The Myth of Modesty: Part Three

For introduction and previous posts in this series, please see Part One & Part Two.

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?

I usually try to avoid the slippery slope logical fallacy at all costs, which is when a person argues that if A happens, B will inevitably happen, without providing any logical context for how we will get from A to B.

So I’m going to tell you about A. Then I’m going to tell you about B. But I’m also going to include  how you get from A to B, thus eliminating the slippery slope part of the fallacy from this scenario.

A:  Tell men that what women wear can cause them to sin.

B: Rape and assault.

See, this is where a person could argue I’m using the slippery slope fallacy, but I’m going to connect the dots.

I know it sounds extreme, but a large part of the prevalence of rape culture comes from this idea that if women were just more modest in their dress, rape would be less of a problem. You can see this is the history of the Slutwalk, which was created after a Canadian police constable told women that they should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

A common phrase thrown around when discussing rape is that “she was asking for it,” which is usually associated with a woman’s dress or behavior before she is raped. However, this is never, ever, ever true. A person never asks for rape. In fact, a PSA in Scotland tackled this very myth, reminding viewers that “nobody asks to be raped, ever.”

I recently read an excellent explanation of why jokes about rape are so inexcusable. In full over at Shakesville, a commenter explained that there is one thing rapists seem to believe: that every other man out there is a rapist. Rape jokes, the author asserts, contribute to this belief. When a rapist hears someone make light of rape (“That test raped me,” or jokes about prison rape, or any other trivialization of sexual assault), he hears one thing: affirmation. Affirmation that everyone else is like him. Everyone “struggles” with this, or everyone accepts it.

When you are told constantly by your culture that something is just an inevitable part of life, you’re going to think it’s normal that you deal with it. Christian men are told that ALL THE OTHER MEN AROUND THEM are obsessed with sex, masturbation, pornography, arousal, lust, etc. Equating sexual arousal with lust just contributes to this.

I don’t mean to say that men who want to stop lusting are the same as rapists. However, I am saying that if you tell a woman that what she wears “causes” a man to sin, why is it that you wouldn’t make the logical conclusion that her fashion choices could cause more than just the sin of lust? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to argue that if a woman can cause a man to the sin of lust because of her short skirt or cleavage, then she could also cause a man to commit the sin of rape?

That is a correlation that only leads to conclusions that I can’t support as a Christian. I’m not comfortable with the first statement (“a woman can cause a man to lust sinfully”), and that’s because it’s too close to saying the second statement (“a woman can cause a man to rape”).

If we are okay with saying that the way a woman dresses “causes” a man to sin, we’re contributing to this idea that some men just won’t be able to handle it, and their sin is going to go beyond lust and transition to rape. I don’t care what language you use, either. Maybe someone says, “Oh, I’m not saying that a woman CAUSES a man to sin, but it’s just that she can help prevent it by dressing more modestly.” Or she can help him not to sin. Or she can protect him from having sinful thoughts.

She can’t. A woman cannot prevent a man from sinning. She can’t stop it, help prevent it, protect him from it. NO ONE CAN CAUSE ANYONE ELSE TO SIN. EVER. There is literally NOTHING in the Bible that implies that a person can prevent someone else from sinning, or cause someone else to sin. Sin is 100% about personal choice.

I’ll repeat my earlier point: a woman could walk down the street naked, and she would still not be responsible for anyone else’s lust. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that a person can cause another person to sin. Nowhere is there an instance of someone being the cause of someone else’s sin.

Jacob chose to trick his father into thinking he was Esau. David chose to murder Bathsheba’s husband after he saw her naked on the roof. Judas chose to betray Jesus Christ.

You can’t blame someone else for your sin. Ever.

A "Modest is Hottest" t-shirt in a child's size from an Etsy Shop

5) If sexual arousal is not lust, can you still teach young women that modesty is important and/or relevant?

Confession: my title for this series, “The Myth of Modesty,” is a little bit disingenuous, because I don’t think modesty itself is really a myth. It’s just the way that we approach it that is mythical in nature.

The myth of modesty is that women can control men’s lust by dressing in a certain way.

After several days, I have worked out why this blog post upsets me as much as it does: it’s because I used to believe this stuff. I used to buy into it wholeheartedly. I used to think it really was a woman’s responsibility to dress modestly in order to protect men.

I don’t anymore.

Writing all of this is like trying to argue with my past self. I want to prove to my old self that none of this makes any sense.

If a woman wants to dress modestly, it should be for herself, and only herself. If she believes it is morally and scripturally correct to cover her body from head to toe, she should do that. She should hold herself accountable to what she believes is spiritually appropriate. Teach that to young Christian girls if you want to. Teach them that the Bible urges moderation and self-control. Teach them that modesty is about only showing certain parts that you choose to protect–whether that is your shoulders, your hips, your stomach, your breasts, your nipples, your back, your whatever–to an individual you choose to show it to. That’s fine! Argue that Scripture demands that we cover our bodies in a certain way, even if you’re bound to have a hard time defining modesty through scriptural standards, considering we’re at a totally different point in history, and I doubt anyone really wants to go back to Pauline dress codes for women and men.

But don’t make it about protecting men. Don’t make it about preventing someone else from sinning.

Because once we start down that road, we’re living that lowest common denominator type of faith, which is something God never calls us to do.

To recap and close out this blog series, let me say this: It’s not sin to be sexually aroused, so it is misplaced zeal to tell women they need to cover up to “protect” men from arousal. And because a man can make that decision to sin–and really lust, not just be biologically affected by what he sees–no matter what a woman is wearing, responsibility should never be placed on women, because that only leads to more and more rules and regulations for women to follow that aren’t actually doing any good anyway. Finally, teaching young women to be modest is perfectly acceptable, if you emphasize that modesty is strictly about their relationship with God, and not about causing or preventing anyone else’s sin.

This article first appeared on Back to the Hoosier State.

14 replies on “The Myth of Modesty: Part Three”

I went and read the original article, Modesty: A Pursuit of Holiness. Yipe. Thank you, LizBR, for addressing its insidiousness!

My main beef (and it’s a huge, bone-in ribeye), is that the author (and many of her supporters) attempt to use the stumbling block concept from Romans 14:13 as the rationale for wanting Christian women to wear more modest clothes. But the problem with that is, no matter how thoughtful the author may have attempted to be, she (and one of her most prolific defenders/commenters, Cameron) relies on a misreading of Romans 14:13. Paul wrote to the Romans in response to Christians (new ones in particular) engaging in pointless arguing with other Christians about unimportant rules in the church. It’s trying to call out other people on minor differences of opinion that was the “stumbling block”, not ladies in hot, spicy clothing or anything of the like. And, uh, what is making an issue out of the sexiness of other people’s clothing if not a calling out of minor differences of opinion? The article is completely hypocritical on its face. The writer (and her supporters/defenders) also happen to leave out the first part of Romans 14:13 entirely, which is “Don’t condemn each other.” So, um, a condemnation of other people’s outfits is probably not in line with this piece of scripture either.  That seems kiiiinda problematic to me.

That said, the comments were definitely more troubling to me than the article itself (which was plenty troubling, but not super acerbic), in particular comments from the above mentioned Cameron, who has declared himself the definitive word on all things biblical, and some other sociopath who compares the power women hold over men when they wear sexy outfits to the power male rapists hold over female rape victims/survivors when they’re raping them (AHHHHH!). But there are a few good nuggets in the comments too. In particular, from one person who gives a great CS Lewis quote that references Matthew 7:3, “Why worry about the speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” I thought it was a pretty salient quote, since a low cut dress definitely seems like a speck compared to the log of writing articles that speak to the kind of folks who think wearing shorts and raping are the same thing. But that commenter got jumped on by the uber-pietist Cameron. So some other commenter came to the CS Lewis quoter’s defense and it turned out to be a pretty good internet fight (I sort of enjoy internet fights, I might be sick). That commenter and Cameron had a couple more rounds too where the anti-Cameron used my favorite line from all of the comments (I like anti-Cameron because anti-Cameron seems to have actually read and understood Romans 14:13); pointing out that the actual meaning of the Romans passage is to tell Christians to avoid causing each other distress by bickering about petty stuff, the comment says, “What’s pettier than criticizing another Christian’s clothes?”

Which is, I guess, my take on the whole Modesty: A Pursuit of Holiness article and the nasty comments that followed, they were incredibly petty (in addition, of course, to being misguided, patriarchal, Pecksniffish, legalistic, misogynist, and paternalistic (yeah, I kind of got the thesaurus involved, it was right there!).

But maybe my words need to be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m wearing yoga pants right now, they’re pretty tight in the buns and they also show a lot of calf; that’s just how the Christians I know and love roll.

Thank you for saying all of this! I’ve been thinking and thinking about how best to respond to that misuse of certain Biblical prooftexts that supporters of the modesty myth seem to cling to. I haven’t quite figured out my response yet in an articulate way, but you’ve done really well here. Thanks!

Also, your take on the comments is really insightful.

I agree with what you’re saying, but basing it on the bible is shaky at best: “There is literally NOTHING in the Bible that implies that a person can prevent someone else from sinning, or cause someone else to sin. Sin is 100% about personal choice.” But the bible begins with exactly a situation like that – Eve makes Adam eat from the Forbidden Fruit, and thus indeed makes him sin. This isn’t an interpretation – the whole Christian doctrine is based on this, that Eve made Adam sin and therefore women are less then men and carry the birth sin….

1 Timothy 2:12-14 “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

Cluisanna, I think you make a thought-provoking point, but I do think a lot of this comes down to interpretation, and many of the interpretations we see as THE biblical, foundational interpretation are just patriarchal translations and scriptures quoted out of context or in manipulative ways by sexist male religious leaders. I could be wrong on this, but contextually, my understanding is that in the early Ephesian church, which Paul references in 1 Timothy 2:12-14, the newer converts happened to be women (which makes sense historically, since women were societally oppressed and not likely to be the frontrunners); because they were the newer converts and the men had been the earlier converts, Paul’s instruction was that the women’s teaching would come second (my translation says “teach second” rather than “suffer not a woman to teach”, because the new converts didn’t yet have the necessary depth of knowledge of Christianity needed for teaching, the older converts, the men in the church in Ephesus, were to be the first to teach as they had more training.  In previous letters where Paul discusses Adam and Eve, some scholars see the verses as illustrative of what was happening in the Ephesian church in particular, rather than churches broadly. This view stresses that Paul’s teachings were not universal but applicable to churches with similar problems only. As for Eve as deceiver, Adam as deceived, Paul places the blame for sin squarely and singly on Adam in Romans. Romans 5:12 explicitly states that Adam’s sin brought death, with no mention in the entire passage to Eve. That at times Eve is mentioned primarily and at times Adam is mentioned primarily suggests culpability by both. In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about women prophesying and publicly praying, suggesting again that the Ephesians piece is context based rather than broad in application and intent. But, seriously, Paul is tough for me. What I was taught is that the language Paul uses is not about inferiority of women, since both women and men are made in God’s image, but are supposed to be about mutual commitment and cooperation. Even when the word “submission” is used by Paul, the context suggests that it isn’t to imply surrender, withdrawal, or apathy, but that God calls for submission among equals in various contexts. That Christ practiced submission reflects this as well, and also reflects the non-gender specific nature of submission. In Romans, it’s Adam, not Eve, who’s mentioned as acting as the opposite of Christ. And the term “birth” in scriptures has complex meaning as well. Many scholars believe that the mention of childbirth in 1 Timothy references the birth of Christ, and rebirth through redemption. Others reference translations that point to the nature of, well, nature. That as life begets life, people are to follow what God has naturally ordained them to do. If you’re talented in painting, live love through paint. If you’re talented in engineering, live love through engineering. In any case, I don’t see how the whole of Christian doctrine is based on Eve making Adam sin, since, Adam and Eve are both culpable figures throughout the Bible (as well as both the deceived, to the serpent’s deceiver), and since it’s the redemption of sin, rather than the origin of it, that Christ speaks to. In terms of sin origin, “all have sinned” applies equally to men and women and doesn’t leave any room for saying, “she made me do it.” In Genesis 3:11-13, when God asks Adam about the fruit, and Adam tries to blame Eve, and Eve then tries to blame the serpent, it’s not like God buys Adam’s, “she made me do it,” he turns to them and says they’ve both sinned, the first, the second, that’s not the point, both will suffer consequences (and the consequences can be seen as symbolic, Eve through suffering in childbirth, Adam through suffering at pounding dead, thorny earth, both of these sufferings of pain and toil are types that last through the ages, the gender part isn’t the point, the continuation, that these are types of permanently recurring suffering, is the point). When God says to the serpent, “your offspring and her offspring will be enemies” he refers to her, Eve as mother of women, hence mother of Mary, mother of the serpent’s ultimate enemy, Christ.

Just another potential take on it, at least. In terms of lending itself better to scholarship, I like the Life Application Study Bible it’s a New Living Translation, much more contextual…I need a new way to say “contextual” I’ve said that word a ton.

You make some awesome points, but I’d like to add one of my own.

There is a very good chance that Timothy was not written by Paul. The vocabulary in Timothy is significantly different from letters that are more clearly authenticated, and has more in common with 2nd century Christian writing. They also tackle themes that were more common problems to the 2nd century Christians, such as how to preserve the church after the apostles were gone (1st century writers tended more to the idea that Jesus would come back in their lifetime), as well as a somewhat anti-Gnostic streak that is uncharacteristic of early Christianity. There is good reason to question the authority of those letters.

Cluisanna, I grew up in a really fundamentalist Christian church, and that was never taught to me growing up. In fact, it was always emphasized that Adam acted of his own volition, and that he was with Eve when the snake tempted her with the fruit, and he chose to take it and eat it. Even in my screwed up little church where fundamentalism reigned, Eve’s culpability was always on equal footing with Adam’s.

I think  Buster Blonde does a pretty great job of talking about the New Testament references to Eve, though, so I’ll leave that to her. :)


I am reminded of the story of Tamar in the Bible. I believe the other figure was Ammon or Amnon, but they were both children of King David–by different mothers. (This story is found either in one of the Samuels or one of the Kings, btw.) Amnon lusted after Tamar. He obsessed over her, and one of his friends thought up a plan that would get the two of them alone so he could rape her. It happens and Tamar is devastated. No one handles the situation well, but the reason I bring this up is that of modesty. When she is evicted from her half-brother’s home after the rape, she tears her garments to symbolize shame and mourning. The way her clothing is described makes it sounds like elaborately adorned robes. It makes the modesty issue somewhat moot, imo. I know that rape is about power not about sex, but it also says specifically that there was a lust issue. You can’t pawn that end result off on Tamar.

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