An Immodest Rebuttal

I recently composed the following in response to a family member who wrote an “Open Letter to Christian Girls“, in which he exhorts them to refrain from wearing any manner of provocative clothing for the sake of his and other Christian men’s purity and moral integrity. I did not plan to address the issue of misogyny, modesty, or Christianity in my introductory post on this blog—I am not myself a Christian, and this blog exists primarily to facilitate participation in the oftentimes vigourous discussions that transpire in my own religious community. However, a secondary function of this blog is to provide a forum on which to share my thoughts on larger social matters, and this is an issue that I believe men of all religions could benefit from learning more about—moreover, men need to hear it more often from other men, as the problem is in fact a lack of respect (and consequent deafness) towards women. This entry serves as a means to share these ideas in a more accessible and stable way than as a comment that, as of the time of this writing, is still ‘awaiting moderation.’

To my Pagan audience: Please indulge the overtly Christian language of this initial post. I believe communication is best facilitated when there is shared understanding, and offending one’s interlocutor by approaching the subject from outside their worldview is the fastest way to shut down a discussion.

To my Christian audience: Please accept this in the spirit of hospitality with which it was written. Although we do not worship the same Gods, I retain a great deal of respect for the Christian tradition, its virtues, ideas, and mythological structure. I wrote the following to be constructive, not pejorative, and I do so from my best understanding of our shared values and beliefs about how others ought to be treated—with love and respect, as fellow children of God.

Modesty, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Modesty, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

In no sense is it the responsibility of women to alter their behaviour in order to somehow shield men from their own temptations. That is a cowardly and inherently unvirtuous line of reasoning, to simply yield to the assumption that temptation will automatically be too much for you to handle and to so shift the blame for your ‘inevitable’ sin to the woman who tempted you. You claim that (what you view as) immodest dress makes it impossible for you to respect a woman: I tell you that if you cannot respect a woman—or anyone, for that matter—irrespective of their state of dress, then you cannot respect them at all. If you require a woman to dress according to your specific standards in order to avoid being overcome by lust simply by looking at her, that is being disrespectful. It is saying: You are nothing more than your appearance. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks respectfully to women of all social statures and walks of life, including prostitutes that I guarantee were not dressed according to the Galilean standards of ‘modest dress’—and he never provides an excuse for behaving otherwise. What is more, in this moral evasion in shifting the responsibility for male lust onto women, one simultaneously gives oneself an excuse to disrespect without restraint any woman who fails to meet your modesty standards (and by the direction of this post, that includes all non-Christian women), and deprives oneself of any opportunity to actually practice virtue: you are meant to flee from sin, not demand that others change their behaviour so that you needn’t exercise a modicum of restraint. What reward is there in that?

Has it not occurred to you that most women do not dress, most of the time, for Male Benefit? They dress, as do most people, in accordance with what makes them feel both comfortable and attractive—not to men, but to themselves. There is also frequent social signalling to other women going on, of which men remain for the most part ignorant. You are correct when you point out that men are responsible for constructing the deplorably hypersexualised social nets in which we are all caught—but that remains our responsibility. It is the responsibility of men as a whole to resist viewing our world’s sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives as mere sexual objects. If you struggle with that, it is wholly your own failing, not that of the pleasantly-shaped girl who caught your eye and aroused your fancy. You accuse women of ‘killing your desire for purity’ while at the same time demanding they ‘give up those clothes and trust that God would be enough’? Well, why can’t God be enough for you? Why is it necessary to project your own moral shortcomings onto others, instead of trusting that God will help you overcome your personal trials? Depending on other people to remove the stumbling blocks from your path will only ensure that you stumble. It is up to you, and your individual relationship with God—no one else’s!—to see that you view women as complete people, not shadowy, seductive projections of raw sexuality. Great damage has been done to women in blaming them for the failings of men that cannot be repaired by male interference, or by saying, Okay, NOW we don’t want you to dress that way! We have through centuries of misogynistic inculcation forced women to value only certain physical attributes about themselves, and that they are only of any worth if those attributes meet certain expectations and are emphasized. It is not our place to correct that by demanding different standards in exactly the same way, and cover our tracks by calling our desires ‘respect’. It is our responsibility to retrain ourselves in how we approach, view, and treat women, as our partners and equals; it is their right to relearn how to experience worthiness, love, and anything apart from ingrained contempt for themselves and their own bodies—and it is also their right to choose the manner in which to do that, including dressing in clothes that make them feel beautiful or comfortable.

You claim to be offering women respect (if only they will cover up). Is it so much to ask to give enough respect to both them—and yourself—that you acknowledge their own agency, freedom, and worthiness, as well as your own sole culpability in every single one of your choices?

Adam sinned twice in the Garden. The first, of course, was to eat of the forbidden tree. The second (I’m sure you can guess where I’m headed) was to try to shift the blame onto his wife:

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (Gen. 3:12)

Now, sure enough, Eve sinned of her own accord, and so bears that responsibility, but that has nothing to do with Adam’s sin, despite the Church having reviled her for very nearly the full length of its existence, accusing her of being the reason sin entered into the world. Scripture, as it happens, does not accord with that doctrine, though:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Rom. 5:12)

Paul, at least, pins it on Adam, indirectly calling him on his evasiveness, and he’s not exactly renowned for his charitable views towards women. So if Adam is wrong to shift blame onto someone else for his own transgression, and is in fact the first Scriptural example of someone doing exactly that, it is reasonable to extrapolate that it is an error to act thusly evasive of one’s own faults at all. As in the above example, if a woman somehow sins in how she dresses, that is between her and God. But she cannot cause you to sin with your eyes—that is on you. And it is not your place to reprimand or try to control her in order to make things easier on yourself.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me conclude with this: You are a pig only if you allow yourself to be—do not simply condemn yourself with false humility to the moral path of least resistance. Elevate and strengthen your own virtue by facing and defeating temptation. In the end, it is possible to lust after someone regardless of what they happen to be wearing—so remove the beam from your own eye, and let your sisters worry about whatever specks may or may not be in theirs.

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3 thoughts on “An Immodest Rebuttal

  1. sonofsaradoc

    Very thoughtful, Scott.
    It would be interesting to take this topic on through the lens of Islam as well as Christianity. Scripture in both traditions upholds women’s agency but later developments in practice have deformed that agency by requiring and enforcing excessively modest coverings. (European Christian women in past centuries were expected to be veiled as well. Veiling certainly has practical value for warmth and weather covering, similar to a hood, but constant veiling for modesty to keep women hidden from all men but their husbands definitely speaks to your point.)

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    1. It certainly would be interesting. I do not, however, have sufficient familiarity with either the values, culture, or scripture underlying Islam to feel at all comfortable tackling it. At any rate, those modesty standards do not seem to be approached the same in most of the world as they are in the Middle East, and most of the commentary I see on it made from a Muslim perspective is from a female, rather than a male perspective—which to me says there is not (so much of) the same problem going on.

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  2. Dennis Nock

    Agree completly ,we are each responcible for our own morals and actions . We must hold ourselves to a high moral standard . Not apply
    absurd standards on others to take the easy way out . In my case this is where a strong code of honor/ behavior comes into play . Me and many of like minds hold ourselves to a fairly strict moral high standard .

    Like

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