Saturday, May 17, 2014

Modesty Culture Part 3: "Modesty" in Practice

Modesty Culture Part 3: What modesty culture means in practice, or, why Good Christian(TM) women and girls can’t dress like normal people

The Rebelution Survey

When it comes to discussing most serious issues, I am thinking I need a cartoon superhero: “Pseudoscience Man to the rescue!” Seriously. This isn’t just a Christian thing. EVERYONE uses him. All. The. Time. Need to make a point, and need a “conversation ending” backup for your position? Don’t want to accept that other points of view might be valid? I have your solution: “Pseudoscience Man to the rescue!” Do something that looks scientific that you can cite to support your position.

Let me explain his appearance in this case.

Since we have already rejected any idea that “modesty” - that is, well ordered or respectable, could be determined by mainstream culture, we need a substitute method of determining this.

Unless "Modesty" could be determined in some "objective," repeatable manner, it would simply be considered a subjective thing. A matter of taste, not absolute morality.

If you can't support your particular line in the sand with something concrete, then someone else's line might be just as valid. If that is the case, then you cannot claim that your particular preferences are God's will for all mankind. 

It’s Pseudoscience Man to the rescue!

So, Alex and Brett Harris are two of the sons of Gregg Harris, a key founder of the Christian homeschool movement. (Their brother Josh Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the seminal work promoting the Courtship Movement. Also, my wife informs me, he was/is brutally handsome, and all the good Patriarchy girls mooned over him. He is now a pastor, and was, until recently affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries, run by C. J. Mahaney. After said ministry was rocked by a child molestation scandal strikingly similar to the Catholic one, J. Harris disaffiliated himself with SGM, which I will admit was a good decision; but he also continues to defend Mahaney, which is a bad one, and it appears he too may have kept silent about a known abuser.)

Since it appeared that various Christians everywhere disagreed about what exactly was “modest,” they wanted to find some more or less “objective” standard to apply.

Let’s just take a poll of men and boys to find out what is modest.

But note, they used the same “standard” that Gothard and the others use:

The standard for what is “modest” is determined by what a man feels when he looks at a woman.

So, naturally, they took a “survey” of a certain type of male to find out what said males thought females should wear.

Do I really have to explain how utterly ludicrous this is? Apparently yes, because my friends keep posting this survey!

I guess it is possible (probable?) that all these good-hearted people just posted the survey because they saw the basic premise; and that they didn't actually read the survey. Because I am having a hard time understanding how anyone who actually read the survey could bring themselves to post it. As I read through it, rather than nodding along, I began to get a bit freaked out about letting my kids hang out with the sorts that took this survey, because their answers are pretty scary.

Unlike a truly scientific survey, which would have taken a random yet representative selection of males across a particular relevant spectrum (say United States), they solicited males of ages 12-and-up within their own conservative subculture to self-select and answer the questions.

Anyone with an elementary background in sociology would know that the only thing this survey proves is that those conservative (mostly homeschooled, by the way) males who chose to answer the survey had certain opinions.

I might note at this point the utter lack of input from females - a factor which is taken for granted.

And, let me say, what I found this survey to prove is that the teachings on modesty over the last generation have seriously fucked up a whole generation of males. And females. (Pun and strong language absolutely, unequivocally intended.)

Shall we examine the survey? Here it is:
Oh wait, it has been taken down now that it created controversy. While the root page is on the internet archive, I was unable to find the actual survey results there. (They were part of a Flash script, from what I can tell.) Fortunately, I took notes.

First, I’ll note that it is incredibly detailed. It took lots of thought to come up with all the questions. This wasn’t the result of a whim. People have been thinking in excrutiating detail about every aspect of female garments, undergarments, and general behavior and presentation. WOW!

Actually, this is of no surprise to me or anyone else who grew up in the Christian Patriarchy movement. They care deeply about the exact details of the female body and female clothing. And about how women and girls walk, and talk.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this. This is part of the first year’s installment of the Wisdom Booklets, which is Bill Gothard’s homeschool curriculum. (My family did these the last year of high school for me.) One of the first “assignments” was to go to a local mall and people watch. And then make judgments about people’s souls based on the details of how they dressed. I am absolutely not kidding about this.That was actually an assignment: how to "practice" seeing people as (Bill Gothard thought) God sees them. 

Or, one could simply call it "training your kids to be judgmental."

So what are these? Pictures of clothes my grandmothers might have worn? Examples of fashion from 50 to 100 years ago? Fun vintage patterns that my wife might transform into something lovely and attractive? No.

These are examples of evil, “ungodly” clothing.

Really. I kid you not. Can you guess why they are bad?

In case you hadn’t noticed, all except for number four might lead you to notice that the woman had breasts. And number four might lead you to notice that the woman had legs which might terminate in a crotch, which could have a vulva, and you might notice she is female think about sex.

Before we delve deeper into the specifics of the theology, let me look closer at the survey itself.

Roughly thirty percent say that skirts are more “modest” than pants. And then look at all the detail about which skirts are okay. Certainly never above the calf.

How about this one: “Girls with less curves can wear clothes that girls with more curves should not.” Thirty-five percent agree. (I would say that, in practice, far more agree than would admit it. In practice, the curvy girl will be the target of the Modesty Police.)

“A modestly dressed girl can still be a stumbling block because of her attitude and behavior.” Ninety-four percent agree. So, it isn’t enough to follow the rules. One must have the right “attitude” or “behavior.” Which can mean many things. It's all in the interpretation...

There is one particular question which for me takes the cake. You can find it this under “posture/movement.” Yes, a woman’s very “posture” and the way she moves can be “immodest,” - that is, evil. Then look at the last category, “Seeing a girl's chest bounce when she is walking or running is a stumbling block.”

A quick digression. In the lexicon of conservative Christianity, “stumbling block” means that a person has done something evil that has caused another person to sin.

Take a close look at the results. If you are talking about males within this subculture, 3 out of 4 think that a woman has sinned because her breasts move when she walks or runs.

Let me say that again: 3 out of 4 males taking this survey believed that if a woman allowed her breasts to move when she ran or even just walked was immodest. That she was sinning.

Unholy mother of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!  And yes, I cleaned that one up. My original statement was not at all appropriate for work or children.

Do you realize the implications of that statement?

A girl or woman whose breasts cannot be completely immobilized when she exercises - indeed, when she walks - is being a “stumbling block.” That is, she is sinning! She is being an evil person because her body won’t stay still and not reveal that she is a female when she walks!

So, I guess the takeaway is that buxom females ought to confine themselves to a wheelchair, because ordinary ambulation will cause men to sin.

Please, by all that is holy, do NOT make me spell out what I thought about this!

And it goes on!

“Shirts or dresses that are gathered around the chest draw too much attention to the bust.” Fifty-eight percent agree. In fact, the survey linked an illustration of what they meant by this question. So here you are: nearly 3 in 5 thought that these are “immodest.” Because you might notice that a girl wearing them has breasts, I guess.
This is the actual illustration from the survey. 3 out of 5 thought that these were immodest. 3 out of 5.
(Good thing I copied this before the survey was taken down…)

Sixty-five percent think that seeing a girl stretching is immodest.

Sixty-four percent think that seeing a girl bend over and expose her lower back (not her butt) is immodest.

Sixty-one percent think that it is a sin for a girl even to bend over to pick something up with her backside facing you.

What the [insert favorite unprintable word]?

Does anyone else (besides think this is BATSHIT INSANE?

More than 1 in 4 can’t tolerate an empire waist (think Pride and Prejudice) because it might imply breasts? (Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813, but apparently styles from 200 years ago are too much for a full quarter of respondents.) 

Sixty percent think “shrugs” are immodest? (I didn’t even know what these were until my wife informed me. Yes, she wears them. They actually provide one with extra covering. But they might...wait for it...imply that a woman has breasts!)

A shrug, for those of us who had no idea. On second thought, avert your eyes...

And don’t even get me started on the fact that makeup, hairstyles, and jewelry are ALL part of this survey. Go through the survey and see just how messed up the whole concept is. Everything a woman or girl might wear, or even do, might just be a sin in this worldview.

Let me just go back to that first one again:

All but the flattest chested females should NEVER exercise where a man or boy might see them because that would be SIN on the part of the FEMALE!

How many times do I have to say that before it sinks in?

We have trained a generation of young men to be completely freaked out when they realize that women have breasts that aren’t made of whalebone, and that actually bounce when a woman moves.

A woman is SINNING because she has breasts that might be obvious when she exercises?

I'm sorry to beat this point to death, but we tend to sugar coat it. When you tell someone that what they are wearing - or doing - is wrong, you are telling them they are sinning. Period.

Again, I feel the need to point this out:

This isn’t about preventing our daughters from posing in Playboy or simulating sex on stage.

As this survey clearly shows, "Modesty" is about showing that Christian women and girls should not wear normal, culturally mainstream clothing or participate in normal activities.

This goes for everything from normal swimsuits seen every day on the beaches of my native Southern California to exercise gear to - in the more extreme - but increasingly common cases - pants and shorts.

How the hell did this happen?

In my opinion, one significant factor is the Evangelical freak out about sex in general. A subject for a future post is how societal factors combined with theological views to create an impossible situation that Evangelicals “solved” by demanding celibacy during the peak years of sexual desire and fertility, and have embraced any means by which the children can be locked in the state of asexuality until they can be succesfully married off. Hence Courtship, Purity Balls, and Modesty Culture. But that is a whole post in itself.

But yes, conservative Christianity is freaked out about the potential sexuality of its children.

So much for the practical results. In the next installment, let me at examine the theological underpinnings in more detail. As my friend who encouraged me to write this asked, why does Modesty Culture inevitably lead to ridiculously detailed rules about how not to dress like other people? I believe that the theology itself - as stated by serial sexual harrasser Bill Gothard - causes the problem.

Posts in this series:

Modesty Culture Part 1: Introduction - "Whaaat?"
Modesty Culture Part 2: How "Modesty Culture" became a "Thing"
Modesty Culture Part 3: "Modesty" in Practice
Modesty Culture Part 4: The Concept of "Defrauding" and Rape Culture 
Modesty Culture Part 5: The Faulty Definition of "Lust"
Modesty Culture Part 6: The Real Meaning of I Timothy 2:8-10 
Modesty Culture Part 7: Maybe Christian Women Should Buy Their Clothes at WalMart 
Modesty Culture Part 8: Sexism and Misogyny 
Modesty Culture Part 9: Inconsistent Application of Rules  
Modesty Culture Part 11: "Others May, We Cannot" is a Lie
Modesty Culture Part 12: Amanda's Story

A link to ponder:

One of the surveyors has second thoughts about the survey. 

Note on courage:

Already, I have attempted to link to two different “Modesty” sites that have gone offline after controversy.

Guess what? I am going to publicly call out those who posted as chickens. As cowards.

You published it.

You have two choices, as I see it, if you want to show you actually have courage:

1. Leave the post up, and defend it. If you really believe what you are saying, defend it.

2. Admit you were wrong, and say why. It’s okay to change your mind after you hear from other perspectives. In fact, I believe one of the main reasons that “Modesty Culture” thrives is that most people who believe in it never interact with others outside their Fundamentalist bubble. If you decided, after hearing other perspectives, that you were wrong, own it. There is no shame in that.

Instead, what I see happening is this: someone who has been ensconced in the Fundamentalist bubble decides to put their views out in public. Those outside of the bubble call him or her out on the misogynist bullshit they are publishing. Caught between the target audience (other Fundamentalists) and the embarrassment of realizing those outside the bubble think they are batshit crazy, they just chicken out and withdraw the post.

Sorry, that is cowardly. Particularly if, like the Harris boys, you make your living selling this stuff.

If you are brave enough to slut shame young female strangers like, then surely you are brave enough to leave your site up where people can see it and comment. 


  1. The pointlessness of this survey can be summed up in the words of Xander Harris; "I'm 17 years old. Looking at linoleum makes me think about sex."

  2. There are those who take an entirely different approach to modesty:

    The blog is especially worth reading. Very extensive exegesis and analysis.

    And since you like books, you may want to take a look at:

    It is a book from 1937 that traces body phobia back to the first century gnostics, through the Middle Ages, the Puritans, and the Victorian era. The author is a very liberal, nominal Christian.

  3. So let me see if I've got this right: The standard for modesty is whether an average male who has grown up in this "Puritanical" environment and never seen a naked woman (or at least not that he can remember; childhood breastfeeding probably doesn't count) or a picture of one will "fall into lust" if he sees a woman wearing a certain dress? And curvy girls are inherently immodest because a young man will "appreciate" their curves? Can we say "circular reasoning"? And "rape culture"?

    1. I will be discussing the fact that Modesty Culture and Rape Culture share the same rhetoric in a future installment.

      I also intend to address the way that ordinary human sexual feelings are mistaken for "lust." There is so much to unpack here.

    2. What was most surprising about this survey is the way it went viral outside of its Puritanical environment. My family (and one other that is similarly laid back) are the only home schoolers in our little church, and yet this was actually posted on the church Facebook wall.

    3. Last fall, there was a blog post about teenaged girls and their selfies by a mainstream Evangelical (Wheaton grad) mom.

      The wife of my son’s supervisor at a progressive Evangelical organization recommended it on Facebook.

      My son, raised a decent young man outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist subculture, was upset and sent us a series of messages:

      “This … possibly takes the cake as the most condescending, small minded, wantonly repressive piece of horse shit I've ever read in my entire life. It was linked by … who up until this point I thought was a sensible person. Shows ta go you ... Not to mention that I really could not imagine there is anything MORE socially damaging or sexually deviant than encouraging a teenage boy or girl to think like this. A couple commentators pointed out the irony that this psychopath of a mother illustrated the whole post with VERY flattering and not a little posed photographs of swimsuit clad boys (presumably her sons) … I also have a serious solution to Mrs. Hall's problems: Set her sons up with some Muslim girls from Afghanistan or Pakistan. The boys will be happy because all they will see is a burqa until the wedding night, and the girls will be happy because they will have finally found someone even more socially and sexually repressed than they.”

      After reading your modesty posts, Tim, I am very happy that, due to our mixed marriage and therefore having no place in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist world, my son was not even exposed to this sort of truly immoral and ungodly obsession with sex until he was out of college and able to think for himself.

    4. I am quite familiar with the post you reference, and intend to discuss it a bit in a future post on the sexist and misogynist application of "Modesty." Like you, I hope to keep my children from having to experience this stuff. Ironically, I have found that my daughters' bodies are least likely to be an issue to my non-religious friends, and thus I am most comfortable in those situations.

  4. Brother,

    Thanks for this article... and the series.

    I too have been writing about how the "modesty" culture and the porn culture both define a woman's value based on her sexual impact on men.

    You might be interested in checking out the articles on ... it's a site where I and several other pastors have written about the lies that keep people bound to pornography and the truth that sets them free... and we know that freedom first hand.

    Good work.

    David Martin

  5. The Legalistic lunacy that people like Harris and Gothard espouse can affect young men, too. I speak from experience.

    I suspect that at least part of their motivation for writing the kinds of books and sermons that they did was to impose their own failures, hang-ups and sexual repression on others. Looks like they succeeded.

    1. I agree. I've seen a lot of damage to men I know, from those who became unable to distinguish between normal and abnormal sexual behavior to those who struggled with guilt at normal marital relations.

      This is what follows when there is an obsession with sexual sin as the very worst kind of sin, I suspect.

  6. In my opinion, one significant factor is the Evangelical freak out about sex in general. A subject for a future post is how societal factors combined with theological views to create an impossible situation that Evangelicals “solved” by demanding celibacy during the peak years of sexual desire and fertility, and have embraced any means by which the children can be locked in the state of asexuality until they can be succesfully married off. Hence Courtship, Purity Balls, and Modesty Culture. But that is a whole post in itself.

    Have you done this follow up post yet?

    1. Not yet. Alas, my real job (and family) make it difficult to research and post more than a few of these a year. I have lots of ideas, but haven't been able to spend the time necessary to organize, research, and write this one yet. I think it is important, but also suspect that it may cost me the friendship of more than a few friends and relatives.

  7. ultimately what stopped us from going deep into this culture as homeschoolers was an article about girls wearing skirts over ski pants. At that point, I simply put it all down and walked away...right into unschooling which was BY FAR the best thing we ever did for educating our kids.

    1. Funny you should mention skirts over ski pants, because that was one of the humiliations my poor wife had to endure as a teen.

      My daughters will NEVER be forced to wear uncomfortable and inappropriate clothing for athletic endeavors. You might see us out running (in public, no less), and they will probably be in tanks and shorts like the average female runner, and they do their gymnastics in leotards like all sane people.

  8. I don't understand. In the garden, Adam and Eve walked naked before one another and the LORD before they sinned and were expelled. The human form is wonderful, and we are created in God's image. I am not saying I want women exposing their breasts in front of me, my husband, or son for no good purpose; however, what is fundamentally wrong with breasts?

    1. Not a damn thing, to be frank. As you mentioned, God Himself molded and shaped Eve, so anyone who demonizes the body is implying that they know better than Him.

  9. I grew up in a very conservative environment. I have lost count of all the girl conferences I attended through childhood and my teenage years which preached that girls (never referred to as women) need to cover up because men (never referred to as boys) can't help themselves. We needed to have "compassion" on our "brothers in Christ" by helping them keep their thoughts pure.

    When I was fourteen, I was in an accident and was burned with battery acid. With my left hand and breasts covered in skin grafts, I felt ugly, marred forever. As a result of being indoctrinated by the modesty culture, I began to think that since no man would ever lust after me, I did not have to worry about modesty.I was too ugly for modesty. Modesty was always taught in relation to men; it was based on how attractive a male found you. As a burn survivor, modesty culture negatively affected how I viewed myself and my worth as a human being. I think everybody (especially those who fit outside the idealized: obese, non-white, too tall, too short, too busty, etc.) who has been entrenched in this thinking develops self-esteem issues because it causes you to view yourself in relation to how others see you, not how God sees you.

    1. " it causes you to view yourself in relation to how others see you, not how God sees you."

      Yes indeed. This is particularly a problem because God created our bodies - including female bodies - and found that they were good. There is nothing whatsoever shameful or evil about our bodies, but we are conditioned to think that they are shameful. Because of what others might think of us.

      Thanks for your poignant comment!