Since at least the 1950s, conservative evangelicalism’s overarching sexual ethic has put a substantive emphasis on “modesty” — that is, how [Christian] women dress, specifically in terms of highlighting their sensuality.
I admit that I hesitate to make a blanket statement like this, because I don’t mean to belittle the entire conversation around sexual ethics and how our Western culture’s obsession with sex and perfect bodies is unhealthy for anyone to immerse themselves in, Christian or not. That’s another post for another time, and well worth exploring. BUT — my opening statement is not at all an unfair assessment. Modesty has undeniably enjoyed front-page headline status in Christian conversations about sexuality for decades, almost irrespective of particular church tradition.
What I do want to accomplish is to push back on this narrative that has dominated the evangelical landscape for some time now. I personally grew up in the 1990s, in a very extreme group that would have liked to place the blame for all of society’s woes squarely at the feet of miniskirt- and bikini- clad women. It was about as Puritanical as you can imagine. When I left that tradition for more mainstream evangelical circles as a teenager, I encountered a much more subtle and “balanced” sexual ethic that, though less extreme (and therefore less obvious to me at the time) had a lot in common with the cult in which I was raised.
One of the chief commonalities was this theme of modesty. Side note: in case it’s not already obvious — it really only ever applied to females. So… really, female “modesty.” Or, in other words, cover up your sexy parts, ladies,
Modest Is Hottest.
(Yes, this was actually a slogan, printed on t-shirts, and became an entire movement, with events and conferences behind it.)
Usually the idea of modesty was presented innocuously enough, often at big concerts and conferences led by attractive young artists and writers like Joshua Harris and Rebecca St. James (whom I most certainly had an adolescent crush on), and, I would venture to assume, with [largely] good intentions. The idea (or so I gathered as a teenage male) was that young ladies ought to respect themselves enough that they don’t have to wear “scanty” clothing (whatever that means) to attract the lustful attention of men/boys. Furthermore, our good men and boys who are trying so hard to fight the onslaught of increasingly sexual images against their virgin eyes are having a hard enough time because of the wicked times in which we live, so let’s act charitably and not “cause our brothers to stumble” with how we dress. After all, church/youth group should be a safe place, no?
While I agree wholeheartedly that we all have a responsibility to each other to love one another and not lead one another down destructive or unhealthy paths, there’s at least three glaring problems with this line of teaching/thinking: