Pop Culture, Shattered Faith — March 24, 2011 at 9:09 am

Modesty: Definitely A Woman’s Problem


The Rebelution conducted a downright fascinating (and disturbing) survey in 2007. Christian girls listed questions for Christian guys, hoping to discover what their male counterparts think is modest. 1,600 guys responded to the survey offering answers giving their perspective on Christian FEMALE modesty. Some of the questions were typical and other were simply astounding.

Take a look at some of the survey results:

57.5% of men disagreed that it was okay to expose the stomach when wearing a swimsuit.
55.1% of those men didn’t even think it was okay for women to wear a bikini if they wore a t-shirt over it.
57.6% of men thought tank tops were immodest.
58.3% of men said any skirts that fall above the knee are immodest.
And it’s not just clothes…
74.9% of men thought the way a girl walks can be a stumbling block.

Lisa Wade recently reviewed of the survey on Jezebel.com in which she lamented, “Modesty is something [that] pertains to only girls and immodesty is something that guys get to define.”  This has always been a problem with the evangelical church. Men are the ones that are defining the terms, interpreting what it means to be “godly.” Us women are told that we are sexual beings and that is a problem. Men are filled with urges and that’s our burden to bear. We must suppress their desires by wearing potato sacks, walking on different sides of the street and apologizing when the way we walk stirs up desires in them. We don’t know how to cultivate or respond to our own sexuality. We don’t know how to interact with boys. We’re taught from such an early age that we are the problem so the only thing we learn to do is stay away from them or manipulate them: because we think those are our only two options.

Survey’s like these aren’t helpful – they are confining and perpetuate outdated cultural conventions. But perhaps they can also offer an important opportunity for those in our generation who wrestle with questions at the messy crossroads of sex, relationships and emerging adulthood to ask new and better questions. Questions like how has my perception of modesty defined my outlook on myself or women in general?  Or in what ways has culture taught us how to treat women or subconsciously taught us they deserve what they get by how they dress? Or why do we think about this so much and where are my skinny jeans?

Read more of Wade’s review here.

Read more of the survey results here.


  • Julia, thanks for this post.

    I have found that evangelical women are trapped in an impossible paradox. On the one hand, women are held responsible for male lust and are required to dress “modestly” (an entirely subjective term). On the other hand, married women are often held responsible for their husband’s purity. More than a few prominent evangelical pastors have inferred that if a man has an adulterous affair it’s because his wife “let herself go.” (This was even suggested in relation to Ted Haggard’s homosexual affair.) So, women are supposed to be not at all sexy before they get married and then crazy sexy to their husbands once (or, if) they do get married? How does that make sense in light of that fact that all beings are sexual beings from day one?

    More troubling, according to this line of thinking, women are simply physical things that are defined by their effect on men. The evangelical church rails against “feminist” women who “use their bodies to gain power” but then turns around and objectifies its own evangelical women. Ironic.

    • Christena–I echo your thoughts almost completely. This is something that I have been working through since my husband and I got married 5 years ago. You go from being told by the church (in not so many words) that it is the female’s responsibility to keep the relationship pure pre-marriage. THEN, you’re also tasked with being wild and crazy after you get married. I have found when talking with other women that grew up in the 1990s youth groups that they have had similar experiences.

      I find that it’s also hard to have the inherent respect for your husband (and men in general), when it is constantly inferred that they are weak and you are in charge of their purity.

  • I’m disappointed to see this post. I’m also not sure that your questions, Julia, are better then what contemporary evangelicalism is proposing.

    I’m not sure people are taking into regard several important things: 1) The nature of human sin. 2) A theology of clothing. 3) Loving neighbor as self.
    Perhaps the place to begin questioning, is asking: “How do these clothes I’m wearing (male or female) reflect the nature of sin and God’s glory?” Or, “How can I best serve those around me?” “How can I run as far away as possible from the line of immodest while still being rational?”
    I see no helpful suggestions in encouraging women (or men) to be the sexual being God created them to be without major qualifications.

  • I think this is a more difficult issue than you are giving it credit. Lust is a terrible issue to deal with because much of the struggle is affected by what people wear, how they talk and yes, even how they walk at times.

    I noticed in the article that you stated “girls” and “guys”. What is their age? Is spiritual immaturity at play here, which can breed legalism? I felt the same way even a few short years ago, but as I grew and matured in my faith I realized that yes, it’s nice to get some help form my sisters out there, but ultimately the thought is my own and my own responsibility.

    On the flip side, and I hope one of the ladies helps me with this as I desperately want to be a father someday, isn’t there a responsibility to help keep those around us from stumbling with in reason? No, you shouldn’t have to wear potato sacks, but is it necessary to wear clothing that leaves almost nothing to the imagination in class or even church when it’s widely known that this is a huge struggle for men?

    I can appreciate the mess this makes in the minds of our young women, but think about being the Christian young man who has to walk to class with his head down because it’s spring time and and the young ladies ahead of him on the sidewalk are enjoying the weather in their shorts and tank tops. Think of how confusing it is for some of the men out there to know that God created us to have these urges for the specific design of women we are supposed to love like sisters, until we choose one to be our wife. It takes a lot to mentally prepare yourself to walk out your door and know what waits for you, that you’re created to think that way and have those urges, but for now and for any of the women you see it’s a sin. And, in fact, there is only one woman you can feel that way for, but not until you are married.

    Fast forward to having to tell the woman you are about to marry that going to the beach, walking in the mall, and watching TV can be spiritually dangerous because one simple image can be stuck in my mind all day turning into a sexual fantasy that does not include her.

    As far as adultery, a vast majority of the blame has to rest with the offending spouse. My question is this, however, would the offending spouse be cheating if they were getting so much sex at home the idea of cheating would never cross their mind? Further, if the offending spouse was doing their part to foster those feelings at home? Adultery is so often more complicated then “he cheated”, and on some level both spouses play a role in leading to the offense.

    Shouldn’t we be focusing on 1 Corinthians 6:12-7:5 as a guide to this issue?

    12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!16 Or do you not know that he who is joinedt to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sint a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

    1 Corinthians 7
    Principles for Marriage
    1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

    I’ll go out on a limb and guarantee that if men let their wived choose their cloths, hair style, cologne and hit the gym and ate healthier while in turn did the same adultery would go in sharp decline.

    Maybe I got off issue here, but as someone who continues to struggle with lust to this day and quite possibly for the rest of my life, it goes much deeper than we see on the surface.

    • Tony, just for clarification on your last point, are you suggesting that all it takes for a married couple to avoid adultery is to dress in ways that are pleasing to their spouse (including how you smell, how physically fit you are, etc?)
      I’m not married so I certainly don’t consider one person when I get out of bed, dress, and apply my makeup. I also love working out and consider myself physically fit, but I choose to do this for myself, as it allows me to feel better, stay generally healthier and strong. When I am married, of course I will want to “look good” for my husband, but I’m quite certain that I will continue to treat myself in the same respect that I do today, for the same reasons.
      I guess when I consider why people cheat, especially in marriage, I don’t think first of the external reasons (ie, appearance, clothing). I always assumed it had more to do about couples not feeling connected on levels of emotion, intellectually, and also not feeling respected and honored by their spouse.
      When I’m married, and/or even seriously dating, I agree that I should be fully aware of how what I wear may affect who I’m with. But I’m also going to be conscious about how I interact with him, his friends/family; supporting him and making sure I show how much I respect and honor him. But I doubt that I will ever allow my husband to pick out my clothes for me… or my hair style.

      • Thanks, Ashley.

        No, clearly dressing for each other will not be the only thing that stops adultery. And, no, my wife does not pick all my outfits. When we go out for a nice date I’ll let her. When we go out in public together, I’ll wear cloths she likes on me even though I may not completely like it. It’s all about me serving her.

        This goes far beyond cloths though. Another example is that I’m a football coach. That means I spend a lot of time during the season watching football for my team scouting. Because I know she’s not the biggest fan of football, I have a little rule that I won’t watch any other football while she’s home. This may not seem like such a big deal to most people, but I know my wife and she feels very loved by this act. Another is that I try to cook for her as much as I can, clear the table of dishes.

        She does the same for me too. During the season, she’ll help me chart tackles for football. She also will get involved with the team in other behind the scenes activities. I know full well that football is far from the top of her list of favorite things, but she loves me and knows that I appreciate when she does these things like crazy. And, yes, when we go out on the town, she’ll dress and wear her hair in a way I like.

        My point is, even though I loved my lifestyle (dressing, how I spent my time, even what I did with dishes) I love my wife so much more. So, if showing my wife I love her at the end of the day means wearing some God awful polo and watching Big Brother on TV after I cooked dinner and worked hard all day to make money to pay our bills, I’m going to do it.

        Yes, we’ve only been married a few years and no kids yet, but we also have very loved and dear friends holding us accountable to continue this for each other.

        Now, in no way am I saying that this is the only way, but wouldn’t adultery and divorce plummet if spouses respected and honored each other in ways like this? Isn’t that the idea of the passage from Corinthians? We just happen to take it farther than most because it helps us stay connected.

        As far as being connected intellectually or emotionally, I feel connected with my wife in those ways when we’re watching game film together and she’s asking me what was so important about this play or that play and helps me by saying “Number 43 got that tackle”. And she feels the same when I have an opinion on who to kick out of the Big Brother house. We also spend a LOT of time talking about the Bible, praying together and for each other. Seems cheesy, but it works.

        Again, sorry for the confusion and thanks for the push back!

        • Tony you are absolutely correct. The sexiest thing Justin does is the dishes. :) There is truth to the old saying that “sex starts in the kitchen.” When I cook something that I know my husband likes even though I don’t like it, he feels loved and appreciated. When he puts away the leftovers and does the dishes, I feel loved and appreciated. It’s those kind of little things that can make such a big difference.

    • Hi Tony,

      Good comments and I can see why as a man this article would be troubling.

      My advice to any man that cannot walk out of his house without feeling spiritually in danger is to seek help.

      I am an ex-wife of a man that was a “virgin” when we got married, but when we got married it became obvious he certainly was not so in his mind. It became my job to service him upwards of 3 times a day to keep him “pure,” which still did not work. And the acts he expected were not what I would consider kosher.

      Though we worked in a youth group that harped on purity and modest dress for girls (in consideration for the boys that could not control themselves), among the married men pornography was rampant. And, of course, it was always the wife’s fault for being too chunky, not enough makeup, not the right clothes, not submissive enough, or obviously not enough sex.

      My hope is that christian young men will take responsibility for themselves and realize that the problem they have is 100% their own and they will never control women enough to fix it for them. Get help BEFORE you get married, otherwise the issue is too clouded. And, like me, you just may end up divorced.


  • Recently a guy friend posted the question to his female friends on facebook: What makes you feel most celebrated as a woman? My immediate answer was: I honestly think I feel most celebrated when guys DON’T treat feminism as a ridiculous and bitter rant that should be tolerated, at best.

    I’m reminded by this discussion why I feel that way.

    I’m a woman. A modest woman, who most always wears long dresses and cardigans in church. A compassionate woman, who cares deeply about the struggles my brothers go through. A woman who loves God and wants to figure out how to best honor and serve this God with every aspect of my life. A woman who has been hurt by males who had not yet learned self-control over their sexuality. A woman who celebrates feminism as the freedom to fully be a woman and have an identity that is not bound to a man’s.

    That said, I’m disheartened by this discussion. At Christian college, I remember hearing our campus pastor speak on how men needed accountability groups and women needed to dress so that the men didn’t stumble. I had a wonderful conversation with the pastor the next day where I was able to point out several things and be heard by him, that I hope people involved in this discussion are able to hear as well:

    *Women are sexual beings too, which means that we also struggle with lust (which is rarely addressed), and that we also need an outlet for sexual expression (which guys tend get in many accepted ways in our culture that are not demonized). For the sake of staying away from argument, I’m NOT going to argue that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want, because for me that is not the point. I see the validity in the argument, and the problems with it, but I will leave this to someone else to tackle.

    *Men say that they want us to cover up to help them in their struggled against lust, but it is the stereotypical tiny, tan, bare-skinned sisters with curves in all the right places who not only turn heads in the cafeteria but who RARELY go for long periods of time without a boyfriend. Evidence shows us that if we want to have the meaningful relationship, we have to fulfill that stereotype. So it becomes this subconscious toss-up: do we respect our brothers’ wishes and cover up, or do we play the game that those same brothers play in order to get attention? (Note: I am one of those modest ones, and I’m single, and I normally am. Now people are asking me why I’m still single. Should I bare some skin so I fulfill the Christian ideal of settling down and starting a happy family?)

    *Women have been bound to men’s lack of self-control over their lust since the fall. (Ex: rape, prostitution, incest, child marriage, whistles, catcalls, public groping). I believe in modesty, I really do. But can’t we promote modesty on principles that are NOT bound to men? My reasoning for modesty is that in a bare-all culture, I want to stand out and be noticed for my personality or humor or brain or love for people or creativity. If my decision to focus on my wholeness helps out my brothers, then fantastic, but it’s not FOR them. (However, it doesn’t matter how much we cover up, guys can always imagine what’s underneath. I rarely show cleavage, but I know for a fact that guys think about what’s underneath my shirt because comments are made to me every couple weeks, by Christian brothers more than non-Christian, and it wears on me to the point where I feel ashamed that I have these things on me that apparently cause someone else to sin even though I keep them covered, EVEN AS I choose to forgive my brothers for their comments and show compassion on them because their impulses are natural. You can imagine why I want to give less and less credence to this request.)

    *We don’t live to glorify God so that our brothers do not stumble. We glorify God so that God can be glorified.
    If by moving closer to this ideal, we live more as God wants us to, so that woman are celebrated for more than just their physical appearance and don’t feel the pressure to wear clothing that attracts men’s eye, and men are able to learn self-control and healthy outlet for their sexuality (before AND after marriage, because it doesn’t stop at the “I do”), then wonderful. That would be ideal.

    But it’s high time that women get to start living freely. This is another reminder that even in the moments when a man isn’t physically aggressing against me or a sister, we are expected to act, dress, speak, and walk with man as our priority.

    I’d like for me and my sisters around the world to be free to just be.

  • Thank you for this article, Julia.

    I was recently talking with my younger sister, and she (with embarrassment) asked me if a girl’s shoulders are attractive. Apparently, her college pastor preached a sermon on modesty in which he told the young women of his congregation that bare shoulders could potentially incite young men to lust. Since then, my sister had felt guilty about exposing her shoulders in public.

    I told my sister that, yes, women’s shoulders are attractive to men. I also told her that all parts of a woman are attractive to men, because women are attractive to men. This shouldn’t be surprising or considered negative. Men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men. Physically.

    Deal with it.

    I mean that. Deal with it. Men and women both need to deal with it. We need to learn better ways of embracing and appreciating and respecting our sexuality.

    There is nothing shameful about being sexual.

    Let me say that again. There is nothing shameful about being sexual.

    Sexual arousal is amoral. Morality is concerned with actions – What do I do with that arousal? It isn’t sinful for me to be attracted to a woman. It is sinful if I desire to claim her as my own. Jesus said that any man who looks after a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart (Mt 5:27-28). The kicker in his statement is the lust. Attraction isn’t lust. Selfish desire is lust.

    It is possible to admire a woman without desiring her. I think my sister is beautiful. She is an attractive girl. I do not desire her though. I think my mother is beautiful, but I don’t desire her either. I even think my girlfriend is almost overwhelmingly pretty, but I don’t lust after her. Lust is the desire to swallow up someone into yourself, to deny them of their humanity so that they become nothing more than a means to sexual gratification and selfish affirmation. Lust is a devouring.

    I agree, Julia, modesty standards like the one propagated by my sister’s pastor and this survey you mention do nothing more than to impose legalistic standards on men and women. We talk about stumbling blocks, and that’s funny, because when Jesus talked about “stumbling blocks” in Matthew 18, he was addressing the collectors of the Temple tax who put undue regulations on women and men (Mt 17:24-18:5), causing them to sin.

    Furthermore, such modesty regulations abjugate men from the responsibility of learning how to handle their sexuality. Instead, they put the burden off on women. Men never learn how to appreciate the beauty of a woman without lusting after her. Men are taught that they are helpless against the desires God has given them. Such regulations are indeed harmful for women. And they’re harmful for men too.

  • I’ve gotta back up my sisters on this one. This is another area where the women of the world are basically told, “You are there to look pretty,” but then we throw in, “But not too pretty.” We want to pigenhole women into wearing a cute top, with a skirt that falls right at the knees, with some sort of sandal and perfect make-up, hair and nail polish. That is what a “Christian” woman does and wears. In when they reach 40, they can dress a little worse, because that is fine.

    But the problem is, as Jennifer stated, women are sexual beings. They have similar struggles, and we as men are not rebuked for it. I have seen Christian brothers wearing clothing that is quite revealing or tighter than anything women wear, but no one is going to those men and saying, “Hey bro, can you, uh, cover your junk better?”

    We want a one-way road. We want women to be responsible for our fall like we blame Eve for Adam’s fall. The truth is, men need to take on the responsibility of taming their eyes, and also realize that in the summer we can’t expect women to wear full-length dresses. And in that same regard, some men need to wear shirts in the summer and women need to be able to say that it would be better for them that way.

  • Human beings are projectors. We project onto the world the way we feel about it. So I say “chocolate is yummy” and “that person is very attractive.” Strictly speaking, however, it would be more correct to say “I enjoy chocolate” or “I am very attracted to that person.”

    So also, when evangelical men say “that woman is immodest,” it would be more correct to say “I am a child with no self-control in the presence of that woman.” If Christian women want to pity Christian men who are trying to be celibate or monogamous, fine. Good even. But, as has been said above and as is worth repeating, men have been blaming women for FAR too long for just about everything.

    Sexual attraction happens. Get over it.


  • Was this study conducted in rural Nebraska?

  • Why do we waste so much time on such specific details of what is or isn’t acceptable? I would much rather that a woman who is already so noble as to care about her method of dress do so by recognizing that God has made her to further her glory, and think about how she can dress in a way that honors herself and God. That doesn’t mean focusing on what is bad, but in fact should be a more positive expression of stewardship and appreciation.

    “Modesty” has been an ever-changing standard that only relates to the cultural climate surrounding it. By deciding that this or that body part should be covered, it implies that it’s taboo and a source of shame. (Keep in mind that Adam and Eve covered themselves in shame, God didn’t cover them.) And creating more taboos makes more areas for struggles between “worldly” and “godly” things. I think it’s this very approach that creates many struggles with lust – not the ability to see more of a part of the body that God made.

    Why not start focusing on the issue of dress in a positive, “I want myself and others to look at me and see God’s glory” kind of way, instead of a pharisaical one that deepens everyone’s struggles and distracts us from focusing on much more important spiritual matters?

  • I agree with Elijah above, and wonder if part of the problem might be solved if churches cut the guys some slack. My understanding is that what Jesus said, properly translated, was “Anyone who looks on a woman *in order to* lust after her. . .” (Note that He said nothing about how the woman was dressed). This not only places the responsibility for the lust squarely on the looker, not the lookee– it shows lust as a decision of the will, not an involuntary stirring of the blood.

    Maybe if Christian men could relax a little about feelings of attraction or even admiration, they could stop blaming women for what are natural physical responses. This goes for women’s feelings of attraction to men, too. And then we could all focus on dealing with the actual sin of lust instead of chasing shadows.

    • I agree, Kristen, we have done a poor job of characterizing too much as lust. It’s far easier to broadly paint any physical inclination as sinful than it is to figure out the complexities of our sexuality.

  • ***** Close your eyes and Imagine a beach you’ve been to the warm sun and sand under your toes, are you there, do you see the place in your minds eye?********

    Now doesnt this prove that we can control our thoughts? Take responsibility for your own head and how your thoughts may battle with your values and wear whatever the bleep you want!

    Maybe I’ve gotten too secular?

    @ James Love, I went to a christian college and totally noticed a specific christian women’s fashion culture…so stupid!

  • Thank you SO MUCH for this. I truly agree and grew up feeling the same frustrations with not having to be accountable for just myself…but the men/boys around me. I was young myself, why would I be asked not to cause men to stumble?

    Like a previous poster– Jennifer Kent– said and so very, very, well….”Women are sexual beings too, which means that we also struggle with lust (which is rarely addressed), and that we also need an outlet for sexual expression (which guys tend [to] get in many accepted ways in our culture that are not demonized)”.

    I do not dress to attract a lot of attention, but I try to work with what I’ve got and have a pleasing aesthetic. I try to dress with appropriateness to my workplace or other environment, and be respectful of others (men and women, old and young). HOWEVER, the issue of modesty seems to be one-sided and I could not care less about how “modest” men find me.
    Men could lust after a woman covered head to toe in a swath of fabric and later say her “shape” or her face was immodest. There are no exceptions when it comes to what could potentially cause a man to lust.

    The men on here who are speaking out saying they don’t see what the big deal is, or they are taken aback by this post– they do not understand. I doubt they will ever understand, as they have not been taught this paradoxical theme- they were likely never told not to cause a girl (let alone a grown woman!!) to lust or stumble when they were growing up, and they’ve never felt like their worth was tied into how “sexy” or “innocent” they were. Their physical appeal was never an issue, nor were they considered a threat when they dressed a certain way. They were not expected to provide the impossible: remain super-modest yet attractive while growing up, yet desirable ENOUGH for marriage, then sexy enough to keep their husband in line while not TOO sexy as to not embarrass their families or children. It is enough to drive you mad.

    Women have been told they can only have a “little”. Just a little sexiness. Just a little fun. Just a little attractiveness, just a little control over their own bodies/sexuality/households. Just a little bit of calories, just a little bit of career advancement, just a little bit of freedom.
    The only thing we seem to be allowed a lot of is guilt.

    I’m with Jennifer Kent– I want to be FREE of this mode of thinking.

    As for Tony Rojas— women struggle with LUST, too. I know I do and did as a teenager. Please don’t think it is only a men’s issue, or that men have it worse. Women have been taught that restraint is expected of them. Men are less likely to have witnessed the same expectations. Therefore, please don’t guilt us with the fact that a woman on the beach can cause you to fantasize all day. That is not our burden. I don’t go outside with the intention to cause men to stumble, but if they do, I don’t see how YOUR stumbling doesn’t intrude into my privacy. It can easily snowball. Why do I need to alter my dress more than you need to control your weakened or unrestrained ability to lust– especially say if I am 15 and you are 28 (an example of what I was taught in youth group growing up)?

    My first husband cheated on me. We had plenty of sex in our marriage and I dressed quite cute for him and thought I honored him pretty well. We were friends since our freshman year in high school. I kept myself up, was healthy, did my makeup and hair– etc. He still cheated with a woman that was older, married, and had 4 children! She dressed shabbily, cursed openly, wore no makeup…etc. When I asked him why he cheated, and why with her, he said, “because I found out that I COULD”. Ah. Am I responsible for that as well? NO. No, I am NOT. I left him. He is responsible for the divorce. I don’t think divorce would go down if women dressed better…I think some men will take an opportunity just because THEY CAN.

    Men do not care much for what women think of their dress, their appropriateness, or even consider how they will affect our lust levels. Therefore, why would we need to consider men so much when we do something as basic as dressing ourselves?

    I want to please God, but I have no desire to please man. I have no desire to place men in general at the top of my priority list.

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