The Myth of Modesty: Part Two

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

1) Is sexual arousal the same as lust, and is it a sin?

The blog post I’m responding to follows the assumption that:

A) Lust is sin.
B) Sexual arousal is lust.
C) Therefore, sexual arousal is sin.

Sexual arousal is NOT the same thing as lust or sin. Matthew 5:28 says that looking at a woman lustfully is the same thing as adultery, but what it doesn’t do is equate sexual arousal with lust. This is a major problem in the American church. We treat getting turned on as if it is the same as lusting after someone. If you want to interpret the scripture to believe that lust for someone other than your spouse is wrong, that’s okay! But we have a historical tradition of defining sin as something a person chooses to do, and experiencing a biological, physical reaction to something that you view as appealing is NOT SIN. I’ll just put it bluntly: boners are not sin. If a guy gets turned on because a woman in a short skirt walks by, that’s not sin. If a Christian man sees cleavage and thinks, “That’s hot,” he’s not sinning.

My husband Chalupa and I have been married for five years. Never once has it bothered me to think that he might find another woman is attractive. Of course he thinks other women are attractive–they are! I have hot friends! He has hot women friends! I literally could not care less if he finds someone else attractive, because it doesn’t affect me. At all. He has never seemed to mind that I clearly find Opie from Sons of Anarchy attractive, either, because guess what? OPIE IS ATTRACTIVE.* And it doesn’t matter. Because finding someone attractive is simply not a sin. It’s not in the Bible, and it doesn’t make sense with, you know, science.

Opie from Sons of Anarchy. See what I mean? (Image from FX Networks)

If Christians continue to interpret involuntary attraction as sin, then we are going to continue to feel the need to “protect” each other from that “sin.” Which takes us to the second question.

2) If it’s not a sin, is it my responsibility to protect someone from it?  

If something is not a sin, I shouldn’t be expected to try to protect someone from it. I’m not the bodily function police. I don’t try to keep people from having to pee. I don’t get to decide what people eat. I don’t have to encourage people to take the elevator because they get out of breath on the stairs up to my office, and I want to control their bodies’ natural reaction to physical exertion.

Arousal is biological and natural, just like breathing and eating and drinking and startle reflexes and all those other things you learn about in science class.  If something is not a sin, there is no reason to try to keep someone from doing it.

It is absolutely the responsibility of the person who sees something that turns them on to decide what they want to do with that arousal. It seems most men outside of the church either enjoy the experience or move on without incident, but neither of those reactions are detrimental to anybody in question. I don’t like this idea that we portray Christian men as these weak, sniveling, pathetic dudes who are slaves to human skin. Who are these men that must fight SO HARD against temptation?

Here’s my theory: they’ve been told they’re supposed to fight against being turned on. And that would be difficult! And fruitless! And if you’re supposed to avoid being turned on at all costs, then sure, you’d want to ask women to dress in a certain way. But if Christian men recognized that getting aroused is NOT sin, their “struggles” would be eased pretty quickly. I recommend getting rid of this response: “Oh, shit! A hot girl! She has boobs! And I can see part of them! Now I’m turned on, and I’m sinning! Oh, shit, I’m sinning! I want that! I’m not supposed to want that! Stop wanting that! Stop it! Crap, now I’m going to think about this later! I wonder if the rest of her skin is that smooth? Wait! No! Stop thinking about it! Still turned on! I’m sinning! God, help me! Why did she wear that cleavage-y wedding dress! She’s basically dressed like a slut! Doesn’t she know that there are men in this congregation?!”

Instead, Christian men should embrace this response: “A hot girl! She has boobs! And I can see part of them! Now I’m turned on! Okay, no big deal. My day can continue. She was hot.”

If we are that concerned with “protecting” each other and being brothers in sisters in Christ, then isn’t it best not to judge one another and continually place unnecessary pressures on men? Creating sin where it doesn’t exist, forcing men to beat themselves up over something that they clearly cannot help, is not looking out for anyone’s best interest. Telling someone that their biological processes are sinful is incredibly damaging. Suggesting that women wear incredibly modest clothing to prevent male sexual arousal only creates more problems when the men continue to be aroused anyway, whether the subject of his attention is in a bikini or a burka. Women who perpetuate ideas like the ones in this blog post aren’t looking out for their brothers, who should be reassured that sexual desire is a totally normal and non-sinful thing, but rather are bringing down their sisters. And the ultimate effect on their brothers is nil.

When I was talking to my friend Lana today via chat, I said it like this:

If these men aren’t beating themselves up over getting a boner, maybe they wouldn’t have to feel so guilty, like they’re in some giant struggle.

3) If sexual arousal IS lust and is sin, then can one person be held responsible for someone else’s sin?

I am absolutely certain in my belief that sexual arousal is a natural, biological process, and not a sin. However, there are still some people who are going to want to define sexual arousal as lust, and therefore sin. Or, they’re going to want to argue that the slope from arousal to lust is so slippery that it is nearly impossible to differentiate the two things. Or they’re going to insist that even if it’s not really a woman’s FAULT that a man lusts because of what he sees, women can still contribute to “helping” men not to sin sexually.

However, it doesn’t really matter whether or not sexual arousal is sin or not, because the fact remains: no one can cause another person to sin.

Additionally, if we describe lust for what it is–obsessive, overwhelming desire that a person refuses to choose to control–then it really doesn’t matter what a woman is wearing. When I looked up “Christian definition of lust,” I found things like this:

“The simple definition of lust is having a self-absorbed desire for an object, person, or experience. When we are in lust, we place the object of our desire above all things in our lives. From a Christian perspective lust is bad because we are putting the object of our lust above God.”

I think that’s a pretty decent definition, when it really comes down to it. Notice that it doesn’t put any blame on the object of lust–it is completely under the control of the person doing the lusting.

If a man wants to lust after a woman and ignore the consequences, he will. That is 100% his choice. A woman could be wearing a floor-length skirt and a wool turtleneck sweater (which is basically what I happen to be wearing today), and if a dude wants to lust after her, he will. A woman is never, ever, ever responsible for someone else’s sin. She could walk down the street naked and it is still up to anyone who sees her to decide if they are going to lust or not.

There are no other “sins” that our modern church blames on anyone but the sinner. We don’t say that thieves were tempted into their thievery because their victims had nice things. We don’t say that children should stay inside because they might tempt those poor, weak pedophiles. We don’t say that a person who is hit by a drunk driver is at fault because they went driving on a Saturday night, which is a time when there happen to be more drunk drivers on the road. If I get really angry while watching a sporting event, it doesn’t matter how mad I get–it’s not my fault if the guy next to me throws his Mountain Dew into the TV. He can’t say that my anger egged him on, and I should have stayed calm to help him keep from getting carried away.

In no other instances do we say that sin is the fault of someone other than the sinner.

There is a lot of talk in those threads about “accountability” and being “allies” and “protecting” men, but I just don’t buy it. I can’t find Biblical evidence that supports the idea that we are supposed to live according to the lowest common denominator of behavior. If we are really concerned, and this is a situation where men cannot help themselves, and it’s the fault of women, then women should either wear burkas, or men should be willing to pluck their eyes out, like Jesus instructs in Mark 9:27. That protects everybody, right?

I once witnessed something that was upsetting: a small Christian community had the opportunity to present an imperfect but compelling documentary about the problems that accompany the objectification of women. It’s called The Bro Code. However, because there are sexy images of women in the video, the decision was made not to show the documentary to the community. The fear was that it would “cause men to sin,” or “make men feel uncomfortable.” Here was an opportunity to inform an entire community about the REAL problems of an overly-sexualized culture, and it was completely ignored because some of the dudes in the room could have gotten turned on by the bared hips and lip-licking video clips. How disappointing.

I will discuss the risks of this kind of thinking and responsible options for Christians who want to promote modesty in Part Three.

*I’m kind of excited that I just got to put this particular all-caps statement into a blog post. There should probably be an entire blog called that. OPIE IS ATTRACTIVE. DOTCOM.

This article first appeared on Back to the Hoosier State.

40 replies on “The Myth of Modesty: Part Two”

I agree that because of the way the Christian subculture views arousal, lust and sex, we are creating a very, very unhealthy view of sexuality, particularly for women. When you’re taught that your body is the gateway to hell for men by causing them to “sin,” it’s hard to totally switch that mindset off once you’re married and sexual activity is fair game (if you abide by the “no sex till marriage clause).

It’s ironic since growing up in the church, I always heard the message that the Christian view of sexuality was always the healthiest. I lol at that now.

I was raised VERY strictly Catholic (my mom wanted to be a nun before she met my dad), so I got a good dose of the ‘modesty’ line growing up.  I still have an ingrained aversion to showing even a hint of midriff.  Anyway, one thing that has always chapped my ass over the whole modesty thing is – are women not capable of lust?? The way men dress (or half dress) couldn’t possible cause arousal in women??  C’mon!  If I wear a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage and the tiniest bit of belly then I’m dressed indecently, but a guy with a six pack and rock hard arms can go around with no shirt on then, what, he’s just cooling off?!?  Isn’t he causing me to lust?  (why yes, yes he is…)

This is where people always come back with the “well, men are just more visual than women” line. Which I think is total bs. The women I know are just as visual as men in terms of what attracts them. I wouldn’t be surprised if a study showed that women are attracted by many more characteristics than men, in general, but I don’t think that it somehow makes the visual attraction less intense.

Jeez, being a Christian sounds tiring. Having to think about all of this stuff all the time? Man.

How about, “I dress however I want, he can dress however he wants, we may or may not find each other attractive, if we do, hooray! If we don’t, we can just be friends.”

One of the side effect from the church assuming arousal is sin, young people (especially women) are so use to saying no I can’t do any of that or think like that.  When they get married their intimacy is stressed.  We are expected to turn off the no switch as soon as we get married.  That takes effort and awareness.

As for the bible and arousal being okay, I look at the book: Song of Solomon.  It is a love letter to a woman that he found beautiful and desirable.

A friend of mine said it very well when she described the message of the church to girls as:

When you’re a child, your body is beautiful and made by God and special and one-of-a-kind.

When you’re hit puberty, your body is shameful and should be covered up so as not to cause men to sin.

When you fall in love, your body must be controlled and covered at all times so as not to cause the person you love to sin.

When you get married, you must immediately switch from being controlled and covered to being masterful at sex. You must be modest in public and incredibly sensual in private, so you can keep your husband from straying.

It’s a horrible thing what the church tells young women.


This right here sums it up perfectly.

“The simple definition of lust is having a self-absorbed desire for an object, person, or experience. When we are in lust, we place the object of our desire above all things in our lives. From a Christian perspective lust is bad because we are putting the object of our lust above God.”

I think that’s a pretty decent definition, when it really comes down to it. Notice that it doesn’t put any blame on the object of lust—it is completely under the control of the person doing the lusting.”

How is one to know that their coral colored very short shorts are going to cause a man to put her well shaped ass above God? I try not to assume stupidity in my fellow men and women but if that’s what the original writer is going with, then I’m going to have to reconsider this stance. We must take care of and cultivate our own connections with God (or other form in the like) – I am NOT allowing other people to affect that relationship. It is my own. (It is times like this that I wish everyone went to the same summer camp I went to as a teen – there was a great discussion on this very topic…)

Only a little on topic: I’ve never understood the “Seven Deadly Sins.” They don’t seem very sinful.

Lust? As long as you’re not bothering anybody. Gluttony, sloth? Those are bad habits at worst. Pride? I don’t see the problem.

Shouldn’t the deadly sins be like: murder, rape, assault? I don’t know.


They’re more like the seven deadly motivations. And some of it is a “that is not really the original word” syndrome. Soth is probably better translated as apathy, which is a real problem. There are some issues about which fucks must be given in order to maintain decent human being status.

I think they are deadly to the person committing the sin? It’s like these are sins that will get yourself killed (or cause Kevin Spacy to come after your ass) – not necessarily sins that will get others killed (like murder, assault, rape, etc which are covered in the commandments).

The Seven Deadly Sins also aren’t biblical, IIRC, I think they come from Dante or Milton. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

It is interesting to note that Thou Shalt Not Rape is not one of the ten commandments. There are three about respecting/fearing/honoring god, which I always found a little redundant.

Which explains why my Southern Baptist school never talked about them specifically as “seven deadly sins.”   According to my HS curriculum, everything the Catholics did was wrong. (I then went on to a Catholic college. And now I’m at best an agnostic.)

Hell, in my HS, everything was a sin. Especially for the ladystudents.

I thought they weren’t also but then I Wikied(!) and found myself corrected.

They have morphed over time but some similarities still stand – some were adopted from other works and some were picked up by the Catholic Church. There are no bullet points saying “These are the seven deadly sins” but rather like supplemental texts.

But then, I walked out of my Sunday School class when the teacher said that whales didn’t go to Heaven so… my knowledge is limited. (as least I provided a link for others!)

I spent a lot of time in HS looking for biblical bullet points. I was very disappointed to find that most of the juicy stuff was from either Dante or Milton, and not verbatim in the bible.

I totally agree on animals and heaven! That’s probably where my religious skepticism started. “What? My dog can’t go to heaven? The worst thing he ever did was eat my allowance! Fuck this noise.”  My ideas and I have both evolved a bit since then, but that’s totally where it started.

Animal loving heathen fist bump.

I’ve heard that the original definition of Hell was not the “lake of fire” but rather “the absence of god.” I suspect they just got the spelling flipped. Show me a version of an afterlife with a) evidence to support it and b) where I get my puppy back? Instant convert.

Actually, Hell isn’t in the Bible, like at all until you get to translations. Jesus mentions Sheol and Hades, which are generic everyone goes there when they die places, and Gehenna which is a field outside of Jerusalem where they burned trash with some social context of being a place for God to smite people. He also uses the term unquenchable fire, but a Roman historian uses the exact same phrase when describing the burning of the library at Alexandria, so I’m inclined to believe that it just meant a fire that could not be put out, not a fire that burns for all eternity. I’m fairly convinced that there is no scriptural basis for Hell.

Pretty sure I bought a copy for the kiddo… we might have to read “Where the Wild Things Are” and then watch it, thus introducing the boy to the concept of “a good cry.” Of course, then I’ll end up watching that scene from “The Last Unicorn” and maybe the Season 2 finale of BtVS. It’s always a downward spiral. Why do we do this, indeed?

Loving this series, Liz! Some guys do think being turned on is a sin, which is crazy. That’s just the way bodies work.

In addition, I think men often get messages that their sexual arousal should always be satisfied. If they see a sexy lady, well then, unless they are a serial killer or something, they deserve to have her! But when they can’t have her–because it goes against their religion, or because the lady just isn’t into them, or whatever–they resent it. Even though it wasn’t owed to them in the first place.

Thank you, Bryn!

I think you’re onto something with the fact that men are told that if they are aroused, something MUST be done about it. I don’t think that’s just a church thing, either.  I can think of too many women who were made to feel incredibly guilty if they didn’t want sex (intercourse or otherwise) but their partners were already aroused, so they felt obligated to “put out.”


I always compare the difference between lust the sin and sexual arousal to the difference between gluttony the sin and feeling hungry. There is a big difference between feeling a urge and letting it carry you past the realm of morally responsible code. Hunger isn’t gluttony until you are valuing the pleasure of eating above being a responsible member of society and start seeking out dinners of baby tiger meat or something. Likewise sexual arousal turns into the sin of lust when you value your sexual gratification above seeing the object of your desire as a human deserving of respect.

I do sometimes think that some folks buy into the idea that men (and women) can somehow just shut off the sexual arousal feeling though. Which I don’t think is true myself, but still, it goes a long way to explaining why they feel so confounded by the the difference between sexual arousal and lust.

That is a REALLY good way of describing sexual arousal versus lust! Growing up, I thought everything sexual was bad–lots of contributing factors there–so to me, getting aroused by hot guys felt like I was already rolling head over heels down the sin hill. :P

When I looked up “Christian definition of lust,” I found things like this:

“The simple definition of lust is having a self-absorbed desire for an object, person, or experience. When we are in lust, we place the object of our desire above all things in our lives. From a Christian perspective lust is bad because we are putting the object of our lust above God.”

I found this definition very interesting, since it’s not the one I was under the impression many were using in these discussions. The definition of lust that a lot of the people I’ve heard discuss the importance of “Christian modesty” seems to be lust =s any sexual fantasy, regardless of how fleeting and whether of not one takes any related action. As in, see someone hot, think briefly about what they’d look like naked, etc. I think that’s a common definition for lay-people; I might, say, just hypothetically, post a shirtless Gendry .gif and describe myself as lusting after him. But what I’m feeling is sure as hell not what’s going on in that definition. It is, though, a little beyond a pure biological reaction; there is at least some degree of sustained intent, the absence of which is the reason an automatic response doesn’t count as a sin.

So. Am I characterizing these distinctions correctly? And how, if at all, are these distinctions being drawn by some of these hard-core “modesty” proponents? Because… yeah. If they were using the definition of lust you’ve provided, their conclusions could not logically follow.

The distinction problem is a issue. It’s sort of like the sin of pride verses just regular old pride. Pride the sin involves wanting to be better than others simply for the gratifying feeling of superiority and refusing to acknowledge the good in others, but we use the same word to describe how you might justifiably feel after a job well done. And the tipping point from one to the other is not always universally agreed upon. Likewise lust. How much desire is too much? For myself and many others it’s when you stop treating your fellow humans with the respect they deserve, but for some any desire seems to be seen as a slippery slope into worse behavior.

Yeah; I strongly suspect that the people who inspired the original post fall into that latter category, buoyed by their unexamined immersion in rape culture. @bryndonovan has already touched on this. If there’s a feeling of entitlement from one side, there’s an obligation on the other side to not do anything to make ’em feel entitled. (And let’s be real: it’s pretty much the ladies being told not to dress provocatively, because men are slavering beasts, duh.)

So many layers of sad and gross and rage-inducing! Blech!

Reminds me of a book I read called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” which was a mixed bag that I mostly hate now, but it it’s one of the many Christian dating/purity books out there. The author describes lust as when a man lets his eyes linger on a woman like a slug crawling over a rose. Besides creeping me the hell out with that imagery, it makes me think that list isn’t really the looking at a woman and seeing that she is attractive or being turned on, but the sin part (lust) comes in when he lingers on the view, so to speak. If he starts fantasizing about a girl, then it gets into the realm of lust.

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