Discussions about modesty can turn hopelessly circular. Women should be modest so men won’t lust after them. But some men tend to lust anyway, so maybe we should all just wear whatever we want. But when we wear whatever we want, men are really tempted to lust after us, so maybe women should try to be modest…A recent comment brought out the frustration quite well:
Sometimes it truly is a matter of the heart and not the eyes (”sometimes” is a key word there ). I was talking to (my sister-in-law) and she mentioned that the worst experience she had with men being sexually disrespectful was in Egypt when she was wearing a long skirt, sleeves down to her wrists and a headcovering. I’ve had two close friends who attended BJU with a strict modesty code, and one of them recently commented to me how much she thought the policing, the constant scrutinizing of every outfit actually exacerbated the problem.
All this to say… it’s a tricky tangle, those issues of modesty and personal responsibility. When you get it all sorted out, be sure to let me know!
Well, I definitely don’t have it ALL sorted out (LOL!), but I do have a few thoughts to share.
As the comment pointed out, there are two issues here, women’s modesty and men’s personal responsibility not to lust.
Timothy 2:9-10 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
Mat 5:28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
We are each responsible to keep our end of the bargain no matter what other people are doing. Men are still sinning if they fall into lust even if they are surrounded by tank tops, tight jeans, and mini-skirts. Women are still sinning if they dress and behave immodestly whether or not men are being overtly sexually disrespectful. Different cultures have often allowed either men or women to shirk their responsibilities. In Egypt, it tends to be the men. They are allowed to lust all they want right out in the open, and if it leads to mental adultery or even rape, well that was the woman’s fault. She was asking for it by dressing like that. In Western culture, though, it tends to be the women who get off doing as they please. It’s socially acceptable for them to look and act hot right out in the open, and if it leads to rape or even just mental adultery, well that was the man’s fault. He wasn’t being self-controlled.
Both these extremes are wrong.
Most of us are grossed out by Egyptian behavior, but let’s examine the Western side of the permissiveness coin. Women can’t prevent lust. Responsibility does not rest squarely on our shoulders, but there’s an awful lot we can do to help if we would be willing. Our dress and behavior DO have an effect on men’s lust level. Sure, there are men wholly given over to lust, who can manage to fantasize about what might be under a burka, but most men have a slightly higher threshold, and we really can be a help or a hindrance to an awful lot of them. This was a lesson I learned back in college when I was dancing with the Stanford Ballet Company.
Before I was married, I was incredibly naive about men. I found their attentions thrilling, validating, even titillating. They were also quite rare. For the most part guys completely ignored me because I was usually very modest. My modesty, though, had little to do with understanding men, and a lot to do with wanting to look like the other conservative Christian, homeschool graduates I knew. The only men who paid any attention to me were men who wanted a wife. Looking back, I think that was a compliment, but at the time, I assumed it meant that I wasn’t very pretty, just apparently virtuous.
One day it all changed. It was late November, and like ballet dancers the world over, I was gearing up for another Nutcracker. I had been cast as the Spanish dancer. It was a character I knew well because, with my dark hair, I had been given that role more often than any other. The Spanish dancer is spicy, flirtatious, flamboyant, and my choreography in this production was especially so. I was supposed to spend the entire variation teasing my poor partner while he chased after me.
For weeks in rehearsals that were just for the Spanish variation, I had been focusing on the dancing, mastering the steps and ignoring the character, but on that day in November, the entire cast had come together to start running through the whole show, and that meant we had a bit of an audience. My partner, a Microsoft employee in his late twenties, wanted to get into character. But of course.
The music started. No one was paying attention to us as we stood in our places. And then I opened my fan with a snap that stopped all conversation. I was The Spanish Dancer. In less than two minutes, we were done, and the room erupted in applause. My partner was breathless. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I can’t dance when you look like that.” And like an idiot, I just laughed. I wasn’t about to tone down my character. I knew how to play the part. I did it well. And everyone liked it. They had all just applauded, hadn’t they?
Rehearsals moved into the theater, and I had to wear my costume, black and red, spaghetti straps, typical immodest ballet costume, but sexier. I was the Spanish dancer, after all. My partner, who had always been polite, but aloof, was following me around like a dog follows steak. He brought me flowers. He tried constantly to make conversation. He wondered if I might like a back rub. The other men in the cast, who had previously not even said as much as, “hi,” were now falling all over themselves to flirt with me every time I walked by. I’m very ashamed of this, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
I thought it was just attention. I thought it was fairly innocent. Now that I’ve got a husband to explain things to me, I realize that in all likelihood I was being mentally undressed.
After Christmas, we started work on the next show, Peter and the Wolf. I was cast as the duck. I traded my fan for a back scrubber and kiddie pool, my black lace costume for a high-necked, chubby, feathered number, complete with mask. And as quickly as it had begun, the lust fest ended. I went back to my quiet life of being noticed only by men looking for a wife.
Now, let’s think about this a minute. The very same man who couldn’t drag himself away from me when I was wearing an immodest dress and snapping my eyes and fan at him completely ignored me when I was a comedic, well-covered duck, flapping my arms, and fighting the wolf with my back scrubber. Was the guy lust-prone? Um. Yeah. Did my clothes and behavior have an effect. Totally!
Men tend to lust after women. And women tend to lust after being lusted after. We struggle with modesty because we all want to be the Spanish dancer. No one wants to be the duck.
But there are men out there who are fighting hard for integrity. They’re doing battle every day, desperately trying to stay pure and focused on their wives. And what do we do? We whip out our fans. We look hot, on purpose. We flirt. We pose. On purpose. We aren’t about to tone down our characters. We know how to play the part. We do it well. And everyone likes it. They’re paying attention to us, aren’t they? And we’d be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy it.
It’s a heart issue. It’s not about rules. It’s about looking hot. On purpose. It’s about balancing our desire for beauty with an understanding of the depth of its effect. Most of all, it’s about supporting our brothers in battle, accepting a little responsibility of our own, and giving up the “fun” of being lusted after by men we aren’t married to. We don’t need to be ugly, but we do need to pay attention, and constantly examine our own motivation for every outfit and action. It’s time we kept our end of the bargain.
Ten years later, I’m heartbroken thinking of men who took their families to see a “wholesome” show like the Nutcracker and wound up sitting in the dark watching the Spanish dancer, watching me. If I provoked even one man in that audience to lust, then I stole something from his wife. I certainly stole something from the future wives of my fellow cast members. Like I said, I was naive.
Galations 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
Romans 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
1Corinthians 8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
Just as a godly, Christian, Egyptian man needs to say, “no,” to his culture and stop ogling women. Godly Christian women of the West need to say, “no,” to our culture and stop deliberately making our brothers weak. We don’t need to be Spanish dancers anymore.
Note: I just want to be sure and say that, of course, for those of us who are married, we do need to look hot (on purpose!) in private for our husbands.