I recently posted Dianna E. Anderson’s post “Short Skirts, Mean Girls, and Yoga Pants: Modesty As Objectification” on my Facebook page, mostly in response to an article “Why Do So Many “Born-Again, Spirit-Filled” Women Show Off Cleavage in Church” by Jennifer LeClaire
My point was to show that judging women on what they where is objectifying them just like lusting after them is. It’s taking a woman, dividing her into parts, and judging her value in relation to what she covers and what she doesn’t. It is a nuanced idea and one that I personally struggle with. When I see a woman wearing revealing clothing, I often make snap judgments about her morals, her self-respect, and even her IQ. I need to stop objectifying other women like that. People’s worth is not in what they wear or don’t wear and there is always more to people than what I can see on the outside.
What I was absolutely astounded at was the response by a few fellow Christian friends who strongly advocated that women are at least partly responsible for other people’s lust. The reference that was used was 1 Corinthians 8, when Paul says he will not eat meat if it caused another person to stumble. This passage has often been historically used to put the blame on women for wearing clothing that then “causes” their brother to “stumble” by lusting after them, which neatly places the women to blame for their own objectification.
I don’t think 1 Corinthians 8 (and I am going to add through 10 to the discussion) is at all applicable to the concept of modesty. The first reason it’s not applicable is because of Jesus’ own teaching regarding lust. Jesus put the blame squarely on the person who lusted. He said “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” Matthew 18:9 and “if you look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery” Matthew 5:28. Jesus was serious about sin and he was serious about whose responsibility it was to stop it. He didn’t say that women were responsible in any way for men’s lust even though it was a common teaching in his day. He didn’t even say “oh and by the way ladies, lets cover up a bit and help them out”. In fact, in no place in the Bible does it ever connect women’s modesty to men’s lust. I Timothy 2:9 does say for women to “dress modestly women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” this passage is focused modesty in relation to showing off on possessions and materialism, not covering up. See Rahel Held Evan’s post Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means what You Think It Means for more on this. People are responsible for clothing themselves but Jesus didn’t put the responsibility for lust on anyone but the one doing the lusting.
The passage in I Corinthians 8 through 10 that has been used to blame women for men’s lustful thoughts is actually one about meat that has been sacrificed to idols and weather Christians should eat it. In the Roman era, a lot of the meat sold in the market place had been sacrificed to pagan gods first. Jews were forbidden to eat this meat, first, because it wasn’t kosher and secondly, because it was considered idolatry. Gentiles had been used to eating meat from the market place now had a moral dilemma as Christians who were now eating together. On one hand, meat was sacrificed to an idol, but in reality, the idol was nothing but stone or wood and had no power over the Christian. On the other, people who saw them buy or consume the meat may believe that they were either committing idolatry or actually believed in the god it was sacrificed to. Paul’s solution is not to eat meat if it is in front of someone who has an issue of conscious about it. When dining at at a non believer’s house he said to eat whatever they serve, but if they say “this was sacrificed to such and such god”, don’t eat it because it is then as if you are condoning them worshiping that god.
The thing that is clear in both these cases that Paul describes is lack of ambiguity. The Christian knows that the other person has a problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols in the first scenario and so chooses not to do it in front of him. In the second scenario, it’s fine to eat the meat at an unbelievers house until they specifically bring up that it was sacrificed to idols. There is no gray area’s in this case, no ambiguity. Meat is either sacrificed to idols, or it’s not. These verses regarding not causing another Christian to stumble are correctly applied to other areas where there is not ambiguity such as offering someone you know is an alcoholic a beer or asking a registered sex offender to baby sit your children. The problem with applying this verse to modesty as defined by the amount you cover your body or show it, is that modesty is incredibly ambiguous. It is defined by culture, your geographic location, and by the individual themselves. In some areas in Africa it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to go topless but not to show the inside curve of her leg. On beaches in the U.S., what would be considered a very modest swimsuit would be considered incredibly immodest business attire. What each individual struggles with visually also differs wildly. I have heard men asked women to not wear certain things to prevent them from stumbling and the list included pants (you can see their rear), skirts (easier access), lace (reminiscent of lingerie), V-necks (too much cleavage), wet hair (brings to mind nudity in the shower), half unzipped hoodie over a t-shirt (reminds that the clothing can come off), and ribbed sweaters (show off curves). See The Body I Have by Dani Kelly and The Great Modesty Experiment by Dianna E. Anderson. The problem with the list is some are mutually exclusive. If a woman can’t wear skirts or pants, what is she going to wear?
Of course, if a woman just wears large baggy clothing she is accused of letting herself go and therefore has the potential of causing her husband to stumble by not being attractive and appealing enough, and therefore causing him to look elsewhere to pornography or adultery, which is also blamed on the woman. There is no winning in this situation. No way for the woman to be upright enough, modest enough, appealing and attractive but not too attractive.
The result of blaming any part of lust on the person who is being objectified is that it causes paranoia, eating disorders, rape apology, treating men like idiots or infants, and the silencing and hiding of women. Many young girls in their attempt to prevent their brother’s in Christ from lusting after them have gone as far as starving themselves to make their curves disappear or over eating to hide themselves behind their weight. Those who don’t go that far still cross their arms in front of their chest, hunch over to hide that they have one, or wear bulky ill fitting clothes (again see The Body I Have by Dani Kelly or Fear of Causing myBrother to Stumble Almost Gave Me Scoliosis by Crystal Sprague)
What is even more morally abhorrent is that if a victim of objectification can be blamed for the other person’s actions, then a victim of rape can be blamed. This is where people say “If she wasn’t wearing that, drinking that, being there… it wouldn’t have happened.” Let me reiterate strongly and loudly. THE ONLY PERSON WHO IS EVER RESPONSIBLE FOR RAPE IS THE PERSON WHO RAPES. The victims often blame themselves as it is. Society and especially Christians should never be placing any blame the victim, rather we should be helping the weak and marginalized. We don’t blame those who are mugged for wearing a watch or wallet. Why do we blame victims of sex crimes?
When we don’t hold men accountable for their own thoughts, we treat them like infants who must be coddled and protected. Even if every woman wore head to toe coverings in church, these men are still going to have to go out into the world. Who is going to shield their eyes then if not them? For more see my post “Stop Treating Males Like Idiots“.
Finally, when we hold women accountable for the thoughts of others, a lot of women begin to hide themselves. They don’t go up front to speak, worried that what they are wearing isn’t modest enough. This is a real tragedy because women, like men, have the right to speak, to be heard, and to be seen.
To sum up, it’s my responsibility to put clothes on in the morning. If I am following scripture, those clothes won’t be ostentatious, made by slave labor, or guady to attract a lot of attention. If I am a responsbile human, they will also be comfortable, place and weather appropriate. It is also my responsiblity to make sure I am not objectifying people, either by judging them by what they wear or lusting after their parts. It is not my responsibility if someone else does that to me. That’s on them.