I’ve written a few times about how the modesty doctrine hurts women. Now it’s time to switch lenses. The modesty doctrine also wreaks havoc on the minds of young men in the Christian patriarchy movement. Here’s how:
- It teaches men to be afraid of women because their sexual power is too great to be resisted.
- It teaches men to despise women and hampers their relationships.
- It teaches men to be afraid of their own bodies.
- It teaches men to control and criticize women in order to protect themselves.
- It teaches men to be paranoid about their sexual orientation.
- It teaches gay men that they don’t exist.
(There are probably more consequences of which I’m not aware, so my male readers will have to help me fill in the blanks!)
Before we go any further, a definition. The “modesty doctrine” is the belief that women need to cover their bodies to prevent men from being attracted to them, because sexual attraction leads to sin and death for both. The modesty doctrine is not the same as wearing conservative clothing. You can do the latter without believing the former. It is the belief, the mindset of the modesty doctrine that is so harmful. Not the clothes.
1. The modesty doctrine teaches men that they are constantly under assault. Advertising images of sexy women in skimpy clothing feel like clouds of fiery missiles hurtling into their brains. They have to avert their eyes everywhere they go just to avoid the images, and on top of that there are actual women wearing skimpy outfits. They feel like they can’t get away from sexual stimuli. When you’re taught that merely seeing something can defile you, guarding your eyes from “evil” becomes your eternal chore.
For boys going through puberty, this is especially painful. They can’t participate in mainstream culture (if they’re allowed to in the first place) because the music, television, and movie industries bombard them with sexual images. The solution, according to fundamentalist preachers, is to “change the culture” by telling women to cover up. But this is disingenuous. Once you’ve planted the idea that feeling attracted to a woman is sinful lust, you can’t walk away that easily. Women who already do dress “modestly” are the next targets. Are they drawing attention to themselves with fashionable jewelry or luxurious hair? They should cover up and wear plainer clothing. Young men at Message youth camps would complain if a girl had on sandals or nail polish because her feet and hands were too attractive. Were they just trying to be mean? Some might have been, but not others. Many of them were just hypersensitive to the opposite sex (you know, like almost all teenagers) and very, very afraid of falling prey to lust.
Men who are raised with the modesty doctrine learn that everything women wear is directed at them. When an “immodest” woman walks by, it feels like both a test and an assault. My best friend from church got a job at Wal-Mart when he was 17, and he complained to me endlessly about how women at his workplace would tease and flirt with him. I was treated to a detailed account of how one of the women (also a teenager) stood behind him and ran her fingers across his lower back. He went stiff as a board and tried to brush her off as politely as he could. Perplexed, she asked whether he might be gay. He related this story in helpless frustration. He couldn’t figure out how to avoid female attention without acting like a jerk, and his co-workers couldn’t understand how a heterosexual man could want to avoid female attention. He felt like he was hemmed in by demons and armed with a toothpick.
2. Young men can react to this pressure by learning to despise women. Even as they are being taught not to look at women’s bodies, they are being taught to look at women as bodies. They are encouraged to speak hatefully about the scantily-clad models on magazine covers and billboards. Pastors scream about filthy harlots from the pulpit. The specter of Jezebel is raised and crucified once again. In Message circles, young men grow up hearing Branham’s crackling voice crying that “immoral women” are lower than dogs and livestock. This translates easily to hating girls who just happen to wander into their sight “immodestly” dressed. My male friends used to vent their frustrations by mocking “fat” girls who wore shorts, because “no one wants to see that.” It didn’t occur to them that it would be hurtful to me, a thin girl, to see them dehumanize other girls. Now, as I look back, it strikes me that they really believed that women only wore skimpy clothing to attract them. Everything women wore was directed at them, personally, because they were men.
Walking down the street for them must have been like fending off endless trays of hors d’oeuvres at a party. Only the hors d’oeuvres were poisoned, so it was urgent that they turn down each offer, graciously if they could, but most of all firmly. Every woman who walked by was offering, inviting, enticing them to sin. If their bodies responded, they were in peril for their lives. The “fat” girls were easy targets for these boys. Although they were still “offering” (by not dressing “modestly”), they were like sardines on a platter: Lacking allure, they were easy to turn down and laugh about afterwards. Finally, the idea of being friends with such a girl or listening to what she had to say became ludicrous. She had already said everything she could possibly want to say to a guy when she put on a pair of shorts.
(I won’t go into detail about the horrible ramifications of teaching young men that women are constantly offering themselves for sex just by being visible. But I’m sure you can imagine what I might say about that.)
3. The modesty doctrine teaches men that the worst possible danger lies between their own legs. They are taught to fear their bodies and natural urges. There is no such thing as an innocent sexual thought for an unmarried Christian man. There is most definitely no masturbation. When a guy actually courts a girl, he must walk the impossible line of learning to love her without wanting to kiss or touch her at all. Courtships and engagements can be blindingly short for this reason, but what happens afterward? A man who has been taught to avoid feeling attracted to all women, including his fiancée, now suddenly has to be passionately attracted to his wife and able to perform. This sounds like a recipe for a lot of false starts, fears, and failures of communication.
4. The modesty doctrine does not give men any tools to deal with unwanted sexual attraction. It only tells them not to feel something they can’t help, and then tells them that they could go to hell for it. They do not learn to take a beat and let it pass, to move on and forget about it, to live their lives with the security of knowing that they are in charge of what they do. They literally believe that they can be moved to animalistic rape by the curve of a woman’s knee.
Evangelical Christian culture teaches men that being faithful to their wives is an incredible challenge. Evil women are lurking everywhere, waiting to pounce and drag them into their dens of sin. Women’s sexual power is so overwhelming that, at any moment, they could topple into the devil’s pit. Worse yet, there’s nothing they can do to prevent it other than pray and avert their eyes. No wonder they feel helpless. No wonder they’re afraid.
It is this perpetual peril that drives evangelical men to ridiculous lengths to rid their world of sexual stimuli. The only way to prevent the inevitable (adultery or fornication) is to keep women under wraps (literally). Men become micro-managers of their wives’ and daughters’ clothing. My pastor once chastised his 11-year-old daughter for wearing her sweatshirt off her shoulders (with a t-shirt underneath). “Either take that off or put it on,” he ordered sternly, warning her that boys might see the sweatshirt and think about her taking all her clothes off. I was mystified that this had even entered his mind. Because the Christian patriarchy movement invests men with such significant power, their fears take precedence as the laws of the home. Because it’s impossible for a man to fully protect himself, the job falls to all the women around him to make sure he doesn’t turn into a sex-crazed werewolf.
5. The modesty doctrine gives men contradictory messages about masculinity. The doctrine teaches them that they need to protect themselves from sin by avoiding feeling attracted to women. American culture, on the other hand, tells them that the only way to prove that they are masculine is to be interested in sex with women (along with violence, beer, and mechanical things). Christian boys feel like sitting ducks for abuse from their peers, who assume that they are gay because they avoid participating in the rituals of adolescent sexuality (like flipping through smutty magazines and checking out the cheerleaders). Since conservative evangelical groups consider being gay an even worse sin than having the hots for a girl, these boys are trapped between a rock and a hard place. They are terrified that gay boys will be attracted to them, and terrified to be attracted to girls.
My teenage best friend was constantly trying to assert his heterosexuality. Not only could he not date (taking away the “I have a girlfriend” excuse), he couldn’t spend time alone with female friends, return the playful glances of his coworkers, or have a crush on a movie star. He therefore plunged headlong into identifying as a “nerd” whose intellect left no time for girls. The truth was that his family had forbidden him to court until he finished college. While in college, perceiving visual assaults on all sides, he locked himself in his room for almost the entirety of a six-week study abroad program in France. The reason? There were girls there, drinking.
6. Finally, the modesty doctrine erases gay and lesbian people entirely. The idea of being gay is just a terrifying specter for straight boys in this culture; actually being gay is frightening to admit, even to themselves. There is literally no code of behavior for them other than to “repent” of their “sin.” I’m not sure which one is worse: being told that you’re an abomination or being told that you don’t exist. In either case, gay boys are receiving signals that they aren’t men, because “real” men need to wrestle with their attraction to women and suppress it constantly. “Every Man’s Battle” is the revealing name of an evangelical anti-pornography initiative. For gay men, there is an entirely different war going on. Theirs is a lonelier battle.
What do I make of all this?
It’s a lot of needless suffering for both men and women. Sexual attraction is a biological norm. It happens, whether you’re young or old, gay or straight, in a relationship or not. It lasts for a second and you get on with your life. But by pairing those fleeting moments of appreciation for a face on a billboard or a stranger’s lean legs with sinful lust, evangelical Christians have created an impossible bind for men and a culture of hostility for women. Living outside of this culture now, I can tell the difference between attraction (when a man smiles at me across the street or pays me a compliment) and lust (when a man follows me with his eyes fixed somewhere below my shoulders, or says something vulgar). What you do with sexual attraction is what makes you moral or immoral. If you accept the lie that you can’t control yourself and use your sexual attraction to control or intimidate others, then you are indeed enslaved to your own lust and a danger to people. If you recognize, however, that you are always in control of your own actions and that you can choose not to act on sexual attraction, you can protect yourself and others. Self-control and respect for others are the lessons we should teach boys (and girls). We should not teach them to fear their bodies, feel attacked by the mere sight of attractive strangers, or despise the people they find attractive.
These are the things I’ve discovered through growing up with mostly male friends (an odd circumstance that got me punished in various ways in my fundamentalist church). I have also learned a lot from men who weren’t raised this way, who are used to living their lives without worrying about feeling attracted to strangers, or sexy pictures, or movie stars. I can’t pretend to know all the details of either experience, but I do remember the agony in the voices of my friends who were tired of fighting the modesty battle all the time. I remember their frustration and anger when girls flirted with them, and they were powerless. I remember how much they resented being called gay, and how they assumed stances of superiority to fend off the hurt of being falsely identified with a group they were taught to fear and hate. I can hardly imagine the frustration of actually being gay in this environment and being told weekly that you are an abomination in the eyes of God. All this heartache could have been avoided by adopting a normal approach to sexuality.
If I could do anything to soften the blows of the modesty doctrine, I would tell young boys, “There is nothing wrong with you. It’s normal to feel attracted to people. You can want to eat nothing but chocolate cake all the time, but you know that wouldn’t be good for you. You also have the power not to have sex until you know it will be good for you. Your body belongs to you, and you decide what it does. This is your freedom and your responsibility, not anyone else’s.”
The modesty doctrine is a game that no one ever wins. It perpetuates fear and contempt in men. It oppresses women. It needs to stop.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.