Growing up in a conservative evangelical home, I believed that we were the ones who truly respected women. I believed that our young men—the young men in my homeschooling community—were being raised to treat the women around them, of whatever age, with respect. I was wrong, very, very wrong.
A reader recently pointed me to an article on World Net Daily that presents a fictional scenario where an “normal” girl, Jane, is ordered by a judge to leave her public school and be educated in a homeschooling family*. While the entire article is a fascinating portrayal of conservative Christian homeschoolers’ perception of the average public school student, I was struck in particular by one short paragraph, three simple sentences—sentences that say so much.
When Jane tries to slut it up with the boys in the class [i.e. the homeschool boys she's now being taught alongside], they look at her in disgust. Yes, she might be sexy, and yes they have hormones, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to act upon primal urges. They’ve been raised with manners and to respect girls.
It does not work this way. You cannot follow “they look at her in disgust” with “they’ve been raised with manners and to respect girls.” If they were raised to respect girls, why are they looking at Jane in disgust? Because that’s not respect. Perhaps the author’s definition of “respect” is something very different from that found in the dictionary or what the word is usually understood to mean. Perhaps the author actually means that these boys were being raised to respect girls who were worthy of respect—girls who were properly demure and modest and chaste, as evangelical sexual standards require.
Several years back, the Harris brothers, homeschool graduates who founded The Rebolution, conducted a “Modesty Survey,” asking teen and twenty-something evangelical males what they thought was modest and, well, not modest. If you scroll through the results, one thing that becomes clear is that these young men, most of them products of the same evangelical homeschool culture as myself, have a great lack of respect for women who do not dress “modestly,” and in some cases even openly disdain them. Here are a few examples:
You have less respect for an immodest girl than for a modest one.
There are many Godly men out there, as I’m sure this survey will prove, that are dying to give you their utmost respect when you choose to follow God’s leading in this area of modesty in your life.
Please don’t take modesty lightly. As your brother in Christ I value the relationship that I will have with my wife someday. When I am tempted because of you I lose a part of myself that I am trying to save for her.
Guys really do respect and honor girls who have the willpower to keep themselves pure and looking pure.
God made you a thing of beauty. A thing to be admired and respected. When you dress or act in a way that draws attention to your body, you make it easy for the guys around you to reduce you to the level of a disgusting toy—using you to mentally satisfy their fantasies. . . . Would you rather be the tool by which guys satisfy themselves or the beautiful thing God created you to be, pure for your husband?
I respect and love girls that are modest so much more than those who do not.
And then I start remembering other things about growing up. I remember the disgust that always suffused any conversation about pop stars like Brittany Spears, or any woman who dressed immodestly. And that disgust? It was taught. It was something we could read in the reactions of our parents and our friends’ parents. We watched it, we mirrored it, and we learned it. It was something taught from the pulpit. Beware those sinful immodest wayward women!
Of course, the Modesty Survey is full of comments by young evangelical men urging young women to understand that what mattered about them was not their outward appearances but their hearts. They said this to assure young women that they didn’t need to dress sexy to impress. But the irony here is that these same young men, in urging women to dress just so and telling them of the dire consequences for not doing so, were actively reducing women to their clothing and telling them that outward appearances actually do matter—a lot. After all, if what matters is what is inside and not what is outside, why so much emphasis on what is on the outside? Why tell women in one breath that it is what is inside that matters, not what is on the outside, and in the next breath that if they show cleavage they will as a natural consequence be objectified and robbed of humanity?
The irony is that we were told that women who dress immodestly will be objectified by the men around them, and that dressing modestly ensured that you would be seen as a person rather than a piece of flesh when in reality we were actually actively taught to reduce women dressed “immodestly” to nothing more than their bodies, to see only midriff and cleavage and therefore disrespect and dehumanize them. We weren’t taught to see them as people but as sluts, whores, and home-wreckers. We were the ones objectifying, judging, degrading. We were the ones we were warning them about.
What is actually taught is disrespect for women, disgust even—unless, of course, they live up to proper purity standards. Those good, proper pure women, they should be respected, and even placed on a pedestal. Those other women? Forget it. And I’ve rarely seen this as clearly stated as in that World Net Daily article.
* The World Net Daily article was written in response to a judge ordering some homeschooled children to attend public school, and was an attempt at parody. The situation involved joint custody, a mother attending a cult-like church, and a concerned father, but this was of course ignored by homeschool advocates, who portrayed the ruling as an assault on homeschooling as a whole.