When Modesty Makes No Sense

Whenever I punish myself by reading evangelical-fundamentalist blog posts about modesty, I run into images like this. Not only do such images read like posters from the Department of Missing the Point, they reveal the kind of mindset that the modesty doctrine creates in young women. “Modestly” dressed women still live in a world in which a woman’s worth is correlated with her sexual desirability; their modesty does not exempt them from worrying about whether or not they’re attractive. Indeed, it’s the kind of mentality that breeds obsession: rather than doing what it claims to do (relieving women of the need to be “sexy”), it only adds another layer of work. Instead of just worrying about being attractive, girls worry about being attractive yet modest. They’re caught in a double bind.

Additionally, the modesty doctrine breeds obsession when looking at others. Normal people don’t obsess about whether or not a woman is wearing a sleeveless dress in church. Normal people don’t do “modesty checks” before they leave the house. Normal people don’t find themselves driven to distraction by other people’s wardrobe choices. People raised in the modesty doctrine do. The modesty doctrine literally trains them to see sex everywhere, and to assume that everyone else is looking for it, too.

If this were a plain black T-shirt, I wouldn’t think twice about it. Even if it was a black crop top with spaghetti straps, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. Because it’s branded (right across the bust, no less) with references to modesty and “parts that are unpresentable,” it plants the idea of the wearer’s concealed “parts” in my head. When you wear your modesty on your sleeve, you’re inviting people to “wonder” and defeating your own purpose. (Look at how much I’m not showing off my boobs! Hey! Why are you thinking about my boobs?) If, on the other hand, you realize that not everybody is always looking at you or caring if they do, you can dress how you like and get on with your business. What’s more, you can also stop obsessively checking out other people to see if they’re failing to live up to your standards.

If you can’t have a conversation with someone who is wearing a bikini because you’re hopelessly distracted by her body, you have a sex obsession. Chances are the modesty doctrine actually put it there.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    I haven’t read your other stuff on modesty but based on this blog I don’t get your argument. Modest is a great thing with women. A woman can be dressed modest and still be sexy but most guys choose to see women who dress revealing.

    The modesty doctrine reminds people that guys have hormonal issues which in this case they are sight driven when it comes to sex. A busty woman, a curvy woman turns on guys. Sometimes it may not matter if they are dressed modesty but often times the less clothing the more the turn on. It isn’t all about the modesty people either, listen to any rock station and hear them talk about women or listen to them go to their babe of the day. They are usually in a bikini or lingerie or in a Hooters outfit. You would never find a picture of a girl looking like what you have posted because it doesn’t reveal enough to be a turn on to perverts.

    having a conversation with a woman in a bikini can be a hard time to do for a guy because of sight orientation sexation. Girls are not driven by these and therefore you are seeing through your own eyes and not through the eyes of a guy. Some guys can control themselves but most guys, even if they don’t make a mention about a girl in a bikini are definately thinking about it and just won’t say it. Does it make them dogs? No, it makes them human. Women do need to use more wisdom on these things.


    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I’ve already answered all of these claims in my other posts on modesty, especially the second link here:


      My point is that women who are obsessed with turning on guys and women who are obsessed with NOT turning on guys are both obsessed with what guys are thinking, and that’s a problem. I don’t care if a guy is attracted to me. I don’t even care if he thinks about me later when he “pleasures himself.” Seriously, those things don’t affect my life. I don’t go out of my way to attract it or prevent it. What I care about is whether he treats me with respect in person.

      The idea that women are not as visually excited as men are is also false:


      • Brendan

        “If you can’t have a conversation with someone who is wearing a bikini because you’re hopelessly distracted by her body, you have a sex obsession.”

        Now I’m just curious here, but would you also apply the same to a man talking to a topless woman on the beach? Beach toplessness is pretty common in Europe, so this is hardly a farfetched scenario.

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          Yes, I would. I’ve been to Europe. People there tend to be much more sensible about the human body. Now: why do you ask?

      • Brendan

        I always like to ask about the ‘extreme’ – it gives a better idea of what the author meant.

        Now, what I find a little odd about your case is the idea that man should not at all be aroused by a naked woman. There are some cases when a man is obligated not be aroused – the surgeon is perhaps the best example. But you act as though arousal at nakedness is not itself a natural thing. In fact, for the man not to be aroused it requires him to actively suppress his sexual desires. There is an evolutionary basis for this in humans: optional/arbitrary nakedness in the presence of the opposite sex is a sign of greater sexual availability, and sexual availability is a significant player in arousal. Now as I’ve said men can suppress this urge (with difficulty) – but to be suppressing something means that property is at work. To say that men should not be aroused by the presence of an optionally naked woman is to act as though men are somehow asexual – in effect you are denying that we have bodies.

        Another thing I would like to note is that your idea of modesty seems to spring from this conservative group you came from. However, from a Catholic viewpoint, Branhamism’s perspective is a severe and unscholarly conflation of modesty with Puritanism. The Church sees Puritanism as a great evil and has invested considerable scholarship against it – in fact the Dominican Order (best known outside the Church for being the order of St. Thomas Aquinas) was started to fight the philosophically related Albigensian heresy.

        Now take the gym example you gave in article I found this one through. It was rather more Puritan that modest from a Catholic perspective. A friend of mine recently asked a priest if running shorts were immodest. “Not if you’re running,” he replied. According to Pope John Paul II, “While we are on the subject of dress and its relevance to the problem of modesty and immodesty it is worth drawing attention to the functional significance of differences in attire. There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labour, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty”.

        Before he was elected pope and took the name John Paul II, he was named Karol Wojtyla and was a university professor specializing in sexual ethics. The preceding passage is from the scholarly book he wrote about sexuality – Love and Responsibility. I challenge you to read this work before you write any further on modesty. As I said, from the Catholic perspective (which is a fairly major viewpoint to overlook) what you are talking about isn’t modesty at all, and if you aren’t giving a holistic explanation of modesty then you are truly doing your readers a disservice. The book is catalogued under his given name – Wojtyla.

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          I think I’ve been quite clear in my posts that what I’m critiquing is the form of “modesty” taught by evangelical-fundamentalist Christians (Protestants, but not just Branhamists). This group self-consciously excludes Catholics. I’ve even given the problem a name (“the modesty doctrine”) to be explicit about the fact that I am not trying to give a “holistic explanation of modesty.”

          I do not argue that men should deny their own bodies. I do argue that nakedness is not inherently sexual. Naturists/nudists manage to convene in large groups without clothing and still interact with each other respectfully. Arousal is still considered normal, but it’s not appropriate for the public, so aroused men are expected to either go take care of themselves privately or (if it’s a beach situation) to hop in the water until the problem goes away. If you live in a place where toplessness is normal and accepted (as in some parts of Europe), you should be able to interact with topless women normally.

      • Brendan

        “I think I’ve been quite clear in my posts that what I’m critiquing is the form of ‘modesty’ taught by evangelical-fundamentalist Christians.”

        When I read your recent article on RH Reality Check, I could tell that the modesty you were critiquing wasn’t Catholic, but I wouldn’t expect an atheist (a good portion of the readership I would suspect) to realize that. You never defined ‘modesty doctrine’, which led me to conclude that you were referring to all doctrines that include ideas of modesty. The Catholic Church has doctrine on modesty too, ya know? You also used ‘modesty doctrine’ and ‘modesty’ interchangeably, which is terribly confusing. You say, “Modesty is a philosophy that dehumanizes.” Maybe the prudish version, but one could easily think you were referring to the mere concept of modesty here. By using the word ‘modesty; only in the perverted sense of the fundies – and not explaining that – you severely confuse the meaning and disservice your readers.

        I think what you are trying to describe is prudery. According to Princeton’s WordNet, prudery is “excessive or affected modesty”. According to Wojtyla, “Prudery consists in concealing one’s real intentions with regard to the persons of the other sex, or with regard to sexual matters in general.” Why don’t you call it the ‘Prudery Doctrine’ to avoid confusion?

        One of the reasons it is impossible to argue in today’s culture is because no one bothers to define their terms. You are doing a great job of continuing that trend. I challenge you to either use the word modesty holistically in your articles, or to avoid the term entirely. If you do decide you would present modesty fairly and from a holistic vantage, Wojtyla would be a worthwhile read. This book isn’t some thin James Dobson paperback – it’s a philosophical and scholarly treatise.

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          You seem to have missed the fact that I wrote that post for my own blog, which the editor of No Longer Quivering then cross-posted to RH Reality Check. It was not written for an audience unfamiliar with Christian fundamentalism. I intentionally refer to the doctrine as “modesty” because that is the term that evangelical/fundamentalist Christians use. The term “prudery,” if technically accurate, is pejorative and easy to dismiss. No one in fundamentalist culture self-consciously identifies as a prude. All of them consider themselves modest and reasonable, and would argue that your definition of modesty (as per Wojtyla) is relativistic and morally bankrupt. Furthermore, your Princeton definition is actually more confusing, because it employs “excessive” and “affected” as modifiers of modesty. Who determines what is excessive? Who determines what is affected and insincere? Every evangelical-fundamentalist Protestant would deny that the Pope (past or present) is the authority on such matters. I also seriously doubt you can prove that Catholics, as a whole, uniformly practice the “modesty” advocated by John Paul II.

          You also don’t seem to understand that this is a blog, not a scholarly database. I have developed the idea of the modesty doctrine across several posts, the first of which defines the problem as the idea that women need to cover up to prevent men from lusting over them. You are the only person (out of the hundreds who have given me feedback) who has expressed a sense of “confusion” or being “disserviced” by my writing. If you cannot understand the context of an argument without dictionary definitions laid out in advance, you are in the minority.

          Finally, your posts have been extremely condescending. If you continue to lecture me (“One of the reasons it is impossible to argue in today’s culture is because no one bothers to define their terms. You are doing a great job of continuing that trend.”) or make demands about what I read or write in my own blog (“challenges,” as you call them), you will be blocked. I don’t owe you a book review. If there’s a point you want to make about the book, cite it. Explain it. Then state your argument plainly or accept the fact that I have deemed your book reference irrelevant to my purposes and chosen to read other things.

      • Brendan

        “If you cannot understand the context of an argument without dictionary definitions laid out in advance, you are in the minority.”

        I’m think that when you substitute one word for another, dictionary definitions become important. From a historical perspective, modesty is seen as a virtue and prudery is it’s corresponding vice. Again, I find conflation of terminology to be a significant factor in our inability to argue. Take, for example, the common statement in the abortion debate that “the fetus isn’t human”. That is actually a conflation of three separate lines of thought, instantly clogging any conversation it is thrown into – yet it has been widely used in pro-choice discussions and articles. To use modesty and prudery interchangeably causes similar problems. Erosion of language is erosion of culture, and a culture that loses its ability to argue is a culture lost. True, your readership may not have complained, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if most of your readership now confuses prudery and modesty. True enough that is was the fundies that started conflating the two ideas (based on the idea that sexual attractions are somehow ‘bad’), but that is even more of a reason why their modified terminology should be avoided. I find much greater reasons to fear conflation than proper language (even if it might seem pejorative to a few ears).

        I would also add that the line between ‘condescending’ and ‘frank criticism’ is a blurry one separated only by intentions. I’m sorry if it did seem condescending, it wasn’t my intention.

        • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

          Actually, it’s quite easy to critique arguments without condescension. It usually involves presenting a counter-argument and providing a source against which one’s opponent can fact-check. Your posts came close to doing this, but stepped over the line when asserting that I must read a book before continuing to write about a subject that I know intimately (particularly as I consider the book tangential).

          Historians commonly use the terms of a culture and period when constructing arguments about cultural practices. It’s a strategy used to guard against projecting modern values on the past. I am employing the same strategy (although I do acknowledge that my blog posts are anti-fundamentalist and therefore polemical) by using the term “modesty” the way that fundamentalists understand it. If I declare them all “prudes,” I have skipped over analysis and passed judgment first. That shuts down conversation. It also would be dishonest of me to give that label to a group I used to belong to, since my church and I were quite sincere in our belief that what we practiced was modesty and respect.

          I have just pointed out that you define “prudery” as “excessive modesty.” This confuses the issue more than it clarifies. Again, if I declare something “excessive,” I have set myself up as an authority without being given that authority by the people who practice it. “Prudery” is a polemical, contextual, relative term, not an objective one.

      • Brendan

        Well, I can agree with much of that. If you are writing about the practices of Branhamism, and it is intended for followers of Branhamism, it makes sense to use language they can understand.

        I originally read the article on RH though. I didn’t have the context that it was about Branhamism till I came here, and I didn’t realize it was intended specifically for that community till the last post. I do hope you understand how this could be confusing once stripped of context and promoted to RH’s broader audience. Because I had assumed that the context to be found in the article, it seemed that you were misrepresenting modesty by giving only the narrowest definitions for it. I would have agreed with much of what you said had it been adapted for a general audience, and not appeared to malign the very concept of modesty. I hope RH’s editors will be cautious of things like this in the future.

  • wanderer

    Wearing a t-shirt talking about modesty being “hot” with a scripture about hiding unpresentable parts is just weird. Anyone in the real world would think so.
    It’s like wearing a t-shirt that says “I never think about sex. Ask me what I’m thinking right now. It’s NOT sex.”

    • http://shadowspring-lovelearningliberty.blogspot.com/2012/05/spiritual-bullying.html shadowspring


  • http://spiritledmama.wordpress.com spiritledmama

    This is SOO true! My hubby and I are just coming out of extreme fundmentalism (Branhamism) and we were just talking about this. If guys could accept that attraction to the other sex was normal and not wrong, and if women could be confident in their attractiveness and dress normally there would be a lot less of the sexual issues in the church!

    Have to share this story: I wore pants and a tank top to the mall for the first time not long ago and kept expecting people to look at me, my body and realised that I actually looked normal, like everyone else and no one cared!!

    I think what Branhamites don’t realise because of their constant diet of 1950′s and 60′s preaching is that pants/shorts or a short skirt and a tank top IS being covered in todays world. We don’t walk around 24/7 in bikinis and lingerie, half of us would cause guys to look the other way if we did! Lol.

    Enjoying your blog!! :)

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Haha, thanks for sharing that story. :) I had that experience, too!

  • http://readythreadsew.wordpress.com ReadyThreadSew

    I don’t and have never subscribed to any sort of modesty doctrine, but I think that if someone genuinely wants to be “modest” then they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Dressing in clothes that are obviously different from the norm immediately draws attention which seems to be the opposite of modesty.

    Years ago I shopped at a particular supermarket on a particular day and the same family was often there at the same time. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them except for the fact that the female members of the family had hair that had obviously never been cut and they wore long skirts and long sleeves even in the hottest of weather and their clothes looked obviously home-made. I also seem to remember that the oldest of the female members of this family wore headscarves. This “modest” clothing meant that people stared at them (I know I wasn’t the only person who noticed them because I also watched other people around me to see if they were noticing). If they had been wearing normal clothing (such as jeans and a plain t-shirt), and had trimmed hair then I doubt anyone would have noticed them at all because they would have just blended into the background with all the other people wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

    Everything I have read about the “modesty doctrine” seems to say “LOOK AT ME! – see how modest I am.” which is very bizarre.

    I was interested enough in the “modest” family to look up their clothing and they were probably Plymouth Brethren. If they had all been wearing jeans and a t-shirt I would have never noticed them enough to even consider them. I couldn’t even begin to remember any other people who were in that supermarket on that particular day because they never drew attention to themselves by their clothing.

  • Meggie

    Question for all men – At the pool last summer who did you stare at?
    1) Me: Overweight, 30s, board shorts, t-shirt
    2) My daughter: Early teens, stunningly beautiful face but no shape, tankini top, board shorts
    3) Daughters friend: Early teens, very curvy, average appearance, bikini top, board shorts
    4) Fundy girls: Early teens, very pretty, trying to swim in jumper+blouse
    5) Her mother: about my age but hard to tell as hair covered and wearing jumper+blouse, sitting under a tree with several toddlers watching her daughters.

    My husband and teenage sons answer (4). Not sexual but because they pitied the girls trying to swim and getting tangled in her skirt. So much for modesty. Number (5) was a close second. Again, not sexual but why does she bother coming at all if she is going to sit on the side wrestling with her toddlers. Why not send the teenage girls together? Doesn’t she trust them? Why not send a brother along instead who could at least swim too?

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Very good points! I see families like that occasionally and it makes me sad. I remember how awful and conspicuous I felt at the beach in a baggy dress. The poor girls must be so self-conscious.