Growing up, I was pretty sure I knew what modesty was. It was a set of rules about what girls should wear so they wouldn’t “lead boys astray.” It was the rationale behind my Christian school’s embargo on short shorts and low necklines. On the nights my youth group divided the boys and girls, modesty was what the girls talked about while the boys were talking about lust and pornography.
Because the conversation about modesty was never directed at me, I didn’t think about it much. I had plenty of other things to worry about. Modesty was someone else’s problem. Or so I thought.
I’m sure a lot of good came from this modesty culture I grew up in. I’m sure a lot of young women were encouraged not to let young men objectify them. I’m sure a lot of young men found refuge in their battle against lust thanks to their clothing-conscious female friends. Along the way, though, I worry that some of us started believing lies about what modesty, sex, and our bodies are really all about.
I won’t try to speak for Christian women, many of whom have already critiqued modesty culture far better than I could. I’ll stick with what I know about growing up as a guy in this culture. Here are five lies modesty culture tried to teach me:
Lie #1. Your purity is someone else's responsibility.
As I understood it growing up, the message of the modesty movement to young women was a simple syllogism: “If you dress immodestly, guys will lust after you. You shouldn’t make guys lust after you. Therefore, dress modestly.”
This logic succeeded in getting some young women to cover their belly buttons. But the same logic, when transposed into a man’s voice, turned out to be terrible advice: “If women dress immodestly, I will lust after them.” Modesty culture was so eager to make young women feel responsible for men that it accidentally told men not to take responsibility for themselves.
Men, here’s the truth: women are not responsible for your sexual purity. Their clothing choices don’t control your thoughts. Some outfits might be more tempting than others, but our job is to choose Jesus no matter what people are wearing.
Lie #2. Every man thinks the same way about sex.
In modesty culture, I heard phrases like “the way guys are” and “how men’s minds work” a lot. And here’s what these phrases told me: Guys are visual when it comes to lust. Seeing certain parts of a woman’s body inspires instantaneous lust in any guy. Guys are sex-obsessed creatures with no self-control who would invariably hop into bed with a woman given the chance.
To the extent these claims were true of me, I learned to assume that they must be true of every other guy in the world too. To the extent they weren’t true, these claims made me feel deficient, un-masculine, out of place.
At their worst, these low expectations of men can make those of us who want to pursue purity in our actions and thoughts feel more complacent. Why bother disciplining our minds and eyes and bodies? After all, culture already expects us not to.
Here’s the truth: not every male mind (or every female mind) is alike. Some men are more visual in their sexuality than others. Men see women differently and have different levels of self-control. Don’t make modesty culture your measuring stick for masculinity.
Lie #3. Modesty is only for women.
Remember those youth group nights split up by gender? I had a few outspoken female friends back in those days who would complain that only the guys were talking about lust and pornography. “Women deal with those things too,” they would say. “Maybe fewer of us, or maybe differently, but it’s still an issue we need to address.”
By the same token, even though modesty culture tends to focus only on women, men need modesty too. We need to be exhorted to dress and speak and act in ways that draw the people around us towards God instead of pulling them away. We need to be attentive to how our choices impact others.
The truth is: Modesty isn’t a “women’s issue.” It’s a human issue.
Lie #4. Women are dressing to be seen by men.
When I get dressed in the mornings, I pick my outfits based on a series of simple questions: “How cold is it outside?” “Am I going to get dirty or sweaty?” “Do I need to impress anyone?” Some days I add extra questions to that list (“When was the last time I washed that shirt?”) and eliminate others. But it has never occurred to me to ask, “How will women, as a whole gender, feel about my clothes?”
I suspect most women have a different set of questions than I do. But I know for a fact that, at least among my closest female friends, impressing men is not their main priority. Those yoga pants weren’t meant to make guys stare. They were chosen because they’re comfortable, because they’re stylish, because they’re flexible and good for getting sweaty in, or even (on rare occasions) because the woman wearing them was actually doing yoga. Perhaps many women are more interested in “looking good” than I am; but even so, that doesn’t mean they’re dressing for men, and certainly not all the time. They might be dressing for themselves (or for Jesus), and men just happen to be present to see the results.
Men, here’s the truth: Contrary to what a lot of us believe, women aren’t thinking about us all the time. We need to stop being narcissistic enough to assume that they should be.
Lie #5. You're the judge of what counts as modest.
I grew up overseas, in a country where many women wore head scarves and men usually donned long pants outdoors. Sleeveless shirts were a rarity on men, and unheard of on women. If you want to explain it in terms of “modesty,” I guess you could say they were way more modest than your average American.
But simultaneously, in an irony no one else seemed to notice, a lot of women thought nothing of breastfeeding their babies in public, showing parts of themselves that many Americans blush about.
Here’s the thing: standards of modesty are culturally contingent. The Bible never specifies which body parts need to be concealed and which can be shown. And yet men who have grown up within modesty culture are often so quick to tell women what they should or shouldn’t be wearing. We think that our own temptations ought to be the standard for someone else’s decisions.
The truth is this: Modesty isn’t our job to enforce on others. Women’s bodies don’t belong to us, and neither do their clothing choices. Our job is to be like Jesus, who showed kindness even to the scandalous women the Pharisees had rejected. Our job is to love and honor those around us, both men and women, no matter who they are or what they’re wearing.
Gregory Coles is an author and an English instructor at Penn State University. Learn more at www.gregcoles.com.