I recently came upon a blog post titled “How the Modesty Police Are Hurting My Son,” in which blogger Ami writes about trying to teach her son that he is responsible for his own actions even as those around her tell him that girls are responsible for covering up so as to “protect” him. As I looked through the mostly positive comments on her post, I was struck by this one:
I think it’s great that you teach your child all these things—and I think it’s great that parents teach their children modesty. And sometimes it is to protect boys—they can’t un-see a girl’s body once it’s been seen barely clad. Many parents teach their children not to use drugs, yet that same child grows up and becomes an addict. So I understand when people say they are doing it to protect others.
Now of course, this comment strikes at the heart of the entire point Ami was trying to make—that her son is responsible for his own actions, and that telling him that it is girls’ responsibility to cover up to “protect” him suggests that girls’ bodies hold some sort of power over him that he is helpless to resist. But there is so much more to unhash here than just that.
As another reader pointed out in response, “a girl’s body is not an obscene object.” People arguing in favor of modesty often put women’s bodies in the same category as drugs or alcohol. These individuals objectify women’s bodies and treat them as agents of destruction, discussed in the same sentence with alcoholism and drug addiction. More than this, they view the female body as a source of contamination—”[boys] can’t un-see a girl’s body once it’s been seen barely clad.” In other words, women’s bodies have to be covered up lest they forever contaminate the minds of good, god-fearing young men. Except that this is not in fact how it works.
Evangelical modesty teachings are grounded in the evangelical belief that lust—which they tend to define as “desiring sexually what God has forbidden”—is a sin on par with adultery or premarital sex. This belief is, quite frankly, a huge problem, because teenagers can’t not think about sex and the result is a great deal of self-loathing. Rather than teaching young people how to handle their sexual urges in a healthy manner—being safe, respecting others, not being pressured, etc.—evangelicals tell them their sexual urges themselves are sinful and wrong.
Modesty tends to be aimed only at girls because, within evangelical culture, boys tend to be seen as sexual beings while girls are seen as emotional beings. Girls want romance, the line goes, and boys want sex. This is starting to change as some parts of the evangelical culture are realizing that girls, too, are sexual, but at this point modesty teaching is still aimed at girls for the sake of “protecting” boys. Protecting them from what, exactly? Protecting them from having sexual thoughts, of course. Because covering girls up will keep boys from having sexual thoughts, right?
I remember talking to my now-husband about modesty, and pointing across the dorm lobby at a friend of mine as an example of dressing modestly, in her turtle neck and jeans. He laughed and told me my friend was just as sexually attractive in her turtle neck and jeans as women wearing short shorts and camisoles. So let me put it like this—it is not possible to cover up teenage girls such that that teenage boys will not think lustful thoughts about them. And vice versa. Can we all just get it through our heads that preventing teenagers from having sexual thoughts about other teenagers is a no-go?
But what about the idea that once a boy seeks a girl’s scantily-clad body he can’t “unsee” it? Isn’t that image emblazoned on his brain forever after that one moment? Well again, to reiterate, it is not only scantily-clad female bodies that result in boys having sexual thoughts. If we want to keep teenage boys from having images of attractive female bodies emblazoned on their brains, we’re going to have to segregate them out of society, send them to special boys’ schools or the like. But also, I think these people are vastly underestimating the power of teenage boys’ imaginations. Think you that teenage boys will not conjure up for themselves what a naked female body looks like? Frankly, it’s not all that hard to guess what a woman looks like underneath her clothing. Even when clothing is especially “modest,” the human imagination fills in the gaps.
It is not possible to keep female bodies from “contaminating” male minds. It is not possible because the “contamination” does not come from the female body—it actually comes from the male mind. Teenage boys are wired to think lustful thoughts and have sexual urges. It is inside them. That is how their brains work. Changing the external factors will not change that internal reality.
Note: Some teenage boys are in fact wired to have lustful thoughts about other teenage boys (and the same with teenage girls), and that some teenagers are asexual and may not in fact be wired to have lustful thoughts or sexual urges.