Stumbling blocks, modesty and respect

Thursday, 29 July 2010

This week I was interested to see The Rebelution's Modesty Survey getting coverage on a number of blogs. I remember seeing a couple of pieces about it when the survey was conducted in 2007 and received glowing endorsements from several high profile church leaders and Christian writers. I felt it would be an interesting issue to address now because a few weeks ago I decided to make a point of writing about issues within Christianity a bit more often here.

The Rebelution is a site and organisation set up by two of the younger brothers of Joshua Harris, he of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame. I was leant another of his books, Boy Meets Girl, by a well-meaning friend while at university and all it succeeded in doing was making me slightly uncomfortable and worried that I had upset God by spending time with my boyfriend unchaperoned and kissing. Ho hum.

Anyway, The Rebelution probably isn't your cup of tea unless you're into all that return-to-biblical-patriarchy-homeschooling-modest-gender-roles kinda stuff. Much as I respect the decisions of people who want to do it (as long as it's not hurtful or abusive) you know it's not my cup of tea. And many of you at this point are likely to think 'LULZ, FUNDIES' and escape as quickly as possible. But looking at this from inside the Christian bubble, it's a concern.

It's interesting to note that the Harris brothers have responded to criticism of the survey and the onus it puts on women to do everything they can in order to 'help' men's feelings. One woman expresses concern that the attitude of the survey was one of victim-blaming. Alex replies and recommends she read A Return to Modesty: Discovering Lost Virtue, the controversial book by Wendy Shalit which claims that if women just went back to wearing long skirts, covering up, keeping quiet and stopped holding hands with men in the cinema, we wouldn't have eating disorders, men would respect us and premarital sex, rape and sexual assault wouldn't happen. Which is fine, as long as you blank out (as Shalit obviously does) the fact that all these things definitely happened pre-1960. Nice bit of victim-blaming there.

As has been pointed out in the post about this over at Sociological Images, the problem with the survey is that it takes worries about clothing and attitudes to a whole new level. I think the majority of churches end up giving their youth groups talks about these sort of issues and I'm not going to go into what's problematic or not problematic about this. It can be done well or really badly and that's another post. But in my experience these talks usually cover the same areas - the showing of 'too much' cleavage and the wearing of items like hot pants and boob tubes.

Although the 'guys' at The Rebelution state it wasn't their intention to be too legalistic and prescriptive about the survey the questions tell a different story. Young men are quizzed on whether or not they feel a variety of things are 'modest' or 'immodest', from high heels to the application of lip gloss to a bag strap across the chest to perfume to every item of makeup, clothing and underwear you can imagine and most confusingly - posture and movement.

48% of respondents felt that a bag with a strap across the chest 'draws too much attention to the bust'. 39% think tights with designs (eg stripes and polka dots) 'draw too much attention to the legs'. A third felt that 'girls with less curves can wear clothes that girls with curves should not'. 75% believe that 'the way a girl walks can be a stumbling block'. 75% believe that 'seeing a girl's chest bounce when she walks or runs is a stumbling block'.

I'm wondering if we're all expected to wear maximum impact sports bras 24/7 as a consequence. I mean these are things which are just natural aspects of a woman's body. There comes a point - probably around the time that you're worrying whether demin jackets with pockets or stretching in front of a male are 'stumbling blocks' or not - that you're overthinking things. In a big way. I can imagine young women reading the results (and there were a lot of teenagers involved in the survey) and worrying that they might have to monitor their every move in order to be as 'helpful' as possible.

Some of the questions were open-ended and the answers given were extremely wide-ranging.
How do you feel about girls who purposely flaunt their bodies?

"Women like this disgust and frustrate me. They take advantage of something that God intended to be beautiful. They lure men away from that which they truly love. They make men like me fight and struggle, and cause many to fall. THESE WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE ADORED OR FOLLOWED!"

"Saddened; disappointed; sometimes angered. They're distracting good men, dishonoring God and marriage, and offering themselves cheaply--which makes me desire even more strongly a girl who is modest, who is valuable...I always remind myself that if a girl flaunts herself before I marry her, she'll do the same thing afterward. As a husband, that would make me pretty mad."

"Yes, you can turn me on, but don't expect me to respect you. Yes, I might find you attractive on the outside, but that won't make me think of you as attractive on the inside."
I honestly worry about these men and for the women they look to make a life with. Some men attempted to answer from a more sympathetic point of view but it comes across as no more palatable - 'I would wonder where her father was!' being one answer, the assumption that such girls must have mental and emotional problems being another. In a previous post on this blog I know I talked about the problematic opinion which can be so prevalent among some Christian men - that women who adhere to certain standards of 'Biblical femininity' are to be loved and adored and respected, but all women who don't are treated with disdain. In wider culture we know it as the 'virgin/whore' dichotomy. It's really noticeable in some of these responses.

In the post at Sociological Images there is some great analysis of the words used by respondents when speaking of 'immodest' women and the way that it shows that the 'woman as evil temptress' stereotype is very much alive and well, with the words being used to describe them often having violent connotations - 'forces', 'manipulates', 'destroys'.

On the other hand, other open responses did encourage me that somewhere out there, young men are getting good teaching about what it means to treat women with respect and love.
As a guy, what is your responsibility in this area? What is your role in guarding your eyes and mind (as opposed to the women's role of dressing modestly)?

"Think biblically about women as God's creation, some as your sisters in Christ. All are to be treated respectfully and honored."

"Ultimately, responsibility for stumbling lies with each of us personally. I cannot blame a sister's dress for a lustful thought than I can blame a gun for a murder.

"Let's be honest. We're men, and we're responsible for ourselves. We're responsible for our thoughts, for our lusts, for our character. We won't be able to blame the girls when we're called to give account for it in the judgment day."
The Harris brothers wrote that there had been overwhelming demand for this survey and little demand for one which dealt with young womens' desires. Consequently they hadn't looked at it from a female point of view. You wonder where this has left the young women who eagerly awaited the results of the survey. To what extent is their view of sexuality and relationships defined by what men want and expect rather than their own feelings - and do they feel that they are personally responsible for the 'sins' of the opposite sex?

The survey itself and many of the responses show that there is definitely a long way to go in terms of teaching about relationships and attitudes. There's the obsession with women's actions as 'stumbling blocks'. All too often it falls back on outdated stereotypes about 'what guys and girls do/want' which insult everyone - and the often accompanying teaching that males should take the lead or be in charge in all aspects of relationships can be just as confusing and unwelcome.

More posts on this over at Feminist Riposte, Jezebel, Sound Teaching and Women's Views on News.


sianandcrookedrib said...

really interesting post! some of the responses are horrible but it is good to see the more positive responses from young men. the shalit book was awful wasn't it? i read it to see what all the fuss was about. as you say, nothing bad happened to women ever before 1960 in shalit's world!

it is worrying that women are still being portrayed as the 'guardians' of sexuality rather than active agents in sexuality.

soisaystoher said...

hey. this is a horrible survey. i was a teenage evangelical and even then i knew the joshua harris approach to dating was problematic. Some of these responses scare me because they are echoes of the mel gibson 'it's your fault if you get raped because you flaunt yourself' rant.

I think there is no place for this kind of thing in how we facilitate young people thinking through relationships because the bottom line for this approach is that sex before marriage is bad. So when they talk about 'stumbling blocks' and how men 'struggle' they're not even talking about a desire to do violence to a woman (as gibson was) - they're simply talking about the fact that sometimes skin or curves or muscles turn us on. And that is totally natural. Why the big focus on how bad that is? I know that falls outside of their belief system but I just don't know how they'll ever be able to present an approach to sex/relationship education that isn't damaging until they accept that it's OK to have sex. What young people need is support to work through the physical and emotional experience that comes with that.

Hannah Mudge said...

Sian, i think the 'nothing bad ever happened before 1960' way of thinking is sadly such a common theme among Christians who want to see a return to traditional 'values'. And it's such a flawed argument. I saw a blog discussion about Shalit's book somewhere and someone brought up all these facts from the 18th and 19th century about children born or conceived out of wedlock, rape etc and it makes it so obvious that they have such a rose-tinted view of how things used to be.

soisaystoher - 'I was a teenage evangelical' is such a good title for a book!

they're simply talking about the fact that sometimes skin or curves or muscles turn us on. And that is totally natural

Exactly. I was thinking about this earlier today actually, and i know there is the argument that being 'lustful' is a major sin and it's what you do with these thoughts which are a problem but like you say it presents such a negative view of something - ie sexual feelings - which are so natural and part of becoming an adult. If they want to present sex as something which is to bed enjoyed within the framework of marriage then that's fair enough but i think this goes too far and could be really damaging, creating a great sense of shame about sexual desire.

Dianna said...

I find it interesting that the men know enough to say that women are children of God, and they deserve respect as such when asked about their responsibility, but also have no problem with saying: "Yes, you can turn me on, but don't expect me to respect you. Yes, I might find you attractive on the outside, but that won't make me think of you as attractive on the inside."

There's such cognitive dissonance between the two statements that I'm just baffled.


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