I was about 12 years old the first time someone told me that my body could make other people “stumble.”
12 years old!!
Some of the first adult conversations I heard about sexuality were about how much potential my developing body had for making men sin. And it was my job to make sure they didn’t
- or at least to prove that I was putting in incredible effort. These conversations came from people in church programs I was involved in.
I’m being very vulnerable in sharing this, so if it sounds like I’m exaggerating, please know that I’m really not. I’m being incredibly honest.
This post is about to get very “Christian-y”. If you didn’t grow up in church, like me, you may not relate to any of this. I want to be very clear, for everyone reading this who is not a Bible-believing Christian like myself - the practices that I’m speaking out about today are not the reflection of Jesus. They are human teachings.
I grew up immersed in church culture, and I know and love many wonderful people from it.
But I am going to point out a very problematic practice that the church has been teaching, because it’s causing a lot of harm.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard about the importance of modesty throughout my life. Countless times.
And when I say countless, I really mean countless. In church pulpits, retreats, seminars, conferences, Bible studies, books, videos, and regular conversations.
There were some who argued that women should be able to wear whatever they please, because they are free in Christ and have no restraints. People on this side of the argument were labeled inconsiderate to their struggling brothers in Christ, and abusive of their freedoms.
The other side believed that women ought to wear specific types of clothing to conceal themselves properly, in order to be holy and godly. People on this side of the argument were labeled “old fashioned” but they didn’t seem to mind too much. Biblical truth is timeless, after all!
I admire the courage of those, on both sides of this argument, who have worked hard to follow what they truly believe is right. That takes guts, especially when one's reputation is on the line! And in this argument, it usually was.
But let’s take a look at what this modesty argument is actually about.
I am going to break down the key ideas behind the belief that cries for the necessity of modesty, and briefly touch on the effects it has on both women and men.
Modesty, in this argument, is intended as a safeguard against lust.
And let’s be clear: the lust in question is the lust of men and boys. Quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of talk about women’s sex drives or their potential struggle with lust.
All of us preteens, teens, and adults were taught about how severely men struggled with lust, and since boobs, midriffs and shapely butts are "enticing", covering women’s bodies more carefully was meant to prevent men from seeing things that they could lust after.
But we need to understand something very important . . . .
Lust Is a Heart Issue.
There seems to be an idea floating around that if a man looks at a woman’s body and finds it attractive, or has any semblance of a physical, hormonal response, that is necessarily going to lead to lust. The struggle his mind will go through to avoid objectifying this attractive woman will nearly always be too much for him to handle. And it's just the way he is made.
That is not accurate.
Attraction is not lust. Men can see a woman’s body and not objectify it - seeing her as a whole person, worthy of respect, not just body parts. And men are not helpless against temptation.
Lust is defined as an intense sexual desire, an uncontrolled sexual appetite, or a passionate craving. And even though it’s most often used in a sexual context, it’s not technically limited to sex.
There is a difference between noticing and lusting, and lusting is not a given result of hormones, that we must expect from men. I highly recommend Sheila Wray Gregoire and her husband, Keith Gregoire’s articles on this topic! You can read them here and here.
The poster verse in the crusade for modesty in churches regarding lust is Matthew 5:28:
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It’s important to note that it does not say, “anyone who looks at a woman” has committed adultery with her, or even "anyone who finds a woman attractive" has committed adultery with her.
It says, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully” has committed adultery with her in his heart.
Anyone who looks at her with a passionate craving… an uncontrolled sexual appetite.
Lust implies intent of the heart.
And if the issue in question is a man’s lustful intention, shouldn’t the most important step be to work on healthy growth in the heart of this man?
You would think. But instead….
Modesty is placed (literally) on the shoulders of women.
Even though lust is a heart issue, it’s a woman’s appearance that is prioritized to change. She must cover her body well enough to avert his eyes, so that he will not be overcome with distraction by her womanly features.
Not only does this do about as much to help a lustful heart as putting a band-aid on an infection, it also encourages the lie that says a man can’t win this fight, and he will always be lustful.
The greatest urgency should be placed on treating the underlying issue. Which, by the way, is not God’s beautifully designed creation (a woman’s body).
A woman’s body was never the problem. Lustful intent was always the problem.
By placing such great urgency on women’s modesty to prevent lust, we are distracting men from the truth - that they are not doomed to lust, that women’s bodies are meant to look the way they do (and it’s good) and that they are fully responsible for the intentions of their own hearts.
Not only are we doing men a disservice with this message, we must also realize that...
Modesty as a prioritized treatment for men’s lust is hurting women.
What type of message are we sending to a woman when we tell her that she needs to hide the shape of her body because it’s making men sin?
We’re sending the message that, somehow, she is dangerous to men, just by existing; just for being the way that God made her. She can do literally nothing and “make someone stumble”.
If she doesn’t hide herself properly, people will sin because of her body.
And we’re not talking about just covering private parts to be modest. Even her midriff should be hidden, much of her body shape, even her shoulders, or anything above the knee.
In other words, almost her entire body!
No wonder so many “good Christian girls” feel so much shame and awkwardness about their bodies. They don’t want to make someone sin, but they’re getting the message that people are sinning because of them anyway - not because of any actual involvement on their part, but because of how God shaped them.
This is very different from what we see in Scripture about women who are held responsible for leading men astray. Their seduction was in their speech, and in their idol worship.
I wish I could say that you weren’t fooling many girls when you tell them that they are wonderfully made by God, and then turn around and tell them that their looks are “making men stumble”. But, unfortunately, you are. And it’s a big problem. Because the strongest message they’re getting, by far, is not that they are beautifully and wonderfully made. It’s that the way that they’re made needs to be hidden, because something about it is dangerous.
You’re hurting women and girls when you give them this message.
I’ve heard cry after cry from people in the church, urging girls to dress modestly so they don’t hurt their brothers in Christ, without thought to how they’re hurting these sisters in Christ. As if they weren’t placing an enormous burden on their shoulders.
Do these women not already have burdens of their own? Why do we believe it’s more important to increase her burden, and add to her own, personal heart struggles, than to address the real issue that a man is dealing with in his own heart?
It’s not more important. And we need to start recognizing that.
We need a change in treatment!
If lust is a heart issue in men (honestly, lust is a human struggle, not just a man's), it makes sense that men’s hearts would be where treatment is applied first and foremost. But, sadly, that’s not what has been happening.
Men deserve better than this. Men need better than this!
And women do too.
Men - you are not doomed to lust!
Women - you are not dangerous!
All the modest clothing in the world will never treat a lustful heart, and if we don’t come to terms with that fact, we will continue to keep both men and women in bondage. Women’s bodies are not the problem.
Women were not meant to hide, and men were not meant to be “shielded” from them.
Did you grow up with this type of modesty culture, or was your experience very different? I would love to hear your story, and I know others can benefit from it as well!