On Modesty and Moving the Bar

On Modesty and Moving the Bar June 20, 2012

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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