If like me you went to a great youth group with a healthy focus on the Bible and blood sports, you would occasionally, at a camp say, have been divided up along gender lines to talk about sex and related issues.
From what I understand of it, the guys were told the dangers of porn, and we ladies discussed ‘modesty in dress’.
It turns out this usually boiled down to “don’t dress like a slut, it’s unhelpful for the boys because they are visually stimulated.”
Now I’m the first to agree that tiny shorts, midriff tops and visible bras cause problems, but there were three things about this spiel that irked me.
1. If the boys were visually stimulated, that just meant our basic assumption was right all along – they just like hot girls, so there’s no point tending your ‘gentle and quiet spirit’, just accept the fact you’ll die a lonely virgin cos they don’t want none of what you got. I’ve never had a guy reveal they were tempted by someone’s godly character!
2. Why do we have to be in charge of patrolling male sexuality?! If they don’t like what they see, they can just close their eyes!! We have to look at them with their tops off every time they play soccer, why should we have to dress certain ways while they get away with showing their underpants? (This was the 90s…)
Later, this second issue just became more complicated as I realised that literally, a woman could wear a sack and be attractive to a man. There are still sexual assaults in countries where burka, hijab and abaya are required wearing, and as criminologists explain, rapists don’t attack women because they’re wearing short skirts, but they select women who look vulnerable and less likely to fight back or resist. The “she deserved it, look how she dressed” rubbish is just a myth…
Guys might be visually stimulated, but it seems that no matter what women wear, it doesn’t prevent them from viewing us sexually. So do the width of the straps on my tank top really matter? Are they what makes the difference to a guy viewing me sexually?
And why should women bear the responsibility for male sexual temptation, and thus the blame, guilt and shame if it transgresses boundaries? Society has been lumping women with the shame of inappropriate sex since, well, Eden, and the church Fathers didn’t help, calling women the gateway to hell and other similar, friendly terms, simply because we have soft bodies…
I’m not really on board with this being reinforced from youth group onwards!
3. So given that I don’t think any individual needs to police the sexuality of those around them, and a persistent hunch that maybe, just maybe, there are some guys in the world that don’t just like women for their good looks, why do I find myself experiencing a teensy bit of shock when one of the women in my college walks about freely in a dress so short that if she leans over I can see her tighty whiteys? Why am I disgusted by that woman I saw at the show last week whose shorts were so short and loose, I and the rest of the world could actually see almost her entire butt (I was trying to eat! I didn’t want someone’s arse in my face!!)? I try not to be repelled, but the anxiety of waiting to see when the underwear of the person sitting next to me will next reveal it’s presence (or lack of), and I see more of their actual genitalia than I think even they would be comfortable with, I ask myself this: why do I have such a problem with this? And what can I do about it? Given the above objections, what am I now to think?
If I don’t want to tell the lovely Christian women at my college that they should wear longer dresses just so that men are not uncomfortable, what can I tell them instead? Have I no right to be shocked or anxious for them? Are there any principals that should guide how women dress? Is there a way to honour Jesus in our clothing?
Well putting the idea of “don’t dress like a ho” aside for a minute, I’ve realised three things.
1. The oft quoted Bible passage on this topic, 1 Timothy 2:9-10 is speaking to a culture where women were usually almost fully covered, often veiled (and rarely allowed out of the house!!), and thus ‘modesty and decency’ are related to not flashing an actual-diamond manicure, $1,000 purse, or, frankly, cheaper but still expensively immodest clothes, and to instead, dress in good deeds. It’s not about not getting your boobs out, but about the cost of your attire. So, wouldn’t it be great if we thought about that aspect of that passage (and it’s sister passage, 1 Peter 3:3ff) for once?
2. The reason I am irked by the flashing element of a lot of clothing young people wear these days is that I have this weird idea that women aren’t designed simply for sitting still and looking pretty. I believe genitals are for private, personal, intimate viewing, and so, if I’m off to the shops, or giving a lecture, or preparing even just to head into the office, if, in short, I’m a woman actively participating in the world, I want to be able to carry my bags, open doors, assemble my notes, grab the handle in the bus, walk in the park, order my lunch, discipline a student, without private time suddenly becoming public space because I moved my arms a tiny bit.
Most of the women under 25 at my church and in my college frequently wear skirts and dresses so short they can either choose never to move (preferably standing position, because sitting down would require the exposure of the butt), or to flash parts of their body they probably don’t need their minister, or my dad to see. Which leads me to…
3. This clothing is designed for tiny little thin people. I’m not super old, I’m only 28, I could wear similar clothes to what 3rd year uni students wear and still get away with it age wise. But being fat and stocky, if I wear anything as short as they do, you wouldn’t just see underpants, you’d see cellulite.
I’m thinking, one night, of turning up to Community Dinner at college and giving the announcements in a dress as short as many of theirs.
I wonder how that would go down?
I’m sure once the retching stopped, there’d just be a bit of nervous giggling, because it’s soooooooo obvious that I’m not supposed to wear what they can wear with ease because they are thin enough to be pretty, and I’m not.
No wonder they wear the lie that their role is simply as immovable clothes horses, free advertising for brands, and fodder for the male gaze.
No wonder my wonderful youth leaders wanted us to wear something else, anything else, instead of believing the teenage desire to appear hott and sexually available was a credo for life.
I don’t think women need to cover up fully to honour Jesus, mostly because frumpy doesn’t work either in stemming the tide of male sexual desire! It’s not about turning guys on, it’s about recognising He gave us legs to walk with, bodies to dance with, lips to speak with and eyes to see with, and wants us to do something with them – ie, be so busy clothing ourselves with good deeds, we don’t have the time, inclination or cash to dress immodestly…
I just think we should think about what our culture is trying to tell us about female self-worth and it’s correlation to hottness. And ponder instead where else we can focus our God-given energy.
*edit This video provides some excellent food for thought on the issue of sexualisation and modesty – I want to make it clear I think it’s a reality, just not immodesty-provokes-rape. Immodesty can provoke men thinking of you as a tool though!!