How the Modesty Doctrine Fuels Rape Culture

I feel a little sick right now, and a little foolish. You know how it is when you see something you didn’t see before, and suddenly it’s so obvious you can’t believe you didn’t see it? I’ve danced around a lot of this, but I’ve never felt its force so bluntly and so directly. Namely, the emphasis on modesty that I received growing up is the food and fuel of the rape culture. Sarah Over the Moon wrote not long ago about how complementarians benefit from and use the existence of rape, but this is something more direct and perhaps more sinister.

Growing up in a conservative evangelical home, I was taught that the way women dress can cause men to “stumble,” i.e. to think lustful thoughts or fall into sexual sin, and that Christian women should dress modestly so as to help their brothers in Christ avoid sin.

Cause. Did you see that word? Cause. It wasn’t a typo. I was taught that I could cause a man to fall into sexual sins by dressing immodestly. In other words, if I dressed revealingly his sexual sin would be my responsibility, my fault. As a teen, I accepted this as a matter of course and was very careful about how I dressed. I never stopped to realize the full implications of this teaching.

Rape culture. The idea that a woman who is raped must have been asking for it, that women who dress scantily are asking for it, that somehow, when a woman is raped, it’s her own fault. This idea that men can’t control themselves, that they can’t help it, that they are innocent victims of seductress females. The idea that when men express their sexuality inappropriately it must have been some woman’s fault for leading him on with her revealing clothing or demeanor.

It was all there, nestled into my neat and tidy little evangelical community.

Let me offer some examples from the comments section of an article by a woman named Emily. (The article is called The Modesty Rules: Is a Woman Responsible for a Man’s Lust?)

So, should women be held “totally” responsible for a mans lust? Of course not. But should there be some accountability? Most certainly!

Totally responsible? No. Partly responsible? Yes!

While one is not responsible for someone’s lust, the bible admonishes us to dress modestly. The way one dress can cause another brother who might be a new convert, who is still trying to overcome the flesh to stumble.

This one is confusing. Women aren’t responsible for men’s lust … but they can “cause” a man to stumble. Cause. Let’s get this straight: Being “responsible for” something means generally means in some way being the “cause” of it.

We should not cause another to stumble.

Notice that word “cause”? You’re going to get tired of hearing it.

While I agree that a rule based approach to modesty is not what Jesus taught, we are members of one another in one body. We are indebted to love one another. Love has many responsibilities. We all have an anointing from the Holy One and should walk accordingly. To walk and stumble others is not to walk in love.

Women who dress immodestly “stumble others.”

As a man when I am confronted by the absolute nakedness of women today I have to fight with my chemicals and bring them under subjection everyday! When Adam first saw Eve the same thing happen to him. He did not think spiritually he thought fleshly, He was created to produce and replenish the earth. He said “Know this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” I believe man was created to only view his wife’s nakedness. When I go out anywhere I will see breast, backsides with tattoos pointing downward saying here it it boys come and get it! belly buttons, skin tight see thru pants maybe with a shirt hiding a little of of what God designed for a wife to lure her husband not 90% of all that see her.

Men and women both have to take responsibility. Men must learn how to control himself and the temptation of the second look. And the women must learn that she only attracts Lust not love when or if she thinks she dressing to fit the culture of her environment. I think that some women think that if they can just catch him with their bodies then maybe they can chance him later down the line, well the opposite always happens, He loses respect for her but he wont say it yet until he is satisfied himself with her body and especially the parts you showed him when he first met you. He will thinks to himself that if you showed the world all of that, then he can not trust you to be his wife but he can trust you to give it up when he decides to come around again at his leisure.

Ouch. Just, ouch. A woman’s naked body is “what God designed for a wife to lure her husband”? And thus, when she goes about without covering it completely, she is intentionally “luring” other men. Here we get the rhetoric of the skimpy seductress and the helpless men who can’t do anything but … well, you know. I mean, after all, women just go around trying to “catch” men “with their bodies” so that they can, what, trap them into marrying them? And then if the woman puts out before getting a ring, the man “loses respect for her” and only wants to “satisfy himself with her body” because he cannot “trust” her “to be his wife.”

It’s not like I haven’t written about this more than once, but every time I read it articulated it hits me again. And, once again, I am struck by how little respect the purity culture has for either men or women!

There is beauty in a woman who knows her power and yes Emily, that power includes influencing thoughts and actions. Our Father taught us to use the power responsibly. Think for a moment about the veil principle. It is originally Jewish, go to numbers 30 and discover how God sheltered a woman from exposure while she was unmarried and even when she is married. Our so called freedom is actually rebellion, defying the law of protection over us. I am against any distortion of truth where females and clothing are concerned and we should not use the world standards to bring the noose in the Body of Christ. Cover yourself…

So, women have “power” that they need to use responsibly. What is this power? The power to influence thoughts and actions by how sexily we dress. Also, when women dress immodestly they “bring the noose in the Body of Christ,” whatever exactly that means. This commenter actually appears to be endorsing the burka.

And also, can I have a new superpower please?

A guy, if he truly loves Jesus, need to learn how to control his lust. A woman, if she truly loves Jesus, need to learn how not to cause the eyes to wander.

Ugh, this again. Why do they always do this? Yes, they say, men do need to control their lust. But women need to stop “causing” men’s eyes to wander! If only those slutty women would just cover up, men wouldn’t be forced into sin against their wills anymore!

Emily for the last ??? years or so Christian men having been falling and failing the Lord in the sin of lust. REAL women of Faith are willing to help us, not throw rocks in our paths to help us stumble. The world already is doing a great job doing that…

So, Christian men have been falling into the sin of lust. Why? Well, see, women who don’t cover up are throwing rocks in men’s paths and “causing” them to stumble!

I could go on. Honestly, this was just a small, small sampling of the comments on that article. It was encouraging to see people responding and arguing against this sort of comment, but a huge proliferation of arguments that women “cause” men to stumble by how they dress were there nevertheless.

Now of course, the argument being made here is not that women through their scanty dress force men to rape them but rather that they force men to lust after them. But really, how much separates the two in the terms of the mentality behind them?

If you’re already decrying women for “causing” men to lust after them by dressing immodestly, how much of a stretch is it to assign some responsibility to women who are raped? Is it really so hugely different when someone says that a woman shouldn’t have made out with a guy if she didn’t want to have vaginal intercourse because how could she expect him to be able to stop, or that a rape victim’s behavior or clothing proved too “tempting” for her rapist to resist? Is it really that different when someone argues that a woman who attends a party with alcohol is “asking for it,” since how could she really wear a miniskirt and expect the men there to control themselves?

This idea that women need to cover up or they risk “causing” men to stumble? Rape culture. I’m boggled by the fact that I didn’t see this as a teen.

In the end, I don’t think it should be hard to see the truly damaging nature of the idea that a woman can “cause” a man to stumble by not wearing enough clothing, and I don’t think it’s possible to advocate modesty without buying into this. It is this idea that women need to cover up because men can’t help themselves, quite simply, that fuels rape culture in our society today. The conservative evangelicals I grew up amongst might not know it, but their ideas about gender and sexuality really do promote rape culture.

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Josh was "Just Curious about Girls" and the Rank Hypocrisy of the Duggar Excuse Machine
Is Child Marriage Wrong if the Parents Consent?
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.


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