It was Easter morning, and it was the first time I had owned a new dress– a pretty dress— in years. I felt elegant, delicate, a crocus pushing up through the snow. The chiffon skirt fluttered below my knees, and the light, cool fabric felt wonderful against my skin in hot, humid Florida. I walked into church that morning feeling like I was finally taking my first steps out of girlhood, and I felt pretty.
After church was over, the pastor’s son confronted me in the dirt parking lot.
“Sam… Sam, I need to talk to you.”
I turned to face him, the pit of my stomach clenching. Somehow… I could feel what was coming. It was stamped all over his face, in the way he hung his head, in how he fiddled with the comb he always carried in his pocket.
“Sam… I, I really just don’t understand. The skirt you’re wearing– it,” he couldn’t look me in the eye as his voice broke.
“It caused me to stumble.”
I didn’t really hear anything after that– it was like he was far, far away, his voice coming to me from a distance and his face was frozen and warped. I caught snatches of “why would you do this to me? to yourself?” and the glow that had been inside of me all morning… it broke.
The second we arrived home from church, I dashed into my bedroom. In a frenzy driven by shame, by humiliation, by fear, I tore off that dress– the dress I had put on that morning, the dress that had made me feel that for once I could be pretty– and threw it into the dark corner of my closet and slammed the door shut. I crumpled to my bedroom floor, staring at those shut doors, and cried.
Last week, her.meneutics announced that they would be running a series on modesty, written by men, every Thursday. The fact that her.meneutics has decided to sponsor this series has its own set of complications, because that this series exists re-inforces the idea that men have the authority to talk about women’s bodies and what we do with them. That is… well, complicated territory. Men have been asserting their will, their desires, their beliefs, on women for centuries. Asking men to write a series on modesty is nothing new. If I were a betting woman, I’d gamble that whatever these men say about modesty, they’re not going to chart undiscovered territory on the subject..
I talked about the first post in the series, where Peter Chin uses Romans 14, here.
Today’s post, “The History of Lust,” written by Ike Miller, is… better. It didn’t make me want to throw things, like Peter’s post did. At least, not as much. The focus of his post seems to be centered pretty solidly on men, on men’s responsibility not to objectify women, and that’s a good thing. I agree with that wholeheartedly. No person should objectify another person. When we objectify a person, we are reducing the wholeness, the complexity, the beauty and wonder of that person down to an idea we can control, dominate. Objectification is the decision to view another person’s body as consumable, as an item we use for our own gratification.
However, while Ike spends the entire article talking about how objectification is wrong, he doesn’t frame his discussion in healthy, productive terms. Essentially, what he offers men is only going to perpetuate objectification and lust, not halt it.
One of the moments when I did want to scream and throw things was here:
The Hebrew term used for cling confirms the physical and sexual nature of the inclination. In similar scriptural contexts between men and women it connotes a man’s deep attraction for a woman, almost at the level of irresistibility (Shechem and Dinah, Genesis 34:3; Solomon and his many wives, 1 Kings 11:2).
Linguistically, he’s not wrong. That word, cling, is דָּבַק, and it does mean to be joined together in such a way that the two can never be parted. They become one, they are one.
However, the example he uses to talk about this? Dinah.
You’re going to frame an entire discussion about lust in terms of DINAH?!
Just to clue you in, here’s Genesis 34:1-2
Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.
That? That’s rape.
That’s not “irresistible and deep attraction for a woman.”
Ike is not talking about this passage as an example of what not to do. He doesn’t use this as an example of lust gone horribly, horribly wrong. He places the Rape of Dinah in terms of what he claims is good, healthy, sexual attraction. Men are told to leave their father and mothers, and cling to their wives, and this is good, he says.
And then he talks about Dinah.
All the swears.
I also want to mention this next idea, because it is important. I understand why Ike doesn’t even mention this, because he’s writing for Christianity Today, which is not a particularly progressive publication. He’s writing for his readers, for his audience, just like any good writer does, and I understand that.
However, it is important to highlight the fact that Christian teachings about modesty have, at their core and as their foundation, a hetero-normative perspective. Christian teachings about modesty assume from the outset that men are attracted to women, period. In this system, it is literally impossible to incorporate any other view. It denies that men can be attracted to men, and women can be attracted to women, and some men and women can be attracted to both men and women. I’m only referencing sexual orientation, as well– gender identity is its own discussion, too.
In my opinion, at least, any teaching that you intend to be applied this broadly that can’t actually be applied that broadly isn’t a good framework for talking about your idea.
Ike’s article, because it is geared toward heterosexual, cisgender men, also completely ignores the fact that women are sexual creatures, too. We struggle with lust and objectification just any other person. Because we’re people. We’re human, and we have human struggles. But, that’s not the way the world seems to work in Ike’s point of view– women are to “practice conscious awareness of men’s vulnerability.” These kind of statements only perpetuate the Victorian representation of women as almost asexual. Because we’re women, we’re not the ones with desires, with sexual needs and wants and wishes, of our own.
But, my largest concern with how Ike approaches human sexuality is the words he uses to talk about it. He only ever talks about lust– how something that God created to be good is now perverted.
Instead, our responsibility is humble recognition of our weakness and how we have perverted that physical inclination that was created good. In repentance we men must work toward a way of thinking about the female body that is in harmony with the created goodness of her whole being.
This is the only place where Ike indicates that it’s possible for men not to give in to their base desires, and, honestly, it is a beautiful thought. Personally, I think that learning to see a woman as a person instead of as a thing is very helpful in terms of not objectifying them, so here I agree with Ike.
Women are people. Novel idea, yes?
But Ike… he only says that men need a place not to feel shamed– for their lust. He doesn’t open the conversation to creating spaces where men can be free to discuss the differences between sexual attraction, desire, arousal, and lust— which, from what Handsome tells me, seems to be a finer line for him and the men he knows than it is for me and the women I’ve talked to. But that’s not where Ike goes with it– men are supposed to give each other accountability, and that seems to be it.
That’s not going to help remove all the shame and humiliation that exists in Christian circles. People can be helped by accountability, that’s true– but we think of accountability in terms of things like AA. Accountability is there to help keep each other from “falling off the wagon,” and that’s a good, good thing. But this seems to imply that this is all there is for men and women– lust, or don’t lust. There’s no middle ground here, not for Ike.
I want to wrap this up with a clarification on another one of the Famous Modesty Clobber Verses, also known as I Timothy 2:9:
Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
I’m pulling from the ESV here, and I want to highlight a difference in translations. In the KJV, the word that is translated as “modest” is presented as “respectable” here, and the word that is translated “modesty” in the ESV is “shamefacedness” in the KJV.
The word that is either “respectable” or “modest” is κόσμιος, and its primary meaning is well-arranged (in other places, it is translated “good behavior”). The root form of the word, κόσμος, is linked to the “order of the stars,” or “ornament.” All of this seems to indicate that κόσμιος is about behavior, about actions, and not primarily about clothes. In our modern vernacular, we see the word “modest” in the context of clothes as “how much skin does it cover and how loosely,” but I believe that we need to see the word “modest” in terms of modest‘s primary meaning: humility and graciousness.
The word that is translated as “shamefacedness” in the KJV and “modesty” in the ESV is αἰδώς, and this one needs to be understood in terms of the culture it belongs in– a culture dominated by the concepts of honor and shame. That culture is a long, long way away from us, but it could help us to understand it if we looked at the rest of the verse– where Paul is talking about gemstones, and gold, and riches, and costly attire.
Also known as designer brands, for us modern American women.
I knew a young woman in college that was insanely rich. Insanely rich. She grew up in the Hamptons, she wore nothing but Calvin Klein and Dooney & Burke and Gucci and Prada and Ralph Lauren– and you could tell, even if you didn’t know the first thing about fashion. At a college where most of us were there because we were poor, clothes like that stood out.
And… she was not well liked. I knew a lot of people that couldn’t stand her. I couldn’t, either– until I was assigned to the same desk as her for two of my classes, and I actually got to know her. Turns out, she was gentle, and sweet, and kind, and incredibly generous, and she turned out to be a good friend.
But no one knew that, and no one wanted to even bother to find that out.
Because of her clothes.
That is what this verse in Timothy is talking about. Not the virgin/whore dichotomy, not lust, not sexuality. It’s not about telling women that their neckline is too low or their skirt hem is too high– it’s about respecting each other enough to not flaunt our possessions in each other’s faces. It’s about having the grace and the humility, the compassion and respect, to live in a world where not all of us share equal status, equal privilege, equal wealth.
So, ladies and gentleman, if you’re going to talk about modesty, try not to use verses in the Bible that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about.
Because unless you’re going to go back to the Old Testament about a priest’s “thigh being nakedness and an abomination,” or try to rip 1 Corinthians 12:23 out of any context that makes sense, or try to use descriptions in Isaiah and Jeremiah about long skirts (which were described as being worn by both men and women) you’ve got problems.
Because there aren’t any verses telling women to wear loose clothes that cover lots of skin.
*edit*: next week I’m going to write a post on the concept of modesty and wealth, and there’s going to be a lot more nuance there. I just wanted to let you know that I don’t think being wealthy and buying designer brands is inherently a sin. I just think 1 Timothy 2:9 is asking us to examine our motives for why we do that.