Manly Modesty?

Manly Modesty? June 12, 2013

Every time I write about modesty, people comment pointing out that there’s a double standard—modesty is about girls dressing a certain way so that guys won’t be turned on by women’s bodies, and the idea that girls might be turned on by guys is generally left out of the picture completely. In this light, I found a recent article on the Christian Post interesting.

Near the end of my pastoral tenure a shift happened I had never experienced in 20 years of ministry. After a sermon in which I addressed men and lust a woman approached me and asked, “When are you going to start challenging women in this area? Don’t you think we struggle with lust, too?”

I was very much taken about because, frankly, I had never considered it.

He had never considered it.He had never considered it. Twenty years of ministry, twenty years of preaching modest, and he’d never thought about the fact that women are also sexual beings. This alone is illustrative of a huge blind spot in the circles that preach modest, if you ask me.

Not long after that I had occasion to sit with our middle and high school students to discuss summer activities. When talking over the annual “one-piece suits or two-piece with a dark t-shirt over it” rules, one high-school girl said, “Why don’t the boys have to wear shirts? Don’t you think girls have problems looking?” A spirited discussion ensued in which the girls eventually backed down from their assertion that boys should wear shirts when swimming.

After one lake outing I did hear a faithful girl say, “Wow! ________ looks fiiiiine with those 6-pack abs!” It was clear she was not talking about one of her female friends…they were all wearing one-piece suits. No abs on display.

Wow. The girls told the leadership that they think the guys should have to cover up too, and they got pushback. And they backed down—but in the end, they were the ones who were right.

Without speculating as to the cause or timing of this shift, let just sum it up this way: there are, even within the body of Christ, teenaged and adult females who struggle with lust. Their eyes betray their hearts in the same way most teen and adult males have experienced since puberty.

You want to know what “without speculating as to the cause or timing of this shift” means? It means that this Christian pastor and modesty preacher thinks that women didn’t used to think sexual thoughts about attractive guys, and that the fact that he’s now aware that they do means there has to have been some change. Um. Right. No.

I think the question is, “Are women the only ones who need to be modest or are men also accountable?” I think there is no question we are accountable. Male followers of Christ should take modesty as seriously as we want, hope and pray that our sisters in Christ would.

While most of those teaching modesty do continue to uphold a double standard based on the idea that guys are more sexual and/or more visually oriented than girls, not all do. I grew up on these modesty teachings, and at some point my parents began requiring my brothers to wear shirts, both when swimming and when just hanging out. One of my brothers didn’t like shirts when he was a teenager, and wanted to go without around the house, but my parents put their foot down and that ended that. (“Think of your sisters,” they said.) Another thing about rejecting double standards—in my family, it wasn’t just the girls who got purity rings when they turned 13, it was the boys too.

Still, I think the shock with which the author of the article quoted from above admitted that yes, girls are sexual beings who have sexual thoughts too, is very, very telling. There’s too often a tendency in the purity culture to view girls as natural sexual innocents and boys as natural sexual deviants. For example, much of what girls are told deals with how to resist male advances, rather than with how to resist their own sexual impulses. There’s another angle too—I often heard that boys are visual while girls are emotional. There’s this idea that women are turned on by reading romance novels but not by the sight of really nice pecks. This is wrong. In my experience, if women aren’t equally as visual as men we’re pretty darn close.

It is possible that this modesty double standard may be starting to change—not because of a shift in women’s sexual proclivities, however they may bill it, but because of an increasing understanding that women, too have sexual urges and desires and are, yes, visual creatures. This makes me wonder whether an eroding of the modesty double standard might at all affect the strong patriarchal nature of these groups’ understandings of sex and gender relations.

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