I’ve seen it happen over and over: Someone ventures to say, “Women don’t understand the effect they have on men. If they would only dress more modestly, it would save men a lot of struggling to avoid lustful thoughts. Especially in church, you often wish your eyes were not being drawn like magnets to some attractive young woman in a skin-tight skirt two pews ahead of you, when you’re trying to focus on the liturgy. Why do Christian women uncritically adopt the fashions of the age, and why don’t the clergy ever admonish them against it?”
The response is often along the lines of: “You have no right to put the onus on women to dress in ways that don’t incite lust in yourself. If you have trouble with lust, the onus is on you to change your habits and exercise virtue. Don’t be a ‘helpless victim of your own passions‘ or a ‘pathetic little boy who can’t be expected to avert [y]our eyes and control [y]our thoughts‘.
Besides, “Modesty is not just about hemlines and necklines. Immodesty, essentially, is about calling attention to yourself in ways that ‘undermine your human dignity while objectifying yourself‘. And this can be done in various ways, not always having anything to do with how much skin you show.”
I have received “the scolding” myself, after having brought up this topic in private discussions, and have seen others get publicly flamed over it as well. Basically, you’re a chauvinist pig if you put the burden on women to dress in ways that don’t incite lust in men. Men need to grow up, learn to avert their eyes, suppress their urges, not look upon women as objects.
All true, but beside the point.
The point that I’m making is that women don’t see themselves the way men see them. They are not as sensitive to visual sexual stimuli as men, and therefore not as susceptible to visual sexual temptations. And as a result, Christian women tend to follow the world’s trends in fashion, seemingly uncritically and without hesitation, oblivious to their effect on men. Meanwhile Christian men, who do see women the way men see them, try to help Christian women understand how men see them, in an effort to get them to be a little more circumspect in deciding which worldly fashions they will follow and which they will not.
Granting for the sake of argument that this has little or nothing to do with the virtue of modesty per se, or that this is only a tiny fraction of what is encompassed by modesty, nevertheless I consider it a valid concern on the part of Christian men, on behalf of Christian women.
Granting that most of the burden for avoiding the indulgence of lustful thoughts should and does fall on men — after all it’s their problem — it doesn’t follow that women should not be cautioned to avoid dressing in ways that incite such thoughts in men.
Granting for the sake of argument that Christian men should take responsibility for their own spiritual maturity, and not be mental teenagers their whole lives, getting all excited and giggly every time they see cleavage in public — nevertheless not all men are spiritually mature. Try as they might, a lot of them are still in the process of struggling with these things, and working out the best way to manage them. And worse still — a lot of men DON’T EVEN TRY.
Everyone knows that stealing is wrong, and those who are tempted to steal should work to suppress their temptations. If you leave $100, or $1,000, sitting out in front of me, I won’t take it, whether I’m being watched or not. I’m not desperate for money, and stealing is an easy temptation for me to resist. But not everyone is like me. Some people are desperate for money, and for some it’s a very difficult temptation to resist. Worse still, SOME PEOPLE DON’T EVEN TRY TO RESIST IT.
I’m not saying that you can draw definite lines, consisting of a certain number of centimeters past a certain point, beyond which you are being objectively immodest regardless of the circumstances. I’m not saying that women are responsible for the sins of lust committed by men in their presence, whether they intend to incite lust or not. I’m not saying men are not often immature little beasts who need to practice a little mortification now and again, rather than blaming their weaknesses on women. I’m just saying that women don’t see themselves the way men do, and it seems like it would be good for women to know how men see them, in case they don’t want to be seen that way.
When men get specific about what they would consider “modest” dress, often that’s because it’s impossible to do a mind meld with women to make them see how men perceive them. So instead, they try to take a short cut and explain what, to them, might constitute a temptation, and what would be less likely to. For me personally, it’s what I call the “airspace rule”: Leave a little space for air to circulate between your skin and your clothes. Not necessarily a lot, just enough so that every ridge and dimple isn’t visible through your clothing. I’m not saying you’re a slut if you wear skin-tight pants, I’m just trying to convey that leaving some airspace would make your private parts less of an eye magnet to men, who may either be strugging to resist temptation, or may just be having a bad day, or may not be trying to resist at all, either because they’re not Christian or because they’re not very good Christians.
(Men follow the airspace rule instinctively, which is one of the reasons I’m convinced that women don’t see men the way men see women: In my experience, only 4-5 women out of 100 do NOT wear their pants skin tight, whereas only 4-5 men out of 100 DO wear them that way. I think this is because men know how they look at women who are dressed that way, and for that very reason have an aversion to being looked at that way themselves. Whereas women either have no such aversion, or else they are clueless as to how they are being looked at. Based on conversations with women I know, I believe it’s the latter. I could be wrong, but this is my theory.)
None of this has anything to do with excusing rape, or blaming rape on women. I should hardly have to say this — in fact I resent having to say it, but do so anyway because of the things people will say on the flimsiest of bases: A woman is not to be blamed for rape, no matter what she’s wearing. As I have already admitted in regard to lustful thoughts, like all other sins, they are no one’s fault but the one committing them. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop a lot of women from taking conscious precautions to avoid putting themselves in vulnerable situations. The fact that it’s not your fault, doesn’t mean you want it to happen to you.
I think the same goes for lustful thoughts: They may be the man’s problem and the woman may not be to blame in the slightest. But a Christian woman still might prefer that they not happen in regard to herself, if she can help it.