I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.
It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)
But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…
So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.
First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.
Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:
A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.
In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”
When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.