I have a bad habit: I like to read things that make me mad. What started in high school as reading Movieguide.org’s ridiculous movie reviews during church (“implied off-screen naturalistic upper female nudity!”) has grown and morphed into a quirk I can’t shake. I read a lot of blogs I disagree with, spend a lot of time on ultra-right wing news sites, listen to vile people like Glenn Beck in the car (but not when my two-year-old daughter is with me — I don’t want to expose her to that sort of thing!), and frequently stop on channels where televangelists are preaching. (That one annoys my husband quite a bit.)
It’s almost a compulsion to interact with things that make me angry. Maybe it is sick, but it’s what I do.
It’s not uncommon for me to call my brother Phil and say, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT I READ ON THE INTERNET!” I have stories of men saying that women should never have been given the right to vote because it “broke down the family unit.” I’ve read comments condemning a mother for acquiring abortion services for a 9-year-old girl who was pregnant through incest — with twins. I assign my composition students a “takedown” essay, where they must identify a viral meme or image or status update that bothers them, and explain why its assumptions are problematic. You won’t believe what they’ve found out there, and let me tell you, I don’t have any trouble finding examples of viral content that frustrates me to give them as examples. (It helps that my friend Susan writes such awesome takedowns for Persephone, like this one, this one, and this one.)
Anyway, that’s what I hope to do in this series of posts: to “take down” something I’ve read on the internet.
Why? Because since reading this particular blog a few days ago, I’ve experienced over the last few days is the opposite of enjoying a healthy dose of rage. I’ve been reflecting for about three days on a blog post that I disagreed with, sure, but that has affected me far more than all of those other things that get me up in arms. This has bothered me more than content posted on Facebook by my Ron Paul loving friends, more than any randomized selection of Rick Santorum quotes, more than idiots on YouTube calling everyone who has ever uploaded a video a fatass.
I like to have silly bouts of anger over those things.
Mulling over this content has not felt silly or trivial at all. It has felt haunting and upsetting and incredibly frustrating.
On Saturday, a woman in my community, whom I don’t really know personally but with whom I have many friends in common, posted this article on her blog that she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about and developing. It is a treatise, of sorts, about the importance of modesty for Christian women. I have only heard good things about this woman. From what I’ve read of her writing, she seems kind and thoughtful and talented. In fact, part of me thinks I shouldn’t even write this reply, because what if it is hurtful to her? However, I’ve always felt that if I put something on a blog, I am welcoming public responses, and I think it’s fair to believe she assumes the same, so I’m going to follow those guidelines and respond in the best way I can. Plus, I’m going to guess she doesn’t want this as one incredibly long comment on her blog.
When I sat down to write a comment in reply to her blog post, it ended up being seven single-spaced pages of a Word document. That’s what has prompted this multi-part series.
Now, I should start with this: I am a Christian. I grew up in an evangelistic home. I believe that sin exists, and that Christianity is at its heart about living in community with other people. There are certain things you give up in order to live in a community. You give up total autonomy, for example. You give up the “I can do this on my own” mindset. You give up on refusing to look a little foolish from time to time. Community is great. It’s a beautiful thing. So, I love Jesus, and I love church.
But I don’t love the idea that this young woman who I’ll call K promotes on her blog: the idea that to live in Christian community, women must adopt a spirit of “modesty” in order to glorify God and help men not to “stumble,” “fall into sin,” or “struggle.”
I don’t agree.
Here are some quotes from the blog post that has had me thinking and struggling and angry and obsessed since the weekend:
“And as I’ve gotten older and attend weddings as my job, I’ve seen that some of the most radiant and strong Christian women I know believe the lie that it’s okay to show a little cleavage on your wedding day if that’s how the dress is supposed to look. The guy staring at you up front is about to be your husband anyway, so it’s okay. Nevermind all the other men in the room.”
“Just the other day my husband’s good friend told him that he is dreading spring and summer because of the way women dress. Between work, facebook, or simply going to the grocery store, it can be a non-stop battle for the men in our life during those hot summer days when we are simply just trying to stay cool. My brother eventually deleted his facebook account for a couple years just because those seemingly harmless photos posted by his girl friends had turned his facebook into something more harmful than beneficial.”
“But it’s also not fair that men are so much more stimulated by what they see than we are and they can’t control what we wear. Only we can.”
“I’m not writing this to harshly judge anyone. I’m writing because I believe more women who claim to follow Christ and pursue His holiness need to be reminded that dressing modestly is just another part of that process. They aren’t separate. And to the one or two men that might possibly still be reading this: please don’t be afraid to tell us the harsh truth that we need to hear to protect YOU. We won’t get it until you tell us.”
Here are some quotes from the comments section of her blog, which have been overwhelmingly supportive:
“It takes a really strong, disciplined man to look away when he sees something that makes him lust. And yes, after he sees it, it’s his responsibility to own up to how he handles it. But we believe that brothers and sisters in Christ should do what they can to help each other and not put each other in that situation.”
“Let’s put this in different terms; would you like your husband (or future depending) to lust after a young girl wearing a short skirt and barely any shirt so much that he has an affair with her and divorces you because of that short skirt.”
“I actually conclude that it is the woman who most often has the problem. The problem is called “control”. It pleases her immensely when heads turn, especially if they are good looking, have status, power and are supposedly “holy”. She knows that in most cases, she could seduce these men if they could get by with the seduction, and it gives her power.
It, to me, is no less than the power a male rapist exerts, which experts declare is more about the power than the sex. It is control at its finest.”
“Women can be allies to men in glorifying God by not giving them reason to stumble–so that they can focus on the things that God wants them to focus on.”
“’Legalism”’is believing that your salvation comes from following rules. People often toss out the ‘legalism’ card any time they are confronted with something that needs to change in their life. Legalism is doing something for the sake of rules and being a slave to it–what Karissa is pleading for women to do is to be modest for the sake of love for fellow men and for God.”
“I know that modesty may look different on different women with different body types and you’re right that each woman will have her own convictions about what is “modest”, however, because the need for modesty is to protect and help our brothers to keep from stumbling (Romans 14:13) and to draw attention to Christ and not ourselves, I feel so strongly that we as women need to be much more aware and understanding of the power that we have in this area.”
These words! They have been turning over and over in my head for the last few days, to the point that it’s all I want to talk about. I’ve been calling my brother, sharing the link with people I consider my church to read and discuss, talking with one of my best friends at length on the phone, writing and re-writing responses, and alternating between discouraged and angry. This afternoon I even ran the whole thing by one of my colleagues at work, just to see if I was the only one who thought this to be absurd. I chatted with one of my best friends from college this afternoon, too, and we talked at length about the problems with this way of looking at the world.
And the biggest problem? This just doesn’t make sense!
I don’t know how to respond. Part of me wants to flash a KBURD or that awesome President Bartlett gif, but I know myself too well. I can never settle for the one-liners. One-liners cannot do the topic justice; I’m not even sure if all of these pages can fully explain why this is so upsetting, but I’ve never been able to back down from this kind of challenge.
So. I’m going to try to be like my friend Susan and do a takedown of this idea of “modesty.” There is no way I can touch on everything that is said in that post and the follow-up comments, but I can at least process my thoughts and explain why I think this interpretation of scripture and modesty is wrong.
Channeling my Susan takedown skills now…
My series will respond to four main questions.
1) Is sexual arousal the same as lust, and is it a sin?
2) If it’s not a sin, is it my responsibility to protect someone from it?
3) If sexual arousal IS lust and is sin, then can one person be held responsible for someone else’s sin?
4) What risks does a person take by believing that sexual arousal and lust are the same thing, and that women are obligated to help men avoid them?
5) If sexual arousal is not lust, can you still teach young women that modesty is important and/or relevant?
I’ll discuss the first two questions in Part Two.
This article first appeared on Back to the Hoosier State.