I read an article recently which explained that the Christian ideal of female modesty justified sexual assault by making a man’s self-control the responsibility of the woman. My interest today isn’t in offering a lengthy rebuttal to that argument. In fact, I’ll confine myself to noting the Lord’s scathing response to King David over his adultery with Bathsheba, regardless of how he might have been tempted beforehand by her decision to bathe in plain sight of the palace. Clearly, divine appreciation for “she made me do it” excuses hasn’t increased since Adam tried it. Strawmen aside, though, the article’s underlying perspective that encouraging modesty means putting on women a responsibility that rightly belongs to men is one that I’ve seen frequently echoed in recent discussions among Christians.
In some ways, it’s an appropriate correction. There have certainly been segments of evangelical Christianity which have, in practice if not usually in theory, placed very disproportionate responsibility on women for maintaining sexual purity. I still recall hearing a young lady matter-of-factly describe how, when her boyfriend groped her while they were kissing, she would always swat his hand to help him remember (apparently unsuccessfully) not to do it again. It didn’t seem to occur to either of them that the fellow himself might need to exercise some self-control, perhaps with accompanying reading from Matthew 5:30 for motivation. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear some women describe growing up terrified of predatory males whose inevitable lustfulness it was the girl’s job to prevent by becoming a social nullity swathed in protective layers of cloth. So, yes, absolutely: if we forget that the biblical model for men is Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, not David with Bathsheba, then we have gotten things badly off-balance. However, it’s awfully hard to avoid overshooting the mark as the pendulum swings back, and I’m afraid we may be seeing that happen.
If every discussion of female modesty turns into an exhortation for male self-control, we’re missing the point. Of course men need to guard their eyes and their minds. Frankly, the ubiquity of cyber-powered smut means they need to be prepared for much more blatant temptation than anything they are going to encounter in a walk down the street. Christ’s warning that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” is aimed squarely at men and offers no leniency for the severity of the temptation. Men need to cultivate self-control, and we need to talk about how they can do that and how the church can help them. But when we’re talking about female modesty we aren’t talking about male self-control, because we’re talking about female modesty. And if there’s anything at all worth saying about the topic, then immediately turning the discussion back to men is just as wrong as never addressing men at all.
So, what is worth saying about modesty? The case for dressing modestly can be assembled from three pieces. The first part is Jesus’ words above, warning men that looking at a woman lustfully is morally equivalent to adultery. In a world where partial nudity is a feature of most grocery store checkout lines, it’s worth pausing to really digest that idea.
The second part of the case for modesty is the fact that lust is largely a visual thing for men. (Women can also be turned on visually, of course, and if you’re a guy with chiseled abs who’s wandering around in tight swim trunks, you should probably stop that. But there’s a reason that most of the semi-naked bodies lining the checkout aisle are female.) As a general rule, men are hardwired to be turned on by what they see. Forgive me for being crudely specific to make a point that many Christian young women don’t fully appreciate, but there are entire websites devoted to illicit pictures taken down women’s blouses and up their skirts. And they turn men on. If I went to those websites–if your father or husband or brother went to those websites–we would lust after those anonymous bodies because that is how our brains work. We can and must discipline ourselves to fight that temptation, but the visceral reaction itself is not something men choose any more than we choose to flinch when we lose our balance.
Which brings us to the third part of the case for modesty. Is any of this the woman’s problem? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is a sad and ugly thing whenever a woman feels uncomfortable or objectified as a man looks at her; part of the alienation that began when “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” It would be easy to write men off as pigs and leave them to fight their own temptations. It would be easy, and it would be wrong.
In I Corinthians, Paul explained why he refused to eat what a brother in Christ considered unclean, even though they weren’t even correct in that judgment. “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way… For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.” Substitute “clothes” for “food” in that last sentence and read it again. That’s why it matters what a woman wears.
At this point, we’re dangerously close to putting the responsibility for men’s self-control back on women. So let’s clarify: It is not a woman’s responsibility to keep men from lusting after her. If you’re a woman, some men are going to look at you sexually. And some women are too, and if you’re a man, both men and women are going to lust after your body too. It’s perverse and wrong, and it’s an inevitable part of living in a fallen world. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to stop men from lusting any more than it’s a tourist’s moral responsibility to avoid being pickpocketed. When David sinned with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan challenged him: “You are the man!” Sin is the sinner’s responsibility.
That being said, do not destroy with your clothes him for whom Christ died. The answer isn’t to don a burqa. That’s falling back into the unbiblical idea that something drastic on the woman’s part can stop men from sinning. Instead, dress in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily cast temptation in your brother’s way; dress so you can say with a clear conscience in the final day that “cute” never became an excuse to wear something that you knew was calculated to draw eyes in a way that was likely to end in someone else’s sin. It will be tiring and at times frustrating to live with an eye to what a man would see, but remember your brothers in Christ who live seeing what a man sees, yet fight to honor God and respect you despite that.