On Modesty and Moving the Bar

Some time back I posted a picture of two men leering at two women in burkas. For me, this picture emphasized something I had been thinking for a long time: imposing new stricter standards of modesty just moves the bar, and once that standard becomes the new norm, the bar must be moved again.

Because of how they are wired, there is no way to stop (heterosexual) men from finding women sexually attractive, or to stop them from appreciating that sexual attractiveness. Even a burka won’t stop it. I remember when I was still an undergrad, and dating the man I would go on to marry. We were talking about modesty, and I was trying to make him understand why it was so important. Finally I pointed to a friend of mine wearing modest jeans and a turtle neck standing across the room and said “see, when women dress modestly like that, men can’t possibly look at them and think sexual thoughts about them.” His reply shocked me: “actually, those pants and that shirt show off her curves perfectly.”

I think it was that moment when I realized that the modesty battle was one that would always be lost.

Modesty as Socially Constructed

There are places in Africa where the women go topless. Do the men go crazy, unable to think of anything but sex all day long? No. But stage a topless parade in the U.S. and you’ll have a crowd of ogling men. Similarly, the standard of what is modest in western Europe differs from the standard of what is modest in the U.S., and even within the U.S., there is variation – what is considered modest in public school is not the same as what is considered modest in Christian homeschool circles.

Modesty is socially constructed. Because it’s socially constructed, every time you make the norm more modest, you are simply moving the bar – not eliminating sexual feelings, thoughts, and attractions. Simply put, because (heterosexual) men (and women) are wired to be sexually attracted to those of the opposite sex, making the norm more modest will not end that attraction. It simply changes what is titillating. For example, the Muslim men in the picture I linked to above seem to find the burka-wearing women’s ankles extremely attractive – at least, that is all they can see.

Moving the Bar

The “Modesty Survey” which I linked to a couple days ago reveals an interesting fact. If you filter the results, asking to only see the homeschooled students’ responses, you will almost always find that the homeschoolers are more likely to declare something immodest or “a stumbling block” than are the public schoolers. The difference isn’t huge – a few percentage points, nothing more – but it is consistent from question to question.

Why would (Christian) homeschool boys be more likely to call a girl’s given clothing choice immodest than their (Christian) public schooled peers? Likely because homeschool girls on average – or at least the homeschool girls these homeschool boys come in contact with – dress more modestly than public school girls on average. Rather than simply solving some sort of problem, dressing more modestly simply moves the problem farther along and clothing that might not be a “stumbling block” for public school boys becomes one for homeschool boys.

When those Christian homeschool girls dress more modestly than the average, they don’t actually protect their Christian “brothers” from “stumbling.” Why? Because Christian homeschool boys, used to seeing girls in more modest garb, will be sexually attracted to and sexually aroused by far less than will their public school peers. The Christian homeschool modesty culture does not succeed in making homeschool boys think about sex less. All the Christian homeschool modesty culture succeeds in doing is moving the bar.

What we SHOULD be doing

Just so my readers don’t mistake me and think I’m saying “guys will always lust and see women as sex objects so let’s just throw up our hands,” I’m not exactly saying that. It’s just that I don’t think the problem is what women wear. I think the problem is one of respect. Guys are wired to think sexual thoughts about girls, and vice versa. Instead of trying to stop that, we should work on teaching boys – and girls – to handle those thoughts and urges healthily.

If a guy looks at a girl and sees only a sexual object and not a person, that’s a problem. But it’s not the sexual attraction that’s the problem, because a guy can see a woman as a person, and respect her as an equal, while also finding her sexually attractive. I guess what I’m saying is that the issue isn’t whether a man finds a woman sexually appealing – because no amount of clothing will make a difference on that front – but rather whether he sees her as a person and an equal.

Rather than trying to get girls to cover up in a vain attempt to protect male minds from thinking about sex, we should be focusing on teaching boys to interact with girls as equals and respect them as people (for a more on “respect,” click here).

By focusing only on getting girls to cover up so as not to “lead their brothers astray,” and on rooting out all sexual feelings (something impossible to do when it comes to teenage boys) rather than  on on how to healthily handle sexual feelings, the modesty doctrine misses the opportunity to truly promote respect, cooperation, and understanding between teens – and adults – of each gender.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • SophieUK

    This is a great post! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I have another example though. I was reading a book about English history in the Tudor period, when there was much religious upheaval given the new protestant ideas and ideology circulating at the time. Apparently Catholic women were seen by some as being hideously immodest because they wore clothes that were made from coloured fabrics. Protestant women saw themselves as far more devout because they wore modest clothing made only of black or grey material. A woman wearing bright colours was seen at the time by many as choosing to draw attention to her body.

  • SophieUK

    …in addition to my above comment I meant to add that God only knows what these Tudor era protestant women would make of a good Christian homeschooled girl’s clothes today. They’d probably look at her as she in turn might view a worldly woman walking around wearing a mini skirt and tube top.

  • Alexis

    My protestant grandmother used to say a woman was “old enough to wear red” when the provocative color of the fabric could no longer overcome the signs of aging.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    I’ve been to a couple of nudist camps in my life (I used to know a couple who was really into it, so I went with them a couple of times — it doesn’t hold the same fascination for me as it did for them, but I also saw that it was no big deal, and I’m actually pretty grateful for the experience). And yeah, they don’t turn into wild orgies. In fact, if anything I found the whole scene really whitebread, conservative even… mostly married/committed couples, very chill.

    Interesting tidbit: You can be naked or you can be clothed, but you are not supposed to go around in your underwear. The idea is to prevent people from wearing sexy lingerie, which actually would be inherently sexual. The nudity? Seriously, you get over it pretty fast.

    • Rachael in Australia

      Interesting titbit: Did you know that the original English word is titbit (and still used in that form in Britain and associated Commonwealth countries)? It was changed to tidbit for American audiences as they found the original word too ‘rude”.

      • Conuly

        That is NOT why the American word is “tidbit”.

        The American word is “tidbit” because “tidbit” is the original word and we preserved the older pronunciation.


        It is really easy to look up etymologies in the dictionary, they’re usually right there at the top of each entry. There’s no need to pass on linguistic falsehoods when you haven’t bothered to verify the information.

        Gosh, that bugs me. That’s right up there with telling me in earnest that there’s a gang of women stealing kidneys from gullible young men on spring break.

  • Alexis

    I once heard a story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper, who was summoned before the city council of Seattle – her home town – to testify on how to legislate against immorality and specifically immodest dress. She arrived at the hearing wearing a rather demure long sleeved blouse that had a row of several buttons on each cuff. As she was questioned, and as she testified, she began to toy with the first button on one wrist. Eventually she undid the first button, folded back a quarter inch of fabric and began to toy with the second button. And the third. By the time she finished testifying she had undone the whole row of buttons and folded the cuff back to show her entire wrist…and every eye in the council chamber was riveted to that wrist. She summarized her testimony by stating that they could not legislate morality because it isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it.

  • machintelligence

    On a lighter note, from the song “Smut” by Tom Lehrer: “A dirty mind can be a thing of joy forever”.
    The chapter on the fine art of leering from “The Sensuous Dirty Old Man” by Dr. A (Issac Asimov) is also worth reading.

  • Tricia

    Okay, I will be honest and admit that this whole modesty hang up is something I still haven’t quite sorted out from my CP/QF days.

    I kind of get that modesty is socially constructed, but I still feel (and wonder if I am right to feel) that it it is more respectful and courteous to others for people to keep to the more modest end of whatever their given people group’s conceptualization of modesty is. Why risk making people needlessly uncomfortable? I realize you can’t please all the people all the time, and there will always be someone who would criticize or find fault, but I’m inclined to think there’s a line– somewhere. Of intent if nothing else.

    A couple years ago, when I was just beginning to rethink some of my beliefs and had not got around to pondering modesty in any depth yet, an old friend and her 18 yo sister were coming from out of town on a visit. They were visiting other friends, but wanted to come and stay with my husband and I for several days. Well, unbeknownst to me, the sister had become very permissive in her style of dress since I had last seen her. When I went to their friend’s house to pick them up, I was startled to see that she was wearing shorts that were just about as short and as tight as they could be, along with a very snug and revealing tank top. She was perched on a sofa with her legs crossed, leaning way forward and exposing um, a lot. Actually, she looked like she was posing for the cover of Cosmopolitan. The fact that she is well endowed with a perfect figure did not help.

    I was rather distressed. Frankly, I did not want this nearly nude (to my way of thinking) beauty living with my husband and I for the better part of a week unless she was willing to be a little more dressed. I also didn’t want to be rude. It was so awkward, but I talked to my friend, who talked to her sister, who was offended and refused to come stay with us after all. I was a bit relieved, honestly, albeit rather conflicted with myself over my actions. Actually, I felt rather miserable over the whole thing and beat myself up a lot. But I know I would also have felt miserable with her staying with us dressed like that. I’m being very honest here. Insecure? Maybe. But surely this was a bit thoughtless of a would be house guest?

    I dunno. I’m still not sure who was wrong here or if I should have acted differently.

    • machintelligence

      You can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself.

    • Lirel

      I don’t find it thoughtless of the 18 yo, but maybe of the sister. If it’s the way the teen normally dressed, she had no reason to know it would offend. Unless she knew you’d have a problem – then it’s thoughtless. If you said it about my sister – I’m not sure if I’d be offended, but I wouldn’t be staying with you. I, as the wearer, probably wouldn’t have been offended if you’d said the same to me, but I would be confused and probably would find you/hubby weird and not want to stay with you or associate further as we obviously have different values. Particularly when I was 18, as it would have been very foreign to me. If the older sister knew you knew your tastes, then she should have warned 18 yo and let her decide if she wanted to change her clothing or dress in some other manner.

      But honestly, tight tank top (actually, the more spaghetti type strap with built-in bra, but definitely lower cut than most real tank tops I’ve seen) and short shorts was normal for me at that age. The only reason I don’t dress like that (when not at work) now is because I feel like I don’t have the body for it. I do wear higher necklines when around one set of grandparents, because I know they are more conservative, but that’s for one day at a time less than a few times a year. And I don’t know that I did that until I was older (but we mostly saw them at Thanksgiving and Christmas – colder weather). And I *only* do that because they are my grandparents – I wouldn’t for strangers/acquaintances. I’d just not visit with them.

      Honestly, I think it’s just a difference in perception. I don’t really take note of the clothes people are wearing when not at work. I’m a very unobservant person in general. I grew up around tight tops, low necklines, and short shorts being worn by my mother and the closer friends of my mother, so I don’t really *notice* clothes of that type. And so it doesn’t really occur to me that anyone else would, either. I doubt I’d much notice that someone was wearing shapeless tops, flowy skirt, etc. either. I might notice said person mostly wore skirts, but that’s about it. Because dressing the way I do is typical to me, I would no more think someone (American) would be offended by my clothes than that they would be offended because I don’t wear earrings. I guess, technically, it is thoughtless. Literally – I don’t think about it.

      And that’s the thing – it comes down to “norms.” Why would anyone be upset when I’m wearing perfectly normal clothes? Even if it’s not what they wear? I can’t think of any clothes that would upset me if someone else was wearing them – as long as they cover what I consider important (so someone wearing a bathing-suit-top style top and short shorts while visiting wouldn’t bother me). But the aforementioned topless women would, because that’s not my “norm.” Your norm is more concealing. So we’re back to the social construct again. Always in circles.

      • mostlylurking


    • Carolyn the Red

      I would have been offended. Your way of describing it doesn’t reflect well on your opinion of your husband, that he is easily led astray by a woman wearing what half the women out in the park might be wearing. You interpreted her posture, among other women, and without implying she was hitting on you, as being seductive. Who was she trying to seduce? Maybe she just wasn’t policing her sitting posture.

      I could, and sometimes do, wear an outfit like you described to go jogging in the heat. Not unless it’s really hot, since I am a little uncomfortable showing that much skin. Tighter clothes chafe less. Large boobs are very hard to cover entirely without tents or custom clothing. Should I wear leggings, or are those still too tight? A loose shirt that chafes under my arms? What’s modest enough? And since I run in public in those clothes, in a more private environment, I’d wear them. I’d not even think about it. And I would think less of anyone offended, who thought they should do more than just roll their eyes. (Yes, I am offended by certain styles of clothing too. Clothes send a message, and sometimes I don’t like the message they send. Not my business to police it, though).

  • http://markkoop.blogspot.ca Mark

    Yes, yes, yes! Very well put.

  • smrnda

    Great post – and it’s great that you point out that the real issue of men or boys respecting women and girls has *nothing* to do with *not* having sexual feelings (which is impossible) but in being able to both feel sexual attraction AND respect women.

    The whole idea where men ‘respect’ women who are modest is just a way for a man to argue that he doesn’t have to respect any woman who doesn’t fit his bill of ‘modest.’

    The next one was for Tricia:

    Given your background and upbringing it would probably be pretty hard for you not to be uncomfortable around someone who (at least to someone like me) would really just be dressed normally. However, if you tell someone that you think they are dressed ‘immodestly’ and ask that they change from what they consider normal they are going to react negatively because, to them, it sounds like you’re judging them and finding that the way they dress is morally deficient, and is going to be taken as about as big of an insult as if you said “You dress like a slut.” It’s obvious you didn’t want to offend, and it’s probably just because you were raised to adhere to standards that weren’t just different than normal, but which actually condemned ‘normal’ standards as bad.

    • Sue Blue

      Exactly right on the first part. We’ve probably all heard men (or heard of men) who used “but she deserved it – look how she was dressed!” as a defense for every sort of bad behavior from leering, ass-slapping and groping to rape. It’s kind of like saying “my penis just up and unzipped my pants and sprang out all on its own – I swear I didn’t know a thing about it!”

  • http://terelatimer.blogspot.com.au/ Tere

    Well said! Thanks :)

  • Karen

    Heat is my enemy. I live mostly in a “moderate” climate where we don’t have an air conditioner, and many days the house gets uncomfortable for me, even with decent insulation and all windows and blinds closed. I escape whenever I can to a mountain/desert interface climate, where it’s cool to cold in the winter and dry enough that an evaporative cooler can keep the whole house comfortable in the summer. But still, in the summer I wear shorts. (Knee-length shorts; I’m fat and late-middle-aged. But shorts.) I won’t wear sleeveless tops outside the house, but I live in short-sleeved T-shirts and polo shirts. I don’t generally go braless, though I’m not well-endowed, but on hot afternoons I seem to swell two or three sizes and ditch my bra if I’m just working on the computer or pottering about our very well-fenced back yard.

    Quite frankly, if have the choice of dressing modestly and passing out, or living in my T-shirt and shorts and being able to deal with the heat, I’ll go for the latter.

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    Modesty is socially constructed–that’s true. A lot of it’s whether you violate the social norms for situationally-appropriate behavior and dress, and by how much.

  • http://terelatimer.blogspot.com.au/ Tere

    Libby Anne, would it be alright to post the first couple of paragraphs of this on my blog and then link it back to your article with a ‘Read more…’ ?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne


      • http://terelatimer.blogspot.com.au/ Tere

        Thanks! It’s done: (http://tinyurl.com/7bseln6)
        I’m new at this so it’s still early days, but starting to get the hang of it i think :)

  • Karen

    Anyone having trouble getting over Patriarchal “modesty” concepts should go hang out for awhile on a college campus. I just finished an MS degree (I’m 52). During warm/hot weather especially, I’ve seen more exposed flesh than Cosmo would ever dare; many of the outfits were Playboy material. You just get used to it after awhile, and stop seeing all but the most egregious examples of it. Even the Muslim female students were into showing as much as possible; I saw a lot of young women wearing hijab along with skin-tight jeans and sweaters that were two sizes too small. In fact, my pet peeve became women who wore stiletto heels: I spent lots of hot months trying to concentrate over a microscope in an overheated room, open for ventilation, and one woman in stiletto heels could set the entire adjacent corridor ringing with the noise of her walking. Grrrr.

  • Azura

    I definitely agree that modesty is socially constructed. I mean, in the fetish community toplessness and even full nakedness is not out of place and we still treat each other the same as we would clothed. Legally in Toronto I can go topless but most girls don’t unless it get’s really hot or it’s Pride mostly to do with social stigma and fear of ogling. I will say I do judge people for being “immodest” but my sense of that is when someone dresses sexually provocative in a weather inappropriate fashion, and then I mostly judge them for being stupid. (I also hate tights as pants, because seriously, those aren’t pants!)

  • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

    It shouldn’t matter what a girl is wearing… yet it seems if you are wearing something that is supposed to be “sexy”, then you’re like egging them in their view of women as sexual objects? But… when I was younger (and living as a “girl”) I used to wear tight shirts and tiny shorts, because it was comfortable and conducive to running around and climbing things. And then at some point, around age 12, people starting leering at me and calling me a slut. Not fair >:( But um aren’t there some things that if you wear them you are kind of announcing to everyone “hey i am your toy, your eye-candy”?

    • Rosie

      I disagree that wearing certain things is announcing “I’m your toy, your eye-candy.” People wear all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. You wore tight shirts and tiny shorts because they were comfortable and allowed you the freedom of movement you wanted. The problem is that some people (generally men) have been conditioned to think that what a woman wears is intended to say something to them, whether she thinks so or not. But it’s a double standard, based on gender. Men can go topless, and often do for comfort, regardless of what a (het) woman walking by might think. If I were to go topless, even in my own garden (and believe me, when the temp gets above 85, with humidity over 50%, it’s tempting), the neighbors would assume that I was “putting on a show” for their benefit, and/or call the cops on me for “indecent exposure”. As a woman, I have less right to dress comfortably than a man has. And this cannot change until we teach boys (and those men who are willing to listen) that what another person wears has nothing at all to do with them. Even if that other person happens to be female.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      Even if a woman dressed provocatively to gain male or female attention, it wouldn’t imply she is their toy. Some people like that others look at them, others want to get someone to make out or more in a party, … It shouldn’t imply that you shouldn’t respect women, it’s time to stop this double standard and it’s time to understand that women can be sexually assertive.

      On the other hand I also judge people who dress weather inappropriately …

      • Liriel

        Weather inappropriately – makes me think of college. It was always so easy to tell the people who weren’t local (we had a lot students that went home every weekend, but out-of-staters or out-of-countryers weren’t uncommon). Locals wore longsleeves and maybe jackets when temps were 60ish. If you saw someone in short sleeves or shorts, they probably weren’t local.

      • Noelle

        :) The opposite in my Northern college. Locals broke out shorts and sandles in the 50s/60s, while displaced Southerners still huddled in flannels and winter coats.

      • Rosie

        I agree Paula, though “weather appropriate” is also, at least somewhat, a matter of culture or acclimation. In Kansas, where the weather is in the 60s for a couple weeks in early spring and late fall (or sometimes in the middle of winter), it’s considered long-sleeve/jacket weather. In Seattle, where the temps are in the 60s for most of spring and fall (and much of the “summer” as well), that weather is considered shorts/t-shirt weather, and when temps do get above that people with AC turn theirs on. Having been acclimated to Kansas as a child, I wore wool sweaters almost year-round when I lived in Seattle, despite incredulous looks and people saying “are you cold? really?” quite often.

  • Sarah

    I also read another really good post on modesy on the Pheonix and the Olive Branch blog (sorry I don’t know how to make a link in a comment)

  • Sarah

    I found that watching my big fat gypsy wedding really turned my thinking on its head. At first I thought “those sluts!” then I realised they weren’t sluts. Then I realised that many people saw me as a slut be ause I was wearing a T- shirt and jeans, exactly the way I thought of those girls for their clothing. Then i had to really acknowledge that yes, clothing is entirely divorced from behaviour or intent to behave in a certain way.

  • JeseC

    I kind of wish we could go back to the original definition of modesty – not thinking too highly or drawing inappropriate attention to yourself. I think clothing *can* be immodest under that definition, but it’s not going to be all about how much skin you’re showing. And some of the “ultra-modest” clothing could even be immodest under that definition, if the wearer is trying to draw attention to their supposed holiness.

    Incidentally, the major passage I remember about modesty in the Bible (“women adorn themselves in modest apparel”) isn’t about sexuality at all. What’s being criticized is outfits that were designed to show off their wealth. Not that there aren’t other problems with that passage, but the modesty part isn’t what the fundamentalists want it to be.

  • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

    Fun fact: the word “modest” appears a grand total of one time in the KJV Bible.

  • Didaktylos

    Essentially any item of clothing whose design is not primarily dictated by practical considerations is immodest.

    • MountainTiger

      So jumpsuits with many pockets for everyone?

    • Rosie

      If practicality is the only consideration, “modest” clothing would vary by circumstance (and sometimes include nudity, in hot weather). But skirts would hardly ever qualify, if one is doing physical labor. And baggy clothes are a definite no-no when one is working with power tools of any kind. Which does turn the fundie definition of “modesty” on its head.

      • Conuly

        Maybe that’s the point, so that certain groups of people remember they aren’t supposed to do physical labor or make or fix things.

  • Stephanie

    Excellent! The problem is definitely men’s attitude towards women in general…women’s bodies are not the problem. Good post.