologies of desire relate to natural differences between male and female desire, the former being more typically aggressive and outward-driving and the latter more typically receptive and inward-drawing.

      The issue that you raise here obviously deserves a much fuller treatment than I have provided here, but these are some of the thoughts that would inform my approach.

  7. Pingback: Further Discussion of Modesty | Alastair's Adversaria

  8. I agree with you Alastair. Many so called modern parents do not realise they are setting their children up for a fall by buying them mini editions of adult clothing from infancy. Princess for a day – – Birthday Party attire is fine . However, the sales of many styles will set many a girl and boy up for temptations, behaviours, and vulnerability that will probably threaten their innocence and overall spiritual, bodily and emotional health in long term.

    • Thanks for the comment. One of the issues that your comment raises is the socialization of girls into a sort of immodesty from a very early age. This hasn’t really been addressed to this point in the discussion here, so I am thankful that you have added it to the mix.

      Modesty is often spoken of in terms of the protection of men from lust, as it is discussed here. However, it is also no less the protection of vulnerable young girls from the danger of making their identity and personal worth dependent upon their sexual attractiveness to men. Perhaps one of the greatest ways to pursue a modest society is to raise girls with a very robust sense of their personal worth, one that can’t easily be swayed or undermined by the way that men speak of, relate to, or treat them.

      This requires such things as committed parents who stay together, the personal affirmation of loving fathers as primary male examples, the celebration of girls’ strengths, abilities, and talents, and the establishment of contexts and activities for girls’ socialization among their peers in contexts away from males.

  9. Caitlin says:

    I was really intrigued by this piece, but especially the last paragraph of your comment to “e.”

    “So, for instance, the husband should be able to trace in the lines of his wife’s face the laughter and sorrow that they have shared and borne together. In her stretch-marked belly and drooping breasts, he should see the beauty of the bodily sacrifices that she made in order to bring about the life and love of a family. In her greying hair he should read the beauty of the changing seasons of a life lived together. The body of such a woman has become a body rich with memory and while the mode of such responses to it will change, should be greeted with no less honour, desire, and delight than that which it received in its youthful flowering of beauty.”

    As a single woman in my early 20s it’s so easy to spend a lot of time worrying about my appearance and having a innate fear that I won’t find anyone who wants to marry me because I do not match the criteria for what is deemed “the perfect woman” in society. (I am completely aware of how dangerous that lie is, and work daily to combat it.) But I had to say that your comment just gave me so much hope and encouragement. It’s a sentiment that I wish was spoken more often. So many girls struggle with body image that it’s so easy for us, or me in this case, to not really understand how beautiful we are simply because we were made in God’s image.

    I really enjoyed this piece, thank you for taking the time to write it.

  10. Andrew White says:

    This is one of the better discussions of the male relationship to female modesty that I have seen, but I think it misses an important feature in the discussion.

    Clothes make a statement. Policemen, soldiers and sportsmen wear uniforms, do identify who they are and what they do. Businessmen don’t wear a uniform, but they dress to make a statement. Even dressing to not make a statement makes a statement (“don’t mind me; I’m not a big deal”).

    So in one sense, it’s very simple. If you don’t want to be treated like that, don’t wear the uniform. If you don’t want to be treated as a policeman, don’t dress like a policeman. If you don’t want to be treated as a bum, don’t dress like a bum. If you don’t want to be treated as a shop assistant, don’t dress like a shop assistant. If you don’t want to be treated as a sex object, don’t dress as a sex object. And at some point, “I didn’t think of it like that; I just wanted to look like everyone else” doesn’t cut it.

    That said, adults also need to take responsibility for their own behaviour. When faced with someone falsely dressed as a policeman, the wise man says “You’re not a policeman; go put some appropriate clothes on”. He doesn’t play along as if it absolved him of responsibility.

    Finally, note that modesty in scripture is not just sexual. It’s also about not showing off or being hypocritical in our dress and mannerisms. Jesus calls out the Pharisees for dressing immodestly, with long flowing robes and tassels. They are not sexually immodest, but spiritually immodest, parading their piety in their dress.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      I think that most people in these debates will agree that there are some clothes that are clearly and universally immodest and that these clothes can be like ‘uniforms’. However, in most of the cases that trouble us, there isn’t such a clear ‘uniform’.

      The problems arise when we consider such facts as:

      a) The same clothes can appear perfectly modest on one body but not on another. A curvy figure is much more difficult to dress ‘modestly’ than a more boyish frame. The body is the ‘problem’ here, not the ‘uniform’. Even when covered up, men will still have an urge to look with lust at a very shapely body. Men routinely make judgments based upon features of women’s bodies. Longer blonde hair? Attractive but dim. Big breasts? She’s obviously very sexual and probably easy.

      b) Women’s clothing is freighted with a degree of judgment-encouraging meaning that few men grasp. Women can’t really wear ‘neutral’ clothing in the way that men can. While a casual set of clothing and shirt, tie, and smart suit could get us by in most situations between them, women can have to make a bewildering range of choices in these areas. Suits are fairly uniform and don’t invite a wide range of different judgments on appearance: one suit isn’t that significantly different from another. By contrast, women’s dresses vary hugely, each being a different way of articulating and presenting a woman’s individual figure and appearance. As each woman is expected to dress her individual body in an individual way and can’t just adopt a set uniform, she is seen to have a vastly greater degree of responsibility for the way that she appears to others. Every detail can be judged.

      As male dress is fairly standard, unless we are exceptionally showy in our dress, we don’t have to deal with many judgments that arise from every presumed decision that the myriad variations of a woman’s dress invite (‘that dress looks rather matronly,’ ‘she really shouldn’t be wearing that with hips like hers,’ ‘why is so showing so much/little of her neckline?,’ ‘she’s really going for the 50s housewife look,’ ‘wow, that looks so frumpy,’ ‘she really should be wearing something more understated: she really is so self-absorbed,’ ‘doesn’t she realize that that sort of business clothing is just so harsh and unflattering?,’ ‘that baggy and shapeless clothing really looks terrible on her,’ ‘she’s showing far too many curves in that dress,’ ‘did she really think that she would get away with such a dress at a classy event like this?,’ etc., etc.). Just read the columns discussing women celebrities’ clothing choices after every awards show. All of this can leave women walking a tightrope. They have to wear attractive and shapely clothing, but they shouldn’t show too many curves. They need to show some skin to look feminine and beautiful, but if they show a little too much they are slutty. Any look that they adopt comes bundled with judgments. Dress in classic 50s clothing and you will often be regarded as a very particular type of woman, for instance. They need to take care to look beautiful, but shouldn’t be seen to take too much care. And what people expect from their appearance—an unverbalized and constantly shifting set of implicit demands—changes significantly from context to context.

      If women had a ‘uniform’ it would be so much easier for them when it came to modesty requirements. They could just put on the modest uniform and be done with judgments. However, they don’t have such a uniform, so everything that they wear will be judged. One step wrong on the tightrope and they will fall into an pit of harsh judgments.

      c) As it is all too often articulated, modesty focuses upon the reactions that certain bodies evoke in the viewer. And these reactions can vary wildly from viewer to viewer. Also, these reactions are to a large degree out of the control of the person seeking to be modest. As I pointed out in a previous comment, certain bodies, through not intention or fault of their owners, evoke sexual thoughts in men far more than others. It is hard to wear an appropriate ‘uniform’ when the criteria for the correct one depend upon judgments that lie hidden in the minds of unknown viewers.

      I have compared this to demanding that men appear in a way that looks gentle and non-threatening. Many men cannot help but appear threatening, especially given many women’s fears. I think that many of us have experienced on at least a few occasions women’s unease in having us around kids or having us walking on the same quiet street as them at night, simply because we are males. No matter how gentle and good we know that we are and how non-threatening we seek to appear, some people will react this way, simply because we look masculine.

      There comes a point when we have to recognize that we can’t take much responsibility for people’s reactions to our appearance. We seek to make allowances for these often entirely understandable fears, ensuring that we are very open in our body language, that we make non-threatening signs, that we welcome and invite supervision, that we keep as much distance as possible, that we cross the street, etc. However, we cannot take responsibility for causing reactions that are really out of our control.

      Your final remark is a very important one. I dealt with this in more detail in my previous post on the subject.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  11. Andrew White says:

    I completely agree that we can’t ultimately take responsibility for how others view us. In fact, that’s what I was angling at and failed to say clearly, so let me try again:

    The focus of modesty in dress should not be on how we are perceived by others, but on the statements we are making about ourselves. Now, this being a conversation, we need to think about what is heard. If I claim that I am a carrot, it’s disgenuous to say that I’m actually claiming to be a scholar, because that’s not an attribute that anyone in our culture associates with carrots. However, I should refrain from making the claim not because you might take it the wrong way, but because it demeans me.

    The corollary to this conversation is whose values you are going to adopt. The great lie of our age is that you can “be your own person”. You can’t. It is the nature of humanity to identify with and follow something. Those who follow no one are ripe to be exploited by anyone so inclined.

    To call someone a “prude” is a dangerous accusation. It is the claim that you are wiser than established wisdom. Now, this might be true, but you better have something weightier than “me” on your side. Christ, and Paul & the Apostles after him, stand against the social order of their day, but they do so in the basis that they are submitting to and leading in a greater social order – calling people back to God’s way. Wilberforce rose up against the social order of his day, but again it was to call people back to right practice. If you must disconform to those around you, be very clear what you are conforming to. Your principled stand is only as worthy as the one for whose principles you are standing. “Me” is very popular today, but is a frankly unimpressive starting point, and one that leaves you ripe to be used by the unscrupulous

  12. Pingback: The Modesty Debates: Combating Unilateralism and Myths of Strength | Alastair's Adversaria

  13. Kamilla says:

    Alastair,

    I think Marie hit upon a key concept that is missing from both sexes in many of these discussions — humility. To make another Catholc reference, I highly recommend this post:

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/pat-archbold/the-death-of-pretty

    There is also a gaping chasm in these discussions which many refuse to bridge and I think humility creates that bridge. We too often forget that modesty requires both an inward disposition and outward signs that grow together in synergy. The outward signs aid the inward disposition and vice versa. Humility, prettiness may be more helpful concepts than even beauty which has been corrupted and are certainly more helpful than hotness or fashionable.

    I hope you don’t mind if I skirt the edges of a legalism charge, but we are in deep, deep trouble when we can’t even approach saying certain forms of dress should be forbidden in church/worship services. I’ll leave discussions of two-pieces verses one-piece swimming suits at the beach aside🙂 but when I see all of these in church:

    – clothing so tight and see-thru it reveals the shape and color of undergarments
    – cleavage on obvious display (and not accidentally when bending over)
    – bare backs and halter tops
    – bare midriffs
    – twice as much thigh showing as covered

    It’s long past time we get over our fear of being called legalistic Pharisees and encourage our pastors to say SOMETHING. Honestly. One Sunday we had a girl narrating the skit on youth Sunday who had so much midriff showing it would have embarrassed Miss Cyrus. I saw men pointedly look away whenever she came to the front. Praise God we had some men with more sense than the youth pastor! When we are encouraging young women to display themselves in such a manner, it’s no wonder they worry about things as ridiculous as a “thigh gap”!

    I know that violates the spirit of this discussion so far, so let me close on a different note:

    I’ve long wanted to explore the connection between appetite and health. I think you mentioned in the comments above something about the way certain foods evoke the appetite. Yes! I’m sure most of us have has the e perirnce of sitting down with a large bag of crisps/chips and, meaning to take just one handful, we end up consuming the entire bag. But when was the last time we consumed an entire bunch of carrots in one sitting? The Good, the True, the Beautiful satisfy in ways that junk never can. That’s why we excessively consume junk (food, visual stimulation, etc.), because it can never be enough to satisfy. It never sates. But we’ve been taught to desire the junk, it’s readily available and easy to consume, requiring little or no effort on our part.

    It’s something worth exploring, I think.

    • Thank you for the comment, Kamilla!

      A few thoughts in response:

      1. Your point about a ‘synergy’ between ‘an inward disposition and outward signs’ is a very important one. The focus and accent that I want to place upon the inward disposition isn’t a denial of the importance of the outward signs, but a changing of our orientation towards these and a rejection of approaches that are overwhelmingly preoccupied with them. The inward disposition must always take priority, but never to the neglect of the outward manifestations of modesty.

      2. I think that it would be great to see a cultural recovery of prettiness. However, as I suggested in an earlier comment, ‘prettiness’ is a particular form of beauty, and not the only form. The article that you link to refers to it as a sort of ‘beauty and projected innocence.’ In order to be ‘pretty’ a muting of a person’s sexuality is necessary.

      The problem with this is that many, many women don’t have the luxury of being able to ‘project innocence’, much as many men don’t have the luxury of being able to ‘project non-threatening gentleness’. A significant number of men, no matter how a woman acts or dresses, will interpret larger breasts, for instance, as projected sexuality and will view the character of the woman accordingly. Such women cannot be viewed as ‘pretty’ without a radical cultural change occurring in the way that we frame women’s bodies (and even then it would be difficult).

      The signals that someone is trying to project, the signals that they are actually projecting, the signals that are being looked for, and the signals that are actually being received are four rather different things. My concern is that, in talking about ‘projected innocence’ we risk simplistically conflating them, failing to recognize just how much these things can be out of women’s power, failing to recognize just how much of a responsibility men have to seek to look at women differently, and to recognize just how important broader cultural framing is as part of this. A great deal of the responsibility lies less with the person being beheld than with the lustful eye of the beholder. Within a sexualized society, a society which teaches us to look lustfully, even virginity and modesty can start to carry sexual undertones.

      3. Much of this ties in with points that I made in my follow-up post: change must be ecological, rather than focusing upon a single factor. There are many reasons why modesty is ailing in many Christian contexts and girls and women aren’t directly responsible for very many of them. If we want to celebrate and practice modesty we really need to change things on many levels. We need to give young women a stronger sense of their worth, that isn’t dependent upon their bodies conforming to a cultural ideal of sexiness. We need to teach young men ways to deal with their desires and give them a sense of their responsibility to treat women with respect. We need to encourage healthier forms of interaction between the sexes and the formation of the church as a distinct and holy culture, set apart by the sorts of things that it takes delight in (rather than just a sanitized simulacrum of the surrounding culture or an uncritical indulgence in it).

      Are pastors really the best people to address this and is the pulpit the best place to do it? It seems to me that this sort of direct approach that particularly singles out young women for their dress—because their immodest dress is visible, while the lust of the young men looking at them is less so—is likely to backfire. A focus on the most visible symptoms is probably not the best way to tackle the underlying disease, though. Many of these young women are very vulnerable and naïve and, gently, lovingly, and discreetly dealt with, the problem of their immodest dress could be addressed quite a lot more effectively. The way that they dress is often an attempt to get something that they need in the way that the surrounding culture has taught them to get it. Treating them with love and respect—less as problems to be solved and more as vulnerable persons to be kindly shepherded—I think that more of a meaningful difference could be made.

      4. The genuine dangers of legalism do not mean that it is inappropriate to place prudential limits upon people’s dress and behaviour, limits designed to encourage and express a cultural commitment to important virtues. These limits are not designed to substitute for the formation of character but to provide training wheels during its development and guardrails when it is absent or insufficient. Such things need to be handled with incredible care, though. They can easily lead us in the direction of a form of Christian faith that is more interested in policing our neighbour than in loving them as ourselves and in which rule-based morality substitutes for a gospel ethos.

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  15. Pingback: Alastair on Modesty | Everyone's Entitled to Joe's Opinion

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