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 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.